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The 'Scarfies', 18 February 2001

Source:  New Zealand Rugby Museum

Though it was 1908 before the first New Zealand Universities team took the field, rugby in the Universities had been alive and well for some years. Lincoln College were first with a club established in 1881. Canterbury, Otago, Auckland and Victoria followed in 1883, 1884, 1888 and 1903 respectively. Massey (1929) and Waikato (1966) came later.


The first All Blacks chosen from a University club were three quarters Colin Gilray and Donald Macpherson, both of Otago, who played in the 1905 test against Australia after the 1905/6 "Originals" had left for Britain. Gilray was unavailable for that tour because of his studies, but was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 1907. He went on to win two Oxford blues and four caps for Scotland. Macpherson also played for Scotland, two tests in 1910, while continuing his medical studies in London.

Yet another threequarter, William Balch, was selected for the one match New Zealand played in 1894, from the Kaiapoi club. Previously he had represented Canterbury 1890-92 while turning out for University.

Nolan Fell, who had played for Nelson in 1896 whilst at Nelson College and for Otago from the University club the following year, was another New Zealand student who went on to international rugby whilst studying in the UK. He won seven caps for Scotland 1901-03, and yes, he also played on the wing.

That First Tour

Twenty two players went on the three match University tour in 1908 after a North v South trial match had been staged in Miramar. One spell was played, with the South leading by one try to nil, then the second half was used in trying out players in various positions regardless of affiliation. No record was kept of the positional changes, or of any scoring.

Tour Manager was Dr Irwin Hunter who had played for Otago in 1886 whilst still at Otago Boys' High and for the South Island as a 19 year old before forsaking rugby to concentrate on his studies.

Captain was R.I. Dansey of Otago, a versatile character who played one game at halfback, two on the wing, and returned to Australia two years later with the first New Zealand Maori selection.

There were other personalises in the side. Fullback Humphrey F O'Leary, a brother of 1910, 1913 All Black fullback Joe O'Leary, later became Chief Justice. Forward Edwin Boyd-Wilson later had a long involvement with the Victoria University club and, aged 74, was an energetic and extraordinarily devoted interpreter for the 1961 French team on their tour here.

A A Adams (Otago), capped for England in 1910 and later prominent in West Coast and New Zealand rugby administration, appeared in one match, having "joined the side in Australia. He was on his way to Edinburgh, and played whilst his ship was in port."

Five of the side (Dansey Adams, E K Lomas, L M Tansey, all of Otago, and F A de la Mare of Victoria) had at the time of the tour, or during the 1908 season, played provincial rugby. Otago (9) had the largest representation, followed by Canterbury (6), Victoria (5) and Auckland (2).

Playing wise, that first tour was not successful. The team was decisively beaten twice by the University of Sydney and 6 - 14 by Metropolitan Union.

Following Years

Matches with the University of Sydney continued, in New Zealand in 1909, at Sydney in 1911 and 1913. An American Universities team made a six match tour to New Zealand in 1910, after playing in Australia. They appeared in the four main centres, but surprisingly did not meet any University sides.

After World War I contact with Australia continued, generally every second year, until 1933. Matches in Australia in this period were, except for one game at Orange, all played in Sydney. Wins were evenly shared until 1927, with NZU unbeaten from 1929 to 1933.

All Blacks who played for NZU in this period included J E Cuthill, S K Siddells, G G Aitken, W R Fea, H G Munro, F G Ward, P S de D Cabot, D McK. Dickson, D R L Stevenson, J T Burrows, R H C MacKenzie, D F Lindsay, V C Butler, N M Bradanovich, A W Holden, G T Alley R G Bush, J D Mackay, E T Leys, R N Williams and T H C Caughey.

George Aitken, captain in two tests against the 1921 Springboks was the first University player to captain the All Blacks. Jock Cuthill though had been asked to lead the 1914 side in Australia but withdrew to concentrate on his studies.


In 1936 New Zealand Universities became the first team from this country to play in Japan. Captained by G A Parsons of Canterbury and including All Blacks Ron Bush, Jim Watt (whose father and brother also played for NZU) and Colin Gillies, plus another future Chief Justice in Richard Wild, the team was unbeaten in its nine matches. Most of the wins were by comfortable margins but a draw against All Japan Students and a close call 13-11 against Meiji University showed the Japanese to be reasonably competitive. The tour finished with a 26-0 win over Hong Kong.


Vice captain of that Varsity side was Ron Bush who played continuously for either Auckland or Otago University from 1928 to 1937. He seems to have been the first high profile player to continue with University rugby beyond the normal years of studentship. Many did so after him however, and University rugby was stronger as a result. His Auckland University clubmate Pat (later Sir Harcourt) Caughey with 39 matches and nine tests over six seasons in the 1930s was the first longserving University All Black.

That few pre World War II Varsity All Blacks had long careers at the top level suggests that in those years study and professional demands made it difficult for players to continue at the top level.

Annual North v South Island Universities matches started in 1936 and continued in most years until the late 1980s. However the bi-annual matches with Australia were dropped after 1933, with New Zealand Universities instead playing one of the provincial unions each year, though the pattern was modified during World War II.

1949 saw the resumption of contact with Australian Universities who drew a three match series here. There was a wider representation in that Australian team, for though the bulk of the side was from the University of Sydney it also included players from the Universities of Queensland, Tasmania, Adelaide and Melbourne.

After playing, and losing to, Otago in 1950, the Universities, captained by Bob Stuart, made a wider ranging tour to Australia the next year, playing in Brisbane, Armidale, and Canberra as well as Sydney. Their only loss was to Wellington on their return when without Ron Jarden and John Tanner who had stayed on in Australia to join the All Black touring side.

