During the 1949 tour of Australia by the Māori All Blacks, Australian Johnny Morris was so impressed by coach and manager Tom French he donated a trophy for French who decided the best use of it would be to acknowledge the Māori player of the year. The inaugural winner was dazzling North Auckland midfield back and All Black Johnny Simpson in 1949.
The nominees for the prestigious prize this year are Black Ferns Stacey Fluhler and Ruahei Demant and All Black TJ Perenara.
Who was Tom French?
Tom French (Ngāti Hikairo) was born in Kawhia (40 km southeast of Hamilton) on September 16, 1889.
A loose forward of repute he was selected for the first officially recognised New Zealand Māori tour of Australia in 1910 out of Buller - the only player from Westport on the trip.
The Māori team played several Australian state sides as well as a touring American University team across the Tasman and won 12, drew 3 and lost 4 of 19 games.
French moved to Auckland and played in the first game at Eden Park, a special Sevens fixture against Wellington on May 9, 1914.
A New Zealand army representative, he played 38 first class games and scored six tries before duty called.
The outbreak of the first World War would eventually end his playing career. Otherwise, he would have almost certainly been an All Black.
On October 4, 1917, near Passchendaele, French was wounded so severely his left arm was amputated. He spent a year in hospital and finally returned to New Zealand in January 1919.
Unable to play rugby, Tom turned to refereeing in Hamilton and became a founding member and vice-president of the newly formed Waikato Rugby Referees' Association in 1921.
He became a first-class referee, sole selector of Wairoa Sub Union, sole selector of Poverty Bay Rugby Union, co-selector of the North Island team, co-selector of Auckland Rugby Union, and co-selector of Bay of Plenty Rugby Union.
French's involvement with Māori rugby stretched five decades. He was a member of the Māori Advisory Board from 1922 until 1970 (and selector /coach of the national team from 1945 until 1956.
In 1957 he was nominated for Life Membership of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. He died in July 1970.
The Black Panther
When Waka Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Te Roroa, Tainui) died aged 81 in September last year every NPC venue acknowledged his passing with a moment of silence. It was a fitting tribute to a champion player, coach, administrator, and publican.
Nathan won the first of his two Tom French Cup honours in 1962, the year he debuted for the All Blacks.
On the tour of Australia, he was the top try-scorer with eight and played brilliantly in all five home-and-away Tests against the Wallabies. He scored a try on his Test debut in Brisbane which the All Blacks won by 20-6. However, the remainder of the games were dour affairs. Don Clark kicked a last-gasp penalty to draw the Wellington Test, 9-9 while the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ saw half the All Blacks forward pack, including Kel Tremain and Colin Meads dropped for the Test in Dunedin. Clark saved that game with a second-half penalty.
Despite two broken jaws, two ruptured Achilles tendons, one broken finger, one displaced vertebra, torn ligaments in both knees and pulled thigh and calf muscles he won a second Tom French Cup in 1966 after standout displays in the 4-0 sweep of the British and Irish Lions. He scored two tries in the third Test 19-6 victory in Christchurch.
Nathan never lost in the 14 All Black Tests he played.
Concerned by the declining standard of Māori rugby, Nathan assumed coaching duties of the top side in 1971. In his seven-year tenure the Māori won 19 out of 27 games and restored much pride and relevance to the whole concept of Māori rugby.
A Maromaku farmer, Sid Going (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine) won the Tom French Cup a record six times between 1967 and 1972. He made the North Auckland side at the age of 18 when he went on as a replacement for the injured Pat Marshall against Counties in 1962.
By 1967 he was an All Black and played a starring role in the 29-9 victory over Australia at Athletic Park in Wellington. The fixture marked the 75th Anniversary of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.
The halfback was soon an indispensable pick. He scored two tries against France in one of the great performances at Eden Park in 1968 and completely outplayed Welsh champion Gareth Edwards in the All Blacks series sweep in 1969.
Going captained the All Blacks to three midweek wins on the 1972 tour of the UK and France. He was a regular in the Māori All Blacks from 1965-1977, featuring in series wins against Samoa, Fiji and Tonga.
He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 where his citation noted:
“Known as “Super Sid.” He was regarded as the ultimate running halfback, his dabs from the back of the scrum giving his side a significant point of difference.”
His brother Ken Going was an All Black. Aaron Smith, the most capped All Black back of all time with 114 Tests won the Tom French Cup in 2014.
World Cup Winners
Buck Shelford (1987), Piri Weepu (2011) and Nehe Milner-Skudder (2015) were Tom French winners in seasons the All Blacks won the World Cup.
