From The Vaults

15 January 2024
“The father of All Blacks rugby” and his connection to London Irish by Paddy Lennon

The following article is an exclusive from Paddy Lennon, author of London Irish -125 years of passion in exile.

While the town of Letterkenny in County Donegal in the north-west of Ireland cannot be described as the heartland of rugby in that island, it was in a village near that town that a man who had a major influence on the development of the game in New Zealand was born. His name was Dave Gallaher and this is the story of his career and connection with London Irish RFC.

Dave Gallagher was born in the village of Rathmelton, County Donegal in October 1873. Five years later in May 1878, like so many of their fellow countrymen and women, the Gallagher family left an Ireland still suffering from the devastating impact of the Great Famine (1845-1851) to seek a new life in New Zealand. Their first destination was that country's North Island, a small town called Katikati on the Bay of Plenty. Shortly after their arrival they changed the spelling of their name to Gallaher to avoid confusion over spelling and pronunciation.

On his return to Auckland in August 1902 Gallaher resumed his rugby career and exactly a year later played in the inaugural Ranfurly Shield match in which Auckland were beaten by Wellington. Later that year he was selected to play for New Zealand on its tour of Australia. He played ten matches in all, five as hooker and five as a wing forward. He was awarded his first cap when the Kiwis played the Wallabies in the former's first ever official Test match in Sydney.

Given the practical difficulties of communication and travel at the end of the 19th century, it is unsurprising that the rugby community in the northern hemisphere only had the vaguest idea of what was happening to the game on the other side of the Equator.

The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) was formed in 1892, within a decade the skills and tactics of the game and the organisation of training programmes had progressed so dramatically that they left the home unions far behind. Another important difference, illustrated by Dave Gallaher's story, is that the game in New Zealand was taken up by ordinary people, many of them immigrants, not least the Maori people, who have always taken great pride in their achievements in the game.

The Originals

In 1904 the NZRU decided to undertake its first official tour to the northern hemisphere. The team was known as "The Originals" and Dave Gallaher was named as captain with Billy Stead as vice-captain. In the course of the tour, Gallaher, who played in 26 matches including four of the five tests, proved to be an outstanding leader and one of the best strategists in the game.

During the tour, in early 1905, Gallaher and his team mates were made honorary members of London Irish, in the process strengthening the club's link with the land of the silver fern established six years earlier by two players from New Zealand, Patrick McEvady and Arthur O'Brien, who made an important contribution to the Exiles and to rugby in south-east England.

The statistics for the tour are impressive, when matches against France and British Columbia are included, the New Zealanders scored 976 points and had a mere 59 scored against them. No wonder that the tour and the team established the All Blacks name in world rugby and surely explains why, before the touring party left Britain, Gallaher and Stead were approached to write a book about rugby tactics and play.

They also kept a record of the way they scored their tries and the way tries were scored against them - thus analysis is not new, it only appears so because it took the rest of the world so long to catch up!

Gallaher retired from playing after the tour and became a coach at Ponsonby before becoming sole selector of the Auckland team until 1916. He was also a national selector from 1907 until 1914, his All Blacks teams played 16 tests, winning 13, drawing two and losing one.

In 1916 Gallaher enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force that went to fight in World War I. He died as a result of a head wound suffered in the Passchendale offensive on 4th October 1917, aged 43.

Dave Gallaher, "the father of All Black rugby", has been honoured in Ireland and New Zealand and on the London Irish Roll of Honour of players lost in the two World Wars. To this day, when on a tour of Ireland, delegations from New Zealand Rugby Union, inevitably led by its President, take time out from their tour to travel to Letterkenny to pay their respects at the old Gallagher home.

About The Author

Paddy Lennon is the author of a recently published, definitive history of London Irish RFC.

The 350 page, richly illustrated book, London Irish - 125 years of passion in exile, was produced to coincide with the 125th anniversary of the famous exiles club.

Lennon's involvement with rugby union spans five decades, including the transition from the amateur to the professional era. He is well known and respected throughout the game for his support for and media work with London Irish among others.