'A flanker with true devilry'
August 6, 2013
Wellington Provincial side of 1908 - Back row: (from left): A (Ranji) Wilson, D Rush, H Evensen, K O'Brien, H E Wilson, H Dewar, F Trezise, G Hamilton; Middle row: G F Mackellar, W J Hardham, F Roberts (capt), Mr J Murray (manager), J Magee, W Alexander, J Ryan; Front row: M Ryan, H McLeod, G Green, F Mitchinson ©
It is 60 years this month since the death, on August 11, 1953, of Nathaniel Arthur 'Ranji' Wilson, who was one of the best forwards in the world a century ago, but whose main importance lies in being the central figure in one of the key moments in New Zealand's rugby history.
A back row forward of English and West Indian parentage who owed his nickname to an alleged resemblance to cricketer K.S.Ranjitsinhji, Wilson cut a vivid figure on the field. Terry McLean, who was not quite old enough to have seen Wilson himself but had plenty of opportunities to talk to those who had, wrote that he 'played flanker with true devilry, fixing opposing inside backs with so menacing an eye that many, after a taste or two of his tackles, seemed to lose balance and stumble before they reached the ball. The Laws then permitted forwards to go up into the line-out, and 'Ranji' did this with positive glee ; and because he was as hard as nails, the opposing line tended to bend the moment he made contact".
This Christchurch-born force of nature made his debut as a 20-year-old for Wellington's B team in 1906 and made such an impact that he was picked to play in the North v South Island game - the biggest of the season in years when the All Blacks had no matches, the following season.
Within a further year he had graduated to the All Blacks, playing two of the three matches against the notably unsuccessful Anglo-Welsh team of 1908. He was unlucky in his timing. Had he emerged a few years earlier he would have been a serious contender for the pioneering All Black tour of 1905. Instead his international career was confined to this series and Trans-Tasman clashes with Australia.
He was, Bob Luxford has written 'acknowledged as the best loose-forward in New Zealand' - which then as now meant very likely the best in the world - in the years up to 1914. He remained a regular selection up to, and indeed slightly beyond, the outbreak of war in August 1914. His last test appearance was in Sydney on August 15, 1914, with war already raging in Europe.
It was an appropriate place to bow out. Five of his ten caps were won in the Australian city. By modern standards it looks a modest All Black career, but in 1914 it made him one of New Zealand's most durable players.
The record was held by 1905 first-five Fred Roberts with 12, and there is little doubt that but for the outbreak of war Wilson would before long have become the most capped All Black. Instead he went, with a generation of New Zealand males, off to war in Europe, joining the Rifle Brigade and rising to the rank of Sergeant.
The end of the war brought the postscript to his international career, although no more caps. As an experienced All Black he was a natural choice for the New Zealand Army team which toured Britain and France and played in the King's Cup against other parts of the imperial forces.
New Zealand won this proto- World Cup, beating the British Army (lightly disguised as the Mother Country) 6-3 in the final at Twickenham after the two teams had emerged top of a six-team round-robin also involving Canada, South Africa, Australia and the Royal Air Force. As winners, they then played the French army and defeated them 16-10.
The Army team also, as part of a long tour of Britain and France, beat a full-strength Welsh team 6-3 in a match for which the Welsh Rugby Union awarded caps - enabling the Reverend Bill Havard to add rugby honours to his earlier distinction of scoring Swansea Town (now City)'s first ever goal and his later eminence as Archbishop of Wales - and beat a full French team twice.
This was followed by an invitation to visit South Africa on their way home to New Zealand. Coming two years before the first ever All Black-Springbok Tests, this was a crucial moment in the relationship between the game's two historically hegemonic powers, and it proved a defining one.
The South African Rugby Board's invitation contained what the South African historian Floris van der Merwe records as 'a prior request…not to bring any coloured players'. While the South African High Commissioner in London, WP Schreiner, was happy for New Zealand to bring their usual team, his son Bill Schreiner had voted as an SARB member to exclude non-white players.
New Zealand complied and until 1970 allowed South Africa to dictate to it the composition of its touring teams there. Since opponents of contact with apartheid era South Africa were always accused of 'introducing politics into sport', it should be remembered that it was the South Africans who started it - and a long time before the introduction of formal apartheid from 1948 on.
It was also a fundamental breach of rugby's defining team epic - that an offence to a team-mate is an offence to all. That it occurred in the context of a team drawn from men who had been fighting and dying together for four years makes it all the more shocking.
Wilson evidently took this betrayal with dignity. McLean records that he 'did not seem too disappointed'. Returning home, he played 13 times for Wellington, including 11 defences of the Ranfurly Shield and was one of the five men who selected the 1924-5 All Black 'Invincibles' for their tour of Britain, Ireland and France.
If that remains one of the finest hours in New Zealand's unmatched rugby history, what happened five years earlier may be its shabbiest. Challenged to stand by the most basic of rugby's supposed values, New Zealand flunked the test. Wilson may have been the immediate loser, but the stain on the game in general - and New Zealand in particular - extended much further and longer.
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