Dec. 16, 2022

Rugby Union’s “Match of the Century”

Rugby Union’s “Match of the Century”

December 16, 1905. Rugby Union’s "Match of the Century" is played between Wales and the undefeated New Zealand at Cardiff Arms Park.


Transcript

Cold Open


It’s September 16th, 1905, on a rugby pitch in Devon in southern England.

Two teams are warming up before a big game. At one end of the field, dressed in green-and-white-striped jerseys, is Devon Rugby Club, one of the best sides in England. At the other is the national team of New Zealand, who just arrived in the UK for their first-ever European tour.

Edwin Cox, Devon’s captain, leads his teammates in a passing drill. The hundreds of spectators who have come to watch today’s clash all expect Devon to win, and the crowd’s confidence has rubbed off on the players. Edwin notices that morale is high among his teammates as they throw the ball around, laughing and joking, as if getting ready for a friendly Sunday game in the park.

Edwin glances over at the opposing team. He doesn’t know what to make of these New Zealanders. Physically, they’re an odd-looking bunch, burly and scruffy, like a pack of farm hands. In England, rugby is a gentleman’s sport, and these hooligans would look more at home in a boxing ring than on a rugby pitch. Even their uniform is strange, entirely black as if they’re on their way to a funeral. Edwin strokes his mustache, his eyebrow arched disapprovingly.

The referee calls over to the two captains: it’s time to start the game.

The English side is awarded kick-off, and Edwin and his teammates take formation across the pitch. But rather than prepare to receive the ball, the New Zealanders form a line in the center of the field. They stare down the English players, widening their eyes and baring their teeth. Then, to Edwin’s astonishment, the New Zealanders start to perform a ceremonial battle dance, slapping their arms and torsos and flickering their tongues from their mouths like wild beasts.

It’s a strange, and unsettling spectacle. Edwin shakes his head. Rugby is a civilized game for men of proper breeding. But after this performance, Edwin is convinced that these New Zealand players aren’t men at all - but actually animals. Still, as the whistle blows for kick-off, for the first time all morning, Edwin feels nervous...

Edwin’s nerves are well-founded. Devon will go on to suffer a humiliating defeat to New Zealand, losing the game 55 points to 4. The defeat will cause a sensation, with newspapers around the country proclaiming it a dark day for English rugby.

But Devon will not be the last to fall victim to New Zealand, who will go on to win their next 26 matches. Soon, New Zealand’s distinctive uniform will earn them a nickname: the All-Blacks. And their pre-game ceremonial dance, “the Haka,” will strike fear into the hearts of every opposing team they encounter. But the indomitable All-Blacks will soon encounter their biggest challenge to date when they play the UK’s smallest nation, Wales, in a hotly anticipated clash that will come to be known as the “Match of the Century” on December 16th, 1905.

Introduction


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 16th, 1905: Rugby Union’s “Match of the Century”

Act One: Land of My Father’s


It’s October 19th, 1905 in Gloucester in the English Midlands; one month after New Zealand’s victory in Devon.

Spectators crowd the stadium where the local Gloucester Rugby Club is about to take on the visiting New Zealanders. Low-lying fog shrouds the pitch as both sets of players assume formation: Gloucester in their traditional red-and-white stripes, New Zealand in their distinctive black. Children in the crowd stand on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the famous visiting team, now commonly known as the All Blacks.

Before the game starts, the All Blacks perform their traditional ceremonial routine, known as “the Haka”. The captain emits a guttural war cry in the Maori language, the indigenous tongue of New Zealand. The players respond by making a series of rhythmic hand gestures and frightening facial expressions designed to intimidate and unnerve their opponents. The Gloucester players watch in bemused silence, unsure what to make of the strange display.

But once the Haka is over, the referee blows his whistle and the game begins. The All Blacks receive the ball first and immediately are on the attack. They ship the ball out wide to their winger, Duncan McGregor, who dashes for the tryline and scores - with fewer than ten seconds on the clock.

The crowd cheers - even the Gloucester fans. They have to applaud such remarkable athletic prowess. Among the impressed onlookers is Tom Williams. Tom used to be a player himself. Now he’s an administrator for the Welsh Rugby Union.

In two months, Wales are due to play the All Blacks in Cardiff, in the final match of the New Zealand team’s UK tour. This will be the All Blacks’ toughest challenge yet. In Wales, rugby is more of a religion than a sport. Though it is the smallest of the four nations that make up the UK, Wales has traditionally produced some of the finest rugby players.

