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Rarotonga’s forgotten rugby league pioneer

Saturday 19 December 2020 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Weekend


Rarotonga’s forgotten rugby league pioneer
The 1936 New Zealand test team - Alf Mitchell is back row second from left (source; www.carlawparkdiehards.co.nz)/ 20121828

George Mitchell, born and brought up on Rarotonga, played with the New Zealand Maori team that defeated the touring Kangaroos in 1937 and is credited as the first ‘Polynesian’ to be included in a New Zealand Maori representative squad.

Mitchell was also selected for the Kiwis’ tour to Britain in 1939 and may have been the first Cook Islander ever to participate in international sporting competition. His brother Alf Mitchell, was the first Pacific Islander to represent New Zealand in rugby league.

Alf and George Mitchell were among 10 children born to Mele Mataele of Samoa and Ernest Hamilton Rea Mitchell, a trader born in Lancashire, England.

Ernest’s job required the family to move around the islands but they finally settled in Rarotonga where George Gordon Mitchell was born 1 October 1914. After schooling in Rarotonga, George, aged 15, travelled to New Zealand in 1929 to attend the Feilding Agricultural High School in the Manawatu. The school specialised in training students for careers in farming.

The school was, and remains, a hotspot of rugby development, with graduates in the modern era including the All Black players the Whitelock brothers and Aaron Smith and the All Black Maori players, the Crosswell brothers and Codie Taylor.

After schoolboy rugby George played for Feilding Old Boys seniors and in 1932 represented Manawheriua and later the Manawatu. George was described as “of splendid physique and very fast” and with a strong representative record, having “narrowly missed All Black Rugby honours” (New Zealand Herald, 21 April 1937).

Meanwhile his Tongan-born brother Alf was working at the Naval Dockyards in Auckland and playing league for Richmond Rovers, then the top club in the New Zealand competition.  Alf was described as “a resolute and heady player with big-match temperament” (Auckland Star, 4 October 1935).

In 1935, Alf was selected to play wing three-quarter (‘winger’ or ‘centre’) for New Zealand against the touring Kangaroos. This was only the second time the Kangaroos had toured New Zealand.  Alf was selected again in 1936 and is credited as the first Pacific Islander to represent New Zealand in league (Encyclopedia of New Zealand).

Around 1937, Alf persuaded George to make the switch to league with Richmond Rovers. This was at a time when a great many Maori union players, including the legendary George Nepia, were switching codes in the belief that Maori “hopes of further distinction in rugby union circles were limited” by racial discrimination (N.Z. Herald, 9 August 1939).

George “was an instant success” hailed as a “good and clever all-round forward” and a “sound, dashing, virile, outstanding, heavy hard-racking forward”. (New Zealand Herald, 19 April 1939).

Playing alongside Nepia, he became one of stars of the August 11, 1937 test between New Zealand Maori and Australia, played before a crowd of 25,000 at Carlaw Park, Parnell. The match was won 16-15 by the New Zealanders. It has been described as arguably “the most famous Maori rugby league victory of all time” (100 Years: Māori Rugby League, 1908-2008).

At the time membership of a Maori representative team was open to “any player who can justly lay claim to having any Maori or Polynesian blood in his veins.”  George’s participation made him the first ‘Polynesian’ to represent the New Zealand Maori (100 Years: Māori Rugby League, 1908-2008) and, perhaps, the first Cook Islander to participate in international sporting competition.

George had more than his share of injuries in the 1937 season and sat out 1938 while recovering from surgery.

He returned as a stand-out in the April 1939 match between Richmond and Eastern Suburbs with the New Zealand Herald’s correspondent praising the “brilliant forward play of G. Mitchell. He was in every attacking movement and handled the ball with the ability of a back. His form has only to be continued to assure him of a place in the New Zealand team.” (New Zealand Herald, 12 April, 1939). His form did continue (“easily the best of the forwards” NZH, 12 June 1939) and George was selected for the 1939 Kiwis tour of England.

Alf, Hylda, George, Evelyn and Robert Mitchell (source; Wikitree). 20121830

At 14 stone 7 lbs (92 kilos), he was consistently regarded as “one of the best loose forwards in the game. Speed and good handling has been a feature of his play…” (NZH, 12 July 1939).

Before leaving for England, George, then aged 25, married 30-year-old Louise Ivy Guttenbeil from Tonga.

