Grand Slam history beckons latest All Blacks
October 31, 2008
All Blacks manager Russell Thomas and captain Graham Mourie arrive in the UK for their side's tour in 1978 © Getty Images
While the repercussions of adding a fourth test to autumn international tours are not always favourable - ask anyone who is concerned about Wales's fortunes and internal politics - there can be few complaints about the All Blacks playing all four home nations in turn over the next month.
The pursuit of a touring Grand Slam gives a shape and purpose to the November tests that simply can't be managed by the creation of spurious head-to-head trophies like the Prince William Cup. It would take some organising, not least because club interests would perceive the thin end of a four-weekend wedge, but there is a case for one touring team to try it each year, giving the autumn internationals a central theme.
For the All Blacks it renews an ancient quest that grew in significance as each touring team returned home with most objectives, but not that one, unaccomplished. The first seven All Black teams to visit Britain lost only four tests between them, but still contrived never to manage a clean sweep.
Three of them went down to Wales. Two fell victim to Welsh kicking - in 1935 wing Geoffrey Rees-Jones scored two almost identical tries, following up after centre Wilf Wooller had kicked ahead, chased and then been undone by the bounce, in a 13-12 win .
In 1953 Wales won 13-8 when wing Ken Jones beat opposite number Ron Jarden to what the great kiwi journalist Terry McLean reckoned 'the bounce of the century' from flanker Clem Thomas's calculated gamble of a cross-kick. Wales were reduced to 14 men in both matches - permanently in 1935 by hooker Don Tarr's broken neck, which might have killed him if referee Cyril Gadney had not insisted that he be lowered face-first on to the stretcher and for part of the second half 18 years later before centre Gareth Griffiths returned with his dislocated shoulder restored. Both teams lost to Welsh clubs - in 1935 it was Swansea and 1953 Cardiff - while the prewar team were also beaten conclusively by England in 'Obolensky's match'
More famous than either was the failure of the 'Originals' of 1905. They had beaten England, Ireland and Scotland but were undone at Cardiff by Wales's ingenious, pre-planned use of their own distinctive seven-man scrum formation. Cliff Pritchard, the Welsh 'rover' half-back was used as a decoy in a brilliantly-executed reverse move by scrum-half Dickie Owen, and ultra-quick wing Teddy Morgan scored in the corner. Robert Deans disallowed 'try' for New Zealand in the 3-0 Welsh victory is rugby's answer to Geoff Hurst's goal in the 1966 World Cup final.
Two other teams fell at the final hurdle after winning their first three. Wilson Whineray's fondly remembered team were also nilled by Scotland in the fourth test of the 1963-4 tour, with Scotland's failure to score producing the last 0-0 in test rugby. Ian Kirkpatrick's team were thwarted by the Irish in 1973, and rather closer to losing as Barry McGann's conversion of Tom Grace's try, with the score to 10-10, scraped outside the post.
Which leaves the two teams who really were unlucky, returning to New Zealand after winning every test, but denied the clean sweep for reasons beyond their control. The 'Invincibles' of 1924-5 did not play Scotland because the SRU, a spikily legalistic lot, objected to the invitation to tourists having been issued by the Rugby Football Union rather than the Home Unions as a whole. It has been suggested that their real grouch went back to 1905 when, unsure of the All Blacks drawing power, they insisted on a guarantee rather than a share of the gate and watched the tourists waltz off with both a narrow win and a sizeable profit.
Whatever the reason they denied possibly the best team in Scottish history, Grand Slam winners amid a riot of try-scoring later that season, a shot at perhaps the greatest team ever to visit the UK, a potential rival to the Wales match of 1905. Given that New Zealand beat one of the best teams in English history 17-11 at Twickenham after playing for more than an hour with 14 men after the sending off of Cyril Brownlie, you'd have to have fancied them. Too bad we'll never know.
Brian Lochore's team 42 years later were undone by more understandable, and still less controllable forces, unable to visit Ireland because of Irish government sanctions aimed at preventing the spread of that year's British foot and mouth epidemic. As a farming nation, New Zealand was disappointed but understanding.
New Zealand celebrate wrapping up the Grand Slam in 2005 © Getty Images
Members of the 1953 All Blacks regarded it as belated payback for the penalty that drew Wales level at 8-8 in their match. They went on to beat Ireland 10-6, England 16-6 and Scotland 18-9, conclusive if hardly devastating. It was just in time for New Zealand, since that was the last All Black team to play all four nations, as tours rapidly evolved into short excursions, until their successors of 2005 followed on from their demoralising demolition of that year's British Lions with four consecutive wins, England getting closest at 23-19, in the northern hemisphere. The psychological balance should be better this time round, but Richie McCaw's men will still fancy their chances of a repeat.