'A model of skill to guide rugby into the future'
Huw Richards
December 17, 2013
The 1888-89 New Zealand Native Football Team © ESPNscrum

December 19 marks a notable, if none too happy, anniversary for Welsh rugby. It will then be 60 years since Wales last beat the All Blacks, a 13-8 victory secured when winger Ken Jones beat opposite number Ron Jarden to a cross-kick from Clem Thomas. Only seven men now remain from the 30 who played that day - All Blacks Keith Davis, Bill McCaw, Kevin Skinner and John Tanner along with the Welsh trio of Gareth Griffiths, John Gwilliam and Courtenay Meredith.

Yet even had the scheduling of that All Black tour been slightly different - perhaps despatching Bob Stuart's team for their day of destiny at the Arms Park a Saturday sooner, on December 12, the day on which in reality they drew 6-6 with Swansea - December 19 would still be a hugely important date in the rugby relationship between Wales and New Zealand.

Standard history has tended to date that intense, if of late one-sided, relationship to 1905 and the game's first de facto world title contest. But for the start you have to go back further, to 1888. And by happy coincidence the men of 1953 met 65 years to the day after Welshmen and New Zealanders had first confronted each other on a rugby field, the clash between Llanelli and New Zealand Natives at Stradey Park on December 19 1888.

If the 1905 All Blacks have come down to us as 'The Originals' and those of 1924 as the 'Invincibles', the 1888 New Zealand Natives were, as their chronicler Greg Ryan has labelled them, the 'Forerunners'.

A squad of 26 players, including five Warbrick brothers and a trio of Wynyards, they made every subsequent touring team look like slackers. Away for 14 months they played a total of 107 matches - plus at least eight games of Australian rules - with their time in Britain topped and tailed by visits to Australia and an internal tour of New Zealand.

The offer was an echo of the Aborigine Cricket team of 1868, who toured England a good decade before an official Australian team. Like the Aborigines they were a commercial rather than official venture - and promoted to some extent as primitive exotics.

New Zealand Native Football Team's Thomas Ellison, Middlesex, London, January 1, 1888
Tom Ellison - the first man to perform a pre-match Haka © ESPNscrum

It was, after all, less than 20 years since the Maori chieftain Titokowaru had seriously threatened to sweep British rule from the North Island. New Zealand itself was an evolving political entity, debating the pros and cons of joining Australia - an option it would ultimately reject in 1901 - and the New Zealand Rugby Union had yet to be founded.

But just as the, to European eyes, primitive appearance of Titokowaru's troops had concealed smart and sophisticated military operators, the Natives team was a serious challenge to the best opposition Britain had to offer.

The team's name was a clue to a shift in composition. Originally intended as Maori-only, they incorporated five white pakeha along with, on Ryan's reckoning, five pure Maoris, 14 of mixed descent and two players whose parentage is uncertain. Six had attended Te Aute College, an elite Maori institution with strong echoes of English public schools.

Landing at Tilbury on August 27 1888, they were in action within a week, playing Surrey at Richmond. On taking the field they were, as Ryan records, the first New Zealand team to wear all-black - a member of the team, Tom Ellison, was later responsible for their becoming the official national colours - and the first to perform a pre-match haka. They initiated another tradition by winning 4-1 - a goal and a try to a try under 1888 scoring values. When they beat Kent by similar score a week later, the local press accepted that the exotics were 'a far stronger team than they were supposed to be'.

Their trip had initially been scheduled to incorporate 52 matches - roughly two a week - in a six month stay in Britain. But as the promoters accepted fresh challenges, this grew to 74. Most of the extra matches were in the North of England - which offered bigger crowds and, in the days before the rugby league schism of 1895 - stronger opposition.

Ryan points out that the Natives differed from their successors of 1905 and 1924 in 'facing the full strength of British rugby', before the division of 1895 diluted its strength. They also encountered some of the tensions which led to that break-up, receiving a generally warm welcome in the North, but complaints of rough play and veiled professionalism after games in London and the Home Counties.

The endless, exhausting schedule incorporated crazy spells such as the eight matches played in 13 days between November 22 and December 5. This included a trip across the Irish Sea for the first international and a 13-4 defeat of Ireland, setting a pattern which has endured to this day.