Imposing No.8 Shelford (Ngāpuhi) was the All Blacks enforcer in the resounding 1987 success. His stirring haka leadership in that campaign was also transformative in All Blacks culture.
Who could ever forget his performance in the 49-6 win against Wales in the semi-final in Brisbane. Shelford scored two tries in that game and played a key role in the 29-9 success a week later in the final against France at Eden Park.
Shelford had won the Tom French for the first time in 1985 and would win again in 1988 and 1989 when he was an unbeaten All Black captain. Buck’s second-cousin Frank Shelford won the award in 1981.
Halfback Piri Weepu (Ngāi Tahu) was a vital cog in the All Blacks winning the 2011 tournament. Naturally cool and robust under pressure he assumed goal kicking duties when Daniel Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden all collapsed injured. His 23 points in the quarter final against a dogged Argentina was an especially noteworthy display.
Wing Nehe Milner-Skudder (Ngāti Porou and Tapuika) was close to unstoppable in 2015. He scored eight tries in as many tests, including the vital first blow just before halftime in the World Cup final against Australia at Twickenham. Additionally, he helped the Hurricanes make the final of Super Rugby for the first time since 2006.
Non-All Black Winners
When hooker Ash Dixon (Ngāti Tahinga) won in 2020 after his exceptional leadership for the Highlanders, Māori All Blacks and Hawke’s Bay (Defending the Ranfurly Shield) he became the first non-All Black to win the Tom French Cup since 1996.
In fact, since 1949 Manahi 'Doc' Paewai (1951), Muru Walters (1957), Bill ‘Rangi’ Wordley (1959) and Errol Brain (1996) are the only other non-All Blacks to have won the prize. All those players were exceptional talents and contributors to New Zealand society.
Paewai (Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitāne) was a halfback from Dannevirke who played 51 first class games and had a five-year span in the Māori All Blacks (1946-1950) He played against the 1950 Lions and later became a leading doctor, church leader and politician.
Waters (Te Rarawa and Te Aupōuri) was a Māori All Black from 1954 to 1963 scoring 263 points in 39 matches. He had two All Black trials in 1958 and 1959. He was later an author, master carver, broadcaster, artist, and the first Pīhopa (bishop) of Te Pīhopatanga o Te Upoko o Te Ika from his consecration on 7 March 1992 until his retirement in 2018.
Wordley was a hooker from the King Country who played a lot of rugby with Colin Meads. He played 30 games for the Māori All Blacks from 1958 to 1965 and was a regular All Black trialist.
Brain (Ngāpuhi) was an uncompromising loose forward who led Counties Manukau to the 1996 NPC first division. He played 146 games for the Steelers and scored 52 tries. He was a Māori All Black from 1991 to 1998, including a stint as captain and had three All Black trials and today works in drug detection.
The Gear Brothers
Ngāti Porou wingers Rico (2005) and Hosea (2010) are the only pair of brothers to win the Tom French.
Rico was a devastating finisher for the Crusaders during their fifth Super Rugby title success scoring a competition leading 15 tries.
He featured in 8 Tests for the All Blacks and scored seven tries, including a brilliant hat-trick in a 41-3 slaying of Wales in Cardiff.
Additionally, he played in four victories against the touring British and Irish Lions, three tests and the Māori All Blacks historic 19-13 win in Hamilton.
Māori Rugby celebrated their official centenary in 2010 and no player was more damaging in the Māori All Blacks epic victories over Ireland (31-28) and England (35-28) than Hosea Gear.
In the win against Ireland, he scored a try before going berserk and scoring a ‘Lomu like’ hat trick against England at Mclean Park in Napier. He also scored a try in the 37-31 win against the New Zealand Barbarians.
Remarkably both brothers scored more than 100 tries in first class rugby, Hosea (111) and Rico (108).
In 2019 Sarah Hirini (Ngāti Kahungunu) was the first woman to win the Tom French Cup, the same year she was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to rugby.
In the calendar year Hirini was first acknowledged; she led the Black Ferns Sevens to the first ever Commonwealth Games gold medal - beating hosts Australia in extra time in the final on the Gold Coast
In the same period the Black Ferns won the World Sevens Series and set a record of 50 consecutive match wins (surpassing the previous record of 44 established between 2014-15).
The uncompromising and relentless forward won again in 2021 after leading the Black Ferns Sevens to Olympic gold in Tokyo. Hirini was New Zealand flag bearer but had lost her mother shortly before the tournament. In 2021 she also won the Kel Tremain Memorial Trophy as New Zealand Rugby player of the year. Kendra Cocksedge was the only other woman to have previously achieved that feat in 2018.
The ASB Rugby Awards screen on Sky Sport NZ and Prime at 8.30pm on Thursday 8 December.