From The Old Club: The History of the Christchurch Football Club 1863 -2013.
Written by Tony Murdoch
The 1905 All Black team is fittingly regarded as a great side and the success of that tour was an event that may well have shaped the national character because it enshrined rugby as the national sport. Behind the scenes it may well have been a less than happy group and for Christchurch’s Eric Harper it may have been something of a trial although there are different views. One perspective is that Harper was nick-named ‘aristocratic Eric’ partly because of his physical appearance and partly because of his habit of wearing a dinner suit to formal occasions. He struggled to gain selection and ended up playing only 4 of the first 17 matches and in all 10 out of the 35 matches on the tour. The reason for this may well sit with the captain Dave Gallagher and a group of players who at the beginning of the tour told Jimmy Duncan, the appointed coach, that he would not in fact be coaching. Rightly or wrongly this action has been seen as an anti-south Island move and Harper may well have been a victim of the split in the team. The counter view has it that “Harper had a breezy disposition and was always ready to join in any fun…he emerged as a natural leader of men and was extremely popular among team mates.” There is some irony in all of this because it is recorded that Harper along with 2 or 3 of the wealthier players would contribute two pounds each to a weekly fund, set up to help the poorer members of team.
The judgement against Eric Harper deprived the team of a skilled and pacy three-quarter who, when given the chance at the end of the tour, scored twice against France. Perhaps rugby was just not that important to him and this may be understood when one considers his professional training was a lawyer and that he was a man of broad interests and abilities.
He was born in Christchurch to one of the leading families in the growing settlement. The Harper connection covered key influences in the city, most notably the Anglican Church, Christ’s College, the Christchurch Club and the legal profession. The Christchurch Football Club could well be added to this grouping because many of the founding figures of the club were entwined within these circles of influential citizens. Eric Harper was educated firstly at St Patrick’s College Wellington (1889 -1892) and then Christchurch Boys’ High School. This may have been because his mother Agnes (Loughnan) was from one of the leading Catholic families of the period and because there was no Catholic secondary school in Christchurch until 1911 when St Bede’s opened in Ferry Road. His early years as an articled clerk may have been difficult and this may have contributed to the belief that he was somewhat aloof. This was because in 1891 his father’s legal firm, Harper and Co, was involved in a major scandal that resulted in the company falling apart with around $20m (in today’s currency) having gone missing. His father was struck off for a time but was found not guilty of fraud. It can only be conjecture but the scandal around this incident would have been considerable and perhaps Eric Harper carried something of a burden of guilt in those formative years of his life.
Harper showed great promise as a sportsman. He was an outstanding athlete at both schools and went on to win national titles in the 440 yards hurdles in 1901 and the following year took out the 880 yards event. In 1902 the annual report refers to him having represented New Zealand at the Australian championships and while this is unconfirmed it may make him the clubs only double international.
In between times he played senior cricket firstly for the United Club and then after 1905 with the newly formed Riccarton Cricket Club. Contrary to some views he did not play first class cricket for the Canterbury A team but did play for a Canterbury XI. He was nevertheless a fine attacking batsman, with a brilliant 182 not out being his best effort, and a stalwart of the Riccarton club.
A fourth component of his set of interests was mountaineering and this was in part because his family, especially his uncles and cousins were very enthusiastic trampers and explorers. Harper was involved in a number discoveries including being in the first party to cross the Denniston Pass.
He was a member of the club’s first championship team in 1900. This title success was something of an epic because it took three matches against Sydenham to find an outright winner and the season was extended by several weeks to reach a conclusion. Finally Christchurch emerged as the winner beating Sydenham 11 - 6 at Lancaster Park before a crowd of 3500. Harper kicked a penalty and a conversion and ran strongly during the game. This led to his selection for Canterbury and in 1904 for New Zealand, playing at centre against the touring Great Britain team. A newspaper report of the time said that he “kicked and ran well but was inclined to pass rather high.”
He missed selection in the preliminary All Black team that toured Australia but was added to the touring party for the major tour. At the conclusion of the French test he opted to return to New Zealand rather than continue to on to North America. He does not appear to have played rugby after the tour.
The final stanza of his life has a sad ending. Like so many men, he felt compelled to enlist to fight in World War I. By now he was married with two children. He had been a member of the voluntary unit and was initially declared unfit for service. However by 1917 he was declared fit and sailed with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles to the Middle East. It was here that he was killed while quietening the horses on 30 April 1918. He was 40 years old.
His death in the desert far from the playing fields which he graced and far from the mountains he loved seems an injustice for such a talented and, one suspects, complex man.
Seasons for CFC: 1898 - 1905
Matches For Canterbury: 14
Matches for South Island: 2
Matches For New Zealand: 11 (2 Tests)