MONRO: The Life and Times of the Man Who Gave New Zealand Rugby
By Clive Akers. 241 pp. $50. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN
On Friday August 12 1904 Charles Monro caught a packed train from Palmerston North to Wellington to watch the first international rugby match between New Zealand and England. Although England was the favourite, New Zealand won with a score of 9-3, and the crowd was jubilant. Rugby was now our national game, and we were good enough to beat the best team that England could provide.
Charles Monro must have felt great satisfaction. Thirty four years earlier, as a 19-year old recently returned from school in England, he had been responsible for introducing rugby into New Zealand. Later in 1870 he organised the first interprovincial match, between Nelson and Wellington.
Rugby writer Clive Akers has produced a very readable biography of Charles Monro which includes an intriguing account of the early development of rugby in late 19th century New Zealand.
Of course varieties of football were played in New Zealand before 1870, but there was no widely accepted set of rules. The son of a prominent politician, Charles Monro was sent to England to complete his secondary education, and there played under the rules developed at Rugby School. On his return to Nelson he convinced members of the local football club to try the rugby version, and the first real rugby match was played between Nelson College and a team from the Nelson Football Club on May 13 1870.
Based on the success of rugby at Nelson, the local players asked Charles to arrange a game in Wellington. He recruited a team, and aided by the political influence of his father he persuaded colonial treasurer Julius Vogel to allow the Nelson players to travel to Wellington on the government steamer Luna – the first example of government support for rugby. Charles had to find a ground to play on, but there was nothing suitable in Wellington. In later years he recalled:
“On Saturday, the 10th September, I walked out to the Lower Hutt in quest of a field of battle, Mr Barry Goring bearing me company, and after getting permission from the late Mr Ludlam to erect our goal posts in one of his paddocks we footed it back to town. A day or two later the Luna, with the Nelson team arrived, and hiring a couple of Prosser’s drags both teams were driven out to the Lower Hutt. Heavy rain had fallen meanwhile, and the ground chosen was considered too wet, so we drove back to Petone, and there on a dry and stony flat, in the neighbourhood of where the railway station now stands, we fought it out”.
Rugby was immediately popular, and rapidly spread round the country. By the 1890s there were 700 rugby clubs throughout New Zealand. Rivalry between teams from neighbouring towns fostered local pride. As a team sport it effectively broke down barriers between different groups, and was soon a guaranteed topic of conversation between males. Rugby was a game that appealed to Maori, and the rugby field was often the only place that Maori and Pakeha met as equals.
Charles Monro had many interests, and once rugby was underway he did not continue playing. He purchased land in the Manawatu and become a farmer, businessman and early conservationist as well as being prominent in Palmerston North society. Later sporting interests included golf, polo and croquet.
Clive Akers has painstakingly researched this biography, aided by a large family collection of diaries, letters and memorabilia. The design and layout of the book is excellent, with a large number of illustrations through the text. My only criticism is the lack of an index. As this is a serious biography, mentioning a wide range of people as well as rugby history, I hope that this is rectified in the second edition.
For New Zealanders interested in rugby, Charles Monro is far more significant that William Webb Ellis. He deserves wider recognition, and this book will ensure that his contribution is remembered.
MONRO: The life and times of the man who gave New Zealand rugby can be ordered from the NZ Rugby Museum.
SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. As Science Editor for Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, from 2003-07, he has become interested in writing for the web. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.