It's no secret that rugby has loomed large in New Zealand's national imagination for over a century. Indeed the first provincial rugby unions were formed in 1880 and, although a national union was still some years off, the first national representative team was touring New South Wales in 1884. Forty years later the NZ Truth newspaper extolled the way the sport commanded the country's interest: "Rugby suits the athletic genius of New Zealand ... What is there in politics (short of war) that can move countries thusly?"
By 1905, the country was ready to send a national team to challenge the Old Country on their own fields. This team would become known affectionately as the "Originals".
Captained by the great Dave Gallaher (arguably the most discussed footballer in the world at the time) and managed by former Auckland Rugby Union Secretary G.H. Dixon, the Originals lost but one game in 35 matches. Dave Gallaher was already a local rugby legend in New Zealand; a Ponsonby club player who had represented Auckland Province since 1896, he was 30 before he gained his first cap for New Zealand. Sadly, he was later killed in action in Flanders.
The Invincibles are born
In 1923 the English Rugby Football Union invited a representative New Zealand team to tour the British Isles the following year. With fond memories of the 1905 tour behind them, New Zealand embraced the opportunity to once again test their rugby skills against the best of the northern hemisphere teams. Nine trial matches were held to pick the touring team, with 8000 spectators attending the North Island Possibles v. Probables match on 21 May 1924.
The final selection included names that remain known today: wing forward Cliff Porter as Captain, and exceptional players George Nepia (who, just 19, played in every match on tour), Bert Cooke and Maurice Brownlie. Wing Freddie Lucas, another Ponsonby and Auckland player, was praised in his later career as "one of the brainiest wingers" in the country.
If the team had been selected in an atmosphere of excitement and high expectations, those expectations had become a burden by the time the All Blacks arrived in the United Kingdom. Unconvincing performances in their preliminary matches at home and in Australia, saw the public begin to compare them unfavourably to the 1905 Originals. George Tyler, the Originals' hooker, described them as the weakest team New Zealand had yet fielded, and the Northern Advocate newspaper, a generally reasoned and positive supporter of all things rugby, published the opinion that nobody expected the All Blacks to do as well in 1924 as the 1905 team.
Forging an enduring legacy
Despite the initial public scepticism, the tour was an enormous success. Thousands turned out for games and superlatives followed the team through the British Isles, France and Canada with French media the most creative in their admiration: "indisputable champions of the world with the oval ball", "what magic they represent", "the invincible All Blacks". Two of the All Blacks were invited to join an English club game, an unprecedented honour.
By the time they returned unbeaten from their 32-match tour, the 1924-25 team was enthusiastically lauded as the best All Black team of all time. The NZ Truth proudly bracketed the 1905 and 1924 teams, boasting "New Zealand has furnished the world with two of the greatest athletic combinations in its sporting history".
The 1905 Originals are remembered as the team that kick-started the All Black tradition, while the 1924 "Invincibles" are remembered for their long-held record of tour success.
The Invincibles were inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
Cite this article
A rugby legacy: The Originals and the Invincibles. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 22 September 2015. Updated: 23 November 2015.