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David Gallaher (1873 - 1917):
Rugby player; soldier

David Gallaher

David Gallaher from Donegal became a legendary sporting figure, who overcame curvature of the spine to become a leading figure in New Zealand and world rugby, widely credited with the establishment of the New Zealand team as the world’s best. He was also a soldier who saw action in the Boer War of 1899-1902, and the First World War, in which he was killed. 

Gallaher (generally known as Dave), was born at Ramelton, son of James Gallagher (sic), a shopkeeper, and Maria McCloskie, a teacher. In March 1878 the family emigrated to New Zealand to settle at Katikati, North Island, in Ulster-born George Vesey Stewart's Special Settlement; they were among the second group to make this move. Vesey Stewart had purchased several thousand acres of land for farming from the New Zealand government, and though the settlement eventually flourished, at first it struggled; Mrs Gallaher had to keep working as a teacher to prop up the family finances. Gallaher was successfully treated for his spinal condition and took up sports, mainly cricket but principally rugby, playing for the Ponsonby club in Auckland. He had many strengths, being not just an exceptional player, but also a clever tactician and possessed of fine leadership qualities. After only one season he was selected for the Auckland provincial team in 1896. His enthusiasm as well as his abilities made him a keen promoter and ambassador of the game. He would eventually represent Auckland province 26 times.

During the Second Boer War, he volunteered for the army, lying about his age (“reducing” it by a few years) to do so. He spent one and a half years in South Africa, rising to be a non-commissioned officer and during his spell there he captained the New Zealand military team that won the rugby championship in the army matches promoted among the English and Colonial forces during the conflict. The war concluded, he returned to New Zealand and to rugby. He played for the New Zealand team, the famous All Blacks, when they played their first official international match against Australia, in Sydney on 15 August 1903. The All Blacks won emphatically, 22-3, and Gallaher won praise for his innovative tactics as well his various personal strengths. In 1905-1906 he captained the team, known to prosperity as “The Originals”, on their tour to the United Kingdom and France, and while his tough training regime and military-style discipline were not appreciated by many squad members, he garnered enough votes to be elected captain. The tour was a sensation. Gallaher’s particular innovation was his idea for a new paying position, the wing forward, which he usually played himself. British sports commentators were not amused, one even the position as like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. But it certainly seemed to work. He himself described it in a newspaper article: 

 “A great advantage of the wing forward is his power, due to his upright attitude, of immediately stopping play among the opposing backs - of nipping in the bud a hostile advance. He can watch the progress of the ball going out of the scrum much better and directly it is out it is his province to pounce on the opposing half before he can get it away.”

The All Blacks played 35 matches against provincial sides as well five full internationals, and lost only one match with a points tally of an astonishing 868-47. The defeat was a narrow one, three-nil against the traditionally strong national team of Wales, marked by a controversial decision not award a try. Even in their first match, against Devon, they won 55-4, a result which so astounded the hosts that some newspapers reported the win for Devon. In over half their matches, the opposition was not able to score any points at all. On their way back to New Zealand they played two matches in British Columbia, winning both easily. Their almost total dominance may were have been especially gratifying as the previous year, the English captain had rather airily predicted that his side would win against these unknowns.

Gallaher’s playing days petered out in the mid-1900s, but he remained as selector-coach; he also retained his day job (the game was thoroughly an amateur one at that time) with the Auckland Farmers' Freezing Company, where he became a foreman. He married Ellen Ivy May Francis, the sister of a fellow All Black, at Auckland on 10 October 1906. Their one daughter was born in 1908; she remembered her father as "a jolly man".

When the First World War came, he was officially too old for service, but after his brother Douglas (he had a total of nine brothers, one of whom died aged six) was killed in 1916, Gallaher then enlisted, again lying about his age. (His brother Henry was killed later, in 1918.) February 1917 he embarked for Europe. In October of that year, now a sergeant-major in the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force,  he saw action during the notorious Battle of Passchendaele (officially the Third battle of Ypres, but remembered today for heavy and futile casualties sustained in veritable seas of mud). While attacking a German position at s’ Gravenstafel Spur on 4 October 1917, Gallaher, in the second wave, was waiting to receive orders when the opposing German troops began a bombardment. Gallaher was hit in the face, his injury described as resembling that from the kick of a horse. He died the same day at No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station, aged almost 44, survived by his wife and child. Altogether, the action on that part of the battlefield (known as Broodseinde) claimed 330 New Zealand lives. It is recorded that a priest visiting the miserable place – not much more than a tunnel attached to one of the trenches - asked the solider in the next bed if he knew who Gallaher was; the soldier said that didn’t. He received the reply: “That is Dave Gallaher, Captain of the 1905 All Blacks.” In fact, he was one of 13 All Blacks to be killed in the First World War. He is buried at the nearby Nine Elms cemetery, Poperinge, western Flanders, where his regulation gravestone displays the silver fern which is the national symbol of New Zealand and which the All Blacks wear on their jerseys – and gives his age as 41. All Blacks visiting Europe usually take time to visit. An obituary in the Auckland Star Sports Edition noted that:

“...among fellow New Zealanders Dave Gallaher was ever popular. His tact, consideration and clean sporting instincts were his outstanding characteristics generally. As a player he was one of the finest of many fine forwards that have won recognition in the representative playing ranks of New Zealand. A hard, dashing forward he ever was and withal he was a clean player, from whom no opponent ever feared a mean advantage, so that even among the ranks of the beaten, as among the victors, he always left friends behind him. Small wonder that the death of a player who achieved such a glorious record on his merits is universally regretted in New Zealand today.”  

Gallaher is commemorated in New Zealand by a trophy bearing his name, created to be contested between France and New Zealand when they first meet each year, and a bronze statue in Ponsonby, the district of Auckland where he had begun his playing career; he is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the modern game and an all-time great. In his native Donegal, Letterkenny Rugby Cub named its ground after him, and has planned a special travelling bursary for enable players to visit New Zealand and train there as well as a summer school inspired by him to commence in 2013. During the All-Blacks tour of Ireland and the UK in 2005 the team turned up to honour Dave Gallaher with the unveiling of a plaque, in the shape of a rugby ball, in his home town. His great-nephew said he was a typical New Zealander: “He just rolled his sleeves up. He led his men in the battle in the war, and he led his men in the battle on the field.” The famous writer on rugby Terry McLean said: “In death, he acquired a mystique. His grave became a shrine.”


Born: 30 October 1873
Died: 4 October 1917
Richard Froggatt

Auckland Star Sports Edition (13 October 1917); Letter, Irish Independent (25 January 2013);;; Dictionary of Irish Biography;;