SITTING in the Arthur’s Seat Room in the All Blacks’ North Bridge hotel, Sonny Bill Williams looked temporarily blank when he was asked about New Zealand never having been beaten by Scotland. “I wasn’t aware of that,” said the man who will be wearing black number twelve shirt at Murrayfield come Saturday tea-time.
Williams himself has never been beaten as a heavyweight professional boxer, with seven wins out of seven to date. If the Auckland Blues inside-centre knew his rugby union history, he’d be aware that Saturday’s bout at Murrayfield just happens to fall on the 112th anniversary of Scotland’s first encounter with the heavyweights of the world game.
On Saturday 18th November 1905, when Arthur Balfour was Prime Minister and Emmeline Pankhurst was in prison for her suffragette “militancy”, a Scotland side captained by David “Darkie” Bedell-Sivright came within four minutes of achieving what all of their successors have conspicuously failed to accomplish in more than a century since.
On a skating rink of a pitch at Inverleith, they led the All Black “Originals” 7-6 at half-time – thanks to a drop-goal by Ernest Simson and a try by his Watsonians club-mate JC MacCallum. The score was the same until the 76th minute, when the New Zealand centre Bob Deans fed wing George Smith, an Auckland butcher and five-time New Zealand 100 yards champion.
“The full back came at him but George left him standing with a swerve and raced ahead with an open paddock,” his fellow three-quarter Billy Wallace recalled. “We cheered him back into the field of play and shook his hand until it must have been nearly wrenched off.”
All in the crowd, save a clutch of New Zealand and Australian medical students from Edinburgh University, fell silent. Lock Bill Cunningham, an Auckland blacksmith, scored a fourth try for the tourists in the closing stages and Scotland’s chance of upsetting the trailblazing All Blacks had gone.
The match played out amidst an air of frost between the respective unions. In contrast to the other hosts on the marathon 35-match tour of the British Isles, the Scottish Rugby Union declined a request from the New Zealand Rugby Football Union for a £200 fee. They presumably thought they were being prudentially canny in judging that few people would want to see a bunch of unknown colonials and informed their counterparts that they could keep the gate receipts, minus match expenses.
That was before the New Zealanders survived their tortuous 42-day sea voyage aboard the RMS Rimutaka, which almost foundered after being partially holed on day five, and proceeded to blaze a glorious trail through the English counties. They arrived at Waverley Station two days before the Scotland Test with 19 wins from 19 matches and a burgeoning reputation for playing a revolutionary game. Dave Gallaher, their Donegal-born skipper, acted as an enforcer in a new role as a ‘rover’, or wing forward as it subsequently became known, standing out of the scrum with the intention of nailing the opposition half-back and pushing the boundary of the offside line.
Over the course of those 19 matches, Gallaher – who was a foreman in an Auckland freeze-works who served as a mounted trooper in the Boer War, and who was to die at Paschendaele in 1917 – played a pivotal role in marshalling a defence that conceded just two tries. In attack, prompted by Southland bootmaker Billy Stead in another novel role, as a first five-eighth, linking the half back (scrum-half) with the forwards, the tourists had racked up a staggering 612 points (at a time when a try was worth just the three points).
An editorial in The Daily News proclaimed: “When Shakespeare wrote to the effect that England never did, nor never should lie at the proud feet of a conqueror, he evidently overlooked the possibility of a team of New Zealand footballers invading this land at some time or other.”
Thus, by the time they pitched up in Edinburgh, everyone wanted to get a look at the all-conquering colonials. Despite the weather, a record crowd of 21,000 packed Inverleith. The SRU was forced to hand over takings of £1,700 and the ill-feeling lingered for decades. Three years later, the SRU demanded to see copies of the accounts of the tour and their gasket was blown by an entry which revealed that the New Zealand players had received subsistence payments of three shillings a day.
As the English RFU had authorised the payments, the Scots cancelled the following year’s Calcutta Cup match, only reinstating the fixture under IRB orders. However, they continued to bear a grudge, declining to play the All Black ‘Invincibles’ of 1925. That was one way of avoiding defeat against the men in black.
That instance of Baldrickian cunning apart, there have only been two other instances: the 0-0 draw at Murrayfield in 1964 and the 25-25 thriller in the west end of Edinburgh in 1983 – in which Bob Deans’ great-nephew, Robbie Deans, made his All Black debut at full-back.
On the part of the New Zealanders, the less than hospitable treatment they received on their maiden trip to Edinburgh left a bitter taste. According to Wallace: “We were about as popular as a plague of smallpox in the eyes of the Scottish Union.”
The night before the Inverleith encounter, Wallace and his team-mates put their boots out to be cleaned before they turned in for the night at the Royal British Hotel on Princes Street, just around the corner from the temporary residence of the 2017 All Blacks. They awoke to find them not only uncleaned but filled to the brim with hard, mouldy bread crusts.
They were also unimpressed when Bedell-Sivright and the SRU secretary Jock Aikman-Smith arrived at the hotel at 10am and tried to persuade them to cancel the match because of the weather. They were incensed that the Scots had chosen not to cover the ground with straw the night before and, despite finding the pitch covered in ice, a delegation of New Zealand officials insisted on the match going ahead, a large crowd having already gathered.
At the final whistle, the Scotland players fled to their dressing room and there was no exchange of jerseys. The tourists were not invited to the after-match dinner.
They moved on to Glasgow, beating West of Scotland 22-0 at Hampden Park. The Edinburgh Evening News reflected before their departure: “New Zealand’s handling was remarkable and their capacity to make the most of even half a chance won them the game.”
It has become a stock summation of All Black sides, although perhaps they only need a quarter-of-a-chance these days to find their way across the opposition whitewash – as the latest Scotland side to take on the historical challenge will doubtless discover come tea-time on Saturday.