Above: spectators at Athletic Park in 1910, possibly watching the All Blacks scrape to a 26-17 win over Wellington in this encounter, one of 13 matches between the two sides.
Heading into Friday’s match at the Hutt Recreation Ground between the All Blacks and Wellington-Canterbury it is worth noting that Wellington almost has a fifty percent winning record against the All Blacks.
Wellington sides have won six and lost seven of 13 previous matches against the All Blacks.
Right up to the 1950s, in the age of sea travel, it was common practice for the All Blacks to play warm-up or practice matches against provincial opposition - generally Wellington or Auckland - before they departed by ship on their overseas tours. In some instances, they would also play these matches upon their return, presumably to stretch their sea legs, and as late as their five-month 1960 tour to Australia and South Africa they closed their tour in Wellington with a touring match against the Rest of New Zealand (winning 20-8).
Additionally, in 1973, as a replacement to the postponed South African tour, the All Blacks made a five-match in-bound tour of the country. One of these games was at Athletic Park against a NZRFU President’s XV that was captained by Colin Meads. Combined, the two teams featured several Wellington players and the President’s XV won 35-28.
Below is a summary of the bakers' dozen matches New Zealand/the All Blacks (from 1907 onwards) have played against Wellington opposition. Most were against Wellington, but a handful, including the second of two matches in 1925 that was specifically against a combined ‘Wellington-Manawhenua’ team, were essentially against lower North Island sides (early incarnations of the Hurricanes). But they were all played in Wellington (all except the first one at Athletic Park) and the opposition was called ‘Wellington’.
This was the first ever ‘All Blacks' match, ahead of their first ever tour, to New South Wales. New Zealand scored a try, a conversion and a dropped goal to take their match winning 9-0 lead into halftime and then held on in the second spell. The match was played in two 25-minute spells. Four Wellington players were in the New Zealand team: Wellington FC prop Peter Webb, Greytown hooker Hart Udy (who lived in the Wairarapa but played for Wellington), Wellington FC halfback Henry Roberts and Athletic centre John Dumbell. As well as playing against his teammates, Roberts created history by scoring New Zealand's try and thus the first ever try scored by a New Zealand international. New Zealand went on to win all eight games on tour in Australia.
Just when the All Blacks were making it a habit of beating Wellington, the province struck back. Leading into this game, the shock omission of the 1914 All Blacks' touring party to Australia was Wellington halfback Teddy Roberts (not to be confused with Fred, above) with Canterbury's Henry Taylor and Buller's Clem Green both preferred ahead of him. As it transpired Green was a late withdrawal and Roberts won a place on the tour and subsequently lined up against his Wellington teammates in this match. The game was fast and open and quickly became a battle between Wellington's forwards and the swift All Black backs. Wellington's pack prevailed. New Zealand scored two tries and led 6-3 at halftime. In the second half Eddie Ryan scored twice for Wellington, both initiated by Roberts' replacement at halfback Horace Nunn. A third second half try to H. Paton gave Wellington a famous win.
Note: Horace Nunn was an New Zealand League representative but never played a Test match.
Wellington had a busy season in 1920, traversing the country with the Ranfurly Shield in tow, defending it 11 times before losing it to Southland in Invercargill and then beating Canterbury on the way back home. Rugby was on a high, and the 10,000 that showed up to watch this fixture were quietly confident that their team would give the All Blacks a good run. However, the opposite occurred and the outcome of this match is the All Blacks' widest winning margin against Wellington in all their matches played. They won by 11 tries to nil. The All Blacks were a sharp combination too, having just beaten a Metropolitan Union side in Sydney 79-5 (117-7 in today's scoring) in their final match of an 8-game tour of Australia. Wellington's only points came from a first half Mark Nicholls penalty, while for the All Blacks, South Canterbury wing Percy Story scored a hat-trick of ties.
A new-look All Blacks squad - minus the ‘Invincibles' players that had swept them to victory after victory on their European tour the previous New Zealand summer - embarked on a 6-game tour to Australia. The green All Blacks assembled for the first time in Wellington on Tuesday and the following day they met Wellington at Athletic Park. As well as being their first run together, the All Blacks also had to battle a ferocious southerly storm that dominated the match. Wellington also had their Invincibles All Blacks in their team, captain and wing forward Cliff Porter, first five-eighth Mark Nicholls and wing ‘Snowy' Svenson who had scored 23 tries in 25 matches in Europe. Svenson scored the second of Wellington's two tries and Nicholls converted to push Wellington out to a 10-0 lead at the break. Turning with the elements at their backs, the All Blacks pressed but were unable to overcome the deficit.
Returning from their tour to Australia, the All Blacks once more played a provincial match at Athletic Park. This time it was against a combined Wellington - Manawhenua side. Played in proverbial windy conditions this was a game of two halves. The local Wellington-Manawhenua combination took an 11-0 lead into halftime and the All Blacks flew home with 25 unanswered points in the second 40 minutes. As the name suggests, Manawhenua was a merger between Horowhenua and Manawatu. Like other amalgamations, the marriage was brief, lasting from 1925 to 1933. But in that time the short-lived union created history by winning the Ranfurly Shield off Wairarapa in 1927, successfully defending it against Taranaki and Wanganui and then losing it to Canterbury.
A rousing second half comeback gave Wellington their second win in as many seasons against the All Blacks, who this time had 13 players who had travelled with them on the 1924-25 ‘Invincibles' tour to call upon. Two Wellington players, Porter and Svenson, lined up for the All Blacks against their local teammates. Trailing 3-11 at halftime, Wellington opened up the second spell with a penalty and they then crossed for a decisive try. Following a ‘forwards rush', WCOB club centre Herbert Grenfell cut through to score. Wellington's forwards continued to press and two more penalties put them clear. Wellington captain and forward Jim Moffitt, aged 37, was Wellington's Player of the Day.
This remains one of Wellington's most memorable wins over international teams - and against the All Blacks no less. The match was long remembered for the deeds of Wellington wing Nelson ‘Kelly' Ball who scorched in to score four tries in this match. Not originally picked for the upcoming tour of Australia that this match was a dress rehearsal to, Ball, the father of Footrot Flats creator Murray, was the first player the selectors turned to when one of the originally chosen wings George Hart had to withdraw with a shoulder injury. Wellington featured six players - Ball, ‘Rusty' Page, Brian Killeen, Eric Tindill, Artie Lambourn and Charlie Quaid - who had played or were about to play for the NZ. The All Blacks were captained by Wellington halfback Frank Kilby while Herb Lilburne was at first five-eighth for the men in black. Ball stole the show, scoring a first half hat-trick as Wellington took a 23-13 halftime lead. Wellington were dominating and they piled on more points to take a 23-point lead before easing their foot off the pedal to save the All Blacks' blushes. Inside back Page and halfback Tindill also starred for Wellington in this match. Page subsequently joined Ball as a late replacement to the All Blacks touring squad to Australia, while double international Tindill made the team three years later.
Note: Greg Cornelsen 4 tries for Australia against the All Blacks for Australia at Eden Park in 1978. Cornelsen failed to score a test try in his other 24 internationals for Australia.
Story Acknowledgements: Cliver Akers; the Dominion Newspaper (1907-1932); www.allblacks.com; The Visitors: the history of international rugby teams in New Zealand / R.H. Chester & N.A.C McMillan / Moa, Auckland, 1990; Athletic Park: a lost football ground / Tim Donoghue / Tim Donoghue Publications in association with the Wellington Rugby Football Union, Wellington, 1999
Photo credit: Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972 :Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-020181-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22739531