Last night, having taken my eldest son out trick or treating my parents (his grandparents) came over to give him some additional sweets and my dad and I (as we usually do) got to talking about sport. With the Rugby World Cup Final on Saturday, it was only natural that we started there and my Dad then produced a factoid in regards the 3rd place playoff match that takes later today. "Wales", he said, "have not beaten the All Blacks since the year I was born, 1953". To which I responded, "Was that before or after you were born?". We Googled it and discovered that he was 9 months old the last time Wales overcame New Zealand in a Rugby Union Match.
However, this became just the tip of the iceberg as far as our fact-finding quest went as I was soon left looking at the list of all Test Matches played between the 2 rugby-mad nations of the world. While Wales have had a pretty rough time of it these past 66 years they actually managed to win 3 out of their first 4 encounters with The All Blacks. There was 1 game in particular, a 3-0 victory in 1905 (the first time the sides met) that really stood out as much as anything because it was such a low scoring affair. So, I continued down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia to see what else I could learn.....
The 1905 "Originals" Tour
The All Blacks were the first team from Australasia to tour the Northern Hemisphere. While that in itself is a remarkable feat, you also have to consider that this was far in advance of the days of commercial flight, meaning this All Blacks team would have spent months travelling to Europe and then onto North America and back again with the schedule seeing them play 35 matches over a 5 month period. For a group of amateur players to take the best part of a year out of their lives to travel halfway around the world on a cultural and sporting exchange is a beautiful thing to learn about especially when held against the cold often soulless light of modern professional athletics where many of our stars won't get out of bed for less than 6 figures a week.
While the tour might not have had much commercial value, it certainly had incredible worth in regards to the development of the game in the British Isles. Even over a century ago, the relatively small and under-populated islands of New Zealand were leading the way in world rugby. The All Blacks brought the following developments with them on their travels
Total Rugby - British newspapers at the time were thrilled by the way the All Blacks played the game with all players expected to and capable of joining attacks. The role for example of the full-back in the New Zealand team was entirely different from that of any of the home nations who would generally ensure that their back most player never crossed the half-way line. By comparison, the All Blacks full-back was always popping up as the extra man in attack, overloading opposition defences and setting a blueprint for the way every team around the world looks to play these days.
Specific Forward Roles - Again, much like the modern game, every man in the All Black forward line had a set role and more than that they also had a pre-determined position within the scrum. Amazingly, up until that point, sides in the Northern Hemisphere didn't require their forwards to have a set position in the scrum, it was very much a case of whoever got to the mark first would set up the front row and the others would join behind!
Fitness and professionalism - Matches in New Zealand at the time were played for 90mins compared to Europe where games lasted just 70mins. The added fitness this provided ensured that the All Blacks could outlast the opposition. Beyond just aerobic endurance, the All Blacks also trained using set-plays and practised set pieces like the scrum and line-out to ensure maximum impact during matches.
The above all demonstrate just how far ahead of their Northern Hemisphere rivals the All Blacks were at the time and it would appear that we've been left playing catch-up ever since. This resulted in the All-Blacks winning 34 out of the 35 games they played on the tour, with the only blotch on their record being...
Wales defeat the All-Blacks 3-0, Cardiff, 1905
Without going into too much detail, it sounds like the All Blacks had a bit of an off-day in this fixture but as an England fan I can attest to the fact that plenty of our sides don't do well when they cross the Severn Bridge and throughout history Englishman have wandered into the valleys of South Wales never to be seen again!
The game started in what now is a familiar fashion with the All Blacks performing the Haka in front of 47,000 enraptured fans. In the days before TV or Youtube, I can only imagine what a treat this must have been to see first hand and reports state that the home fans applauded vigorously the conclusion of the traditional war challenge. We have seen controversy recently in the way that England approached the All-Blacks Haka but even back in 1905 the Welsh were thinking of how to create a psychological edge and gain some early momentum - their response? To sing the national anthem!
While by modern standards that is completely unsurprising, at the time it was completely unheard of and most sports historians believe this to be the first example of a national anthem being sung before an international sporting contest. Of course, anyone who knows anything about the passion of the Welsh people particularly for the sport of Rugby and their love of music particularly singing can imagine that they would have done this defining moment in history proud.
The match saw controversy around the officials and decision making (some things never change). In the build-up, the 2 sides could not agree to who would officiate the game with Scotsman John Dallas finally being brought in as a "neutral" referee. However, that neutrality didn't seem to last long with New Zealand accusing the ref of ending the first half 3 mins early during a period of All Blacks possession deep inside the Welsh half. The 2nd-half then saw New Zealand believe that they had levelled the game by scoring in the corner but for the referee to deem that the ball was grounded short of the line and instead award Wales a 5m scrum - no TMO back in those days...
The match finished 3-0 thanks to a solitary try by Welsh back Morgan (tries were only worth 3 points back then) and while on paper it might look like a bit of a snooze fest reports suggest this was something of an epic between arguably the 2 most passionate rugby playing nations on the planet - can we hope for something similar in a couple of hours time?