Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The First Maori League Tourists (2012)

Albert ‘Opai’ Asher was undoubtedly a supremely gifted athlete whose ability on the field was only surpassed by his dedication to further enhancing Rugby League in its infant years so that it could be more widely enjoyed, appreciated and accepted for future generations.

This passion wasn’t limited just to his local area either. Asher was one of those few legends of the game who put the benefit of the game and its future well before any personal on-field glory he could hope to achieve.

Albert’s ability as a player was so great, that at just 13, he was reported to have made his first grade Rugby Union debut for Tauranga against Auckland. At just 17 years old, Asher relocated to Auckland and in 1898; he made his first grade debut for Auckland as possibly the most experienced 18 year old athlete at the time.

In 1903, he was selected on the All-Blacks team that toured Australia. In 9 of the 10 games he played, Asher scored 17 tries, including the first try in the first test in Sydney, which New Zealand won 22-3.

In 1904 Asher’s career was stopped when he fell from a ladder while working as a fire fighter in Auckland. The extent of the injuries he sustained, mostly to his knee were debilitating enough to keep him from playing any sport until late in 1907.

The Injury kept from a certain place on the 1905-06 All-Blacks tour of England as well as the 1907-08 All Golds tour of England and Australia, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from playing, despite doctor’s fears that he would never play again.

In 1908 Asher became most well-known for the controversy-laden Maori Rugby League tour to Australia.

For many years it was rumoured that the Maori side arrived at Sydney expecting to play Rugby Union, but an impromptu team meeting as they disembarked their ship saw them change their minds and opt to play the new Rugby League instead.

This was later found to be false, as it was reported in local New Zealand newspapers in March that Asher had personally compiled a team that would travel to Australia, after receiving an invitation from the New South Wales Professional League.

This was supported by a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14 which stated:

“It was stated that the New Zealanders would play five or six matches in Sydney and that there would be a Maori team as well…”

The Maori team set sail for Sydney aboard the Moana on May 25, 1908, with a squad of 26 players as well as 4 Maori chiefs. They were accompanied by Tom O’Farrell (a prominent Sydney referee at the time) who was elected as team secretary, with Albert Asher the leader of the touring party.

The Maori side were going to thrill, excite and amaze the crowds, not just with their on-field performances and the return of Asher, but also with war dances, Maori music, art and dances. Through this, the Maori players were confident that the tour would be a success, on the field and financially.

Sydney man, Robert McKethney Jack allegedly had been in correspondence with Asher regarding the organisation of games, venues and other events on the tour as early as October 1907. He sought 5% of the Maori gate takings from each match as payment for his services.

Asher though explained that while negotiations with Jack had been undertaken, no agreement had been settled upon when the terms of payment to Jack for his services couldn’t be agreed upon. Asher then decided to take up the organisation of the tour with the New South Wales Rugby League.

The Maori team arrived in Sydney on May 29, 1908, greeted at the Sydney docks by James Giltinan and Henry Hoyle. From there they were taken to St. James’ Hall for their official welcoming ceremony.

Having played little to no Rugby League at all, the NSWRL appointed George Boss, another Sydney referee, to help teach the Maori players about the new game.

The Maori tour started off in high spirits and great sportsmanship, athleticism and crowds. It was this great fanfare and attraction that would go on to be a great concern for the tourists. The first game on June 8 against New South Wales at the Agricultural Ground drew an estimated crowd of 30,000. The masses flocked so quickly that NSWRL president Henry Hoyle authorised the opening of another gate into the stadium. He however forgot to notify the Maori team management about the extra gate being open, thus they were unaware of the extra gate takings made on the day.

Hoyle stated that a gentlemen with whom he had the utmost confidence in, was looking after the takings on the newly opened gate. The Maori team though never saw any of the takings from it. They later went to inspect the counter on the extra gate to try and ascertain how much recompense they were entitled to, only to find that the counter had been removed.

The Maori team officials made it clear that they felt they had been cheated out of monies that they rightfully deserved, which angered Hoyle and NSWRL Secretary James Giltinan.

That first massive crowd also brought in another man intent on making money out of the tourists. The gate takings were so large for a first game, that Mr Jack felt compelled to try and claim monies which the Maori side believed he wasn’t entitled to.

After the second game drew a crowd of 20,000, the Maori squad believed that they could continue attracting large crowds if they could improve their on-field performances. This coincided with Asher announcing post-match that George Boss had been appointed as the team’s business manager, while still acting as coach. Boss accepted the position and immediately resigned as a member of the NSWRL Referees association.

During the third tour game, played against Sydney Metropolis, it was reported that Giltinan left the grandstand where he was spectating the game to argue with the referee about alleged foul play by the Maori players. It would not be the last of the hostile relationship between the two parties on the tour.

Newcastle was the Maori sides fourth opponent. Prior to the match, Asher told the NSWRL that he had chosen Aubrey Welch to be the referee. Giltinan overturned Asher’s decision, informing him that he must choose a referee from a panel of four officials whom he had personally chosen, which did not include Welch. Asher though refused to back down from his decision. Welch travelled from Sydney to Newcastle with the Maori team and with no time left to organise a replacement referee, Giltinan agreed to let Welch officiate, however he forced the Maori team to pay his wage for the game.

