A few years ago we ran a 5 part series called ‘Rugby’s Greatest Upsets’, which included an article on the Wales v New Zealand match in Cardiff on 16th December 1905.
Today we are sharing an eyewitness account of the same match, extracted from the 1948 book ‘Rugby Recollections’ by WJ Townsend Collins (aka ‘Dromio’), who was a poet and correspondent from Newport.
The All Blacks’ Tour of 1905 had official sanction; the financial arrangements were considered to be such that the amateur status of the players would not be endangered; and the tour opened with two amazing victories—over Devonshire by 55 points to 4, over Cornwall by 41 points to nil. I saw their third game—against Bristol. They won again by 41 points to nil. These three victories proved that the All Blacks were a combination of uniquely-gifted players.
They introduced a new formation—seven forwards, one so called wing forward (D. Gallaher, their captain) who put the ball in the scrummage and obstructed the opposing inside half, a half-back, two five-eights, three threequarters, and a full back. But I say now, as I said at the time, that their amazing success was not due to their formation but to the superlative ability of the players, who had strength, weight, speed, and football skill above the average of the international teams of the last fifty years.
The man who most attracted my attention at Bristol was G. W. Smith, a threequarter who made dazzling swerving runs which reminded me of Arthur Gould at his best. In the games that followed, the All Blacks revealed quite wonderful scoring power, and when they met Wales at Cardiff they won twenty-seven matches, had scored heavily in most of their games, had never fallen below double figures, and had beaten Scotland by 4 tries to a dropped goal and a try; Ireland by 3 goals to nil, and England by 5 tries to nil.
Clubs, counties, provinces, universities, and countries had toppled down; in the last match before they faced Wales they had beaten Yorkshire by 5 goals 5 tries to nil. “What a team! What a record;” sighed the supporters of Wales on the eve of this greatly memorable game—doubtful if their players could hold out against the visitors. But they did.
Sometimes great expectations are not realised. Sometimes we have looked for wonders, strung up to the highest pitch of excitement, only to find that the actual game fell flat. But it was not so when the All Blacks visited Cardiff on December 16th, 1905. Excitement was at fever heat. Never before or since have I known anything like it.
The crowd was the biggest ever seen at Cardiff till that time—at a quarter to two the gates had to be closed. When the teams took the field thousands were quivering with excitement—some of us were so affected that we could hardly speak or write. The very air was charged with emotion. Hopes and fears were blended in an aching, choking anxiety. What the crowd felt was communicated to the players, and in the opening minutes they were so wrought that finish went to the winds.
Most of the play at first was with the forwards, and it seemed as if both packs were determined to see how much punishment (within or a little beyond the laws) their opponents could survive. No quarter was given by either side. Men were toppled over like ninepins—flung aside, dashed to the ground. It was one of the three fiercest games I have seen.
Early it was evident that, to last out, a man had to be as hard as nails and trained to the hour. That they proved to be. Soon the players shed their excitement without moderating their vigour. The clash at the line-out and in the loose continued to be terrific, but there was more of plan and purpose. The Welsh backs, soon masters of themselves, kicked to touch with great effect. Both sides heeled, passed, and ran. But nothing came of it – the tackling was deadly. Cross-punts were tried by Welshmen and New Zealanders, but the defence was watchful and sound. Every move seemed to be foreseen. Never was there a hesitant or half-hearted tackle.
At quarter time nothing had been scored, but the Welsh team had more than held their own, and for the first ten minutes of the second quarter they had the better of the play. Once there was a glorious chance, for A.F. Harding put in a beautifully-paced cross-punt from left to right, and J. F. Williams, the brilliant London Welsh forward, following up, kept the ball out of touch, picked up at the New Zealand 25, and transferred to Willie Llewellyn, the right wing threequarter, who had the line at his mercy, for the All Blacks’ full back was out of position. Unfortunately, Llewellyn was just a little too far forward, he took the ball with his hands practically in his left hip, failed to keep possession, and it slipped behind him.
