Talking Rugby League: When the Queen led the applause for the Haka

Sometimes, when we are close to momentous events, we don’t always realise how momentous they are.

Nor do we fully appreciate how others see them.

Last Friday morning, for example, I received a text message from my third cousin in the United States.

He and I share a common great-great-grandparent, but we have never met. His great-grandfather emigrated to the USA from Wakefield in 1904. He lives in New Hampshire and I live in Yorkshire and we made contact earlier this year because of my family’s interest in our ancestry.

So I was surprised to receive a text message from him on Friday saying, “What a sad week! God Bless the Queen and England.”

His message was symbolic of the enormous attention the death of Queen Elizabeth garnered all around the world, much of it in countries with no history of royalty.

I’m aware that some Rugby League supporters are great supporters of a Constitutional Monarchy, while others will be Republicans.

It was interesting to see an interview with the new Australian Prime Minister, who is an avowed Republican. When asked if he would hold a referendum for Australians to vote on whether to become a Republic and drop the royal family as Australia’s Head of State, his response was that it wouldn’t happen in his first term.

So whatever you think, it is impossible to deny that the Queen was undoubtedly the most famous woman in the world.

To fully understand why that should be is not something to be discussed in this column.

But it is worth remembering some of the links that Rugby League has had with her over the years.

Of course she presented the Challenge Cup to Rocky Turner of Wakefield Trinity in 1960 and to Malcolm Dixon of Featherstone Rovers in 1967.

And she opened the BARLA office in Huddersfield in 1990, as the photo on our news article about the Queen and Rugby League shows, when she clearly seemed to have a fit of the giggles.

She was also very aware of Rugby League when she visited Australia, particularly Sydney, where she saw a live game on her 1977 Silver Jubilee tour.

That was a game that John Gray, the former Great Britain international, played in for North Sydney.

As he told Richard de la Riviere in his interview for the ‘Rugby League Heroes’ series, “The Queen and Prince Phillip came to a pre-season Cup game when they were on their Silver Jubilee tour. I shook their hands and told the Queen, “I’m from Coventry – I’m one of yours!” I told her my brother had been head chorister at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which she had attended.”

Thirty years after that game, in 2007, she had what was probably her last interaction with Rugby League, when she hosted the 2007 All Golds, who were in this country to celebrate the centenary of the original New Zealand All Golds in 1907.

They were invited to Buckingham Palace and they became the first and only sporting team to perform the Haka inside the home of the monarch, as you can see from the photograph above.

Richard Becht, the media manager of the New Zealand Warriors, wrote about that tour over the weekend, and his words brought back great memories for me.

Jonathan Hunt, New Zealand’s High Commissioner in London at the time, had managed to organise the visit at the request of the All Golds manager, the late Malcolm Boyle.

Wayne Bennett was the coach and the players included the captain Ruben Wiki, Stacey Jones, Ali Lauitiit’i, Nigel Vagana, Clinton Toopi and Awen Guttenbeil.

“After disembarking from the team bus inside the gates of Buckingham Palace, All Golds management, players and staff were ushered to the Bow Room for afternoon tea with the Queen and Prince Philip,” writes Becht.

“The royal entrance was prefaced by an advance guard of the Queen’s favourite Corgis barking in the hallway and rushing into the room keen to be patted by the visitors.

“As captain, a nervous Wiki was assigned the task of introducing the players one by one to Her Majesty, who stopped to chat to groups of players and staff.

“The occasion was a rare opportunity in the royal spotlight for New Zealand Rugby League, a visit not to be forgotten – but it didn’t end there.

“Before departing the players removed their jackets and assembled in the Quadrangle downstairs where Wiki led a spirited Haka to honour Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

“With the Haka reverberating around the walls, palace staff gathered in force on stairways on either side of the Quadrangle to behold the sights and sounds of history being made.

“When it was over the Queen led rapturous applause for the performance which had climaxed a lifetime experience unlikely to be repeated for those in attendance.

“Being there in the Bow Room, meeting and chatting with the Queen, patting the Corgis and then witnessing the Haka was in equal measure exhilarating, emotional and inspiring.

“It was clear Her Majesty was suitably amused.”

Of course the Queen would occasionally meet Rugby League stars when they were presented with awards at Buckingham Palace.

One such was my great hero, Neil Fox, Rugby League’s greatest points scorer, who received his MBE in 1983.

“I’ll never forget what she said to me at the time,” said Neil.
“She said, ‘Well done’, and then added, ‘You’re not the one who . . .’, referring to Don Fox’s missed goal in the 1968 Challenge Cup Final.

“And I said, ‘No Ma’am, that was my brother’.

“You couldn’t have anyone nicer. She was so generous with her time.”

Will we see the new King encountering Rugby League at some point in his reign?

He doesn’t strike me as someone having a natural interest in sport, but it would be good to think that he would appear at a game at some point in the future, maybe at this year’s World Cup Final, if it could be arranged.

In the meantime I would like to send my condolences and that of all our staff to the Royal Family for their very sad loss last week.

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