'Battle for World Rugby Supremacy'
July 16, 2010
The New Zealand squad that battled for 'World Rugby Supremacy' in 1921 © PA Photos
Rule nothing out. Never say never. Nothing is impossible.
The wary sports journalist learns rapidly that it is unwise to give hostages to fortune. The confidently proclaimed impossibility too readily becomes reality, the written-off contender a triumphant winner. Still, it would be a surprise to dwarf the New Zealand football team's recent achievement in finishing ahead of reigning champions Italy in their FIFA World Cup group should the All Blacks - Springboks match in Wellington this weekend produce exactly the same scoreline as their first ever meeting in the city, in 1921.
The match, played at the old Athletic Park, a venue apparently configured to catch every breath of wind in that incomparably blowy city, was hugely anticipated. It was the third and final Test of the first ever series between the two teams who have dominated most of the game's history since, proclaimed the 'Battle for World Rugby Supremacy' in the local press. The series was poised at 1-1 after the Boks' 9-5 win in Auckland, sealed by a spectacular drop-goal (then worth four points) from veteran fullback Gerhard Morkel, equalised the All Blacks' 13-5 opening victory in Dunedin, a triumph topped off by an 85 yard solo try by wing Tony Steel, who took a loose pass behind his back and had not only to hold off his Springbok pursuers, but adjust the ball to a more convenient position without infringing the stringent knock-on regulations of the time, an operation that took him almost until he reached the opposing line.
The All Black selectors made several changes, axing captain George Aitken - who was to resurface in international rugby as a member of the all-Oxford all-conquering Scottish threequarter line of the mid 1920s - and naming four new caps, three in the backs. The Boks also made a number of changes including a recall for forward Frank Mellish, who had been playing for England only a few months earlier.
The weather, good for the previous couple of weeks, took a fatal turn in the run-up to the match. South African hooker Tokkie Scholtz, one of those dropped, remembered that it started pouring a couple of days before. New Zealand sources reckon that it was the night before.
What all agree is that it led to the match being played in foul conditions. Scholtz recalled the pitch being "like a lake, with an occasional patch of mud showing like raisins in a Christmas pudding". The result, he remembered was that "play soon developed into a kick and rush with handling well-nigh impossible."
After each team had offered a ceremonial challenge - the All Black haka a response to the 'Zulu war cry' practised by this group of Springboks - the visitors had the better of the first half. Front rower Phil Mostert dived over the All Black line, but was unable to hold on to the ball. Gerhard Morkel struck the post with a penalty.
After the break the All Blacks took control with back row forward Moke Belliss playing brilliantly. Steel fell as he ran for the line. New Zealand's other wing, Keith Siddells, looked set to mark his debut with a try as he dribbled through, but was thwarted when the ball stuck in a patch of water. The All Blacks' brilliant teenage second five Mark Nicholls broke with Steel unmarked outside him, but went for the line himself and was tackled. Scholtz remembered that it seemed impossible that the Boks could hold out in the last 10 minutes, but survive they did - with the 33-year-old Morkel faultless under pressure - for a 0-0 draw that left the series tied.
New Zealand journalist Terry McLean recalled years later that referee Albert Nielsen became crusty with age, but always remembered this match as "a wonderful, surging, thrilling struggle by men of limitless pride and courage".
While postponing the issue of who was truly world champion, it left other marks on history. This was the only time in 224 home Tests spread across 106 years that the All Blacks have failed to score. It has happened only eight times in their total of 462 Tests across the world, and not at all since 1964, when they played in their second 0-0 draw - and the last between established rugby nations - at Murrayfield.
It was also the end of international rugby for the majority of the players. Neither team would play again until 1924 - when the Boks entertained the Lions before the All Blacks toured Britain and France. For each of the four All Black debutants, it was their last as well as first Test. None can have felt more frustrated than Karl Ifwersen, a giant of the era when Auckland played under separate rules limiting touch-kicking, recently reinstated to rugby union after playing international league either side of the First World War. McLean recalled him as "a tactical genius", but conditions in these 80 minutes might have been designed to negate his talents. Only three of the All Blacks played international rugby again, with Nicholls surviving to tour South Africa as vice-captain in 1928, although he played only the last Test following a falling-out with captain Maurice Brownlie
The Boks proved a little more durable. Six of them, including five forwards, faced the Lions in 1924, by which time Mostert was captain. He was still around, although no longer captain, when the Boks went to Britain in 1932, playing every Test to finish with a then-record 14 Springbok caps. For another forward, Tank van Rooyen, the Wellington deluge concluded a two-Test international career, but was certainly not his final big occasion. A decade later, aged 37, he played for Widnes at Wembley in their first ever Rugby League Challenge Cup victory - the single outsider alongside 12 men who were natives of the Cheshire chemical town.
The match also inaugurated a tradition that Wellington produced something different on Springbok tours. They lost there in 1937, but won the series, before winning on their way to the widely-remembered series defeat in 1956. The first visit to the new Westpac Stadium in 2002 produced a different sort of reversal with visiting South Africa pressmen, used to intense scrutiny of racial issues in their own game, visibly amused when a column by former All Black Chris Laidlaw sparked a row about the ethnic composition of All Black teams. Their successors of 2010 would happily settle for an on-field reversal, as they seek a comeback from last week's resounding defeat in Auckland.