The Man Behind The Hardham Cup Trophy

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This article was originally posted by Scott MacLean on clubrugby.co.nz

It's often derided as something of a second-class trophy, an award for those teams not good enough to make the grade for the Jubilee Cup; but the history of the Premier 2 Hardham Cup and the man it named for is perhaps more colourful than its illustrious compatriot.

The Hardham Cup memorialises Major William James Hardham, VC, and is unique in New Zealand as a sporting trophy bearing the name of a winner of the highest military honour for gallantry in the face of the enemy that this country has, the Victoria Cross.

Hardham was born in Wellington on 31 July 1876 and educated at Mount Cook School, after which he became a blacksmith. He had also taken up the game of rugby, playing for Petone, and in 1897 made his debut for Wellington. He was described as a ‘fast dashing forward, full of go from kick-off to cease play'.

Hardham combined his trade and rugby with a military career. He joined the Cadets in 1891, then in 1895 he enrolled with the Wellington Naval Artillery Volunteers before transferring to the Petone Naval Artillery Volunteers late the following year. In 1900 he enlisted with the Fourth Contingent of New Zealand Forces for the South African War and appointed as a Farrier Sergeant-Major, using his blacksmithing skills to shoe horses.

Arriving in May 1900 he saw considerable action before the events of 28 January 1901 that saw him awarded the Victoria Cross.

The citation in the London Gazette of 4 October 1901 described his actions as:

“On the 28th January, 1901, near Naauwpoort, this non-commissioned? officer was with a section which was extended and hotly engaged with a party of about twenty Boers.

Just before the force commenced to retire, Trooper McCrae was wounded and his horse killed. Farrier-Major Hardham at once went, under a heavy fire, to his assistance, dismounted, and placed him on his own horse, and ran alongside until he had guided him to a place of safety.”

His actions were paralleled over a century later by William Apiata, who won the Victoria Cross in similar circumstances in Afghanistan.

Hardham served a second tour with the Ninth Contingent before travelling to London as part of the New Zealand representation at the coronation of King Edward VII. On 1 July 1902 the new King would present him with the VC. He was the only member of the New Zealander forces to win the VC in the South African conflict, and became the first New Zealand-born person to win the award.

After he returned to New Zealand Hardham resumed his rugby with both Petone and Wellington and was part of the Wellington team that won the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland in 1904. In all Hardham represented Wellington more than 50 times.

On retirement he became involved in the administration side of the game, serving on the management committee of the WRFU from 1908 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when he was appointed a Captain in the Wellington Mounted Rifles.

Hardham's unit was amongst those that were sent to the Middle East, where he was severely wounded at Gallipoli. Evacuated to Wellington, he married Constance Parsonson in 1916, before serving as commandant of the Queen Mary Hospital at Hanmer Springs. Determined to return to active service he did so and returned to the Wellington Mounted Rifles, by now serving in Palestine, in 1918. There he was promoted to Major and saw out the end of the war, but contracted malaria soon thereafter.

Evacuated home for a second time, his wounds and illness prevented a return to blacksmithing, so he found employment with the Dominion newspaper, and later the Public Works Department. He became involved in promoting the interests of returned soldiers, the Returned Soldiers Association, and the Anzac Day commemorations.

He also returned to rugby administration, serving a second term on the management committee from 1921 to 1925; and in 1927 was awarded life membership of the Wellington union.

Hardham died at his home on 13 April 1928, aged just 51. He is buried in the Karori Soldiers Cemetery.

His Victoria Cross and other medals are on display in the Valour Alcove at the National Army Museum in Waiouru. A replica of the Victoria Cross is displayed at the Petone clubrooms at North Park.

The trophy that bears his name was donated to the WRFU after his death and was first played for in 1939 where it was won by Wellington College Old Boys. For many years it was played for by the 8 clubs in the Senior grade that did not make the top-6 for the Jubilee Cup and was a straight round-robin with the winners crowned at the conclusion of that.

Since 1996 the Hardham Cup has been played for by the bottom four Premier sides in the Swindale Shield, joined by the top 4 eligible sides from the Senior 1 Harper Lock Shield. Not only are these teams playing to win a title, there has also been the added drama of promotion/relegation as clubs battle to win a place in the Swindale Shield the following season.

The list of winners of the Hardham Cup is an interesting one, with a more diverse collection than the Jubilee Cup and including a swathe of clubs that no longer exist. Of note in the last 20 years is that several clubs - Oriental-Rongotai, Western Suburbs, Poneke, Tawa and Norths - have claimed both trophies at different times.