The All Blacks: 100 years of attitude

The All Blacks kick off their British tour on Saturday, a century after the 'Originals' forged a rugby legend

The more things change, the more things stay the same. Barely a week passes without some official or other treating the paying public to a whistle sonata of his own composition, generally performed in a single 80-minute movement marked "pedantic at all times". But some of the things that changed in 1905 and the early months of 1906, when Gallaher's team won 34 of their 35 matches with the fairly startling points difference of 976-59, changed for ever. That tour transformed the way the old world thought about its team sport, and the way the visitors thought about themselves. Graham Henry, the current coach of the All Blacks, puts it better than anyone when he says: "They left home as colonials and returned as New Zealanders."

It seems fatuous to suggest that a country's coming of age was inspired by the deeds of 27 young men - farmers and boatbuilders, miners and foundrymen, blacksmiths and bootmakers and the odd Boer War veteran - on the rectangular mudheaps of the British Isles; that Aucklanders and Wellingtonians honour the 1905 tour in the way the French honour Bastille Day, not so much as an expression of their nationhood as the very definition of it. But to those far-flung folk blessed even with the slightest feeling for the games that people play - or to their minds, the only game worthy of the playing - the "Originals" stand at the heart of what it means to be a New Zealander.

"Just look at the old pictures," urged Wayne Smith, one of Henry's principal sidekicks, as the 2005 All Blacks checked into their Cardiff hotel last Friday night for the start of the centenary tour. "The 1905ers could be us now, couldn't they? It's in the way they stand, the way they hold themselves, the competitive glint in their eyes. Does the history still resonate with the young players? Too bloody right, it does. As coaches, we make it our business to ensure it resonates. This is a special tour, a trip shot through with significance for all of us lucky enough to be involved, and we'll be honouring the 'Originals' during our time here - sometimes publicly, sometimes in a quiet way within the group. It's a very moving thing."

As romance would have it, these All Blacks begin their quest for a Grand Slam this weekend in the one city that repulsed them 100 years ago. Not that they have ever accepted that defeat, by the utterly decisive margin of 3-0, as a fair and honest reflection of proceedings. They believe they were robbed, as most great sides do when they cannot fathom how anyone might have the brass neck to beat them. They insist to this day that Bob Deans, a farmer from Canterbury playing in the centre, scored a legitimate equalising try during the second half, only to be fiddled out of it by some cheating Welsh forwards who dragged him back into the field of play before the referee, dressed in everyday clothes, huffed and puffed his way to the scene of the crime. "We are," said Smith, awash with sarcasm, "about to release an amateur video that shows the incident from a fresh angle."

This, of course, was a none-too-oblique reference to the continuing altercation over the injury suffered by Brian O'Driscoll, the captain of the British and Irish Lions, in the opening minute of last summer's first Test against the All Blacks in Christchurch. O'Driscoll suffered a dislocation of the shoulder after being dropped, tipped, dumped, speared, rammed or pile-driven onto, or into, the ground from a considerable height (delete as necessary, depending on your personal views and prejudices) by Tana Umaga, his opposite number, and Keven Mealamu. While the Lions' management placed the two New Zealanders in the same category as The Acid Bath Murderer, their silver-ferned counterparts turned the blindest of blind eyes. When they did respond, it was to praise Umaga to the high heavens and move him one step closer to sporting canonisation.

Why were we surprised? The All Blacks have brought many things to rugby since Gallaher, who would lose his life at Passchendaele in World War I, and Stead, who survived into his 80s, generously shared their accumulated wisdom by writing The Complete Rugby Footballer: they were the first team to turn a mere Test series into a mighty national calling, bringing the emotional force of an entire population to bear on the Springboks in 1956; they were responsible for an unprecedented flowering of forward play in the 1960s; they professionalised the art of physical conditioning at the 1987 World Cup, almost a decade before the sport went open; they set new standards of athleticism and dynamism in their back play at the 1995 tournament and have continued to do so ever since.

They have also brought a sense of dark menace to the game - a menace endorsed and encouraged by generations of coaches and managers who would rather eat their own children than discipline their own players.

We remember J P R Williams' face being sliced open by the fast-descending boot of John Ashworth; we recall Phil de Glanville being cut to ribbons by the All Black pack during a brutal game in Redruth and Kyran Bracken's ankle being smashed to smithereens by Jamie Joseph; we flinched when Graham Rowntree found his protective headgear entangled in the studs of Ian Jones's right boot, when Ali Williams trampled on Josh Lewsey's visage during England's famous victory in Wellington a little over two years ago. Many misdemeanours, very few guilty pleas, even fewer sentences. The All Blacks did turn on their own kind once, sending the Otago prop Keith Murdoch home in disgrace following his excesses on the 1972 tour of the British Isles. But those excesses occurred off the field, not on it. And how is Murdoch regarded in the South Island, 30-odd years down the road? As a folk hero. What else?