That was hard luck for Wales, for they had worked a move which out-manoeuvred the defence. However, the home side continued to show aggressive form—the New Zealanders never knew where danger would develop. Gwyn Nichols and Jehoida Hodges made great efforts to burst through, and were held; but even their vain efforts bore fruit; the New Zealanders were compelled to concentrate attention upon the man with the ball since they saw in every player a potential scorer.
It was while Welsh individualism had rather hypnotised the New Zealand defenders that Welsh combination in its subtlest form was brought into play and caused their downfall. It was a carefully-thought-out and rehearsed piece of tactics. From a scrummage on the 25 yard line, about fifteen or twenty yards from the right touch-line, Wales heeled; R. M. Owen, the inside half, made off as if to start an attack on the right; Percy Bush, the outside half, and Willie Llewellyn, the right wing, moved in the same direction. To the spectators and the New Zealanders, it looked as if danger threatened along the right touch-line. But once Owen got his opponents moving in the direction, quick as thought he turned on his heel, swung back, and threw out a long pass to Cliff Pritchard, who was playing as flying man. The ball went to the ground, but Pritchard fielded, slipped one man and the defence was beaten, bar accidents. He went straight, and passed to Rhys Gabe who drew his man and at the right moment passed to E.T. (“Teddy”) Morgan, with the defence outflanked. The left wing raced for the line as if his life depended upon it.
In vain the New Zealanders tried to cut him off; he was too fast for them, crossed the line, and promptly got the ball down wide. The next moment Arthur Gould was dancing on the Press table waving his hat and shouting; “The fastest Rugby sprinter in the world! –Teddy Morgan has scored!” It may be said that in those days the Welsh Rugby Union did not know how to treat the Press; instead of reporters being given seats in the covered stand, they were placed at trestle tables inside the ropes, exposed to wind and rain, and occasionally to invasions by spectators who scaled the fences. Where Arthur Gould came from I do not know, but there he was dancing the dance of triumph.
H. B. Winfield could not convert, so Wales had only a three point lead. And there still remained fifty minutes’ play! Throughout that time the All Blacks were trying desperately to score. Wales perhaps (as Gwyn Nicholls admitted to me) made a mistake in abandoning attack to some extent; during the second half it was by design as well as compulsion that they concentrated upon defence. R. G. Deans, W. J. Wallace, and D. McGregor, the New Zealand threequarters, and F. Roberts, their half-back, who so often had romped through the defence of opponents, tried their hardest to recover the try-scoring, match-winning mood. Though they pressed Wales to the line, they could not break through. But they were definitely and desperately the aggressive side. They pressed on the Welsh line, and made thrust after thrust; but when it seemed that Wales were to be pinned down, worn down, lion-hearted Charlie Pritchard made a great burst and brought relief.
To understand why to those who watched it this games stands out pre-eminently, it is necessary to recall what was at stake—the invincible record of a touring side who seemed then, and seem still, the most brilliant combination of Rugby Players who ever came from overseas to show what individual skill and combination could achieve; and it is necessary also to underline the fact that throughout the second half the New Zealanders were much more frequently in possession of the ball than Wales, therefore the attaching side.
The last fifty minutes of the game were a long drawn out anxiety for the supporters of Wales, of desperate tension for New Zealand. Their frequent opportunities in attack were countered by aggressive defence. Rarely indeed was an All Black allowed room to move—the Welshmen dashed in upon their men and tackled wonderfully. There was great touch-finding by the Welsh backs; but all the time we felt that the home team were anvil, not hammer, and there came a moment when the New Zealanders got moving in a combined attack which seemed certain of reward.
That supremely great player, W.J. Wallace ran cleverly and with determination, working towards the left, and passed to Deans, who made his never-to-be-forgotten burst. Big, speedy, strong, the thrust for the line was resolute and confident; but Deans was brought down almost at the spot where Teddy Morgan scored. There was a minute of almost agonised uncertainty, with Deans under two or three Welshmen. What really happened? Nobody knows. Spectators who were near the spot told different stories. Some said Deans put the ball down over the line—that he scored (that was his own claim till his dying day). Others said he was brought down outside but threw the ball forward. Anyhow, the referee, Mr. J. D. Dallas, the former Watsonian captain and Scottish forward, rules it was no try.
