Marlborough's 'Flying Footballers'

September 26, 2016 marked 80 years since the first provincial team travelled by air to a game. – by Clive Akers

Rugby teams flying to and from fixtures did not become commonplace until recent decades and especially from the mid-1990s when Air New Zealand began sponsoring the national provincial championship.

The planes used by Cook Strait Airways to carry the Marlborough team to Wellington and return. This photo was taken at Rongotai, Wellington on 26 December 1935 when the company offered joyrides to the public prior to commencing regular services to Blenheim and Nelson.

Natlib photo Date: 26 Dec 1935 Ref: 1/4-032324-G

Until the advent of regular air services in the late 1930s teams travelled by train or bus to destinations and seldom did they cross Cook Strait. Ferries ran services between Wellington and Picton and Wellington and Lyttelton. Unions established traditional fixtures on a home and away basis with a province from the other island. In 1935 Wanganui and Wairarapa headed south for three-game tours, each playing against Canterbury, Otago and Southland. In the same season Canterbury, Southland and Otago headed north playing three games, each meeting Auckland and Wellington as well as another union.

The following year, 1936, Auckland, Manawatu, North Auckland and Wellington made southern tours but no South Island union made a northern tour. In 1937, however, no northern team toured the South Island but five southern unions – Canterbury, Southland, Otago, North Otago, and South Canterbury – toured north. The time required at sea and on trains was a barrier for many unions to venture too far from home.

Marlborough union, formed in 1888, toured the unions of the lower North Island in 1894, 1901, 1923, 1923, and 1928, playing three or four games on each visit. In 1908 Marlborough ventured as far north as Auckland for a Ranfurly Shield challenge. Following the 1928 tour Marlborough did not cross Cook Strait until 1934 and in 1936 they were again scheduled to play in Wellington. However, this time the team had a choice of how to cross the strait.

By the mid-1930s aviation in New Zealand had advanced significantly and regular passenger-carrying services were being established. In December 1935 Cook Strait Airways became the first airline to run a regular service across the strait linking Wellington with Blenheim and Nelson. The firm used de Havilland Dragon Rapide biplanes, a fast aircraft powered by two 200hp Gipsy six-cylinder engines and could carry six to eight passengers. During the early months of 1936 the service became very popular and the airline introduced more aircraft and extended its services. Not only was flight a novelty for the public but it reduced the travel time between the islands. The Wellington to Picton ferry service took about four hours while the direct flight to Blenheim took only 25-30 minutes.

The Marlborough Rugby Union (later merging with Nelson Bays to become Tasman union) initiated air travel for rugby teams. At a union committee meeting in June 1936 it was decided to obtain a price from the airline to take the team to Wellington, and back, for their scheduled 26 September fixture at Athletic Park against a Wellington XV. The Evening Post 14 July 1936:




There is a possibility that for the first time in the Dominion’s Rugby history a football team will travel by air to play an interprovincial match. Last night the Marlborough Union appointed a sub-committee to consider a tender of Cook Strait Airways to convey the representative team to Wellington and back for the match on September 26.

Marlborough won its first two games of the 1936 season, defeating Nelson at Nelson and again at Blenheim. On 25 July Marlborough took possession of the Seddon Shield when defeating holders Buller 8-5 at Westport. One of the team’s outstanding players was Jack Best who had recently returned from touring Britain with the 1935/36 All Blacks. He played in Marlborough’s first three games of the season before departing Blenheim to move to Hamilton where he had been transferred by his employer NZ Loan and Mercantile Agency Company. He had to be in Hamilton to commence his new position on the Monday following Saturday’s game in Westport. While teammates celebrated shield success Best arranged a ride back to Blenheim by car with two wrestlers, McCready and Woods, who were driving back to Blenheim following their bout on Saturday night. After the bout they drove through the night to Blenheim, arriving there at 10.45am next morning. In the afternoon Best boarded a Union Airways plane and flew to Palmerston North where he connected with the overnight Limited Express train travelling to Auckland. Having travelled through two nights it would have been a very tired Jack Best turning up for his new job on Monday morning. Marlborough union had nominated Best for the South Island team which was to play its annual inter-island fixture against North Island on 15 August. No sooner had Best arrived in Waikato and that union nominated him for the North Island team, they being unaware of his nomination by Marlborough. This was a very rare instance of a player being nominated for both islands in the one game. He was not chosen for either team by the selectors.

