When Bert McKenzie blew his whistle for the last time in the tempestuous match the fun was far from over. Indeed it had only just begun and the man who would now occupy the centre stage was the quiet, dignified Wattie Barclay. It is hard to imagine a man less likely to be involved in a bitter controversy and even now he gives an impression of being somewhat bewildered by the events that followed. Now nearing his 84th birthday, Barclay spoke of the game early in 1980 in his Waitangi home. “As far as I was concerned it was only a game,” he said. “I just loved playing football and I found it stupid and disappointing that a game would create such a fuss.”
Barclay was a man of much mana among his Maori people. Born in Kawhia, he had gone to Dannevirke just after the end of World War I to join his brothers and it was from there he had first won selection in Hawke’s Bay sides. A strongly built man, he was a versatile footballer capable of playing in many positions, though his favourite place was always in the five-eighths. As well as being a good footballer he had also been a soldier of distinction in the great war and had won the Military Medal. In 1926 he had attained the summit of his rugby career by captaining the Maori All Black side which between July 1926 and February 1927 had made one of the most momentous of all tours. The side had toured Australia, Ceylon, England, Wales and Canada, playing a staggering 40 matches, of which a respectable 30 had been won, eight lost and two drawn.
It was from events immediately at the end of that tour that he inadvertently became the cause of the Battle of Solway controversy. He had gone to Auckland looking for a job, had played a couple of matches during the early 1927 season for the College Rifles club but had then returned to the Bay when the job he had wanted had not come about.
Being without many of his star players of 1926, Norman McKenzie was more than pleased to welcome back this experienced footballer, especially with the shield challenge against Wairarapa looming. The residential problem was uppermost in everyone’s mind. “Hang on,” McKenzie said to Barclay. “We’ll see if you’re on side for the game.”
There is no doubt the residence of Barclay at the time was in a state of flux and here it is important to bear in mind the goodwill of all parties. On the Friday night preceding the shield match officials of both the Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay unions had a conference at which the right of Barclay to play was the principal, if not the only, item of discussion. For the Wairarapa union, says one old stager, read Ted McKenzie, who not only was its selector but its secretary; for Hawke’s Bay, says the same old stager, read Norman McKenzie, who was its selector and just about everything else. Both unions believed that a man became eligible to represent a province if he had been living in it for at least a fortnight and accordingly it was agreed that Barclay met the required conditions and thus was able to play. Unfortunately, both hadn’t read the regulations fully. . . for an ordinary provincial match it was 14 days but for a shield match 21 days. In the strict letter of the law Barclay therefore was not qualified.
Now emerges one of the most intriguing puzzles of the whole saga. . . the part played in the controversy by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, and more especially the chairman of its management committee, Stanley Dean. As Barclay was coming off the field Dean, sitting among a group of Wairarapa officials, pointed to Barclay and said: “Why don’t you protest against that man.” Barclay confirmed this in the interview he had with the author at his Waitangi home in January, 1980.
In the dressing room Barclay immediately made known his fears to Norman McKenzie. “There’s going to be trouble over this,” he said. “It’s all right,” said McKenzie. “You’re inside the fortnight.” “No, no, no,” said someone else.”It’s three weeks.”
The role Dean played in the various episodes that ensued begs one obvious question. . . if he knew that Barclay was ineligible why did he wait till after the match to make the fact known?
A large man with a booming voice and considerable presence, Dean at the time was New Zealand rugby’s most influential administrator. He was also an important man in commerce and became general manager of the South British Insurance Company in Wellington. In rugby his greatest claim to fame, besides the position of eminence he held on the NZRFU, was that at the age of 38 he had managed the Invincibles on their tour of Britain and France in 1924-25.
He was a powerful, domineering personality and it was inevitable that he would clash with a man with an equally strong profile in Norman McKenzie. Relations between the two at the time, and between the Wellington-based NZRFU and the Hawke’s Bay union, could hardly be described as cordial.
In many parts of the country not all of Hawke’s Bay’s methods met with approval. The Bay people, on the other hand, believed others, Wellington especially, were jealous of their phenomenal success.
One indication of the strained relations came at the dinner on the Saturday night of the match. In his speech Dean, never one to pull his punches, deplored the practice of unions like Hawke’s Bay going into week-long training camps.
It was against the spirit of amateur football and the sooner it was dropped the better, he said. Deans remarks were greeted with a hostile reaction and there were a number of calls from the floor for him to down. There was prolonged applause when a Hawke Bay official, Mr G.A. Maddison, made a spirited reply. Country players did not have the same facility for going to gymnasiums at night to train like city player he pointed out. If they were to hold their own with the city unions training camps were “absolutely necessary.”
The Bay side, in fact, which played that day offer strong evidence in itself of some of the problems the union had to face. Till the preparations for the shield the inside backs, Edwards and Te Ngaio, were strangers to each other, with Edwards coming from Dannevirke in the southern part of the union and Te Ngaio from Wairoa, nearly 180 miles away.