New Zealand have never held a monopoly on this sort of thing. Traditionally speaking, the Springboks are more overtly bullying in their approach, the French more gratuitously vicious, the British and Irish perfectly willing to join in whatever fun and games might be occurring. Even the Australians have had their moments, although they claim to turn the other cheek these days. But All Black villainy has a dimension of its own, its ruthlessness more disconcerting, its practitioners - Kevin Skinner and Colin Meads, Mark "Cowboy" Shaw and Wayne "Buck" Shelford - more celebrated, in a chamber of horrors kind of way.

And this, of course, is the truth that dare not speak its name. The All Blacks exert their grip on the sporting imagination not because they are better than everyone else, although that has clearly been the case for at least 50 of the last 100 years, but because they are never anything less than dangerous, in every sense of the word.

The Boks, the Tricolores, the Wallabies - all have revealed a soft centre at one time or another. The Blacks? Never. They are always, but always, devilishly difficult to beat and well-nigh impossible to beat up. Spectators are drawn to them because they can experience the delicious frisson of watching from a place where it is safe to be scared. The world-class skills of a Richie McCaw or a Daniel Carter are the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

Half a century ago, when New Zealand and South Africa engaged in a series so violent that live television coverage would have left rugby union struggling to justify its own existence, the All Black forwards who waged the war were fast-tracked into the pantheon of local heroes. Last June, seven days after doing whatever he did to O'Driscoll, the fearsomely dreadlocked Umaga was given a standing ovation by his home-town crowd in Wellington. The more things change...

Three great New Zealand victories... and three calamitous defeats

* NZ 11 SOUTH AFRICA 5 (Auckland, 1956)

The Springboks had been considered the best in the world for almost 30 years. Peter Jones' celebrated try in the last Test secured a 2-1 victory for the All Blacks in the most bitterly fought series in history.

* S AFRICA 26 NZ 33

(Pretoria, 1996)

The holy grail. New Zealand had never won a series in Springbok country, but a year after having the World Cup crash-tackled from their hands, they finally climbed the last great summit.

* NZ 29 FRANCE 9 (Auckland, 1987)

The All Blacks, captained by David Kirk (left), were miles ahead of the field in the first World Cup. This three-try performance in the final underlined the supremacy of a wonderful side at its peak.

* FRANCE 43 NZ 31 (Twickenham, 1999)

Not even Jonah Lomu (right) could stop the French wizards. Bookmakers were no longer taking bets on a New Zealand victory when Christophe Lamaison, Olivier Magne and Christian Dominici inspired this World Cup semi-final triumph.

* WALES 3 NZ 0 (Cardiff, 1905)

A match that gave the sport its first enduring legend. The All Blacks had won 27 successive tour games when Wales won by one score, helped by the decision that denied Bob Deans an equalising try.

* NZ 10 ENGLAND 16 (Auckland, 1973)

Perhaps the most dismal performance in All Black history. England, led by John Pullin, arrived as cannon fodder and left with a victory that surprised everyone.

Chris Hewett's all-time All Blacks

15 BOB SCOTT (Auckland, 1946-54) In a tight corner, the best footballer of them all.

14 RON JARDEN (Wellington, 1951-56) Fast, elusive, deadly.

13 TANA UMAGA (Wellington, 1997-) Hard core. The team's beating heart.

12 BILLY STEAD (Southland, 1903-08) Rugby's first genius.

11 JONAH LOMU (Counties and Wellington, 1994-2002)

Unique. A force of nature.

10 MARK NICHOLLS (Wellington, 1921-30) The brains behind the 1924 "Invincibles".

9 DAVE LOVERIDGE (Taranaki, 1978-85) Low cunning, high achievement.

1 KEN GRAY (Wellington, 1963-69) Cornerstone of 1960s pack.

2 SEAN FITZPATRICK (Auckland, 1986-97) The ultimate competitor, utterly ruthless.

3 KEVIN SKINNER (Otago and Counties, 1949-56)

Just don't go there.

4 COLIN MEADS (King Country, 1957-71) The unyielding face of All Black rugby.

5 RICHARD 'TINY' WHITE (Poverty Bay, 1949-56)

Iron commitment, endless energy.

6 MICHAEL JONES (Auckland, 1987-98) Gifted beyond belief.

7 GRAHAM MOURIE (Taranaki, 1977-82) Wonderful captain and a man of honour.

8 DAVE GALLAHER (Auckland, 1903-06) The original "Original".

1978 and all that

New Zealand have made only six Grand Slam tours of the British Isles - playing all four home countries - and only once, in 1978, have they won all four.

* 1905-06 P4 W3 L1 (v Wales, 0-3)

* 1935-36 P4 W2 L2 (v Wales, 12-13; v England, 0-13)

* 1953-54 P4 W3 L1 (v Wales, 8-13)

* 1963-64

P4 W3 D1 (v Scotland, 0-0)

* 1972-73

P4 W3 D1 (v Ireland, 10-10)

* 1978 P4 W4

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