Victor George Cavanagh was born at Caversham, Dunedin, on 19 June 1909, the only son in a family of four children of Alice Foster and her husband, Victor George Cavanagh, a cloth cutter who became manager of Ross and Glendining’s clothing factory. Victor senior was an established rugby administrator who had selected teams for Otago and New Zealand. The son learned his rugby at Kensington School while the father coached the Southern Rugby Football Club to championship honours. In 1923, when young Vic was a dashing hooker and promising cricketer at Otago Boys’ High School, his father began coaching Otago University to a decade of legendary success.
In 1926, perhaps influenced by his mother’s family links with the printing industry, Cavanagh joined the Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspaper Company’s commercial printing department as a compositor. He became a printing estimator at the Wellington branch of Whitcombe and Tombs in 1937, and on 27 December that year married Constance Sarah Elizabeth (Bessie) Jones in Dunedin. In 1938 he returned south to manage the Evening Star Company’s commercial printing department. Vigorous, capable and hard-working, Cavanagh returned from war service (as a driver with the 3rd New Zealand Division in the Pacific) to become the firm’s production manager, and then, in 1950, general manager and director.
Cavanagh had little sympathy for journalists, with their erratic work habits and white-collar pretensions. His no-nonsense abilities took him on to the boards of associated companies, and he became a major voice in the New Zealand newspaper industry. Though unable to prevent the Evening Star from sharing the general fate of evening papers after the arrival of television, he initiated (as chairman of directors from 1974) an astute merger with the stronger Otago Daily Times , heading the new Allied Press until 1976.
In sport Cavanagh matured first as a cricketer, making his début for Otago as a middle-order batsman in 1927 at the age of 18. In 27 first-class matches he scored nearly 1,300 runs at an average of 24. He shared in Otago’s rare Plunket Shield win in 1932–33, and was once named 12th man for New Zealand.
His rugby-playing career was brief. He played only seven games as wing forward for Otago in 1931 before injury ended his representative career, but in 1934 he was persuaded to coach the Southern Rugby Football Club’s senior team. The two Cavanaghs, both highly articulate, sharing the same breakfast table and a feisty northern Irish heritage, maintained an ongoing rivalry in which rugby discussions sometimes took on a sharp edge. Blessed with a fine memory and studying every rugby book in the Dunedin Public Library, young Vic set out to challenge his father’s coaching supremacy.
As ‘Professor of Football’ to the University, in 1929 old Vic had developed his famous ‘loose scrum’ technique to help lighter student forwards win ball in broken play. His son, quickly adapting to the new 3-4-1 scrum, modified this technique into what became known as the ‘Southern style’, and in 1935 spectacularly took Southern to the Dunedin club championship. Having wrested the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury, the Otago Rugby Football Union appointed the two Cavanaghs as coaches to hold it throughout 1936.
Young Vic’s move to Wellington, his marriage, new managerial responsibilities and the war then interrupted the partnership, and it was not until 1945 that the younger Cavanagh again took responsibility for Otago’s representative fortunes. Unbeaten in shield games over three seasons (1947–49), his teams outscored their opponents by 374 points to 80, despite losing 11 All Blacks to the South African tour in 1949. The forward dominance he achieved attracted carping criticism, but wiser critics noted that backs claimed 66 of the 78 tries scored during his shield tenure.
Though Cavanagh was said to have been soured by missing the 1949 All Blacks coaching appointment, he was in fact rather relieved. He disliked being away from home and was already suffering from the duodenal ulcer that troubled his later life. After almost a decade in the wilderness, and increasingly concerned by rugby’s declining popularity, Cavanagh accepted election to the Otago union’s management committee in March 1959. He immediately proposed a standard code of ethics to make the game flow more freely. Introduced in Dunedin’s lower grades that season, it was designed to assist back play by tightening offside rules and binding in the scrum. The Otago union extended the code to all grades in 1961, and although wider reaction was at first mixed, Cavanagh’s code of ethics became the basis for law changes which helped transform rugby as a spectator sport.
Cavanagh was president of the Otago union in 1966 and a life member from 1967, and his standing in Otago only increased as the years passed. But he was not a man to inspire neutrality, and was not universally well liked. Round-faced, a shade short of average height, he formulated strong views and expressed them forcefully. His players, undergraduates and farmers alike, found his tough discipline invariably accompanied by fairness, zest, sportsmanship and absolute honesty, and unreservedly admired him. However, even as a devoted parent he occasionally seemed more awesome than lovable.
He died at his Dunedin home on 20 July 1980, leaving a widow and an adult daughter and son. The annual V. G. Cavanagh Memorial Trophy matches, initiated between Southern and University in 1958 to honour his father, were subsequently transformed into a lasting memorial to the substantial accomplishments of both men.