No scion of Donegal is in any doubt of that county’s sporting greatness. To the team of 92 there is another story to add. 32 two years old and Letterkenny Rugby Club is playing host to the All Blacks at a new stadium on the road out to Rathmelton. Gavin Mairs, tells the little known story of Dave Gallaher, a Donegal man who died an All Black hero of New Zealand in the carnage at Passchendaele. Dave Gallaher went to New Zealand as a 17 year old had seismic impact on New Zealand and world rugby:
He pioneered a new position – now known as wing forward or flanker but at the time was hailed as ‘The Rover’ – to act as a conduit in distributing quick ball from the forwards to the backs. Gallaher’s team was also the first in world rugby to use the hooker to throw the ball into the line-out, to use code-words as signals for moves, to split the line out and throw the ball into the gap, and to use dummy runs. Most importantly, driven by Gallaher, they pioneered the blanket support of attack by forwards, something it took the best part of a century for the five nations teams to adopt.
Gallaher went on to win 33 caps for his adopted country and after his retirement played an equally valuable role in the administration of the game. He co-wrote a coaching manual, The Complete Rugby Footballer, which is still consulted today, became the sole selector of the Auckland team and was an All Black selector for seven years before the outbreak of the First World War. Gallaher’s influence on rugby was tragically cut short when he was killed in action at Passchendaele in October 1917, at the age of 43. His death caused massive distress in New Zealand, where he was already a national hero. He remains so even a century later. Gallaher’s achievements and sacrifice were officially commemorated by the Auckland Rugby Union in 1922 when they inaugurated the Gallaher Shield for their provincial championship.
The 1924 touring New Zealand side – nicknamed ‘The Invincibles’ because they suffered no defeats on the country’s second European tour – visited Gallaher’s grave in Belgium. A photograph of the side lined up in front of his headstone became an iconic image in the nation’s history, both sporting and cultural. In 2000, the All Black test team again visited his grave and that year the NZRU presented the Gallaher Cup as the prize for all future test matches between France and New Zealand. Four years later, for the second Gallaher Cup match between France and New Zealand in Paris, New Zealand added a red poppy to their famous jersey, the first and only time that another insignia joined with the silver fern on an All Blacks shirt, in memory of Gallaher’s sacrifice in the Great War.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty