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Regional rugby

Page 23 – West Coast rugby

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The rough and tumble of football was popular in colonial times, and nowhere more so than on the South Island’s rugged West Coast, the domain of miners and bushmen. In the closing decades of the 19th century, rugby as we know it today was still evolving. Often games were a hybrid of several forms of football, with rules and team numbers decided on the day. As the rugby version of the game started to take hold, a West Coast Rugby Union based at Greymouth was established in 1890. The logistics of playing rugby in an area where clubs were spread out over hundreds of kilometres led to a decision by the clubs in the Buller district to split from West Coast in 1894.

West Coast is one of the minnows of New Zealand rugby. In the closing decades of the 20th century, many players moved away in search of work after mines and other industries closed. West Coast rugby has also had to compete with rugby league for players. While most unions’ most loyal servants have clocked up more than 100 games, the West Coast record is 90, a mark shared by K.J.J. Beams (1965–78) and M.A. Foster (1992–2000). The impact of the National Provinicial Championship introduced in 1976 can be seen in the fact that Foster matched Beam’s record in little more than half the time. Foster also holds the record for the most points for the Coast, with 712. West Coast has never won a domestic championship or the much-coveted Ranfurly Shield, although it nearly got its hands on the latter at its first challenge in 1932.

West Coast currently competes in the Heartland Championship, a competition for New Zealand’s amateur and semi-professional provincial union. Along with South and Mid Canterbury, Tasman, Buller and Canterbury, West Coast is part of the Crusaders Super Rugby franchise.

Local rivalries

The rivalry between Buller and West Coast is one of New Zealand rugby’s most enduring. The first game between the two was played in 1896. Bragging rights on the coast come via the Rundle Cup, which replaced the Molloy Cup in 1911 as the region’s symbol of rugby supremacy. Of the nearly 40 trophies contested by two provinces in New Zealand rugby, it has the longest continuous history and is second only to the Ranfurly Shield as the oldest rugby prize in New Zealand. Another significant local trophy is the Seddon Shield, competed for since 1906 in honour of former premier and long-time Coaster Richard John Seddon. It is a challenge trophy for representative teams from Buller, Nelson Bays, Marlborough and West Coast. The Coast has won more Seddon Shield matches than it has lost.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Prior to the restructuring of New Zealand rugby in 2005, West Coast were permanent fixtures at the bottom of the NPC’s third division. In 1994, after 33 consecutive losses over five seasons, the Coast beat North Otago on a sodden Rugby Park in Greymouth. The new Heartland Championship brought more of the same as West Coast finished 12th and last in the inaugural 2006 season. Since then talented imports and loan players from other unions have helped West Coast lose the tag of ‘easy beats’. They made the semi-finals of the Lochore Cup in 2007 and the Meads Cup in 2008 before reaching the Lochore Cup final in 2009. In 2013 West Coast again reached the semi-finals of the Meads Cup.

27 August 1932: Canterbury 5, West Coast 3

This was undoubtedly the greatest day in West Coast rugby. The Coasters’ first challenge for the Ranfurly Shield ended in controversy when the referee, E.A. Empson of Canterbury, misread his watch and blew for fulltime five minutes early. As West Coast was hot on attack at the time there were accusations of dishonesty, though the stoic Coasters accepted that an honest mistake had been made. With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, a return match was organised to raise money for the unemployed. West Coast insisted on Mr Empson refereeing again and proved that the first result was no fluke by drawing 6-all with their powerful opponents from across the Southern Alps.

Red and white All Blacks

In the West Coast side that memorable day in August 1932 were two men who would go on to play for New Zealand, Mike Gilbert and Ron King. Greymouth United’s Gilbert caught the eye in 1930, when aged 19 he debuted for Buller and played in the midfield for West Coast–Buller against the British Isles. He moved to Greymouth in 1932 and it was from here that he was selected as a fullback for the All Blacks’ 1935–36 tour of Britain. He played in 27 of the 30 matches, including all four tests. By the end of 1937 Gilbert had lost his place in the All Black pecking order and switched to rugby league, playing for the English club side Bradford Northern. He toured France with a British Empire league team in 1938 before returning to New Zealand in 1940. Rugby union was hard on ‘defectors’. When Gilbert tried to catch up with his old All Black room-mate Doug Dalton at an armed forces game in Wellington, he was ordered out by a rugby official. At the age of 84, he was reinstated to rugby in 1995.

Lock Ron King was playing for the Hokitika Excelsior club when he captained the All Blacks in all three tests against the 1937 Springboks. After making his test debut against Australia in 1934, King played in 13 consecutive tests, a sequence ended only by the outbreak of the Second World War. On the 1935–36 tour of Britain King played in 25 of the 30 matches, a tally second only to that of Mike Gilbert. King was later a selector-coach for West Coast, and between 1957 and 1960 a New Zealand selector.

Because of the limitations of the early first-class programme, two of West Coast’s eight All Blacks made their national debut before playing for the Coast. The Coast’s first All Black, Hokitika halfback Henry Butland, played nine times for New Zealand in 1893–94. Reefton’s John Corbett, a 1905 All Black ‘Original’, was also selected for his country before he had the chance to play for his province. Others to represent New Zealand before the First World War were lock Harry Atkinson from the Kohinoor club and Blackball hooker Samuel Bligh, who changed his name from Percival Blight in an attempt to hide the fact that he was playing rugby from his teetotal family.

In 1921 Jack Steel, a winger for Greymouth Star, played in all three tests against the touring Springboks. Described by rugby historian Lindsay Knight as ‘the outstanding wing in New Zealand rugby in the early to mid 1920s’, Steel ranks alongside Mike Gilbert and Ron King as one of West Coast’s greatest players.  

Flanker Frank Freitas, a club-mate of Ron King at Hokitika Excelsior, played for the All Blacks in three games in 1928 against the touring New South Wales side. He also played in a practice match against West Coast–Buller, scoring a try. Freitas died in the 1968 Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour.

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How to cite this page

West Coast rugby, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated