'All Black in the waiting' last survivor of best team

LOGAN SAVORY
Last updated 07:43 24/10/2012
Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall in 2007.

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The book has been closed on one of Southland's golden rugby eras with the death of Alex Marshall this month.

Marshall was the surviving member of arguably Southland rugby's greatest team - the class of 1939.

Until the curtain was brought down on his life last week, he was also Southland oldest living rugby representative.

Marshall was part of the 1939 Southland team that played 11 games, won nine, lost two, scored 240 points and had 77 against them.

Amongst those nine wins were four Ranfurly Shield defences and a rare win over Auckland at Eden Park - the first and only time Southland has beaten Auckland at Eden Park.

It was a team stacked with South Island and All Black representatives and, cruelly, it was the breakout of World War II that put a halt to finding out just how dominant the team could have been over a sustained period.

It also put a halt to seeing just how far Alex Marshall could have gone in the game.

He was described by some in his era as an All Black in the waiting, but the war stopped any chance of seeing if he was to achieve that goal.

In August 5, 1939, the 26-year-old had been selected to play for Southland on the back of several good seasons with his Old Boys club.

In the match programme sold at the gate before his Southland debut against Otago, Marshall was described as a "fit and fast rugby player with a good pair of hands who used his head more than many forwards".

Marshall began what turned out to be a whirlwind provincial rugby career, being entrusted with the important job at the back of the scrum to help Southland retain the log of wood throughout the ‘39 season. He and his team-mates obliged in a season which was full of dramas and controversies.

After dispatching Otago with ease, 23-4, Southland lined up Manawatu in a fixture that ended up gaining a significant place in New Zealand rugby history for the most bizarre of reasons.

On the morning of the game snow hit Invercargill in bucket loads.

Southland had accepted a special challenge from Manawatu, agreeing to pay all the North Island team's expenses, including travel to and from the game.

When officials arrived at Rugby Park on the morning of the game they were greeted by 5cm to 7cm of snow sitting on the field.

The first attempt at getting the game started on time was to get trucks to scrape the snow from the field.

After a failed attempt to clear the ground Southland Rugby Football Union president "Bunny" Brown contacted Manawatu manager Bill Gleeson to discuss the possibility of postponing the game. Brown was nervous that Southland may lose the Ranfurly Shield and also be out of pocket because of a lack of crowd numbers as a result of the heavy snowfall.

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Brown was met with short, sharp response from the Manawatu manager to clear the sidelines and trylines and the game went ahead as scheduled.

It was a special day for Marshall, not only had his team retained the Ranfurly Shield 17-3, but his wife-to-be, Dorothy, who he meet that year, watched her husband in action for the first and only time.

Dorothy remembers watching with the 4500 other spectators from the grandstand.

It was the early days of a romance that stretched over 70 years.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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