It’s obvious from the moment you approach the Te Manawa complex that rugby and history are deeply interconnected here. The statue of Charles Monro greets you, captured as he accelerates across a 19th century paddock.
Nowhere was that connection so keenly felt than at the recent opening of the Rugby Museum’s Balls, Bullets and Boots exhibition. From the moment Keith Quinn blew the whistle for kick-off – yes, the Keith Quinn, probably the greatest Kiwi sports legend to never actually pull on a numbered jersey – there was the sense that this opening would be something more than mere speeches.
As Quinn introduced each of the men – and the one woman – from the exhibition, members of their families came forward to hang a club scarf above their photographs. Grandsons and granddaughters, great-great-great-nieces and -nephews, even sons came forward, and with those historical sportsmen’s legacies living and breathing before us, it was like they were still with us. The link back to history was tangible.
It was through the families, too, that we learned snippets of rugby lore that could have been learned nowhere else. Hohepa Jacob fought with the Maori Pioneer Battalion, and returned to captain the short-lived Manawhenua union. Quinn remarked upon the given name of his son, Te Maharanui Ranfurly Jacob, as being especially appropriate for a rugby-playing family. Hohepa’s grandson told the story of his father’s birth, in Levin in 1927, on the same day Manawhenua won the Ranfurly Shield. You may infer how the child received his name!
I’ve never been the world’s greatest rugby fan, but you don’t have to like the game to appreciate what the people in Balls, Bullets and Boots did, or the mark they left on New Zealand history. It is deeply satisfying to know that the deeds of ordinary New Zealanders 100 years ago are still remembered and celebrated in a way that you can reach out and touch.