George and the Kiwi squad sailed from Wellington on July 27, 1939 on RMS Rangitiki arriving in London on August 29, 1939. The first game of the tour took place on September 2 with the Kiwis beating St Helens 19–3, but the declaration of War the following morning meant the tour had to be abandoned. A second and final match on September 9, 1939 gave the Kiwis a 22–10 victory over Dewsbury before sailing back home to New Zealand.

In the early years of the war, George continued to play rugby league for Richmond Rovers and represented Auckland in inter-provincial competition. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army and switched to rugby union for two seasons, playing with the successful Army combination known as the M. T. P. (Motor Transport Pool) rugby team, made up almost entirely of former league players.  George was playing alongside future All Blacks Bob Scott and Johnny Simpson when MTP won the Gallaher Shield in 1942. He also played representative rugby union for Auckland and for the All Golds against Maori in October, 1942 while also finding time for championship cricket with the MTP team.

He took a year away from rugby union in 1944 with the intention of seeking a clearance to sign for Ponsonby Rugby League once de-mobbed. Richmond objected strongly but permission was finally granted in April 1945 (Auckland Star, 26 April, 5 May, 1945).

George played for Ponsonby from 1945 – 47, as well as representative matches for Auckland, North and Auckland Maori. In 1947, aged 33, he trialed for the 1947 Kiwis tour of Britain but was unsuccessful. He hung up his boots in 1947.

His brother Alf spent the pre-war years playing wing-three quarter (‘wing’ or ‘centre’) or five-eight (‘standoff’ or ‘half back’) for Richmond Rovers, for Auckland Province against Australia (1935),  for Taranaki Rugby League (1938 - 39) and for Taranaki Maoris in the Waitangi Shield (1939). He was among those under consideration alongside his brother for the 1939 Kiwi tour to England (Auckland Star, 30 June, 1939).

In 1941, Alf joined the Maori Battalion and was posted to the Middle East with the 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, 5th Reinforcements NZEF. He ended the war with the rank of Lance Corporal.

In 1935 Alf married Hazel Maud Barnett; they had three children. It seems that before the war, he and Hazel had parted company. After the war, he moved permanently to Wellington, losing contact with his family but continuing to play league for Petone and representative matches for Wellington until the late 1940s. Having worked as a labourer and freezing worker, Alf died in 1974 at the young age of 64.

George died 12 years later in Auckland in 1986 at the age of 71, two years after his wife Louise’s death. Both men died in modest circumstances and relative obscurity.

Both George and Alf are listed on the official New Zealand Rugby League Roll of Honour and both appear on the Richmond Rovers International Roll of Honour.

The Cook Islands has yet to formally recognise George. According to Cook Islands Rugby League president Charles Carlson, “We only knew of the late John Whitaker playing in the 70s/80s and later inducted as one of the New Zealand Rugby League’s Legends in 2012. The Iro brothers (Tony and Kevin) followed in the 90s and now we have enough top professional players to form a national squad.”

“George’s story is memorable - an excellent role model for local players born in the Cook Islands that they too can achieve great things.”

In 1924 George and Alf’s sister Agnes Catherine Mitchell (1898 – 1951) married Cecil John Bouchier, who was a fruit inspector at Rarotonga. Cecil later died of injuries sustained in the hurricane of February 18, 1935.

Agnes and Cecil had six girls all born on Rarotonga (Eileen Rea, 1925, Doreen Agnes 1926, Cecilia Frances 1927, Rosina Madeline 1928, Catherine Mary 1930 and Theresa Vera 1933).

The family moved to New Zealand in December, 1936 a year after Cecil’s death.

The eldest girl, Eileen married Arthur Williams, an Australian born in Samoa. In 1950 Eileen gave birth to the future All Black and Rugby Hall of Famer, Sir Bryan George Williams KNZM MBE - George and Alf’s great nephew.

In 2016, Sir Bryan brought the ashes of George and Alfred’s mother, Mele Mataele back to Rarotonga to be reunited with her husband Ernest – Alf and George’s father. They now lie together in the Avarua Church-yard.

Other family members include descendants of George’s sister, Caroline Beatrice Mitchell who married Aio Teatuanui Taripo (son of Anapo Taripo and Tauira) in 1919 and later Patrick Pu Manuel Fortes (son of Manuel Fortes and Mary Allan Mitchell) in 1933 in Rarotonga.

Further reading:

100 Years: Māori Rugby League, 1908-2008 by John Oliver Coffey and Bernie Wood.