Feature Christmas 2010: History

The first 15: New Zealand doctors and rugby

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c5127 (Published 15 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5127
  1. Sanket Srinivasa, research fellow, surgical registrar,
  2. Yu-Mwee Tan, medical student,
  3. Andrew Connolly, consultant surgeon,
  4. Andrew G Hill, associate professor of surgery, consultant surgeon
  1. 1Department of Surgery, South Auckland Clinical School, Middlemore Hospital, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
  1. sanketsri{at}gmail.com


New Zealanders are passionate about rugby and no professional group is an exception. The medical community in New Zealand has a proud tradition of many individuals playing international rugby and then going on to succeed in their medical career. In anticipation of the impending rugby World Cup, and as a point of historical interest, we conducted a search of medically qualified New Zealanders who played rugby at university, provincial or national level to identify a first 15 as well as reserve players.


No database recording players’ occupations is currently maintained, so a systematic search was not possible. We undertook the search with the help of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, the New Zealand Rugby Almanak, representatives from all the provincial rugby unions, and conversations with the knowledgeable individuals acknowledged below.

The criteria for selection required that a player must be a medically qualified professional and eligible to play for the New Zealand national team, the All Blacks. Once identified as eligible, players were selected for the team on the basis of their playing abilities and not for their off-field exploits. All Blacks were given preference for each position if more than one candidate was eligible.


We identified over 150 potential candidates, the majority of whom had represented their university. Twenty eligible candidates had played for either the All Blacks or the New Zealand Maori team (see box). The first 15 are listed here.

New Zealand rugby representatives (All Black number)

  • 1 Donald MacPherson (136)

  • 2 Francis Ward (247)

  • 3 William Fea (248)

  • 4 Robert Sinclair (270)

  • 5 Arnold Perry (273)

  • 6 David Dickson (315)

  • 7 Donald Stevenson (326)

  • 8 Ron Elvidge (454)

  • 9 Graham Moore (506)

  • 10 Desmond Oliver (557)

  • 11 Mark Irwin (564)

  • 12 James Watt (584)

  • 13 Hugh Burry (607)

  • 14 Tony Davies (608)

  • 15 Lawrie Knight (730)

  • 16 David Kirk (843)

  • 17 Jeremy Stanley (963)

  • 18 Tame Ngahiwi Paiwaho*

  • 19 Peter Tapsell*

  • 2. Edward Pohau Ellison*

  • *Represented New Zealand Maori.


Mark Irwin (All Black, born 1935) played for Otago in the 1950s and trialled for the All Blacks as a prop at age 18. He later made his debut for the All Blacks as a 20 year old medical student in Wellington, against an Australian side led by Dr John Solomon. He was named as one of five promising players in the New Zealand Rugby Almanak in 1954. His representative career was spread over 10 years between 1953 and 1962, but he did not manage to reach 100 games owing to injuries and his decision to concentrate on his medical career. He was an excellent all round athlete and also represented New Zealand at rowing. He worked as a general practitioner and anaesthetist in Rotorua and retired from clinical practice in 2006.


Nicholas Mantell (born 1967) played for Auckland, Waikato, New Zealand Universities, and the Northern Maori team in the early 1990s. He was part of the Ranfurly Shield winning Waikato team in 1997 and currently practises as an ophthalmologist in Auckland.


Geoffrey Gordon (1923-2002) played mostly as a hooker for Otago University, Canterbury University, New Zealand Universities, Canterbury, and Otago between 1942 and 1946. He played a total of 35 games over his career. After graduation from medical school, he had a distinguished career as the local general practitioner in Kaikoura for over 40 years.


Ian Prior (1923-2009) played in either the lock or loose-forward positions for Otago from 1941 to 1944 and also represented New Zealand Universities and the New Zealand Army. He also played for the South Island versus the North Island during the second world war, when no All Blacks teams were selected, alongside Nitama “Doc” Paewai (see below). Ian Prior is widely recognised as the founder of epidemiology in New Zealand and made substantial contributions towards the arts.


Lawrence Knight (All Black, born 1949) played for Auckland and Poverty Bay provincially. He played a total of 35 games for the All Blacks including six test matches. His father (Lawrence Knight Senior) and uncle (Arthur Knight) were both All Blacks; unfortunately, his father died just before Lawrence’s selection for the team. His crowning on field moment was scoring the game winning try against the British Lions at Eden Park, a match won 10-9 by the All Blacks. Records indicate that he was the unofficial medical adviser on his All Blacks tours. He moved to France after the 1977 season and later played for Paris University. He practised in Johannesburg and returned to live in Auckland in the late 1990s.


David Dickson (All Black, 1900-78) played for both Otago and Canterbury and later played for the All Blacks in 1925. Although he played a total of seven tour games, he did not play a single test match for the All Blacks. He was also a rugby referee during the 1930s and practised as a surgeon in Christchurch.

Number 8

Hugh Burry (All Black, born 1930) played for Otago, Canterbury, and New Zealand Universities. He also played 11 games for the All Blacks but did not play a test match. Along with Kel Tremain and John Graham, he was a part of the highly effective forward combination, and he was an integral part of the Canterbury team that beat the All Blacks in 1957 and the Lions in 1959. He made his debut for the All Blacks at age 29 but his international career was hampered by a recurring groin injury. He has had a distinguished medical career; he was involved in sports medicine from its inception and later practised as a professor of rheumatology in both Australia and New Zealand.


Desmond Oliver (All Black, 1930-97) played for Otago and Wellington and took part in 20 games for the All Blacks, including two test matches. He only played for the All Blacks from 1953 to 1954 and afterwards retired from top level rugby at age 23, probably because his rugby career coincided with his rise in the medical profession. He is recognised as a pre-eminent researcher in renal medicine and is credited with many discoveries related to modern day renal transplantation.


David Kirk (All Black, born 1961) played rugby for both Auckland and Otago and played 34 games for the All Blacks, including 17 test matches and 11 as captain. He is recognised as the World Cup winning captain of the 1987 All Blacks but was only made captain as a result of injuries to Andy Dalton and Jock Hobbs. After the World Cup victory, he also led the All Blacks to a Bledisloe Cup win. He retired from rugby at age 25 to accept a Rhodes scholarship. He had a brief clinical career and subsequently took up various senior management positions, including acting as the chief executive of Fairfax media.

First five-eighth

William Fea (All Black, 1898-1988) played rugby for Otago, South Island, and the New Zealand Service team after the first world war. His sole test match for the All Blacks was a scoreless draw against South Africa at age 22, and he retired after 1923 to concentrate on his medical career. He also served as a lieutenant-colonel with the 8th Field ambulance in the second world war. He was the youngest member of the New Zealand army team.

Left wing

Graham Moore (All Black, 1923-91) played for Hawke’s Bay and Otago. He was part of the Ranfurly Shield holding side from 1947 to 1950. He also played a sole test match for the All Blacks in 1949. He was initially chosen as the fullback but was later shifted to the wing after Jack McLean was injured. He was a graduate of Otago University and practised in Masterton.

Second five-eighth—captain

Ron Elvidge (All Black, born 1923) was chosen as the captain of this team. He played for Otago and participated in nine test matches for the All Blacks including five as captain. Elvidge was recognised as one of the leading backs in the post second world war era and was also part of the Ranfurly Shield-holding Otago sides of 1946-48. In 1950 he sustained sternal and rib fractures and a head laceration during a match against the British Lions, but despite being in great pain he returned to the field, because injuries had already reduced the All Blacks to 14 players. He went on to score the only try of the match as the All Blacks won 6-3. He later went on to become one of the most established obstetricians in the country.


Ron Elvidge, All Black and Medical First XV captain


Jeremy Stanley (All Black, born 1975) played for Auckland in provincial rugby and for Auckland and Otago in Super Rugby. He also played three tour games for the All Blacks in 1997 but was unable to cement a regular position in the test team. His career was cut short by a serious spinal injury while playing for Auckland in 2001. He is currently training to be an orthopaedic surgeon.

Right wing

Russell Watt (All Black, born 1935) made his All Black debut in 1957 and played 42 games including nine test matches. Although he only scored three test points, he scored 28 tries in the tour games. His 17 tries in the season of 1957 equalled the previous record set by Albert Asher in 1903. He was recently presented with his All Black cap in Wellington in 2009 during a special ceremony to honour past All Blacks.


