War games in the Southern Hemisphere
August 15, 2014
A New Zealand side perform the haka before taking on South Africa in Richmond, Surrey, reportedly in April 1916. No further details of the match exist, with the All Blacks' last official Test coming in August 1914 © Getty Images
Rugby union did not shut down completely with the declaration of war in August 1914. Australia and New Zealand were, as dominions of the British Empire, included in Britain's declaration on August 4, but inevitably the matter was less urgent.
The machinery of military recruitment clicked into action and the Wellington Rugby Union cancelled its programme of second, third and fourth grade matches on the following Saturday to enable players to attend volunteer parades. But war caught both countries in mid-season and with the All Blacks part way through a tour of Australia.
Greeted for the Brisbane section of their visit by banners proclaiming 'the greatest footballers in the world', the tourists had done their best to uphold that billing, taking the first two tests without conceding a point to extend their current winning run over the Wallabies to six matches and their all-time lead to 11-1 with a single draw.
There was still one Test to come, in Sydney on August 15. And while the scoreboard at the Sydney Sports Ground during the tourists' 11-6 victory over the city's Metropolitan Union on August 5 carried below it the foreboding message 'war declared', there does not appear to have been any suggestion that it should not take place.
There was as yet no thought that Britain and its dominions were in for four years of unremitting bloodshed. If the war had been, as many predicted, 'over by Christmas', there would have been scarcely enough time to get Australasian troops trained, never mind transported across the world on slow-moving troopships.
A meeting between the New Zealand, New South Wales and Queensland Rugby Unions (there was no single Australian Rugby Union until 1949) following the Metropolitan Union match clearly had no expectation of a long, all-consuming conflict. Addressing the more immediate concern of Australia's uphill struggle against rugby league, New Zealand agreed to bolster it by offering an annual exchange of tours starting with a Wallaby trip across the Tasman in 1915. The Metropolitan Union match was in part a fundraising effort to help send Australia's team to the 1916 Olympics, in Berlin.
What did happen, inevitably, was that the tour dropped a long way down news agendas. Which is not to say that the tour had previously been receiving blanket coverage - the Wellington Dominion's report on the second Test was a mere eight paragraphs towards the bottom of a page which devoted almost as much space - and the column lead - to Athletic v Petone.
But with papers suddenly crammed with war news, other matters were inevitably squeezed. Spiro Zavos records that the Sydney Mail, which had devoted considerable attention to the earlier parts of the tour, did not carry any mention of the final Test. The New Zealand Herald's coverage was confined to a single paragraph in a news round-up.
The Test was not the only, or arguably even the most significant, sporting event with Trans-Tasman involvement that weekend. The Australian Norman Brookes and New Zealand's Anthony Wilding, opponents with Brooke winning in the previous month's Wimbledon men's singles final, combined as Australasia to take the Davis Cup from the USA. But since this was happening in New York, it could hardly be blamed for a crowd of 5,000 at the Sydney Sports Ground - less than half the number which had attended the first Test on the same ground five weeks earlier.
It was of course a dead rubber, with the home team held scoreless in the two previous matches. A 13.30 kickoff to allow the New Zealanders to catch the boat home that night probably did not help. And potential spectators may have had other things on their mind, including volunteering for service.
But the war clearly had not yet destroyed Sydney's appetite for live sport. A crowd of 16,000 attended the rugby league match between South Sydney and Newtown - as Zavos and Gordon Bray argue this "accurately reflected the level of popularity in Sydney of the two rugby codes".
The smaller number who went to the SSG - located on Moore Park, near to the Sydney Cricket Ground and roughly on the site of the modern Sydney Football Stadium, which replaced it in the 1980s - were to see Australia's best display of the series.
They were by now familiar opponents for the tourists - aside from the Tests, nine of them had played for New South Wales against them the previous Saturday. Only two, hooker David Williams and back rower Pat Murphy, came from Queensland.
