Canterbury league celebrates centenary

17:00, Jul 17 2012

The Canterbury Rugby Football League turned 100 late last week but the party has been postponed till June.

CRFL chairman Ian Jenkins said the centenary celebrations would be held at Queen's Birthday Weekend because of "all the upheavals" in Canterbury after the earthquakes.

A jubilee committee, chaired by board member Reon Edwards, is organising a three-day celebration, including a Saturday night gala dinner at the Hornby WMC.

"We're also looking at Canterbury playing Auckland at the [AMI] Stadium on the Sunday," Jenkins said.

Canterbury rugby league has a proud history, including a victory over France in 1955. Jenkins - an administrator since 1965 - rates the 1993 national championship final as a special highlight, "when Auckland came down here for the national final with a team stacked with Kiwis and we gave them a fair trouncing".

The genesis of the CRFL took place on July 13, 1912 at a meeting in Christchurch organised by Bill Moyle, a rugby, athletics and boxing buff and a part-time newspaper correspondent.


Former Press rugby league writer John Coffey said in his 1987 75th jubilee book, Canterbury XIII, only two people at the inaugural meeting had any experience of rugby league: Charles Pearce, a former Canterbury and South Island rugby union forward, had toured Britain with the All Golds in 1907-08; David McPhail, a member of a prominent Canterbury rugby union family, was on Wigan's books in 1909 after playing rugby union for Canterbury as a wing forward.

McPhail moved the motion to set up a committee to establish the new code known since its 1896 breakaway from rugby union in England as Northern Union. A decision was made to stage a public meeting on July 26 to be addressed by New Zealand Rugby League president D W McLean.

Coffey wrote that the presence of "Northern Union emissaries in this city" was cause for concern for rugby union chiefs. S F Wilson, a national selector and Albion stalwart, became "really radical" by admitting to The Press he "considered [Northern Union] the better [code] to watch". He suggested Canterbury rugby "adopt it and thus cut away the ground from the feet of the semi-professional camp". His view was rejected but it wasn't held against him - he later became president of the Canterbury and New Zealand rugby unions.

The July 26 public meeting enthusiastically endorsed the formation of the CRFL with just a smattering of dissenting voices.

The visionary Moyle became secretary, with Bert Hooper as chairman and prominent Christchurch doctor Henry Thacker - later to become mayor of Christchurch and a member of Parliament, served as president for the CRFL's first 18 years. The trophy contested by the champion clubs of Canterbury and the West Coast is still known as the Thacker Shield.

Pearce and McPhail were the anchormen in a Canterbury team which played three representative matches in 1912 against Wellington, New South Wales and Hawke's Bay before a club competition had even formed.

About 5000 people flocked to the Addington Showgrounds on September 7, 1912 for a glimpse of the new code. Only three Canterbury players "were conversant with the tactics and techniques of the game they had chosen".

The Press reported that "one of the most marked features of the new code is the absence of the line-out", along with "a very loosely formed" scrum, which ensured "the ball comes into play very rapidly again, the result being an open and attractive game".

Rugby league devotees insist it still is. Jenkins, a former rugby union hooker who switched to play rugby league for Linwood, said the 13-man code remains "a great product".

A club competition kicked off in Canterbury in 1913. Addington, Linwood and Sydenham - three of the foundation clubs - mark their centenaries next year.

Up until the 1990s, Canterbury teams contained current Kiwis. The 1987 Kiwis team that beat Australia boasted an all-Hornby front row of Ross Taylor, Wayne Wallace and the late Adrian Shelford.

The landscape has changed in the 21st century with Canterbury's best young talent now plucked by National Rugby League clubs and spirited to Australia as schoolboys. The standard of premier football has suffered as a result with clubs struggling for depth.

But Jenkins said rugby league was a resilient sport, "born in the face of adversity", and he is "quite convinced it will be around in another 100 years".

He said a priority for the second century was to secure access to the AMI Stadium site beyond 2016, the lifespan of the temporary stadium. "We want to talk to the city council about that sooner rather than later."

The Canterbury Rugby Football League pioneers present at the July 13, 1912 meeting to set up the code were: W S E Moyle, C J Pearce, H R Voyce, A E Hooper, A T Rolton, N Carnegie, C Hagerty, L Dougall, A Hilson, A Henry, W Ward, A Aitken, C B Hardingham and G Rich.