'A grimly magnificent tussle'
May 14, 2012
Ulster No.8 No.8 George Beamish was described 'as immovable as a rock' during their clash with the All Blacks in 1935 © PA Photos
Ulster rugby would enjoy the affection of rugby journalists if it had nothing more to offer than the punning possibilities of a team whose symbol is the red hand. But that there is a great deal more to it than that will be underlined again this weekend when they play Leinster in the all-Irish Heineken Cup final at Twickenham.
Win or lose, it will join the long list of great days in Ulster rugby. Of these the most vividly remembered is inevitably their Heineken win in 1999, defeating Colomiers in front of a packed Lansdowne Road crowd whose fervour was an advertisement for rugby's historic capacity to transcend Ireland's divisions.
That made Ulster the first of the Irish teams to win the Heineken. It was a pioneering role to echo that played by the Northerners in a match that has now inevitably faded from living memory, their meeting with the third All Blacks at Ravenhill Road on November 30, 1935, a day which went into history as the first time an Irish team avoided defeat by the previously all-conquering New Zealanders.
Touring was, to put it mildly, different in those days. It was the 22nd match of the tour, but the All Blacks had only just started in on the internationals, seeing off the Scots 18-8 at Murrayfield a week earlier thanks to a hat-trick by second-five Pat Caughey.
The All Blacks' preparation for the game once they arrived in Belfast included a visit to the Stormont parliament, when they were entertained by Lord Craigavon, Northern Ireland's Premier, being shown around the world's largest flax mills and a theatre trip to see a performance of The Desert Song.
While doubtless acclimatising them to the local hospitality, it does not seem to have prepared them for the Belfast weather. Contemporary accounts speak of a match played in 'driving rain and wind' on a bitterly cold day. As Howard Marshall of the Daily Telegraph reported, it 'suited Ulster admirably'.
The All Blacks had lost their unbeaten record earlier in the tour, going down 11-3 at Swansea, and were also struggling with injuries, but the team they fielded was hardly under-strength - 11 of them would play against Ireland the following week.
And they had the bulk of the attacking play in what Marshall reported as 'a headlong rousing fury of a game'. Enjoying a marginal edge in the scrums, striking successfully 31 times to Ulster's 27, they took the lead near the half-hour. Eric Tindill made a clean break in midfield, drew the Ulster fullback and kicked ahead for wing Jack Hart to win the chase for the touch-down. Fullback Mike Gilbert attempted the conversion but was wide, one of six misses on what, even allowing for foul conditions, was a poor day for a player regarded as a top-class kicker.
Within three minutes Ulster were level, wheeling a scrum near the All Black line for prop Tom Dunn to dribble over and score. It not only tied the game at 3-3, but may have served to win Dunn his only Ireland cap the following week when the tourists were entertained at Lansdowne Road.
The rest, it seems, was in the words of the Northern Whig 'a grimly magnificent tussle' with the tourists pressing and Ulster resisting. Tindill came closest to breaking the deadlock, dropping a goal but losing the points because it had been touched in flight by an Ulsterman, nullifying the score under the rules of the time.
The heroes were a pack who, typically of an Irish team, had a hard core of tough veterans. No.8 George Beamish 'as immovable as a rock' already knew what it was to challenge a touring team as captain - during his spell with Leicester - of the Midlands team that beat Bennie Osler's Springboks at Welford Road in 1931. Captain George Siggins would lead Ireland the following week as well and while the outside influence was nothing on the scale of the 2012 squad's South African contingent, they could field England prop Douglas Kendrew.
In a match the Northern Whig reckoned 'as thrilling as any ever seen at Ravenhill' they held on for the 3-3, a result which Marshall recalled as having even neutrals cheering. Half a dozen of the Ulster team also appeared in the Irish team which went down 17-9 the following week at Lansdown Road.
The 1936-36 All Blacks touring squad © PA Photos
Some also went on to further distinctions, on and off the field. Hooker Sam Walker captained the Lions to South Africa in 1938, while Siggins was a popular and effective manager of the memorable 1955 team. Two of the team had service careers that led on to knighthoods - a distinction matched by Caughey, a department store magnate, among the All Blacks. Beamish, an RAF man, got his knighthood in 1955 and was followed in 1963 by the soldier Kendrew, who earned his title by a spell as Governor of Western Australia.
They were the first Ulster team to trouble the All Blacks, but not the last. The Fourth All Blacks were held 5-5 at Ravenhill early in 1954. Only Swansea's draw a few weeks earlier robbed the Ulstermen of the distinction of being the first non-Test team to defy the All Blacks twice. There seems to have been a degree of synchronicity between Swansea and Ulster. Both played in all white, each thwarted the third and fourth All Blacks and their grounds, St Helens and Ravenhill, shared not only distinct similarities of architecture and setting but the fate of being dropped from their previous status as regular Test venues in 1954.
Not until January 1973, when Munster and Ireland drew with Ian Kirkpatrick's team in the space of four days, did Ulster lose their distinction as the only Irish team to emerge undefeated from a meeting with the All Blacks. They'll be playing catch-up - trying to match Munster and Leinster's two Heinekens - rather than pioneering on Saturday, when those who reach reflexively for the 'greatest day' label should they win would be well advised to remember that Ulster's rich rugby heritage dates back a lot further than 1999.
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