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Hampshire v New Zealand 1924

As the year drew to a close the All Blacks made the journey from Twickenham to Portsmouth to meet Hampshire on Wednesday December 17th 1924. So far the tour had gone well for them. Although in some quarters the squad had been considered almost embarrassingly weak as they had departed New Zealand they had settled and soon proved their detractors wrong. This was to be the twenty sixth match of a long, long, tour. The quarter century of matches that had preceded it had all been won, and often won well. The scalps of both Ireland and Wales had already been taken, with tests against England and France to follow in the coming weeks, two of the four games that remained for the All Blacks to face after today before they finally headed home. For Hampshire itself the chance to face such august company was without question the greatest single honour that had ever been handed to the county and it was the first time that they had been included in the schedule for a touring side from the southern hemisphere. To date Hampshire had never advanced to the final stages of the County Championship and were not generally regarded as one of the stronger county sides. It proved a rare opportunity. Interest in the game was expected to be high, and expectations were that it would far outstrip the amenities provided by any of the rugby grounds available within the county. With this in mind Portsmouth Football Club had been approached and the use of their home ground Fratton Park secured for the game, a decision that was in the end justified by the fifteen thousand odd spectators who turned out to watch the proceedings unfold.

During their last game the previous Saturday against Combined Services the All Blacks had been comfortable winners by a twenty five to three point margin. As may be expected so far into a major tour they made several changes for this match. Hampshire in all fairness were probably regarded by them as a fairly easy target and with test matches to come their remained the need to rotate the squad in an attempt to keep players fresh. Even so then, as now, there was no such thing as a weak New Zealand side and there were few who realistically expected an upset. For their part Hampshire selected several of the services players who had faced the All Blacks earlier in the week, possibly in the hope that their previous exposure to the visitors style of play would prove to be of assistance. The United Services Portsmouth club had long provided quality players to the county, today providing five of the counties number including the Captain WG Agnew. The rest of the team was also playing week in and week out for good club sides. Many played for the Army or Navy or with some of the more glamorous London clubs such as Harlequins and London Scottish. In all it was probably as strong a side as Hampshire could expect to put together. A notable member of the side was Cyril Kershaw, now in the twilight of his illustrious playing career which had seen him gain sixteen caps for England , many of them whilst partnering the now retired but almost legendary Dave Davies. The scrum half’s game would be watched with interest by the England selectors and the casual spectator alike, particularly with an England trial match forthcoming the following week.

On the day of the match an early morning fog had burnt off and the sun shone on Portsmouth as New Zealand kicked off. Hampshire started as brightly as the day, the tactical kicking of the Harlequins three quarter Richard Hamilton-Wickes pushing the county team into All Black territory where their outweighed pack played a spirited game that stopped the visitors in their tracks. During a dynamic forward attack early in the game fate, as is often the case, took a hand. Tackled strongly D Orr-Ewing, one of the United Services players on show, fell awkwardly. Showing no slight personal bravery he remained on the pitch for a few minutes, but it was clear that his collar bone had been dislocated and he was forced to leave the pitch. Being a man down in the pack against any side is a major handicap, but against New Zealand for Hampshire this was near disaster. Even so they doggedly hung on for most of the first half. The All Blacks it has to be said were playing below their normal standard. To those who had been following their tour they appeared jaded and mechanical in their play. It was not until minutes before the interval that the deadlock was broken. From a scrum deep in Hampshire territory Bert Cooke and Kenneth ‘Snowy’ Svenson moved the ball on to Quentin Donald who scored the try. This was soon followed by a further try to Cooke. With the second try converted by Andrew ‘Son’ White the All Blacks took a fairly unconvincing eight points to nil lead into half time, but all things considered it was still a lead that appeared quite safe.

As the sides changed ends Hampshire continued their now uneven battle. Kershaw and HWTT Wood of the United Services both came close to scoring, but were denied. The All Blacks continued to turn the screw. Even though still far from their best they could capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents. Following a lapse in Hampshire’s defence Neil McGregor crossed their line, White this time missing the conversion. The great George Napier kicked a difficult penalty as the visitors drew away to an unassailable lead. The mist that had been present in the morning now began to reappear. Through the growing fog Svenson dashed through out wide on the right wing, Napier missing the tricky conversion. With ten minutes to play the gloom had grown, visibility being now reduced to just a couple of yards. The two Captains and the referee, Major HEB Wilkins of the London Society, decided to complete the match but there were few of the rapidly thinning crowd who could actually see McGregor score a final try, Napier convert it or indeed White leave the field as he suffered a similar injury to that which had befallen the unlucky Orr-Ewing earlier in the game. As the final whistle blew the All Blacks could leave the pitch with their work finally comfortably done, victors by twenty two points to nil.

In many ways it had been an anticlimactic match, certainly not the spectacle that had been hoped for before kick off. Hampshire had shown grit, but had never truly been menacing. The loss of Orr-Ewing so early in the match obviously did them few favours. Equally their half backs had failed to connect as a pair, a fact that stifled their attacks. Kershaw was far from his best, whilst his partner D Macdonald of London Scottish seemed unable to read his game and anticipate his moves. Eventually Kershaw took to cutting him out, firing passes to the right wing that had mixed success. For Kershaw there would be no international recall as England faced the All Blacks later in their tour, with Richard Hamilton-Wickes being the only Hampshire man selected for the game  For all this it had been a creditable effort and Hampshire had stood up to the New Zealanders until the end. For the All Blacks themselves it had been an artisan performance. They had set out to win and win they had. They had not been at their best but had taken the chances that were offered to them. Their mindset is indicated by a tale related by Wavell Wakefield in his book ‘Rugger’. During the game a Hampshire forward was tackled strongly by William ‘Bull’ Irvine , a member of the New Zealand pack. Irvine immediately remonstrated with the county player, asking him what he was doing and to let him go. Being the tackled party the probably rather bemused Hampshire man apologised and the game went on. After the match Irvine was heard to say that the other player was no good, after all what sort of player apologises for being tackled? Mental strength or gamesmanship? However you view it the 1924 All Blacks were strongly imbued with the self belief that is shown by all good teams, one that allows them to play poorly and still win. From here they would go on to win their remaining four matches and claim the title ‘The Invincibles’. Even without their injury worries, misfiring halves and dense fog it remains a fact that Hampshire would have been hard pressed to achieve what no other team could do and best this particular side.

  Hampshire:- CM Evan-Thomas, HWV Stephenson, RH Hamilton-Wickes, JA Coutts, HWH Wood, CA Kershaw, D Macdonald, P Williams-Powlett, TG Rennie, KI Herbert, JS Chick, JA Ross, WG Agnew, D Orr-Ewing, JW Forrest

New Zealand:- G Napier, KS Svenson, FW Lucas, A Hart, NP McGregor, AE Cooke, J Mill, JH Parker, Q Donald, WR Irvine, MJ Brownlie, IH Harvey, AH West, A White, L Cupples


‘A Game for Hooligans’, Richards H, Mainstream Publishing, 2006

‘Fifty Years of the All Blacks’, Wooler W & Owen D, Phoenix House Ltd, 1954

‘Rugger’, Wakefield WW & Marshall HP, Longmans, Green & Co, 1927

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