Rewind to ... 1924
The Invincibles' sweetest victory
Huw Richards
December 5, 2014
The touring All Blacks of 1924, pictured at Newton Abbott © Getty Images

A first win over any international opponent is something to be cherished - just ask those Scots and Irishmen who have been waiting 109 years to beat the All Blacks.

New Zealand, by contrast, rarely have to wait. Their first win over every major opponent came in their first meeting, with one exception.

And then, international rugby being much less frequent in the first half of the 20th century than it is now, they had to wait 19 years for another go. That second chance came 90 years ago last weekend, on November 29, 1924, when they played Wales - their sole conquerors of 1905 - at St Helen's ground, Swansea.

The 1920s were a strange time for the All Blacks. Australia, their most frequent opponents, were rebuilding after the shutdown for World War One. The Australian teams which played New Zealand under the guise of 'New South Wales' have been granted retrospective Test status on the grounds that with Queensland hors de combat, they were a fully representative Australian team. New Zealand has not done the same for its teams, so the four internationals played by the 1924 tourists were the only Tests between the first Springbok visit in 1921 and the All Blacks return trip in 1928.

The 1924 team travelled with relatively limited expectation - seen in some quarters as a pale imitation of the 'Originals' of 1905. One of the 1905 team, George Tyler, dismissed them as 'the weakest team ever to leave New Zealand'. There was even a political intervention, deputy Premier Gordon Coates urging a change in the squad which was firmly rebuffed by selector Norm Mackenzie.

And they appear not to have been the happiest team in All Black history. Captain Cliff Porter was at odds with the management and, in spite of recovering from an early injury, played only one of the four Tests. Lock Maurice Brownlie - the Colin Meads of his era - and brilliant five-eighth Mark Nicholls formed a mutual dislike which had repercussions when they were captain and vice-captain in South Africa four years later.

They were also wedded to the distinctive New Zealand playing formation, with a seven-man pack plus a 'rover' detached as an extra half-back. The 'rover' was a living outrage to the home nations, who regarded him as an unashamed obstructionist, while a seven-man scrum inevitably gave away weight to the eight-man formations usually encountered in Britain.

Yet at least one man saw their potential early on. Teddy Morgan, scorer of the try which in 1905 had separated Wales from the 'Originals', said after seeing their fourth match, against Gloucestershire: "They are a great side and worthy successors to the 1905 side. They have youth, brawn and wonderful playing capabilities. No club side will beat them, and it will be a very fine international match which will hold them."

They had gone straight from there to their first match in Wales, at Swansea. The All Whites did become the first team to score against the All Blacks, a penalty from Wales forward Dai Parker, but this rather paled alongside the 39 points piled up by the tourists. While one reporter argued that "panic must be avoided by all costs", it was clear by the time the All Blacks returned to Swansea for the Test match that there was ample cause for concern.

Wales were not in good shape. They had won only two matches, both against France - then providing a foretaste of Italy's early Six Nations struggles - in the previous two seasons. Poor results had prompted the formation of a formal selection committee, rapidly renamed as 'The Big Five' by the Welsh media.

The All Blacks had taken their winning run to 20 matches, including a 6-0 win over Ireland in Dublin where wing 'Snowy' Svenson claimed the only try. Their accumulated points difference was 484 points against 71.

Full-back George Nepia of the All Black "Invincibles" kicks for goal during a tour match, August 1 1924.
George Nepia of 'The Invincibles' kicks for goal © Getty Images

Only one team had come close to laying a glove on them. Newport, a few days after Swansea, had led the tourists 10-8 with only 10 minutes to go, a performance inspired by their 37-year-old captain Jack Wetter, who had played his first international rugby a decade ago and won decorations for his services during World War One. Had they won, fullback Fred Baker, whose conversion from the touchline was the difference between the teams when Newport led, would have been a hero. But it was his failure to find touch which launched the decisive New Zealand assault, and his missed tackle which allowed the formidable Svenson in for the winning try.

The Wales selectors - and an All Black who remembered the 'peculiar bird-like cries' of the veteran - doubtless recalled that performance when they made Wetter captain against New Zealand. He was also given the role of 'rover' with Wales, as in 1905, aiming to beat the All Blacks with their own weaponry.

But the 1905 selection was essentially a diversionary ploy, brilliantly exploited by scrum-half Dickie Owen in the pre-planned move which led to Morgan's try. In 1924, Wales could call on no such virtuosity. It has been suggested that the Welsh selectors - committee men rather than rugby specialists - did not fully understand the position. And Wetter was in any case injured early in the match, returning bravely to the field but to so little effect that the Athletic News critic felt it would have been better if he had not.

George Nepia, the incomparable 19-year-old Maori fullback who was to play all 30 matches on tour, recalled that "for the first 25 minutes I thought, to be frank, that they had the better of us." It was clearly a tough match. One reporter reckoned that the referee Colonel Joseph Brunton (later president of the RFU) "would have been justified in sending more than one man off the field".

Yet even in the period when Nepia felt concern, New Zealand built a lead. Nicholls landed a 10th-minute penalty after an incursion by the brilliant second-five Bert Cooke, then the mountainous Brownlie bullocked his way over from 15 yards.

To lose Wetter was terrible ill-luck, but as Welsh wing Rowe Harding was to recall, it "affected merely the score and not the result." Harding reckoned that the All Blacks had two authentically great players in Nicholls and Cooke plus Nepia - "a spectacular fullback" - but identified perhaps the key element in New Zealand's perennial success when he argued that "most of our teams in this country consist of fifteen players. The All Blacks team was a machine comprising fifteen mechanical units, and had all the efficiency of smooth-running machinery."

The machinery ground Wales very small, with a try by forward Bill Irvine making it 11-0 by half-time. Further scores by Svenson and Irvine made it 19-0 at the end. Wales would not again lose as heavily until 1964, or at home until 1980, and the margin was, as Nepia wrote triumphantly "a point for every year that had passed since 1905".

Harding may have felt that Nepia's job was made easy by playing fullback for so dominant a team, but most critics hailed him as their outstanding player - Denzil Batchelor memorably describing his head as "fit for the prow of a Viking longship" while the Western Mail's Observer rhapsodised over his defensive skills: "his judgment is uncanny and his pluck magnificent".

This All Black team was to go into history as 'The Invincibles', winning every match on the tour. It is a matter of permanent regret that the petty-minded intransigence of the Scottish Rugby Union meant that they did not play perhaps Scotland's greatest ever team, a clash which might have matched the Wales match of 1905 as a contest of titans.

But you can only play the opponents you are given, and the All Blacks saw off every single one - including an extremely good England team which had a one-man advantage for the 72 minutes after Welsh referee Albert Freethy opted not to follow Colonel Brunton's discreet path, and instead gave All Black Cyril Brownlie his own form of immortality as the first player ever sent off in an international.

Nepia returned to St Helens along with the Maori touring team in 1982 and reported (pretty much correctly) that nothing had changed. Countering Cardiff's better accommodation and access with vastly better playing conditions, St Helens shared Welsh internationals with Cardiff until the early 1950s. This though was the only time the All Blacks played Wales there.

It was also the first time the All Blacks played Wales in November, a month in which their record for the fixture is now played 14, won 14. Wales, by contrast, retain a 3-2 lead in December matches, with victories recorded on the 16th, the 19th and 21st December. Perhaps, with this in mind, the WRU should go easy on autumn invitations to the All Blacks and see if they can be tempted over for a quick pre-Christmas trip. It seems unlikely, but after 26 consecutive defeats almost anything is worth trying.

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