Still, in spite of their talent, the Welsh players are often discriminated against by the supporters of other British teams. Wales is a country of miners and farmers. In England, Ireland, and Scotland, rugby is traditionally reserved for the privileged elites. But in Wales, rugby cuts through the class system. The Welsh players have been conditioned by years of hard physical labor, and this shows on the rugby field; the national team hasn’t lost a home game in six years. And in this regard, the Welsh players are kindred spirits to the All Blacks, many of whom also come from poor farming stock, or are descended from the working-class migrants from the British Isles.

So as Tom watches the All Blacks run riot in Gloucester, he removes a leather notebook from his pocket and jots down a few observations. Tom is here to size up the opposing team and devise a plan that could help Wales win.

By the time the game ends, the All Blacks have cruised to a 44–0 victory. Tom walks back to the train station in a daze. He now fully grasps the scale of the challenge ahead. If Wales are going to beat the All Blacks, they are going to have to be at their very best.

A few days later, Tom visits the Welsh team’s training facility in Cardiff. Two senior players, Teddy Morgan, and Dicky Owen, are smoking their pipes on the sideline. Tom shakes the players’ hands and then fills them in on his trip to Gloucester. The Welshmen listen closely as Tom describes the speed, power, and aggression of the All Blacks. Tom also mentions the unorthodox formation used by the New Zealanders. It’s a highly attacking line-up, with more speedy “backs” than slower, heavier-built “forwards.” Dicky Owen, a wiry scrum-half with a twinkle in his eye, nods. Then he rubs his hands together and says: “Well, let’s play them at their own game!”

Together, Tom, Teddy, and Dicky begin devising a new set of tactics. Like the All Blacks, they overload their back line, filling the pitch with fast attacking players. Over the course of the next few weeks, they work on perfecting this new formation. They put in grueling hours of training until their limbs ache and their skin and clothes are caked in mud. In the meantime, the All Blacks continue their campaign around the UK, winning every game by increasingly wide margins.

So as the game in Cardiff approaches, anticipation will reach a fever pitch. By the time matchday arrives, the press will already bill the clash as “the Match of the Century.” Nobody will expect Wales to win. And, as Tom Williams makes his way to the game, even he will find himself wondering if their preparations will pay off, or if Wales will simply become the All Blacks’ latest victim.

Act Two: The Match of the Century


It’s December 16th, 1905, the day Wales will play the All Blacks.

Tom Williams sits on a tram as it rattles through Cardiff, trying to calm the butterflies in his stomach. The Welsh rugby administrator has spent the last two months anxiously preparing for this occasion. Now that it’s here, Tom is plagued by nerves and self-doubt.

There arereasons to be optimistic. The Welsh team has developed a new formation that Tom hopes will counterbalance the unorthodox attacking style of the All Blacks. They also received a considerable morale boost when legendary former player Gwynn Nicholls came out of retirement last month and agreed to captain the Wales team. But still, Tom cannot allay his fears.

The main source of his concern is not the match itself, but the pre-game ceremonial routine that has become a hallmark of the All Blacks’ performances. “The Haka,” as the ritual is known, fires up the New Zealand players and strikes fear into the hearts of the opposing team. Tom suspects that if Wales are going to have a chance of winning today, they will need to find a way to respond to this intimidation.

Tom looks out at the foggy streets as the tram trundles through Cardiff's city center. He spots the Welsh flag fluttering above the Town Hall, and the sight of the Welsh dragon makes Tom’s spirits soar. Suddenly, an idea dawns on him: the perfect response to the All Blacks’ Haka…

When Tom reaches Cardiff Arms Park, the stadium where the match is being played, he heads straight to the Welsh locker room. He bounces into the room and greets the lads with a cheerful wave and then pulls aside Captain Gwynn Nicholls. Tom suggests to Gwynn that after the All Blacks perform the Haka, they should respond by singing the Welsh national anthem.

Gwynn cocks his head to one side. National anthems are sung at official state occasions - not sporting games. But Tom is insistent, telling Gwynn that it would generate the kind of atmosphere needed to beat the All Blacks. Eventually, the captain agrees but tells Tom that he’s no singer; if anyone should lead the rendition, it’s Teddy Morgan - the strongest baritone in the team. Tom smiles and says: “Okay, then, lads. Let’s give these boys a proper Welsh welcome.”

Just after 2 PM, the players take to the field. The stadium is packed. More than 40,000 spectators have come to watch this hotly-anticipated match. Outside the ground, people climb trees and gate posts to get a glimpse of the action. But despite the impressive turnout, the mood among the Welsh fans is subdued. Like the players, they are full of foreboding, intimidated by the All Blacks’ peerless record of 26 games unbeaten.

Before kick-off, the New Zealanders line up for the Haka. The Welsh players and fans fall into a respectful silence as the All Blacks perform their now famous pre-game ceremony. But once the Haka is over, the game does not immediately begin. Instead, the Welsh prepare for a performance of their own.

Teddy Morgan glances across at Tom Williams on the sideline, who gives him an encouraging nod. Tom inhales deeply, and then begins a rousing rendition of the Welsh national anthem: “Old Land of My Fathers.” It isn’t long before the crowd joins in, filling the stadium with noise. Tom watches the faces of the All Blacks as they stare into this wall of sound, and detects a trace of nervousness in the visitors’ demeanor, a vulnerable chink in their armor.

This is the first time that a national anthem has ever been performed at a sporting occasion. And the effect is palpable. The Welsh players and fans are fired up - patriotic adrenaline flooding through their veins. And when the referee blows his whistle to start the game, the momentum is with Wales from the start.

Tom Williams watches from the sidelines, anxiously biting his nails. He notices how poor the All Blacks are playing. But in spite of this, Wales can’t seize the advantage. After twenty minutes, the score is still zero to zero.

Suddenly, though, the ball comes loose from the pack. Welsh player Dicky Owen collects it and throws a crossfield pass to teammate Cliff Pritchard, who offloads the ball to Teddy Morgan. Teddy then shows his speed. He dodges several tackles and sprints the length of the field, bundling the ball over the line to be the first to score a try in the match. The crowd erupts in jubilation. But Tom knows it’s too early to celebrate. There is still a long way to go.

As the game goes on, the All Blacks will regain their composure and start playing with their usual confidence. Suddenly, the Welsh will find themselves on the back foot. And, with just a few minutes left on the clock, the All Blacks will try to put in a last-ditch effort to preserve their unbeaten record and break Welsh's hearts.

Act Three: The Try That Never Was


It’s December 16th, 1905 at Cardiff Arms Park.

The “Match of the Century” between Wales and the All Blacks is approaching the full-time whistle. Wales are leading the game by 3 points to nil. But the All Blacks have the ball, with winger Bob Deans racing for Wales’ tryline. If he scores, the game will be tied. And then, the All Blacks will have the opportunity to take a penalty kick to win the match.

So as Bob bounds across the turf, ball clutched under one arm, behind him, two Welsh players, Teddy Morgan, and Rhys Gabe, give chase. But they can’t catch Bob Deans, who is now mere feet from the tryline. Realizing that it’s now or never, Rhys makes a desperate lunge. His flailing arms wrap around Bob Deans’s knees and drags the New Zealander to the ground…

The referee blows his whistle, and the crowd cheers. But Bob Deans pops up off the turf and begins a spirited conversation with the referee. Bob insists that the ball went over the line and that a try should be awarded to New Zealand, tying the game. The referee waivers, and looks to his peers. But the official monitoring the touchline disagrees, declaring that Bob Deans did not make it to the tryline.

Wales is awarded a scrummage deep within their own half but with a chance to run down the clock. 

And a few minutes later, the referee blows the final whistle. Wales have beaten the All Blacks and emerged on top in the “Match of the Century.” It is the first and only occasion that New Zealand will be beaten on their UK tour, and the game will go down as one of the greatest days in the history of Welsh rugby.

Three years later, All Blacks player Bob Deans will die from complications from an appendix operation. He will use his last breath to still insist the referee in Cardiff was mistaken, and he should have been awarded the try.

In 2005, the centennial of this famous match will be celebrated with another game between Wales and the All Blacks in Cardiff. This time, the All Blacks will have their revenge, winning the game by 41 points to 3. Still, their victory will not diminish the achievement of Tom Williams, Gwynn Nicholls, Teddy Morgan, and the rest of the Welsh team, when they defeated the dominant All Blacks on December 16th, 1905.

Outro


Next onHistory Daily.December 19, 1675. During King Philip's War, colonial militias wage a devastating attack against the Narragansett tribe in Rhode Island.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.