Great uncles played league
The New Zealand rugby league team is currently touring England, and Tu¯rangi man Bonnie Asher tells of a time when his great uncles Ernie and Opai Asher toured Australia and Great Britain in 1907 and 1908.
Bonnie says that his great uncles were household names at the time and played representative rugby and rugby league at a national and international level from the 1890s through to the 1920s. Opai was also in the All Blacks.
Both uncles took part in the 1907-08 New Zealand rugby tour of Australia and Great Britain. Initially they played rugby union but Bonnie says that after the team played under the rules of the Northern Union (today known as rugby league) they were hooked. The records show that most of the 50 matches played on the tour were under the Northern Union rules.
In 1908 Opai and Ernie organised a tour of Australia for New Zealand Ma¯ori players. They intended to play rugby union but New South Wales Rugby League persuaded the team to switch to league. Bonnie says that Ernie told the story about how after a brief team meeting the team voted to change codes to rugby league. The tour was a great sporting success, but legal fights reduced finances to the point the team played an exhibition game of rugby to finance their trip home.
At the time the New Zealand Rugby Union was opposed to the break-away game of rugby league, however league became firmly established in New Zealand upon the return of Ernie, Opai and their teammates.
Bonnie’s grandfather John was asked to come and work for the chief of Nga¯ti Tu¯wharetoa and then in the 1930s and 1940s owned the Tokaanu Hotel.
At one point the three brothers decided to set up a rugby league competition in Tokaanu and Bonnie says that for a short time there were three or four teams playing but there wasn’t much interest so Ernie and Opai went back to Auckland.
After their playing days were over, Opai became the caretaker at Carlaw Park in Parnell, Auckland.
Ernie became a hairdresser, a rugby league coach, selector and administrator, and was also a noted weightlifter.
Bonnie says that he met his famous uncle Ernie while playing rugby league in Auckland. Bonnie played for Manukau and then they were always bumping into each other.
“But he wouldn’t select me [to play for Auckland or New Zealand]. He said ‘You country children are too rough.”
Bonnie was a prison officer at Tongariro Prison for 42 years, and retired in 2015 at the age of 78.
Bonnie Asher, 81, from Korohe, near Tu¯rangi, relates stories about his rugby league playing great-uncles Opai and Ernie Asher.
Bonnie Asher’s great uncles Opai (top) and Ernie Asher pictured in the official dress of the 1907-1908 New Zealand rugby tour of Australia and Great Britain.