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When Rugby Referees Dressed for the Theatre

When Rugby Referees Dressed for the Theatre

January 6, 2014

When rugby internationals were played in the northern hemisphere in the 19th century, the referee wore a suit and bowler hat and waved a white flag.

The New Zealand Rugby Museum in Palmerston North has taken possession of a rare lithograph of a famous rugby painting depicting a forward struggle between England and Scotland about 1876.

The original painting by artists, Overend and Smyth, is missing but fortunately a few early lithographs were made in the 19th century. One was discovered on a Hunterville farm and is now on loan to the New Zealand Rugby Museum.

The lithograph shows an English player in white competing for the ball surrounded by Scottish forwards, one of which appears to be ready to swing his fist.

There’s little flesh visible. All the players have jerseys, long white knickerbockers, socks and boots without studs. The impeccable referee appears to be signalling a train or dressing for the theatre rather than controlling an early rugby test.

A Scottish player, “frozen in time” by the artists, is referred to as Mr Kit, the man who later developed the kitbag, probably first used to carry his rugby gear.

Two mounted police are in the rear in front of hundreds of spectators.

Director of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, Stephen Berg, is delighted to receive the print. He says it fills a gap in the museum’s Roots of Rugby gallery and will be displayed in January for local and national visitors.

Stephen points out that, when the painting was taken to Paris, it’s believed to have caused such interest that several Parisian rugby teams were established shortly afterwards.

The lithograph, which is over a metre in width and close to a metre in height, is one of 2,500 rugby treasures on display at the Palmerston North museum.

Recent acquisitions are All Black rugby jerseys from last season, the blazer from 1953-’64 international, Ian Clarke, and a bright red Welsh jock strap.

The embossed athletic support, made for the British Gas Wales Rugby Football Club, is in mint condition and was donated by former World Cup All Black lock, Murray Pierce, who received it in 1988.

“It’s amazing what weird and strange things we receive for our collection. It’s what makes our museum unique in the world and worth visiting,” Stephen says.


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