Any lingering doubts about the place of rugby union in New Zealand were swept aside by the clamour that surrounded the All Blacks who in 1905 became the first national New Zealand rugby team to venture to the northern hemisphere.
Early international tours
This was not the first national team to leave New Zealand. The 1884 tour of New South Wales was followed by the Native team’s tour of 1888–89. The establishment of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) led to tours to Australia in 1893, 1897 and 1901. The 1893 team was the first to wear the famous black jersey with the silver fern (although until 1901 the knickerbockers were white). The first official test match was against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 15 August 1903 (New Zealand won 22–3). A year later, on 13 August 1904, the first test match in New Zealand was played at Athletic Park, Wellington. New Zealand defeated Great Britain 9–3.
Naming the All Blacks
It was once believed the All Blacks acquired their nickname on the 1905–6 tour because of a Daily Mail misprint. They were supposedly described as ‘all backs’ but the printer inserted an ‘l’ and they became the All Blacks. However, it seems the name went to Britain with the team. The morning after the first game, a newspaper referred to ‘the All Blacks, as they are styled by reason of their sable [black] and unrelieved costume’.1 In fact, ‘all blacks’ first referred to the 1889 Wellington team. The first official national team of 1893 was also called the All Blacks.
All Blacks’ tour
The tour by the 1905 All Blacks, subsequently dubbed the Originals, gained unprecedented coverage in newspapers, both in New Zealand and Britain. Premier Richard Seddon, who arranged for them to have an ‘American picnic’ on the way home as a reward, met their boat on arrival in Auckland in March 1906, and told them their names would live on in the history of football. Some players’ names do indeed live on – New Zealand and France play for a cup named for the captain, David Gallaher.
The tour was seen as a triumphal march marred only by their one loss, 3–0 to Wales. Embedded in rugby lore is the contention that Bob Deans scored a try against Wales but was pulled back across the line before the portly referee arrived. The team won 34 of their 35 matches and scored 976 points against just 59 by their opponents.
In December 1905 a Daily Mail columnist wrote that one subject possessed him ‘body, soul and spirit: the all-conquering Blacks. Every word written in the newspapers about the colonials I have devoured … I know their Christian names, surnames, nicknames, birthplaces, pedigrees etc. and every stray biographical fact … I never wear anything but black now, and all my gorgeous fancy vests and the more brilliant ties have been given away … My life, dear reader, has become a perfect misery. Why, only the other day I made a long journey in a penny ’bus to the Cottage Tearooms in the Strand in order that I might see the girl there who wears a silver fern brooch.’2
Significance of the tour
There were criticisms in Britain of the Originals’ play, especially their use of the wing forward, who was seen as an offside cheat. Some had reservations because the team did not face the strength of English rugby in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where the Rugby League had been formed 10 years earlier.
Nevertheless, there was praise for the players’ sporting success and their demeanour off the field, and acknowledgement of what they had achieved in New Zealand’s name. British commentators saw the All Blacks’ success as evidence of the virile strength of the colonies, and the Auckland Observer noted: ‘Their tour and its splendid achievements have not only added to the prestige of New Zealand football … but have also advertised the country in a way that a score of immigrant agents and half-a-dozen Tourist Departments could not have done.’3