David Gallagher (later Gallaher) was born at Ramelton, County Donegal, Ireland, on 30 October 1873, the son of James Gallagher, a shopkeeper, and his wife, Maria McCloskie, a teacher. In May 1878 the Gallaghers sailed from Belfast on the Lady Jocelyn in the second party of emigrants for George Vesey Stewart's Katikati Special Settlement in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. They struggled, like most others in that ill-starred scheme, to make a go of it on a small farm. Maria's salary from teaching was for a time a godsend.
Dave Gallaher's local renown as an athlete spread when he went to Auckland and became serious about rugby football. By now six feet tall and weighing 13 stone, he was first selected for the Auckland provincial team in 1896 and thus contributed to a developing national passion for rugby. In all, he donned the Auckland jersey 26 times.
Rugby gave way to soldiering during the South African War (1899–1902). He put his age back by three years to join up in January 1901. For nearly 1½ years he rode the veld on active service in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Colony (Cape Province), reaching the rank of squadron sergeant major in the 10th New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
Back in New Zealand he continued his rugby career and, in 1903, when nearly 30, he was capped for New Zealand for the first time. In Sydney he played in the first official international match between Australia and New Zealand, which was a runaway victory to the New Zealanders. In his second international at Athletic Park, Wellington, in 1904, New Zealand inflicted a stinging defeat on D. R. Bedell-Sivright's touring British Isles side.
The New Zealanders in their isolation had developed their own style. Specialisation in forward play led to the adoption of a two-three-two scrum with one forward detached to act as a rover or winger. This would change the game – and make Dave Gallaher probably the first in a long line of controversial national sporting figures. He keenly exploited the inherent scope of the position, both to thwart the opposition and to switch the attack.
Dave Gallaher's captaincy of the 1905–6 New Zealand team, which toured Britain and France, sealed his place in New Zealand rugby history. He could read the game brilliantly and the army had taught him the virtues of discipline, cohesion and steadiness under pressure. However, his tough training regimen could account for an ignominious ship-board vote about his captaincy, or perhaps even at his official age of 29 (he was actually almost 32) they thought him too old to be their leader. Despite support from the team management and other prominent players, 11 of his 29 fellows voted against him.
High hopes rested on the team. The premier, Richard Seddon, with his own brand of excitable nationalism, had farewelled them from Wellington and bombarded them with chauvinistic telegrams throughout the tour. From their opening match, against Devon, Dave Gallaher's All Blacks created a sensation. They swept almost all before them, overwhelming a succession of English county and club teams, and decisively winning internationals against Ireland, Scotland, England and France. In 33 games they lost only once, 0–3, in the famous disputed match against Wales. They scored 868 points to only 47 scored against them.
Gallaher's role as wing-forward raised British hackles. After the first game a sports commentator wrote, 'The great innovation of their game is the winging forward. As a matter of fact he is not a forward, and is a wolf in sheep's clothing.' A correspondent warned, 'There is going to be trouble over that gentleman,' and so it went on throughout the tour. Gallaher remained calm; he was famously terse, equable and level-headed. Against Surrey the fullback, G. A. Gillett, took his place as wing-forward. Gallaher, sitting in the grandstand listening to the shouts of 'Look at that terrible man Gallaher! Off-side as usual!', remarked, 'I didn't know I was so popular!' If he was upset after Wales punctured the team's unbeaten record it didn't show. It had been, he said, 'a rattling good game, played out to the bitter end, with the result that the better team won.'
As a final flourish, in California on their way home, they heavily defeated British Columbia twice. Their fitness, hard running, co-ordination and innovative moves, such as skip passing and switch plays, produced rugby of a class which had not been seen before. The team was welcomed home in triumph. Along the way New Zealanders had found a new pride in themselves and a place on the sporting map.
Quiet and unassuming always, Dave Gallaher remained all his working life in the employment of the Auckland Farmers' Freezing Company, where he became a foreman. He married Ellen Ivy May Francis, the sister of a fellow All Black, at Auckland on 10 October 1906. They had one daughter in 1908, who remembered her father as 'a jolly man'. Gallaher's last game of rugby was unplanned. As selector-coach of an injury-beset Auckland team in 1909, he turned out against Marlborough at Blenheim; Marlborough won 8–3. He became a national selector and his services for over a decade as Auckland coach and selector are marked still by the Gallaher Shield, awarded to the best club side in the city.
When war came in 1914 Gallaher was well past 40, but when a younger brother was killed in action he enlisted. In February 1917 he sailed again for Europe and in June became sergeant in the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. In the attack on Gravenstafel Spur in the mud of Flanders on 4 October 1917, David Gallaher was shot in the face. He died later that day at No 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station, aged almost 44, survived by his wife and child. He is buried at Nine Elms cemetery, Poperinge, where his regulation gravestone bears the silver fern – and gives his age as 41.