Newport's finest day
October 2, 2012
Billy Millar led the Springboks to Newport back in 1912 © PA Photos
Among the more engaging habits of South African touring sides used to be that of carrying around Springbok heads for presentation to the teams who succeeded in beating them.
The South African journalist A.C.Parker - to the Boks what Terry McLean was to the All Blacks and J.B.G. Thomas to the British & Irish Lions - admitted that he was 'not totally enamoured of the practice', but dated it to the 1912-13 tour of Britain, led by Billy Millar. So it was a century ago this month, on October 24 1912, that the first Springbok head was handed over - to Newport, who succeeded in beating the Boks at Rodney Parade. While Cardiff had beaten the 1906 touring team, the head in their clubhouse relates to a near miss against the Boks, in 1951.
The South Africans appear to have been guilty of over-confidence. They had won their first six matches, including a 35-3 slaughter of a powerful Glamorgan select, and did not heed the warning of only scraping home by 8-7 earlier in the week at Llanelli.
They chose a team which fell some way short of their best. Millar, writing 20 years later for Ivor Difford's history of the South African game, recalled that Welsh official Walter Rees - already two decades into his secretaryship of the Welsh Rugby Union, but well short of his halfway point - warned him before the match that they had underestimated Newport.
The match was played before a crowd of 18,300 crammed into Rodney Parade, who paid a club record £1,220. They were to be well rewarded for their expenditure. The Black and Ambers were a formidable side that season, losing only to Leicester and Swansea all season. They fielded six internationals, including their powerful English pack leader Rob Dibble, and others yet to be capped.
Crucially they could field a smart and astute pair of half-backs, Tommy Vile - later a distinguished referee, a durable operator who would have had many more caps but for being only a few years younger than scrum-half Dickie Owen, and durable enough to captain Wales at the age of 38 - and Walter Martin. There were also to be vital roles for two other Newport backs, full-back Herbert Wreford and centre Fred Birt.
Birt, whose connection with the Newport club went back to a childhood in which he had acted as ball boy for the kicking practice of his, and the nation's, idol Arthur Gould opened the scoring in the first half with an angled 35 yard drop goal which 'just scraped over the bar' to give the Black and Ambers what under pre-1948 scoring values counted as a four-point lead.
A try still counted only for three points, so Newport retained their advantage even when forward Duggie Morkel crossed for the South Africans early in the second half. Dirk Luyt had initiated the scoring move, but was unable to add a simple-looking conversion and Newport still led 4-3.
Even so, it still seemed a matter of time before the Boks took full control as they pounded at the Newport line. In rapid succession each of their wings, Jan Stegmann and Otto van der Hoff, were sent clear, only to be brought down at the corner flag by Wreford, playing the game of his life.
Jack Wetter shone for Newport against the Springboks © PA Photos
Eventually Newport broke, Jack Wetter - who would still be around, a dozen years and a World War later in 1924, to lead the Black and Ambers in giving the All Black Invincibles one of the toughest days of their triumphant door - punted across, van der Hoff failed to control the rolling ball and Birt pounced for the decisive try, adding the conversion that made it 9-3 at the end.
Millar recalled that 'we were fairly and squarely beaten', not least because 'Our handling of the ball was in vivid contrast to the opposing backs who received great assistance from a virile pack'. The Western Mail reported that by the end South Africa 'looked a beaten side and the deadliness of the Newport tackling disconcerted them'.
Newport's history is a highly distinguished one, including several unbeaten seasons, but this day a century ago was arguably the greatest in that long story - with only one rival, in 1963 when the All Blacks were also beaten, also by a drop-goal, landed by Dick Uzzell, whose great-uncle Harry had been one of the forward heroes of the 1912 win.
The Boks, though, could be argued to have had the last laugh. While they also lost to London Counties and to Swansea, they beat Wales 3-0, reprieved when the usually deadly Birt missed a penalty so simple that Millar was convinced he would kick it.
While they have not left quite the same mark on history as their predecessors of 1906, or the 1905 All Blacks, they managed something beyond those two great pioneering squads - beating all four Home Nations and creating a Springbok tradition that was emulated by their successors of 1931, 1951 and 1960. It is a record that makes Newport's achievement 100 years ago this month all the greater.
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