As the Maori players travelled north of the border, Mr Jack took their team management to the equity court to try and gain monies he felt he was owed from gate receipts. On the day of the Maori game against Toowoomba, Jack had successfully got an injunction against 18 Maori players, preventing them from receiving any money from the New South Wales Rugby League. The NSWRL assumed that this meant that the tourists were not to receive any monies from them for the entire tour until the case had been settled, contacted the Queensland Rugby Association and informed them of the matter.

Asher was made aware of this issue before departing Newcastle, so he decided to leave 10 players and the three entertainers in Sydney to save on travel costs. After the first game against Queensland, Giltinan was informed that there was no Maori people providing any pre-match entertainment or performing in any concerts after games. So he rounded up the remaining 13 Maori players and entertainers in Sydney and sent them to Brisbane. He then forwarded the bill for the travel to the Maori team management (who were now not receiving any monies due to the equity case against them).

The second game against Queensland drew the ire of locals when they learnt that the referee was none other than George Boss, the newly appointed Maori business manager. The tourists won the game 13-5.

By the start of the third game against Queensland, just eight days later, the Maori players had become very angry with the Queensland Rugby Association for not giving them their share of the gate receipts. This was the first time the off-field dramas started to show on-field. Prior to halftime, Asher had become frustrated with referee O’Connor’s handling of the game that he ordered his team off the field. They were eventually convinced to return to the field. Former New Zealand and Australian Rugby Union forward scored a try in the dying minutes for Queensland to give them a 6-5 victory.

The third game against Queensland was played at Warwick and was the scene of more intrigue when the tourists started the game with just 11 players (and finished with just 10 men on the field).

The game against Queensland at Toowoomba became a violent and wild affair. Asher was so angered by the refereeing, crowd and the opponent’s tactics (and most likely the issue with Jack) that during the second half he ordered his team off the field after the disgruntled crowd spilled onto the ground in an attempt to attack the tourists.

The Maori tour headed back to Sydney as it drew to its close in mid-July. They beat a Newcastle team in Maitland before putting in a splendid display against the Australian team (which was essentially New South Wales with the additions of William Hardcastle and Ernest Anlezark) but went down 20-10.

The Maori then played against Metropolis once more and trailed 13-0 at half time, but they put in possibly their best performance of the tour in the second half, scoring 34 unanswered points. These last two sterling performances saw the NSWRL hastily organise a second match against Australia before the final game against New South Wales. Negotiations were also underway to play a final game in Melbourne.

On the morning of the second game against Australia, Asher informed the NSWRL that they would not play because the League was withholding money due to players whom there was no legal injunction against. Asher had sought legal advice which confirmed that the NSWRL had broken its agreement with the Maori team management.

George Boss stated to the media the next day:

“The Maoris this morning decided unanimously to abandon the tour under the auspices of the League and an expression of interest led to the motion that a new team be formed to be styled the New Zealand Native Team, which will include several of the New Zealand natives residing in Sydney. It is thought that one or two matches could be arranged here and in New Zealand. At the present time it cannot be said whom we will play but we don’t anticipate any trouble in securing a ground or a team to play against us.”

The Maori team management put forward a proposal to play a 15-a-side game; however Hoyle, Giltinan and the Rugby Union opposed the idea, threating life suspensions to any players who took part in the fixtures against the New Zealand Native Team.

An almost shambolic match between the New Zealand Natives and the Sydney Metropolis game was organised, however the Metropolis team contained a number of Maori players loaned to them by the tourists, one player wasn’t even wearing shoes. Even the programs had different players named for Metropolis than those than took the field. The Maori side were resounding winners.

It was shortly after this game that Giltinan set sail with the first Kangaroos squad to tour England and Horrie Miller was appointed NSWRL Secretary. Miller immediately paid the fares home for the Maori team, much to the delight of the visitors.

In 1909, the Maori team returned to Australia and Asher returned to the courts to put an end to the legal wrangle with Robert Jack. Prior to their fourth game against Australia, Jack claimed that he was still owed £213 and issued a court order against Asher until the monies were paid.

The local constabulary arrested Asher. When the NSWRL heard of the ordeal they immediately settled the Maori team's debt with Jack (as well as an additional £121 owed to a Mr Marshall) so that Asher could be released in time to get to the game that afternoon.

Ironically, Giltinan, Hoyle and Victor Trumper (who was pivotal in the creation of the NSWRL) were all sacked after the massive financial disaster that befell the Kangaroo’s touring side to England in 1908-09, as well as allegations that Giltinan and Trumper had secret bank accounts containing monies belonging to the NSWRL (which was later found to be false). The Kangaroo’s return home was financed by the Northern Union.

Upon their return home after the 1908 tour, the Maori team wrote a letter to Horrie Miller, then acting Secretary of the NSWRL:

“We wish to convey to you our thanks and appreciation for your kindness to our chiefs and boys during their recent visit to Australia. We are specifically pleased at your assisting them home before the completion of their time, and bringing them away from possible trouble. They speak highly of the treatment received from you and your league; in fact, from the people of Australia. We are sorry to learn from our chiefs and boys that some of their party did not observe our good counsels.”

Maori 1908 tour to Australia


*Games against Australia and NSW to be played after the last tour game listed above were cancelled. A third game to be played at Melbourne was being organised but was cancelled due to the strike by the Maori team. An exhibition game against Metropolis played at the Sports Ground was won 32-17 by the Maori. This match was played under Union rules in the first half and League rules in the second half. It was also the last game of the tour (not listed above as it was an exhibition game).

Sources: Sydney Morning Herald, Courier Mail, 100 Years Maori Rugby League 1908-2008 by John Coffey and Bernie Wood

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