There were a further Irish Sea crossing, five more matches and a railway journey from Wigan before they arrived in Llanelli in the early hours of Wednesday December 19. Taken to a hotel for a few hours of rest, they arrived to find the local press in a ferment because of the 'insult' of the selection of a Welsh national team including only one player from Llanelli - neither the first, nor the last time, the Llanelli press would be in uproar over national slights.

The match was reported by the Llanelli and County Guardian as 'a hard game, but no very rough play was indulged in'. The visiting pack controlled the scrums and were 'amazingly swift of foot', while in the second half they 'passed with great dexterity and often forced the game'.

"They all seem to have tumbled into a groove and stuck there. They were generally big strong players, but they never struck me as clever players"

But they were undone by a single moment of brilliance by Llanelli's Welsh international half-back Harry Bowen. John Gwilliam, one of those men of 1953, has recalled a great-uncle who played for Llanelli in the 1880s telling him how Bowen would rush his lunch at work in order to grab time for practising his skills, in particular drop-kicking. This was one of the occasions on which those hours of practice paid off, as during the first half he 'secured possession at halfway and landed a most magnificent goal'. The three points this merited under 1888 scoring values were the only score of the match.

Tour promoter Thomas Eyton recorded that: "Llanelli were jubilant, and treated us with the utmost hospitality, hoping to see us again, which we usually found was the expression when victory rested with our opponents."

Not that the post-match celebrations were prolonged, for the visitors at least. By the evening they were back at Llanelli station, where 'a large crowd saw them off, and sang "Hen Wlad fy Nhadau". That train presumably took them to Swansea, where they were to lose 5-0 to Wales on the following Saturday before beating the All Whites 5-0 two days later, on Christmas Eve.

After that came a Boxing Day visit to Newport, where they won 3-0 and a 4-1 defeat by Cardiff on the 29th, a total of five matches in the space of 11 days - one of which was Christmas. The same unrelenting routine would follow through to the end of March, with 38 more matches. The remarkable statistic, given the sheer physical toll taken by this schedule, particularly since the stronger players among the 26 were required to play far more frequently, was that their results improved. They had lost 11 of their 36 matches up to the end of their spell in Wales, but were defeated only nine times in 38 contests in 1889. This included defeats by Oxford and Cambridge universities - no disgrace in the 1880s - and a 7-0 defeat by England with serious repercussions.

England, in isolation because of a dispute over the composition of the newly-created International Rugby Board - were playing their only match in either 1888 or 1889. The match, at Blackheath, was refereed by Rowland Hill, secretary of the RFU, who awarded two first-half tries to England which the tourists felt should have been disallowed.

The flash point came in the second half when the Natives players gathered around England centre Andrew Stoddart to protect his modesty while he changed his shorts. During the hiatus England forward Frank Evershed grabbed the ball, crossed the line and touched down. Hill gave the try. Three Natives players walked off in protest, and were only persuaded to return when Hill continued without them.

The 1888-89 New Zealand Native Football Team, Middlesex, London, January 1, 1888
© ESPNscrum

The incident marked a definite breach with English officialdom. The tourists offered two apologies and played on for another six weeks - almost entirely in the North - and left unacknowledged by the RFU. Ryan has suggested that New Zealand embarrassment at the complaints against the team was, in a subsequent era when deference to London and its directives was an ingrained national habit, one reason why this team has had considerably less than its retrospective due.

But in introducing the tradition of touring, all black kit, the haka and, in Ryan's words "a model of skill to guide New Zealand rugby into the future," they were worthy forerunners to the greatest of their All Black successors.

There was more than a hint of the future in Ellison's critique of British play: "I never played against a team which made a radical change of tactics during the course of a game. They all seem to have tumbled into a groove and stuck there. They were generally big strong players, but they never struck me as clever players." Nor did Ellison, soon to be the first Maori admitted to the legal profession, confine his observations to the rugby field, reckoning that 'as a place of amusement England is, I should say, the rich man's paradise and the poor man's Hades.'

There was one further tradition. As Ryan says of the Llanelli game, they 'set a familiar pattern for later New Zealand rugby visitors by losing to the Welsh.' This is certainly so insofar as, with the exception of Obolensky's match, the All Blacks would not lose anywhere in the British Isles but Wales before 1972. But in the light of the past 60 years, Harry Bowen's drop goal has been more than adequately avenged.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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