23 Mar 2018

Glorification and disrespect selling the Gallaher Cup

12:10 pm on 23 March 2018

Opinion - Wrong word, wrong situation. The All Blacks launched their ad campaign to boost the June test series with France this week, labelling it The Battle For The Gallaher Cup.

Dave Gallaher throws to a lineout.
Gallaher was captain of the original All Black team represented the All Blacks 1903-1906. He was killed in battle in 1917.

Dave Gallaher throws to a lineout. Gallaher was captain of the original All Black team represented the All Blacks 1903-1906. He was killed in battle in 1917. Photo: Photosport

For those of you who may be unaware, Dave Gallaher was the captain of the 1905 Originals, who lost only one match on their 35 game tour of the UK. The Originals basically set the standard for every All Black team since, and Gallaher's legacy was tragically lionised when he was killed in action in World War I.

There is a statue of Gallaher outside Eden Park. The Auckland premier club competition shield is named after him. And, since 2000, the cup that France and the All Blacks play for has been, too.

But while rugby is fun and entertaining, battles certainly aren't. This distinction needs to be addressed and the way that Gallaher's name has been handled this time, has been dishonoured by the All Blacks with this tagline.

The Battle of Passchendaele, significantly, is one of the most horrific and awful in the history of warfare, even by the morbidly banal standards of World War I death and destruction tolls. It is the one engagement that sticks out as the showpiece of everything that made the Western Front a literal hell on earth.

By the time that Sergeant Dave Gallaher of the New Zealand Division awoke to what would be the last, violent day of his life, it had been raining for weeks. The fields surrounding the trench system in which the soldiers lived and died had turned into a quagmire of mud that men were drowning in - when they weren't getting shot to death by machine guns or blown apart by artillery fire.

Gallaher fell on the 4 October 1917, after an explosion sent a chunk of metal through his helmet and into his head. It stayed there while it took him another several hours to die, bleeding out on an unsanitary field hospital bed in the rear - 100 years away from the sort of medical attention and pain relief that we can take for granted.

And he wasn't by any means the only one, 319 other New Zealand soldiers were killed alongside Gallaher as they attacked a ridge. Eight days later while attacking another ridge, 843 more were killed, as if they were on some sort of grotesque time schedule.

And that's how World War I was for four whole years - the bloodiest (up until that time) and most pointless war ever fought, at the cost of 18 million lives.Thirteen of those killed, were All Blacks.

It makes sense to name the trophy that the All Blacks and France play for, after Gallaher (well, almost - given that he actually died in Belgium), but it does not make sense to conflate the way in which he died with a professional rugby game.

You couldn't get further away from what happened in a desolate no-man's land in Passchendaele, to what the All Blacks and France will do in June.

They're all getting paid a substantial amount of money to train heavily, be fed the most healthy and substantial diets possible, and are treated like gods when they play in front of packed stadiums up and down the country.

So they should too, this isn't a slight on any of the natural talent and dedication international rugby players possess. There is some irony, however, that like the recruitment posters that sent millions to war 100 years ago, they're being used in a campaign like this to extol the virtues of 'battle'.

War doesn't deserve any more glorification. War in New Zealand, especially, doesn't even come close to deserving it, given the refusal of the New Zealand Defence Force to give some frank and honest answers regarding its involvement in the actions described in Nicky Hager's Hit & Run book. It's a cheap and easy ploy to call sporting fixtures 'battles', which usually wouldn't matter that much - but it does when you're trying to make money off the name of a guy who suffered a terrible death in a real one.

The only word that's remotely accurate in comparing the upcoming Gallaher Cup and the death of Dave Gallaher himself, is to do with why these two mismatched teams are even playing each other at all: pointless.