Greymouth-born John Joseph (“Jack”) O’Brien was working as a stockman at Kokatahi and playing for the Orientals club when, in 1897, he decided to leave his home district and try his luck in Wellington. A back-row forward, O’Brien had represented the West Coast as a 24-year-old in 1896, playing in the Coast’s only matches of that season, against Buller in Westport (won 16-0) and Nelson in Nelson (drawn 3-3). (See Grey River Argus clipping of the team selection below. The Coast representative team had been resurrected the previous year, after an absence of two seasons.)
O’Brien had ambitions for higher rugby honours. Finding work as a roadman in the capital, he joined the Athletic club and became a regular member of the Wellington provincial team from 1898 to 1901. On August 17, 1901, he helped Wellington record a narrow 17-16 win against the touring New South Wales team at Athletic Park.
For all that O’Brien, while enjoying a hearty breakfast at his home at 21 St Mary’s Street, off Tinakori Road, on the morning on Wednesday, August 28, could not have expected the surprise that awaited him that very afternoon.
The All Blacks were in Wellington preparing for a Test match against NSW at Athletic Park the following Saturday. A warm-up match against Wellington had been organised for the Wednesday, and O’Brien was in the team to play against New Zealand.
However, Tom Cross, although selected in the New Zealand team for both matches, had decided to stay in Christchurch to play for Canterbury against NSW at Lancaster Park on August 28. The problem was, Cross hadn’t informed the NZRFU of his decision to miss the Wellington match. Immediately after Canterbury had beaten the tourists 11-5, Cross and another All Black, Wally Drake, joined the NSW players on the inter-island ferry leaving Lyttelton for Wellington.
Meanwhile, it was only when the All Blacks assembled in Wellington to take on the home province that they realised Cross was not among them. A quick scout round the Wellington ranks and suddenly Greymouth’s John O’Brien was elevated from the provincial team to full All Black status – becoming only the second West Coaster to represent his country at rugby (after Hokitika halfback Harry Butland in 1894-95). O’Brien was exactly two months short of his 30th birthday.
The All Blacks beat Wellington 24-5 and went on to beat NSW 20-3 three days later. Official NZRFU histories record “Cross failed to arrive in time for the [Wellington] match”. Quite the contrary: he had never intended to be in Wellington on the Wednesday.
It was O’Brien’s only All Black appearance. He later moved to Australia and became a merchant seaman, travelling the Sydney-San Francisco route regularly until into his mid-60s. He returned to New Zealand and died in Auckland on April 26, 1946, aged 74.