The son of a First World War rugby star who played in the famous Trench Blacks match in war-weary France a century ago today hopes its trophy will now be returned to the Defence Force.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) team had a brief respite from the fierce fighting on the Western Front to play a French selection before Easter in 1917.

Played at Parc Jaques Anquetal at the Vincennes velodrome in central Paris in front of a record-breaking crowd of 60,000 spectators, the Trench Blacks thumped the home side 40-0.

Both sides were fresh from the trenches, war correspondent Malcolm Ross noted in his report. Some French players had even taken part in air raids the day before.

Advertisement

"Our men ... had to bow to world champions," local newspaper L'Image reported.

"The result of 40-0 was nevertheless honourable and was proclaimed in a storm of cheers and a burst of fraternal esteem."

A piece by noted sculptor Georges Chauvel was presented to New Zealand captain, Aucklander George Murray and New Zealand Division Major General Sir Andrew Russell.

The unusual trophy depicted a French soldier in the act of throwing a grenade and was formally called Le Lanceur de Grenades, but the New Zealanders and French dubbed it the Coupe de Somme, or Somme Cup.

In 2015, the Herald reported that the New Zealand Defence Force had failed in subsequent years to find the trophy, which is called "not only as a significant military trophy but also as a key historical New Zealand sporting award".

The article led to the rediscovery of the statuette with the owner coming forward and loaning it to the National Army Museum at Waiouru.

It then spent a period travelling with the First World War exhibition, "Balls, Bullets and Boots" created by Stephen Berg, director of the Palmerston North Rugby Museum.

However, the owner wished to remain anonymous and refused to reveal details of where the cup has been for the past 100 years.

The son of Maori All Black Tom French, who played for the original Somme Cup and was badly wounded a few months later during the disastrous Battle of Passchendaele, hopes it will be returned to the NZDF.

The New Zealanders and French dubbed the trophy the Coupe de Somme, or Somme Cup. Photo / Supplied
The New Zealanders and French dubbed the trophy the Coupe de Somme, or Somme Cup. Photo / Supplied

"The Somme Cup carries the symbolism and the history of New Zealand - French encounters and should be played for today by the two nations," says Karl French, who at age 54 thinks he's "probably the youngest son" of a New Zealand First World War soldier.

The match was a pinnacle for Tom French, a Buller rugby legend.

A six-foot tall, rugged loose forward, French was widely regarded to have been unlucky not have been made an All Black before the outbreak of the Great War.

Having been a Maori All Black, he was overlooked for the national side in 1913.

Auckland and New Zealand selector Dave Gallaher, legendary captain of the 1905 "Originals", had seen French play and invited him to move from the tiny Buller association to the powerhouse of Auckland.

French worked alongside Irish-born Gallaher at King's Wharf for Auckland Farmers' Freezing Company until they went off to war.

They would meet again, this time on the Western Front battlefields in 1916.

Both Gallaher and his protege French fought during the battle that would become known as New Zealand's "darkest hour".

On October 4, 1917 at Passchendaele, in the battle of Broodsiende, both men went "over the top".

During a lull in the fighting, between two waves of assault, French spotted some bread apparently left behind by the retreating Germans.

"They were always hungry," Karl French says.

"The story was that Dad had seen this bread and he wasn't sure if he was sniped, booby trapped or caught shrapnel, but he received a wound to his left elbow. His war record refers to a shrapnel wound - there were probably shells going off left right and centre."

Soon after, his great friend and mentor Gallaher - then aged nearly 44 - was mortally wounded in the face. He would be the oldest and most illustrious All Black casualty of the war.

French had his arm amputated at the elbow and was moved to England for more treatment. His arm was again amputated, this time at the shoulder.

The Tom French Cup, named in his honour, is awarded by the New Zealand Rugby Union to the Maori player of the year.

In September 2015, the NZDF rugby team, the Defence Blacks, played a commemorative match against a French team in Paris.

Karl French says the 1917 match was the "epitome of my father's rugby playing career".

"That game is actually regarded as an international, because the New Zealand players there were literally the best players not yet shot dead," he said.

"I guess the family who managed to borrow it for a hundred years has sentimental attachment to it but it would be great if all games between the two nations now compete for the cup."