The East Terrace 2005 Book of the Year
Our 2005 Book of the Year
The 1905 Originals
Published by HarperSports
By Bob Howitt and Dianne Haworth
The eye feasted while the heart hungered. The sense of exultation produced by the brilliant intricacies of the New Zealand attack found no audible vent. The people sat numb with admiration. They could not even cheer. Mere applause had been an absurd anti-climax. As well might one clap hands at the rapidity of the flash of lightning or the power of the roll of thunder.
The Daily Express on the New Zealand victory over Oxford University – November 1905
Even those with only a passing acquaintance with rugby’s history have probably heard some tales of the New Zealand rugby team that visited Europe and America at the start of the twentieth century. Indeed, much of the pre-tour media coverage of their 2005 descendants focused on the deeds and escapades of the ‘Originals’. Both the NZRFU and their principal sponsors Adidas made a point of drawing on the myth and legend of those pioneering tourists in their marketing of the tour.
The immortal ‘Dean’s incident’ in the famous clash with Wales – the only defeat inflicted on the All Blacks during the entire thirty-five match tour – is the most well known and often told tale of the expedition. But there are hundreds of moments that a genuine rugby fan will find worth treasuring about those ‘Originals’ if only they ever discover them. But quality books detailing that 1905 tour – in the Northern Hemisphere at least – are surprisingly rare. Any rugby fan that has an interest that stretches beyond eighty minutes of action and a pint of beer on the weekend owes it to themselves to dip into this title by Bob Howitt and Dianne Haworth.
The book begins with reproductions of the minutes of a 1902 special general meeting of the NZRFU; the minutes outline the union’s tentative – and brave - plans to make a tour of the ‘Home’ country. It finishes with newspaper reports of the rapturous return to Auckland by the New Zealand players, greeted by the prime minister and thousands of proud fans. In between, the story of the seven-month tour and the thirty-five matches is told by contemporary match reports and excerpts from the diaries of manager George Dixon and hat-wearing fullback Billy Wallace.
The book’s format is well judged, each game getting four pages (the internationals receive a few more) of illustrations, statistics, match reports and observations from Wallace and Dixon. There are also sprinklings of anecdotes from other players and samples of postcards and letters home from players.
1905 Originals is a fascinating insight into a world that seems both within touching distance and, at the same time, another reality altogether. The most remarkable feature for the modern reader is how, in essence at least, so little has changed in the past century on the rugby field. The inaugural All blacks were praised for their high fitness levels, their unique ball skills, the way in which forwards could interchange with backs and the manner in which they pushed the interpretation of the game’s laws to the very edge. All of which have parallels in today’s All Black culture. But the most surprising link with the modern era is that the 1905 team apparel was alleged to give them an advantage over opposing teams:
‘…the leather ‘yoke’ on the jersey… not only prevents the garment from tearing but also renders it difficult for an opponent to grip his man…’
Jersey innovation from the All Blacks has been commonplace since the 1990s -with all manner of revolutionary skin-tight designs and breathable, ventilated jerseys – but most readers will be surprised to see it started over ninety years before.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of changes in the world, it is remarkable the impact the tour seems to have had socially and the differences in the society of the time. Sport writers are often guilty of overstating the social importance of sport, but it seems that the wider ramifications of this tour have, if anything, been understated, certainly in the UK. As the reader picks through the match reports and newspaper columns – written in what now seems quaint and flowery Queen’s English – it is clear that that New Zealand as a country was seen by most British and European inhabitants as a small island off Australia (if they were even aware of its existence at all). There seems no doubt that the 1905 All Blacks raised the profile of New Zealand and gave it a ‘face’ for the world. So much so that the government of New Zealand paid for the team to return via North America so as to capitalise on the publicity and fame the team were bringing their land. The strong, athletic and decent rugby men were held up as virtuous examples of the benefits of the fresh air and green spaces of New Zealand. There were even adverts placed in some match programmes to try and tempt some of those watching the rugby to come and try their luck in the young country.
It is also absorbing to read the language employed at the time in reference to the natives of New Zealand. With the British Empire still a significant force in the world, the New Zealanders are ‘colonials’ and England is referred often to as ‘Home’. This is a phrase seemingly happily used by the New Zealanders themselves, rather than a derogatory one. It is interesting to read that some in Britain clearly felt shame at the scale of the All Black’s victories. It was seen by some as akin to being beaten at the game it invented by its own ‘children’.
On the subject of family, the book helps to put a human face on the legendary 1905 All Blacks. Many of the touring party were to meet with their relatives whilst on the trip and it is one of the book’s most poignant moments when one reads George Dixon’s diary entry for 16th January, 1906:
‘Stayed in with Mother all morning and after dinner started for the station. The poor old mater didn’t like me leaving at all nor did I like leaving her – in all human probability never to see her again.’
We live in an age where international teams regularly fly half way across the world to play a solitary fixture and perhaps we too easily forget the fact that these early tours encompassed a trek of several months just to arrive and return home. The world was a much larger place back then.
Similarly, in those days before air-travel, mass communication and television highlight reels, deeds of the greatest sportsmen could only be witnessed first hand by attending a game. It is intriguing to read the effect this state of affairs had on people:
‘Special trains were rushing into Gloucester, bringing crowds of people from Wales and all the surrounding country for miles around. The Great Western Railways workshops were closed for the afternoon – an event that had never happened before. Every shop and factory was closed at midday and the employees poured out in streams to see the match’
Billy Wallace on the 44-0 victory over Gloucester.
The attraction of the All Blacks was so great that soccer fans and rugby league fans are reported to have turned out by the thousand to witness these supreme sportsmen take the field. Even more amazing was the reaction by many of the citizens of Limerick, noted by manager George Dixon, when the team played Munster:
‘A great crowd of people accompanied us to the ground, cheering, but apparently did not possess the small amount necessary to gain admittance. They waited outside and escorted us back to town again!’
The authors - Howitt and Haworth - have to be praised for allowing the rich archive material to tell this fascinating story and for avoiding the temptation to interpret events themselves or put them into a wider historical context. Such things have been done elsewhere in countless books, columns, television shows and modern day sport pages. By allowing the source material to tell all, the reader can get a genuine sense of the sheer scale of wonderment the achievements of the 1905 ‘Originals’ produced in those who witnessed them first-hand. Furthermore, by not adding their own thoughts on the matters of the day, the reader can use their own frames of references to determine what the knock on effects of the tour was on the game of rugby and the country of New Zealand.
The strength in telling the story of the tour through source material is that the imaginative reader – despite knowing the outcome of the expedition – is drawn into the feeling of excitement and wonder that is being felt by those who penned those newspaper columns and attended the games. The fact that we will never see the games these All Blacks played means we have to cling to every word written by those who were there to see the deeds of Dave Gallaher, Jimmy Hunter, Billy Wallace and Bill Cunningham. We have to try and decide whom to believe, what to dismiss as hyperbole, bias or poetic licence and what to take as gospel. It gives the reader a buzz that can never be felt when reading of modern tours like the 2005 Lions. We can still watch each match from that series in wide-screen, slow-motion action replay and then read the accompanying book by Gavin Henson or Brian O’Driscoll to fill in the few bits we missed out first time round. The 1905 ‘Originals’ tour is rugby’s equivalent of folklore and myth, our Iliad or Mabinogion. We are all the richer for the fact we can only read of the player’s exploits and not watch them ourselves.
Rugby is a game with a rich heritage and it is wonderful to finally see a book that allows the heritage to speak for itself.