From The Vaults

30 May 2022
The unluckiest All Black?

A new biography of Alexander 'Nugget' Pringle has recently been published, written by his nephew Robert Greig Pringle. The following is an adapted extract...

Too big for the Primary School Reps and having to work on Saturdays when he was a teenager, Nugget Pringle played his first club rugby at the age of 22 for the Oriental Bs in 1922, one hundred years ago. Playing as a back row forward, he was speedily promoted to the As, and by the end of the season was a regular member of the Wellington Provincial reps. Weighing of the order of 14 stone and standing 6 ft 5 and a half inches, he was exceptionally tall for a man in those times. He had few equals in the lineout, tackled well and was surprisingly fast and mobile round the field.

In the following year, 1923, his rapid rise continued, as he played for North Island in the legendary inter-island 6 all draw in a quagmire, and was selected for the coming series against the visiting New South Wales (NSW) team, becoming All Black #279.

His mother kept a scrapbook of his exploits and it is on its contents that this biography is based. The rugby journalists of the day, men like 'Tackler', 'Drop-kick' and 'Katipo', wrote flowing and wonderfully descriptive prose, their grammar immaculate, alternately praising and castigating individuals, teams, selectors and administrators, often with an amusing turn of phrase. From them we learn not only of Nugget, but also a great deal about the world of rugby at the time, from the contentious 2-3-2 scrum and loose wing forward to the growing threat from rugby league.

Of Nugget 'Tackler' wrote: 'Amongst the Ories Nugget stands head and shoulders above his mates. He often looks over a telegraph pole and at times has spoken to the man in the moon. Only a lad, Pringle will go far in Rugby' (26 June '23).

Unfortunately for Nugget, Dame Fortune had other ideas.

Southern hemisphere rugby in the 1920s drew big crowds and internationals were fiercely contested and evenly matched, and made more intriguing by each of the three nations playing a different scrum formation. South Africa and the All Blacks drew home and away series at each end of the decade. The loss of manpower in the Great War leading to the disbandment of the Queensland Rugby Union meant Australia was represented by New South Wales, who nonetheless had beaten New Zealand in Christchurch in 1921 and 2-1 in Sydney in 1922. Thus in 1923 they held the 'ashes' and the New Zealand public was agog at the prospect of vengeance at home, together with selection of the team to tour the British Isles, France and Canada in 1924/5 - the team that would become renowned as the Invincibles.

Against New South Wales Nugget missed the first test with a cauliflower ear but played in the second, scoring a try in what was a resounding victory. The 'ashes' won, however, the selectors, with the Northern tour in mind, picked a completely new squad for the third test.

Despite 'Tackler's prediction, fate decreed that this was to be 'Nugget's only All Black appearance.

By the end of the year 'Nugget' was a hot favourite for a place on the forthcoming tour and this remained the case as he continued in the same fine vein of form in 1924. However he had a harder row to hoe than most in the trials, playing in four in 18 days as well as intervening club games, and in the final trial against medical advice with a leg injury. How much this cost him we will never know, but he missed out on a place with the Invincibles by the proverbial whisker. Not one to bear a grudge, he was back with Ories a few days later, and played his heart out for club and province for the remainder of the season.

But Fate was far from finished with him. In 1925 after he had been selected for the All Blacks tour of Australia that year his leg was broken in a tackle, so he missed the trip and was out for the season. He did not find form in time for selection in 1926 but had the pleasure of playing in the Wellington sides which comfortably beat the All Blacks before they departed yet again for Australia, and trounced New Zealand Maori. In 1927 he played in a trial for the South African tour of 1928 but was subbed at half time and may well have suffered injury. Once again he missed out on selection, and 'Drop-kick' wrote: 'not a few players equal in rank to some of the elect have been passed over….In the list of rejected players there is A. Pringle, whose turn for a taste of good fortune is long overdue. He has few equals in lineout play'.

However, 1927 saw the end of his serious playing career, as he turned to coaching and administration with Ories for the next decade. A very clean player who gave his all for the game of rugby, 'Nugget' was also a more than useful cricketer, playing in the Mercantile League, and something of an athlete. Thus in 1923 he won a trophy putting the shot, and in 1936 took 5 for 28 against Taubman's. Both feats were performed at Athletic Park, on the same hallowed turf where he had played so often for Ories and Wellington, and twice for North Island.

Nugget Pringle was a genial giant, a popular and a principled man, who laughed readily and was thoughtful and generous. Childless himself, he sent unsolicited First Day Covers to his nephews for 30 years. In his later years he returned to Wellington for Old-Timers Days and reunions, including at Easter 1963 Ories' 75th anniversary celebration, the four day programme for which serves as a fine example for anyone planning a similar function.

But in terms of his playing career, was he the Unluckiest All Black?

You be the judge.

About the Author

Wellington born, Bob Pringle is a retired orthopaedic surgeon living in Shropshire. Nugget was his uncle.

His biography of Alexander 'Nugget' Pringle, The Unluckiest All Black? is now available in print and ebook.