Page 1: Biography
Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Pukenga; rugby union and rugby league player, fireman, groundsman
Asher, Ernest Te Kēpa
Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Pukenga; rugby union and rugby league player, sports administrator, hairdresser
This biography, written by Robin C. McConnell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Albert (or Arapeta) Asher was born on 3 December 1879 and Ernest Te Kēpa Asher on 21 April 1886 at Tauranga, the fifth and seventh of eleven children. They were of Te Arawa, of Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Pukenga descent through their mother, Katerina Te Atirau, and their maternal grandmother, Rāhera Te Kahuhiapō. Their father, David Asher, a hotel-keeper, was the son of Hannah Keesing and her husband, Asher Asher, a prominent Jewish trader in Auckland. Katherine Te Rongokahira Asher (later Parata, then Robertshaw) was their eldest sister, and their four brothers – Henry Hēnare, To Te Atirau, John Te Atirau and George Ngākiore – became prominent sportsmen, excelling particularly in rugby union and rugby league.
Albert Asher is reputed to have been a rugby sub-union representative in his early teens. In 1897 the Parnell Football Club enticed him to live and play in Auckland, and assured him of employment. The following year he played the first of his 21 games for Auckland. In 1902 he was a member of the first Auckland rugby team to hold the Ranfurly Shield. He played for the New Zealand team that toured Australia in 1903, scoring 17 tries; for 54 years this remained a record for any New Zealander playing in Australia. On that tour he became known as 'The India Rubber Man', because of his athleticism in bouncing up from tackles. His more famous nickname, 'Opai', derived from the champion steeplechaser, was bestowed on him for his action in hurdling opposing players. In 1904 he injured his leg badly while working as a fireman and was unable to play top rugby regularly for two seasons. Although a likely candidate, he was also prevented from touring England with the original All Blacks in 1905. On 19 November 1901 at Auckland Albert had married May Caroline Briggs; they were to have at least six children.
Albert's younger brother Ernest represented Tauranga at rugby, and in 1908 he and Albert formed a Māori team to tour Australia. They were accompanied by a number of tribal leaders. The team is said to have been met at the wharf in Sydney by officials from the New South Wales Rugby Football League, who persuaded them to change codes immediately. Both brothers toured Australia in an all-Māori rugby league team in 1909, and in 1910, the formation year of the New Zealand Rugby Football League, both represented New Zealand against the first English rugby league team to tour New Zealand. They also played against England with the Māori team. Albert and Ernest were key figures in the establishment of the City Rovers League Club, Auckland, in 1910. A year later Ernest was again included in the national team to tour Australia, playing as a three-quarter or fullback, with outstanding form. Albert was a league representative in 1913.
On 20 January 1914 at Auckland Ernest Asher married May Hill. They had one child. Following his retirement from top-level league in 1916 Ernest went on to achieve success as a manager, selector and administrator. At one stage he was a selector for four major teams in one season. He became a life member of a number of league clubs and organisations, including the New Zeland Rugby Football League. In 1956 he managed the New Zealand Māori Rugby League team that toured Australia. He was secretary of the New Zealand Māori Rugby League Board for nearly 60 years and a delegate to the Council of the New Zealand Rugby Football League.
Ernest Asher was active in weightlifting circles and was on the administrative committee of the Auckland Weightlifting Association. In later life he maintained a strong interest in personal fitness. A hairdresser for some 50 years, Ernest worked in his High Street barber shop for the latter part of his career. He was prominent in the Auckland Hairdressers' Assistants Union.
Albert worked as a fireman from around 1902 and at various times was employed as a farmer, gas stoker, railwayman, labourer, clerk and boilermaker. For 20 years he kept in touch with rugby league followers in his capacity as groundsman at Carlaw Park. In his 80s he was still in demand for autographs. He died in Auckland on 8 January 1965 survived by three daughters and two sons; his wife had predeceased him. Ernest Asher died at Auckland on 10 April 1973. His wife, May, had died in 1962 and his son, George, had been killed in action at Monte Cassino, Italy, in 1944 while serving as a lieutenant in the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion.