90 years on Invincibles remain larger than life part of All Blacks history

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James Mortimer     09 Dec 2014     Getty Images

Yes the early 1920s were an interesting time for the sport.

League had caused frictions in the game, professional versus the amateur traditions of rugby, and few would have thought that New Zealand would be about to etch out another special segment in their proud history.

Somewhat fittingly, as the 90 year anniversary of the Invincibles tour is recognised, the current Ranfurly Shield holders, Hawke’s Bay, were at the time holders of the famous Log o’Wood.

The oldest provincial union outside of the ‘big four’ was the superpower of New Zealand Rugby at the time, beating a powerful Wellington union 19-9 to take the country's remarkable rugby trophy in 1922.

Shield winning coach Norm McKenzie was appointed as an All Blacks selector at a time where Test matches were very rare.

After the 1921 South African tour of New Zealand, the next time the men with the silver fern donned their famous jersey would be in 1924, with eight members of the touring squad having served their country during World War One.

Their first match would be against Devonshire on 13 September, 1924, after six 'warm-up games'.

The Bay would feature only six players in the Invincibles, but they were some of the pillars of All Blacks history.

The Brownlie brothers Maurice and Cyril, playmaker Lui Paewai, halfback Jimmy MillBill Irvine and the incomparable George Nepia were part of the famous Magpies team and all would play roles in Europe.

With the benefit of no hindsight despite the exploits of Hawke’s Bay – in 1926 they completed one of the dominant provincial seasons – some suggested that Europe’s superpowers would be too strong for New Zealand.

Wales might not have been as imperious as they had been in the past, but they had an unbeaten record against the All Blacks (albeit over one Test), while England was in rude health, they had won three Five Nations Grand Slams between 1921 and 1925.

Less than two decades later, the might of the Originals was not considered notable or worth paying homage to as this new wave of New Zealanders descended on Britain. Early media reports prove that a big section of 'experts' had written off the 1924 outfit before they even had arrived on the ancient soil.

Ireland were conquered 6-0 in the first Test of the tour, with Ken Sydney Svenson, known as “Snowy” by the Buller faithful (Svenson was the most prolific All Black from the West Coast club), scoring the only try.

By the time New Zealand arrived in Swansea for their second Test against Wales, the tourists had established a 20-match winning streak on tour and local rags were beginning to warn of the perils home teams were facing against this mob of impressive visitors.

The Irish had tried unsuccessfully to duplicate the All Blacks ‘rover’ tactics, where a seven-man scrum was preferred to allow a forward to “rove” like a second halfback.

History recognises this as a wing forward.

Wales had in 1905, when defeating the Originals, played the tactic against New Zealand with great success, using the position as a ruse, allowing legendary Swansea halfback Dicky Owen to send over Teddy Morgan for that famous try.

Owen received a cracked rib for his efforts as the visiting forwards swarmed to shut down one of the great Welsh nines.

The second Test between the nations during the Invincible tour saw the Red Dragons repeat the strategy, but by then players throughout New Zealand has been practicing and enhancing the position for many years.

And Wales no longer had a genius like Owen at halfback.

The 19-0 win was described by Nepia as fitting, a point for every year since the Welsh conquered the All Blacks.

Eventually the Invincibles would win 32 matches on tour, with arguably their mightiest triumph being against Grand Slammers England, where Cyril Brownlie would become the first ever player in rugby history to be sent off in an international.

The trip would be recognised as the formalisation of some All Blacks legends.

One if not both of the Brownlie brothers would enter most historian’s top 10 list of players to have had a silver fern emblazoned on their chest.

Nepia would be the original draft of a complete fullback, while Marcus Nicholls would carve out his own reputation as a ‘cake baker’, scoring few tries but many of his team-mates would note his ability to bring others into opportunities.

Bert Cooke also aided the likes of Nepia, but little would have happened without the Invincibles forwards.

Jock Richardson, who took over the captaincy when wing forward Cliff Porter wasn’t available (or required) was a big name, but Andrew White was perhaps the silent hero who was unsung.

White was one of the seven All Blacks forwards who fought in the war, and survived not one, but four dreadful military campaigns in the Battle of the Somme, Gallipoli, the Battle of Messines and the mud laden third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).

Sent home with some, shall we say negative reflections of the conflict, ‘Son’ rebuilt his life with rugby, one of many breath-taking parts of the great game’s grand tapestries thoughout this time.

One of the final segments to the epic tale was the fact that Scotland didn’t play the All Blacks, with the Thistles entering a majestic period where they would claim the 1925 Five Nations, while sharing the ’26 and ’27 crowns with a resurgent Ireland.

Fables point to a mix of the infamous gate fee saga of 1905, where the Originals walked away with a handsome sum suggested to be in the realm of 1,700 pounds – a king’s ransom at the time; while others believe it was RFU and not IRFB jurisdiction over the tour that caused the frictions that didn’t lead to what would have been a classical match.

It would have given the tourists a tilt at their first touring Grand Slam.

Barely a few months after New Zealand departed, Scotland broke ground at Murrayfield, departing from Inverleith to set up their new spiritual home.

And in 1928, history continued, with the All Blacks taking on the Springboks for their second series.

But that, is another story.