Rewind to 1888: The fore-runners of the All Blacks and an unforgiving tour of England

When the All Blacks take the field at Twickenham on Saturday they will be following compatriots who, exactly 130 years earlier, were also representing their country in England.

The current team are finishing a long and demanding season. But theirs is, literally, a flying visit. Most have come directly from New Zealand and will be straight off to Ireland afterwards.

The New Zealand Natives team who on Nov. 10 1888 lost 13-4 to Halifax were, by contrast, playing their fourth match in seven days, their 14th since arriving in England on Sept. 27 and their 25th in all, including an internal tour of New Zealand and two games in Australia.

Yet they had barely started. Not only had rugby seen nothing like it before, nothing quite like them would ever be seen again. The 26-man party was to play 74 matches in six months in Britain, plus a further 33 in Australia and New Zealand, and were away from home for just over 14 months.

The original plan was to play 52 matches, two a week, over the six months. But the fixture list grew and grew, displaying an attitude to the players which historian Greg Ryan recorded as "at best...uncompromising. At worst it was exploitative."

Initially conceived by captain Joe Warbrick as a Maori team, an echo of the Aboriginal Australian cricket teams which had toured Britain in the 1860s, they became the 'New Zealand Natives' after adding five pakeha -- white New Zealanders.

Like the cricket tours of the age, they were a commercial rather than representative enterprise. While New Zealand teams had been playing since 1884, and are accepted today as part of All Black heritage, the New Zealand Rugby Union would not be formed until 1892 and the provincial unions were wary of Warbrick's brainchild.

The hope was that, like the Aborigines, they would have an exotic appeal; it was less than 20 years since Maori warriors had tied down a large part of the imperial army. But they neither looked -- most were mixed-race -- nor acted like the Aborigines, who had put on displays such as boomerang throwing. Instead they were reliant on their appeal as rugby players.

Allegations of poor behaviour on and off the field would dog them throughout the trip. This also, as Ryan -- whose work has done much to redress the balance -- has pointed out, contributed to their receiving much less than their due from many subsequent chroniclers.

Yet theirs was an extraordinary achievement. They were not quite the first transcontinental touring side, since the team now recognised as the first Lions made it to Australasia a few months ahead of them.

But their workload still amazes. There was an 11-day sequence starting on Dec. 19 during which they played Llanelli, Wales (losing 5-0), Swansea, Newport and Cardiff. This was not long after a burst of nine matches in 15 days starting on Nov. 20 at Carlisle and followed by matches on consecutive days against Hawick, Cumberland and Westmorland, at Swinton on Nov. 26 and Liverpool on Nov. 28, before the sea-crossing to Dublin to play Ireland on Dec. 1, Trinity College on Dec. 3 and North of Ireland in Belfast on Dec. 5.

Nor were the demands equally shared. Three-quarter Davy Gage, later to captain New Zealand, played 68 matches, utility back Edward McAusland and half-back Bill Elliott 63 each while five of the team including Warbrick, hampered by injury, played no more than 14.

They were, as Ryan points out, the only major touring team to face the full strength of British rugby before the schism of 1895. They attracted larger crowds, were better received and more likely to be defeated in the North of England where Hull, Wakefield Trinity, Halifax, Swinton, Bradford, Castleford, Leigh, Oldham and Barrow were among the 20 teams to beat them, along with the powerful Lancashire and Yorkshire county XVs.

Those 20 defeats in Britain might seem a lot, but have to be weighed against 49 victories. At the end of the tour, exhausted as they were, their underlying skill and familiarity with each other made them too good for most New Zealand provincial unions -- defeat by Auckland in their 107th and last match, 14 months after the first, followed a run of seven victories including comprehensive thumpings of Southland, Otago, Hawke's Bay, Canterbury and Wellington. They were also, in the midst of those 9 matches in 15 days, good enough to beat Ireland, who had beaten England on their last meeting in 1887 by a resounding 13-4, scoring five second-half tries in the first international played in Europe by a New Zealand team.

Reaction to them in Britain, as Ryan points out, also prefigured the schism of 1895. They were vigorously criticised, and sometimes caricatured, in upper-class London journals like the Field, Times and Punch, and the RFU barely acknowledged their existence after the controversial match against England. Yet there were few complaints in the North or Wales.

Joe Warbrick later said: "As long as they were losing they were jolly good fellows in the eyes of the crowd. But as soon as they commenced to win, they were hooted and the papers were full of the weakness of the home side and the rough play of the visitors."

Controversy came to a head when they played England at Blackheath on Feb. 16. The Natives had won eight matches in a row, all but the first in the South and Midlands, and for once had had a week's rest. England, in dispute with the other home nations, were playing their only Test in 1888 or 1889.

England won 7-0, but neither side came well out of it, the culminating moment coming early in the second half. Already angry about England's two first-half tries -- both times they felt they had touched down first -- the Natives walked off in protest after a further score was given, Frank Evershed crossing while most players had stopped to protect the modesty of England centre Andrew Stoddart, whose shorts had been torn off.

The walk off was unacceptable by any standards, but the Natives surely had a point in arguing that the match should not have been refereed by secretary of the Rugby Football Union Rowland Hill. The RFU demanded, and got, two apologies, the first deemed insufficient, before they allowed the tour to continue and thereafter ignored the Native team.

In this, as in a number of ways, they set something of a precedent for New Zealand rugby. The 'Originals' of 1905 encountered some of the same complaints, their innovative tactics and formation apparently annoying the RFU far more than the following year's Springboks did by demanding that England not pick James Peters, their black half-back. The Boks were invited back in 1912, the All Blacks not until 1924.

The Natives introduced British crowds to the Haka and played in black. It was one of their number, Tom Ellison, who recommended that New Zealand teams play in All Black. Not all their precedents survive -- losing to Wales was discontinued after 1953.

But this remarkably durable set of pioneers more than merit the title given to them by Ryan, as 'Forerunners of the All Blacks'.