Australia started positively and trailed by only three points, a try from All Black captain Dick Roberts, at half-time. And while they conceded again early in the second half, they rapidly responded with their first score of the entire series. Magnificently-named debutant wing Montague Massy-Westropp hoisted a cross-kick, centre Laurie Dwyer picked up and sent his New Zealand-born partner Laurie Wogan over for a try.
Any hopes raised by cutting the deficit to 8-3 were dashed as the All Blacks scored again, then Australia's scrum-half and captain Fred Wood was seriously injured and departed to hospital. After that it was fairly much a procession, with Roberts and 20-year-old back row William Francis - more than 100 years on still the youngest All Black forward after winning his first cap in 1913 at 19 years and 221 days - to claim their second tries of the afternoon and for scrum-half Teddy Roberts to round off the scoring with their sixth try. But Australia were not completely done - Dwyer landing a drop goal, then worth four points, to make the final score 22-7.
The New Zealanders departed for their boat, while the Australian press did its best to make sense of yet another loss to them. The Daily Telegraph credited New Zealand's "instinctive style of play" while the Sydney Morning Herald felt that their "ability to play finished football against hard, determined, plucky and sometimes faulty play enabled them to finish the test with an unblemished record of victories."
Six of the 30 players were to die in the war. That three of them - New Zealand second row Doolan Dowling and the Australian forwards Fred Thompson and Harald George - were all dead within 12 months of this match, killed at Gallipoli, helps explain why that particular battle is so ingrained in Australian and New Zealand consciousness. Australian forward Clarrie Wallach was a Western Front victim in April 1915 followed by New Zealand back row James McNeece in 1917, and Wallaby outside-half Bill Tasker in August 1918.
It was the last international match played for nearly five years, until Wales entertained a New Zealand Services team including three members of the 1914 All Blacks - forwards Mick Cain and 'Ranji' Wilson, and second-five James Ryan - at Cardiff in 1919. At least Wales regarded it as an international match, awarding caps for a match it lost 3-0.
The first match regarded by both teams as a full Test had to wait for the resumption of the Five Nations in 1920 and the All Blacks did not play another Test until their first series against South Africa in 1921. Teddy Roberts, recalled for the second and third Tests and captain in the third, was the only man from 1914 to win a post-war cap.
Australia's hiatus was to last much longer than the war. With Queensland rugby in abeyance after the war it was not until 1929 that another full Australian team would take the field, promptly sweeping the All Blacks in a three-match series. Unsurprisingly none of the players from 1914 took part although one of them, the almost absurdly multi-talented Harald Baker - who also represented Australia at boxing, swimming, water polo and wrestling before becoming another war victim when his spine was broken in an accident on a troopship - was team manager.
The teams who played in the interim represented only New South Wales - and Australian historian Thomas Hickie has argued that union came within a narrowly lost vote to switch the Sydney University club to league of extinction in the southern state during this period.
But contact was maintained with New Zealand. In yet another test for the 'what is a full international' conundrum, New Zealand continues to regard these as non-Tests and did not award caps. The Australian Rugby Union decided retrospectively in the late 1980s to reclassify these matches as Tests - arguing not unreasonably that if NSW was the only state playing rugby, their team was also Australia's.
Neither was around to know it, but two men from 1914 acquired post-war international careers. Full-back Jackie Beath, a doctor who once tackled an All Black wing then promptly diagnosed the injury inflicted, played three times in 1920 while Wogan, scorer of Australia's last pre-war try proved to be the team's great survivor, playing 16 post-war matches with the last in 1924, then living until 1979.
Which of Teddy Roberts and the retrospectively-elevated Wogan was the last of these players from this match active in international sport would be a classic 'it all depends what you mean by..' question, but for the happy second sporting career of All Black full-back Eric Cockroft. Taking, like many New Zealand rugby players, to bowls he was selected for New Zealand in 1953.
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