That was New Zealand’s last chance, for a kicking duel between G. Gillett (a fine forward who was also a good full back) and H. B. Winfield ended with the Cardiff man finding touch in the All Blacks’ 25, and that ended their hope of saving the game. So they suffered the only defeat of their tour after a never-to-be-forgotten game.
The 1905-6 All Blacks played 33 matches, won 32 and lost 1, with a score of 868 points to 47—a truly prodigious performance. They included three superlative players—W. J. Wallace, F. Roberts, and C. Seeling. Wallace was one of the greatest all-round players of the last sixty years—the best full-back, the cleverest threequarter, the greatest player the All Blacks had – superb in attack, pre-eminent in defence. As a runner he was not so dazzlingly brilliant as G. W. Smith (who, by the way, missed many games through injury); but he was elusive in a different way. Smith ran straight, and used the short swerve. Wallace used his speed in long sweeping swerves across the field (Ronald Poulton-Palmer often used the same technique). Wallace broke across the face of opponents almost at right angles, and straightening out, compelled the attention of the opponent who should have watched his co-centre, or his wing, and so made an opening. He did that at the critical moment in the match with Wales at Cardiff. As Wallace swerved to the left, R. G. Deans was outside him. “I’m with you!” cried Deans. “And I’m with you!” said Rhys Gabe, the Welsh centre. Wallace passed, and Deans (ignoring his wing, D. McGregor) made his burst for the corner. He was tackled (by Gabe, I think) almost on the line. As previously recorded, he declared on his death-bed that he scored; but the referee would not allow a try, and so the match goes down to history as the only defeat of this famous side.
If G. W. Smith had been available at centre threequarter, and Wallace had played as full back, I think the All Blacks would have won, for it was the wonderful touch-finding of the Welsh full-back, H. B. Winfield, which turned the scale in favour of Wales, and Wallace would have avoided the mistake made by Gillett, who did a lot of kicking to the open, and so helped to wear down his own forwards while Winfield nursed the Welshmen by his long touch-finding.
In Physical gifts, football skill, and perfection of judgment, W. J. Wallace lives in my memory as one of the dozen greatest players I have known, and if I were selecting a World Fifteen he would be my choice as full-back, for it was in that position he was greatest.
In my World Team also I should find a place for the best forward of the 1905 All Blacks—Charles Seeling. How to describe him? Combine in one man the characteristics of the six forwards you have most admired—physique, fire, skill, endurance, judgment,–and you have Charles Seeling, second to none in the variety of his gifts.
The third unforgettable player was F. Roberts, the half-back. Once more—think of the powers which go to the making of the ideal half: Roberts had them. Great-hearted, class to his finger-tips, he was one of the world’s great players. In trying to appraise a man’s merits, we have to take into account his opportunities and the company he keeps. A great player is greater in a great team; and Roberts, Wallace and Seeling owed something to the fact that they were supported in all their games by men who had knowledge of the game, speed, accuracy, and football skill.
All these New Zealanders were a little better than the average English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish internationals of that period—perhaps of any period. Mark, I say the average. Every country has had many forwards and backs equal to the majority of the men who supported the superlative three ; but not often has any country (or any club) put in the field fifteen men all of whom were so gifted so versatile so resourceful. That much said let us add that in G. W. Smith, Bob Deans, D. McGregor, J. Hunter, W. Stead, and H. Mynott, they had brilliant backs ; and in F. Glasgow, W. Cunningham, A. McDonald, G. A. Tyler, and G. Nicholson, forwards of great strength, speed, skill and resolution. Their backing up was remarkable; they might have given more good passes, but they took lob passes and low passes and bad rising passes remarkably; and they were a wonderful scoring machine.
The Welsh clubs proved that the machine could be jarred and jolted, for Newport were only beaten by six points to three, Cardiff by ten points to eight, and Swansea by four points to three; while the Welsh XV proved superior in the subtlety and precision of their attack.