This is the first part of a series by Huw Richards into every British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in the lead up to the upcoming visit in June.
To ‘begin at the beginning’ is not always as easy as Dylan Thomas made it sound.
An account of the Lions history in New Zealand has a number of possible starting points. There is a reasonable argument for 1930, since that was the first time a touring party was truly the possession of all four Home Unions and organised as a joint enterprise.
But the Lions themselves acknowledge teams as far back as 1888, in much the same way that test cricket is deemed to have started in 1877, long before governing bodies were involved in the organisation of tours.
So why not 1888? That team went to New Zealand for 19 of its 35 matches — the others were in Australia — and suffered their only two defeats of the tour there, against Taranaki and Auckland. But they did not play any Test matches, not least because there was as yet no such thing as the New Zealand Rugby Union, which was finally formed in 1892.
That did not happen until 1904, which is why our series starts there. And the Lions from the start confronted issues which complicate their existence, and in some cases have persisted to this day. Not the least of their difficulties was raising a half-decent team. This was still very definitely the amateur era, and the time taken to travel to and from New Zealand in the age before air travel meant that the only players who could accept a tour invitation were those who could afford several months off work.
There had also been a tour of South Africa, a shorter trip which Lions teams had undertaken on three occasions since their pioneers had visited Australasia in 1888, only a year earlier. If one tour was a stretch for all but the most comfortably off, two with only a year in between was all but impossible. That ruled out the Scottish and Irish forwards who had formed the bulk of that party with only one, the formidable Scot David Bevell-Sivwright, who was to captain the 1904 team, making both parties.
“One might think from this that British rugby would have been a little more forewarned and forearmed about the possibilities of the 1905 All Blacks.”
The Lions’ lessons from the 1904 tour were not translated into preparation for the Originals’ arrival in 1905.
This team does not look, to modern eyes, too underpowered since it includes a number of names which still resonate. This was, as Clem and Greg Thomas’ Lions history points out, the first Lions party with serious Welsh representation — and not before time with Wales, along with the Scots, dominating the home championships. A three-quarter line with Teddy Morgan and Willie Llewellyn on the wings and Rhys Gabe at centre, served by Percy Bush and Tommy Vile at half-back, would have troubled any opposition at any time. But even here the absences are telling – the brilliant Swansea pairing of Dickie Owen and Billy Trew, neither of whom had the financial resources that would permit them to tour.
The RFU, as tour organisers, were forced to advertise for potential recruits for the tour, and ended up with a party which included five students from Guy’s Hospital including Morgan and two New Zealanders, Pat McEvedy and Arthur O’Brien (who also took on the duties of tour manager). They were particularly under-strength among the forwards, with only five of the 12 previously capped by their countries, although well equipped for any rough stuff. Bedell-Sivright was one of the toughest, nastiest players in the annals of the game, while Northampton’s Blair Swannell was also famously rough, although possibly just as much a trial to team-mates, particularly on tour, because of what the Thomas’ book refers to as ‘unusual hygiene’. Both would be First World War casualties.
They were, though, strong enough to sweep through Australia, winning all 14 matches and sweeping the three Tests by a combined margin of 50 points to 3. Llewellyn scored four tries, Bush sparkled at outside-half. Injury meant Bedell-Sivright played only one Test, and English forward Denys Dobson – later famously to be killed by a charging rhino – was sent off during the victory over Northern Districts for using foul language to the referee, leading to a 20 minute hiatus before the Lions agreed to continue without him.
New Zealand was given only five matches but proved to be a different story. The Lions scraped past Canterbury 5-3 in a fierce contest in which Bedell-Sivright was injured again, ruling him out of the rest of the tour. They then beat a combined Otago and Southland team 14-8. After this came the Test match at Athletic Park, Wellington. It was the first Test played on New Zealand soil, yet has been to some extent hidden from historical sight by the All Blacks first Test, a year earlier in Australia, and the exploits to come in Britain in 1905. Terry McLean in time came to regard it as ‘without doubt the most important result in New Zealand rugby history’, but as a younger writer did not include it in his ‘Great Days in New Zealand Rugby’.
A crowd variously estimated at 21-25,000 crammed in what one report described as ‘uncomfortable confusion’ into Athletic Park on August 13 1904 — the effort of transporting them over-stretching Wellington’s new electric trams. Bedell-Sivright, wearing a top hat, watched from a grandstand whose occupants also included New Zealand Premier Billy Seddon, first in a line of large-bodied, larger than life populists who have occupied the post, who had entertained the team at a reception on the previous Thursday.
The All Blacks included seven new caps including skipper Billy Stead at first five-eighth and dynamic forward Charlie ‘Bronco’ Seeling, destined for a great career in rugby league, but had a solid core of understanding built up on the Australian tour a year earlier. They had been training together, under the supervision of coach Jimmy Duncan, for the previous week. Other names which still resonate include loose forward (in fact an auxiliary half-back in the New Zealand formation of seven forwards and eight backs) Dave Gallaher, and the wings Billy Wallace and Duncan McGregor.
The All Blacks had the better of the first half, but kicker Wallace, usually lethally accurate, admitted to being so nervous that ‘I could not see the posts, I was shaking all over’ and missed two chances before finally landing one three minutes before half-time. From the restart a break by Morgan, captain in Bedell-Sivright’s absence, led to a penalty which London Welshman Arthur Harding landed for the tourists, making it 3-3 at the break.
At half-time the All Blacks resolved to keep it tight and rely on their forward power, with their seven men — specialists in their roles — more than holding their own against an eight which was short on quality and top-level experience as well as packing down for scrums in the order in which they arrived. Two tries by McGregor sealed their 9-3 victory, leading one New Zealand paper to editorialise that ‘Rugby is King’, a position which it has arguably retained for 113 years and counting.
The tourists went on to draw 0-0 with a composite side made up of players from Taranaki, Ranganui and Manawatu, and to be thumped 13-0 by Auckland. There was also what Gallaher and Stead, in their monumental account of the 1905 All Blacks and the system which produced them, record as ‘an informal match’ against the Maoris in Rotorua, won 8-6 by the native team, although this does not appear in other records.
One might think from this that British rugby would have been a little more forewarned and forearmed about the possibilities of the 1905 All Blacks. But Bedell-Sivright, while admitting New Zealand’s superiority on the day, told the post-tour banquet that while New Zealand would beat most British club sides they would struggle against ‘combined teams’ like Devon. Returning to Australia, where he stayed for a year, he told reporter JC Davis that the All Blacks would be ‘whipped fore and aft’ in all of their internationals and by some of the club sides. Vice-captain Teddy Morgan predicted that they would lose to Wales, England and Scotland.
History of course records what did happen. The All Blacks beat Devon 55-4 in their opening match and went undefeated except for one match, the 3-0 defeat by Wales, Morgan scoring the decisive try.
Here too is a historical echo. New Zealand’s leading modern historian James Belich made his name in the 1980s with a book which argued that one reason why the British armies of the middle of the nineteenth century found the Maoris such tough opposition was that they were incapable of conceiving they could not only be brave but capable on numerous occasions of outsmarting them.
The mindset of Victorian soldiers evidently extended to Edwardian rugby players, unable to believe that a bunch of colonials could not only play rugby as well, but more intelligently, than they did. In that failure lay the beginnings of a century-long tradition, which has long outlasted the belief, of British rugby teams losing to New Zealand.