The next four years included a series win over Australian Universities, defeats of Canterbury and Otago and a loss to Auckland as a prelude to NZU's first match against a major touring side.

An Historic First


1956 was the year of the 23 match Springbok tour, with match No.20, following the 3rd test, against N Z Universities on Athletic Park. The University side, described rather waspishly by T P McLean as made up of "graduates, non-graduates and nevercould-be-graduates", was a strong one, containing 10 past, present and future All Blacks. Captained by John Buxton NZU led 11-9 after a rather ordinary first half, then kicked away in the last quarter with tries to "Tuppy" Diack, on the blindside, and John Tanner, from an intercept, for a 22-15 win. Even more spectacular though was a brilliant non try from halfway by Ron Jarden that had to be disallowed when it was found the touch judge, unnoticed by almost everyone, had ruled Jarden had put his foot into touch.


The win over South Africa established the Universities on the itineraries for major tours here until 1977 when, on the Tuesday before the first test, they recorded a shock 21-9 win over a listless Lions side. More mobile than the tourists and with fullback Doug Heffernan and five eight Doug Rollerson kicking the goals the Varsities were deserving winners. Their one try was scored by Paul Macfie, now a prominent referee.

There are a large number of post World War II All Blacks who played University rugby for much of their careers e g R C Stuart S G Bremner and others (W J Whineray, K R Tremain) whose involvement was briefer. But the mix of young and mature students/ex students enabled NZU to field very competitive sides.

Hands Across The Sea

NZU spread their wings in the 1960s with tours to Australia (1960), California and British Columbia (1961), plus Hong Kong and Japan (1967) as well as continuing with matches against New Zealand provinces. Australian Universities were hosted in 1964 but did not visit again until 1993 when annual matches were resumed.

Overseas tours have continued, some to places previously visited but some to new localities e g Hawaii (1970), California and Ireland (1976), South Korea (1980), Europe (1985), Italy (runners up Student World Cup 1992), South Africa (World Cup 1996) and Thailand (1997). Highlight during this period though was the winning of the inaugural Students World Cup in France in 1988, despite a loss in the early rounds to, would you believe, the USSR.

Overseas opponents hosted during these years were California (1970), Irish Universities (1978) and Oxbridge (1989).

That 1988 World Cup win, achieved against sides more heavily backed and financed by their parent rugby unions, was a good one. Future All Blacks in the NZU team were Ant Strachan, Jason Hewett, Kevin Schuler and Dallas Seymour. Mana Otai (Tonga), Tavita Sio and Mata'afa Keenan (both Manu Samoa) also went on to play international rugby.

Note: The New Zealand team of this tournament had one set of black jerseys to last their six games. In contrast, the French had a jersey for each match.

Hewett, Otai and Seymour were back for the 1992 Cup, with Lee Stensness and Steve Surridge future All Blacks included. By 1996 however the demands of the professional game coupled with the low priority given University rugby in the NZRFU's "ORDER OF PRECEDENCE", (behind Colts, under 19, Academy and provincial matches) affected the availability of top players, with halfbacks Casey Mee (Otago) and Jason Spice (Waikato) the best known of that year's squad. By contrast Scotland, who beat New Zealand just 26-25, had five players, including Kiwi Nick Broughton, from the full Scottish team that had just toured New Zealand.

Note: All Blacks Taine Randell, formerly with University, and Anton Oliver, still listed as a University player, have not played for New Zealand Universities, an illustration perhaps of the difficulties the Univerities have in fielding top players.

Players at these World Cups have to be under 25 and with a current Student card. But whereas New Zealand require their players to be from a University club some other countries do not make this stipulation.

The Clubs

Though finding it harder in the present enviroment (two have amalgamated with neighbours) the individual University clubs have themselves been very sucessful. Among New Zealand clubs Otago is second only to Ponsonby in the number of All Blacks produced, with Victoria, Auckland and Christchurch also among the top 10 in this regard.

They have been competitive at Union level too, taking out their share of club championships. Otago and Christchurch have been particularly successful.

The Present Position

The New Zealand Universities Rugby Football Council, where Ces Blazey cut his administrative teeth in 1936, represents the student clubs. Outside funding for the NZU Rugby Football Council comes from the NZRFU, of which the Council is an Associate member, and Mitsubishi Motors Corp with whom the Council has a five year sponsorship contract. This provides for an annual exchange programme between NZU and the Japanese national development team plus the use of New Zealand rugby expertise.

The number of teams operating out of the University clubs is impressive. Otago fielded 37 teams in 1997, Canterbury 26, Massey 22, Auckland 13 (plus 21 in Boy's grades) and Victoria 11. In total the University clubs have more players than a significant number of provincial unions. A good proportion of those teams play in Under 21 and 19 grades, where many clubs struggle, so it can be argued that the Universities are playing an important role in the game. Even more so when it is remembered that, with qualifications behind them, a proportion of those ex students are likely to become the "shakers and movers" of society and their goodwill will be of importance to the code.

Note: Otago and Massey are 'student only' clubs, the others are not.

Along with the Armed Services the Universities, with their tours to smaller rugby countries, have been ambassadors both for New Zealand and rugby, in Asia particularly. The Mitsubishi connection should ensure they continue to be so.

Under present social, economic and rugby conditions, it is hard to see New Zealand Universities fielding teams of the strength and maturity of those of the 1950s-70s. Nevertheless they remain a very important and perhaps undervalued part of the New Zealand Rugby scene.