Book Review: The NZ Imperial Forces' 1919 SA tour

Wed, 27 Dec 2017 13:08
Large nz army team 1919 800

Praise and thanks to Hans Saestad. Again he has filled a hole in South Africa's rugby history.

This is the ninth time he has done so, recording in a book a tour that has not been recorded in a book before. This time it is about the New Zealand Imperial Service team that toured South Africa on their way home from World War I. It is usually a footnote in history, but this time it has an appealing book of its own - a full record of the tour with intriguing illustrations, for which Hymie Sibul, generous man, has contributed much.

It is easy to read a book from the past like this one and be filled with nostalgia for the innocence of those amateur days. But there is also its own bit of nastiness.

When the horrific First World War was over, a rugby tournament was organised in England. Six teams - Australia, Canada, Mother Country, New Zealand, the RAF and South Africa - played 16 matches for the King's Cup, which the New Zealand soldiers won. There is a picture in the book of King George V handing the cup to Staff Sergeant Major Jimmy Ryan. 

The South African Rugby Board invited the New Zealanders to break their journey for a rugby tour of South Africa, for the two countries had wanted to play since the Anglo-Boer War but had not managed it for logistical reasons.

This was the start of rugby contact, the precursor of the 1921 Springboks tour of New Zealand and the 1928 All Black tour of South Africa.

The Imperial Services wore black on their tour with a silver fern on the left breast. South Africans called them All Blacks. Nobody seemed to mind, though this was not an All Black team and no Tests were played. Of the 26 players on the tour, 17 were All  Blacks or became so.

There is an innocence in the names below the teams picture, for they are named by rank - Sgt E Ryan, Lieut JE Moffit for example. There were three lieutenants, two sergeant majors, seven staff sergeants and 14 sergeants. Apparently all had been given ranks rather than have to be recorded as privates.

Their last match was scheduled to be played in Cape Town but their ship was leaving from Durban and so an extra match was organised in Durban, and they played Natal on the Tuesday and set sail on the Thursday after 15 matches in 54 days. They won 11 matches, drew one and lost just two.

It was a tour that gave a great boost to rugby in South Africa. There were 174 000 spectators at their matches, including 22 000 at a match in Johannesburg and, twice, 20 000 at Newlands.

The nasty side of it was a telegram sent to the South African High Commissioner in London, WP Schreiner who had been the president of the South African Rugby Board, requesting that the high commissioner ensure that no "Maori" tour with the team. The New Zealand Imperial Servicemen accepted this without demur. The colour bar, it seems, was as effective as apartheid. The request was made at the instigation of Ronnie McIntyre and seconded by Bill Schreiner, The Board put the proposal to the vote and it was passed by eight votes to six.

All of this is in Saestad's book, plus how the tour was financed, the medals given to each of the players, how the visitors got pocket money, pen pictures of all the players and then details of each match, starting with Western Province Country on Thursday, 24 July 1919 and ending with Natal on Tuesday, 16 September 1919. 

Each match has a preview, a detailed match report, the names of the players, the scorers and the referee, plus additional facts. Then after the 15th match, there is a statistical review of the tour.

Title: The New Zealand Imperial Forces 1919 South African Tour
By Hans Saestad

Published by the author
114 pages 
Soft cover
2017
Illustrated throughout
ISBN 978-0-620-78105-3

Hans Saestad publishes the book himself and it is sold through him.
Contact Details
E-mail address: hanz@absamail.co.za
Phone: 082 5562245

RELATED ARTICLES