By early August travel arrangements for the Wellington game had been finalised and the Marlborough union estimated it would make a saving of £36 by flying the team. It is not recorded if the union was given a discount but the normal fare for one flight was £1.7shillings and 6pence. The cost to the union was expected to be £89 including one night’s accommodation, meals and incidentals. It would be a busy day for the airline and 16 flights were scheduled, the union hoping to reduce the cost by arranging return excursion flights to the public which could reduce the union’s cost a further £30. The Evening Post, 5 August, commented:

Besides being unique in the Rugby history of the Dominion, the decision indicates the way in which the people of Marlborough have accepted the air services as an ordinary means of travel.

The cost to travel by boat and three nights’ accommodation was £95. Flying also meant players only lost half a day’s work compared with four days being absent from Blenheim if they took the ferry.

Through August and September Marlborough successfully defended the Seddon Shield at home defeating Golden Bay-Motueka, Nelson, and West Coast. The team also defeated visiting ‘Colts’ teams from Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury. Having won all eight games it was a confident Marlborough team which assembled at the aerodrome at Blenheim on the morning of 26 September. The first flight departed at 8.30, the second at 9.40 and by 11.30am all the team were in Wellington. Two of the team had travelled down from Palmerston North by train. Noah Kotua and Clem Mellish had played there for the NZ Maori team against Australia.

The team Marlborough faced at Athletic Park was designated a Wellington XV as the main team was playing in Christchurch on the same day. However Wellington did field two current All Blacks in Joey Sadler and Jock Wells. The Evening Post, 28 September 1936:




The Marlborough Rugby team which met Wellington B at Athletic Park on Saturday did more than win fame as the first Rugby side in New Zealand to use the aeroplane as a means of travel. It gave a spirited performance, and a strong rally in the second half resulted in the team approaching to within two points of Wellington’s total. Wellington won by 15 to 13, and the crowd of 2000 or so barracked vigorously for the Marlborough side, which lacked only a strong defence.

Possibly the excitement of travelling across Cook Strait and appearing at the famous Rugby ground was a little too heady, for the visitors in the first spell were frequently at sixes and sevens against the thrustful Wellington side. By the time the second spell approached, much of the excitement had departed. Their second half performance completely overshadowed the first, and the side had the better of a by no means weak Wellington side. Play sparkled, flickered, and sparkled again, bursting into dazzle with a potted goal by a Marlborough player in the last fifteen seconds of play.

The match had other features, too. Marlborough won the toss, and played with the sun and the northerly wind at their backs. The breeze was light, but helpful, and Wellington probably looked forward to it for the second spell. In the interval between the spells, however, a freshening southerly sprang up, and Marlborough took the field with the wind again behind them. A little later, the breeze died and for more than half the second spell the unique sight of smoke from chimneys at one end of the ground blowing in one direction and smoke at the other end in precisely the opposite direction could be seen. By the end of the match spectators had given up wondering in which direction the wind really was blowing.

The Marlborough flyers were:

Backs: Noah Kotua; Con O’Sullivan, Alec Robinson, Roy Wilson; Dudley Lane, John Bythell; Clem Mellish.

Forwards: Maurice ‘Gundy’ Woolley; John McBryde, David Hammond, Dick Woolley, Ian Paine; Ray Kimberley, Wallace Brown, George Hoare.

At halftime Lawrence McMahon replaced Mellish at halfback.

On Sunday morning Cook Strait Airways flew the team back to Blenheim. Marlborough was the only South Island team to cross Cook Strait in 1936 and their means of travel was the start of a new era of inter-provincial rugby. For the players who made the historic flights it would have been for most, if not all, their first flight in an aircraft. Their final match resulted in the first loss of the season but they would have retained a lifelong memory of their fast crossing of Cook Strait.

The manager and five team members prior to their historic flight across Cook Strait.

From left: G.W. Neville manager, Roy Wilson wing, George Hoare prop, Ian Paine flanker, Dick Woolley lock, Lawrence McMahon halfback. Photo donated to NZ Rugby Museum in 1994 by S.M. Paine