Maori Personalities in Sport
* THE KENNYS OF JOHNSONVILLE *
Although many Maori families have distinguished themselves in sport, I would most certainly hand the palm to the Kennys of Johnsonville. Not only have they achieved success in a diversity of sports, but also they have achieved it in an atmosphere not encountered by many Maoris. The Kennys have made their mark in the city, where competition must necessarily be more intense than in the rural areas because of greater numbers, a more scientific approach, and a higher degree of specialisation.
Although they have been prominent in several sports, the Kennys are best known as Rugby footballers. Their Rugby tradition began with Aylmer, but in succession as they left school his younger brothers joined him in the Johnsonville senior XV. They were Mervyn, Mick and Brian, and in those days Johnsonville was a force to be reckoned with.
Aylmer, who played senior football from 1928 to 1949 and represented Wellington from 1930 to 1945, has a niche all his own in Wellington Rugby. He is still regarded as one of the hardest yet shrewdest forwards the province has had, and I well remember the ruthlessness of his rucking when in one of my first senior games I foolishly stayed on the ball a little longer than the rules provided for, yes, Aylmer Kenny was tough, yet in no game have I ever seen him do anything dirty. He believed football to be a man's game. He neither gave nor sought quarter. He knew and exploited many tricks which may have stretched the laws somewhat, but he was so adept that few referees could ever catch him out. There may be people who deprecate such tactics, but Aylmer and many other sportsmen—including myself—consider that one should play to the limit of what one can get away with. Perhaps this, today, would be called gamesmanship. In Aylmer's day it was simply the way Rugby was played.
Aylmer Kenny was a Maori All Black in 1938 on the tour of Fiji. He is one of the very few Maoris ever to have the distinction of leading a Wellington representative team. He was Wellington captain in 1940. Aylmer was also a prominent member of the Centurians, and it was in these sides that I first played with him. During the war he held a commission in the Maori Battalion and played for the side which won the Freyberg Cup.
The next brother, Mervyn, was a most versatile footballer and, like Aylmer, had a very long playing career.
Mervyn began his career as a fullback—and a fine one he was too. That he did not reach the same heights as Aylmer was no real reflection on his ability. He played during an era of exceptionally good fullbacks—men like Bunk Pollock, Herb Lilburne and Ron Masters, Also, because of his nature, he may not have applied himself with the same zeal that Aylmer did. Nevertheless Mervyn was a very sound fullback and, when young Mick joined the team, he moved up into the line and played well as a three-quarter.
For a time Mervyn played league, but was later re-instated. Wellington has had few better goalkickers than Mervyn Kenny. He is a big man and kicks with tremendous length and considerable accuracy. His son, who is carrying on the Kenny tradition, seems to have developed the same capacity for goalkicking.
The third Kenny, Mick, needs little introduction—especially to those Maoris who served in the Middle East and Italy. Mick was a fullback, and what a good one too.
Like his brothers, Mick began his career with the Johnsonville Club, and at the age of 19 he had the distinction of being named “one of the five most promising players of the year” by the New Zealand Rugby Almanac. Mick was one of the bigger fullbacks, but he was as agile as men half his size. He was the epitome of coolness, he was a prodigious kicker with either foot, and he specialised in the bonecrushing tackle. He is a fine modest and extremely popular sportsman, and those of us who played with him or saw him play overseas —for the 22nd Battalion and the 2nd N.Z.E.F.—are the only ones who realise just how his very serious war wounds affected him. Mick was wounded in Italy—so seriously that it seemed a miracle he survived. But not only did he survive where 999 men out of 1000 would have died, he also returned to football; and although the 1946–47 Kenny was not a shadow of the splendid player of 1942–43, he was still good enough to represent Wellington and the New Zealand Maoris.
Just let me give you an idea of how good Mick Kenny was before he was wounded.
You have all heard of Bob Scott, no doubt.
and perhaps even Herbie Cook, the other ‘Kiwi’ fullback—the man who on the ‘Kiwi’ tour was said to be better than Scott. Well, Mick Kenny was the clear superior of both these players before the Kiwis were chosen. He was the byword of the New Zealand soldier. You will find many knowledgeable footballers who would insist unhesitatingly that Mick Kenny (of 1942–43) was the greatest fullback we have ever produced—Scott and Nepia included. I played with him in Battalion matches in 1943 and 1944 and I can say that without doubt I have never played in front of a fullback who inspired greater confidence.
The baby of the family—and incidentally the biggest of the brothers—Brian, played no representative football. This does not mean he was no good. He had a fairly short career owing to a persistent leg injury which caused his retirement just when he should have been qualifying for higher honours.
Aylmer, Mervyn and Mick are all better than average cricketers in the summer, with Aylmer possibly the best. He has represented the Hutt Valley on occasions, and although now well into his forties he is still a very handy club player.
The record of these four Kennys is in itself a handsome one, but the family record by no means ends with them. There is a new generation—the children of Mervyn, and I forecast that in these three youngsters the future will reveal even greater talent than we have seen from the older generation.
Mervyn junior, at present 18 years of age, has already drawn attention to his ability as a footballer. A product of Wellington Technical College, he was the mainstay of a very smart backline, and also a most successful goalkicker. Mervyn, like the older generation, is a big lad. He moves with really deceptive speed, and although playing in the 18-year-old group (4th Grade) he was selected for the Wellington Maoris who overwhelmed the Wairarapa Maoris by 39–3. Mervyn's personal tally in this match was 15 points—not a bad debut to first-class football. Mervyn is also a very good indoor basketballer. The Wellington ‘Tech,’ is no doubt an outstanding nursery for indoor basketball, and both the boys' and girls' teams have a liberal allocation of Maoris.
Janie Kenny, also still at Technical College, is this season a member of the Wellington Hockey representative team. She is the star of the Technical College indoor basketball team which plays in the Senior A competition, and anyone who has seen a national championship will know the strength of Wellington's indoor basketball. Technical College Old Girls provide the first line-up in the Wellington ‘reps.’