William Anthony Davies (All Black, 1939-2008 – really??? Check dates) played for Auckland, Otago, and New Zealand Universities from 1958 to 1967. He also played three test matches and 14 tour games for the All Blacks from 1960 to 1962. He was regarded as one of the best utility backs of his era and also played as a second five-eighth. He was renowned for his inventive style of play and attacking prowess.


Don Macpherson (All Black, 1882-1956) played for Otago between 1905 and 1907 and played one test match for the All Blacks against Australia in Dunedin. He later played for Scotland while furthering his medical studies in London. He was renowned for his speed and ability to score tries by the corner post.

Peter Tapsell (born 1930) played for Otago and New Zealand Universities and was the vice captain of the New Zealand Maori team in 1954. He qualified as an orthopaedic surgeon and worked in Rotorua. He also had a successful career in politics, including acting as the first Maori speaker of the house from 1993 to 1996.

Robert Sinclair (All Black, 1896-1932) played for Otago and Taranaki and took part in two tour games for the All Blacks in 1923 while he was still a medical student. His accurate goal kicking made the difference in the match between New Zealand and New South Wales in 1923. He was a general practitioner in Hawera before his untimely death.

Arnold Perry (All Black, 1899-1977) played for Otago and New Zealand Universities and in one tour game for the All Blacks. He formed a potent combination with Robert Sinclair and William Fea in the Otago team. After his career as a player, he provided many years of distinguished service as an administrator to the Otago Rugby Union.

Donald Stevenson (All Black, 1903-62) played for Otago and played four games for the All Blacks from 1926-1930. He was known to be adept as both a fullback and a centre, performing well in the tour games for the All Blacks. However, on the eve of a potential debut test match, he fell ill and was not selected.

Kevin O’Connor (1922-2002) played for Otago, South Island, and New Zealand Universities and for the Harlequins alongside Ron Elvidge. He was a general practitioner and police surgeon until his retirement and was also a chief propagator in the establishment of the International Association of Forensic Surgeons.

Nitama Paewai (1920-1990) played for Otago, New Zealand Universities, and the South Island Army Team. He was named as a reserve in the 1946 All Black team but did not take the field. He worked as a general practitioner in Kaikohe and was later the divisional surgeon to the St John Ambulance Brigade.


We selected a rugby team composed entirely of doctors after a thorough search and discussion with knowledgeable individuals. We took on this endeavour as a point of historical interest and we expect debate about the team selected. For many positions, the selections were relatively straightforward because an eligible All Black was automatically chosen, making the selection of certain positions more contentious than others.

The selection of the captain is also likely to provoke debate. Our chief contenders in this team were Ron Elvidge and David Kirk and though it was difficult to pass over a World Cup winning captain, Ron Elvidge was selected on the basis of his on the field exploits and the various anecdotes shared about his leadership qualities.

An obvious feature of this team is the lack of contemporary players, with the exception of David Kirk and Jeremy Stanley. Certainly, the transformation of rugby as a professional occupation rather than the national pastime has allowed rugby to be a viable career choice for able individuals. As a result, talented medical students may be unable to fully pursue rugby with the time and commitment required. The frequent assessment in medical education1 might also prevent potential players from playing international rugby. Postgraduate training also requires a substantial commitment of time; many of the individuals noted here were forced to prematurely quit top level rugby to pursue their medical career.

The changing demographics of medical students might also have influenced the selected team. In the past decade, medical students in New Zealand have been from cosmopolitan backgrounds2 with a historically poor rugby pedigree and, thus, the number of individuals who could meet the criteria of playing top level rugby and being medically qualified might have been lower overall.

We have created a team of the best New Zealand rugby players who were also medical professionals. Similar projects from other countries and in other fields would provide recognition for our multitalented colleagues and would also preserve the rich history of the contributions of the medical community to fields other than clinical and academic practice.


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5127


  • *Represented New Zealand Maori.

  • We thank Hugh Tohill, John Graham, Peter Sinclair (Otago Rugby Football Union), Ron Palenski, Clive Akers (editor of the New Zealand Rugby Almanak), John Heslop, Barbara Heslop, and the New Zealand Rugby Museum. All authors have contributed equally to this work as attested to by the senior author. SS is a recipient of the Auckland Medical Research Foundation Ruth Spencer Medical Research Fellowship.

  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous 3 years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.