Tuesday, 23 July 2013

'Maoriland's champion toeballer has crossed life's goal line' - the incomparable Davy Gage

When rugby legend Davy "Pony Boy" Gage died aged just 48, commentators could not help but blur the line between his life and his sport: "Davy Gage, Maoriland's old-time champion toeballer, crossed life's goal line last Thursday..." one obituary began.

Davy Gage's memorial stone.
Gage dominated Wellington rugby in the 1880s, toured Britain with the New Zealand Natives and captained the national side in the days before they were the All Blacks. His family history was steeped in the early marriage of European and Mäori culture and he was a player in an affair which highlighted attitudes to class and race - and became the stuff of TV drama.

Despite the supreme fitness of his earlier years, he succumbed to tuberculosis - "the white plague"- at his home in Edge Hill, off Kent Terrace, Wellington, on 12 October 1916.

Gage was born in Kihikihi, Waikato, into a family of aristocratic heritage. His father John November Gage, of Ngäti Maniapoto, was one of three children of George Gage - son of Viscount Gage of Lewes - and Waana Pororua. John November Gage fought on the Päkehä side in the New Zealand Land Wars and became an assessor of the Mäori Land Court. Davy's mother was Annie Merritt, daughter of the artist Joseph Jenner Merritt and Maria Rangitetaea Koa, of Ngatikoura.

Gage attended St Stephen's School for Mäori boys in Parnell, Auckland, then earned a scholarship to the Mäori college of Te Aute, Hawke's Bay. Among his fellow pupils was Tom Ellison, his friend and later his international captain.

He moved to Wellington about 1886, joining Poneke Football Club. By 1887 he was in the Wellington representative side. He played against an English side at the Basin Reserve and in 1888 was a mainstay of the New Zealand Natives side which toured Britain. He played 68 of 74 matches - by far the best record in the side - and was declared their best all-rounder. He also found time to visit his relatives the English Gages at the family pile, stately Firle Place in Sussex.

In 1893 Gage went to Australia with the New Zealand team, captained by his friend Tom Ellison. In 1894 he represented the North Island. In 1896 he played for both Wellington and New Zealand against Queensland, captaining the national side.

Firle Place, Sussex - the Gages' ancestral home
He spent short periods away from Wellington, also playing for Auckland and Hawke's Bay. However, Wellington drew him back. He played 36 times for the province and kicked a record three field goals in one game. It was actually four, observers said, but the referee missed one. Tom Ellison later summed up his career: "David R Gage, whose equal in defensive play the world has not seen - a most scientific kick, and a perfect brick-wall to pass."

The drama wasn't all about rugby. In 1995 the TV film Savage Play dramatised Gage's doomed romance with the granddaughter of a Scottish earl during the British tour. There were simply too many obstacles and Gage was persuaded not to pursue the affair.

In Wellington Gage worked as an interpreter and liaison between the city council and iwi. He married Amiria Hemi of Ngati Kuia in 1899, and in 1901 the first of seven children was born.

Poneke did not forget their man and raised money to pay for Gage's headstone and support the family. The whänau is still heavily involved in rugby at many levels and, from Davy's graveside, his descendants can watch the youngsters play on the rugby pitches in the park below.

(CH ENG 307A, 86801)

Sources: National Library of New Zealand; Poneke RFC; Beneath the Mäori Moon - An Illustrated History of Mäori Rugby, by Malcolm Mulholland (Huia); The Gage whänau; www.firle.com

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