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Few athletic teams have amassed the same level of success and glory as the New Zealand National Union Rugby Team. Legend says the team earned its “All Blacks” titles through a typographical error in a London Newspaper. Supposedly, A reporter was so astonished by the insatiable prowess of the New Zealand players, he wrote that they played as if they were “all backs,” meaning every player possessed well-rounded, seemingly position-less attributes. Though largely disputed, the lore and fable that surrounds the team and its name is undoubtedly a product of their legendary brilliance on the field. Ever since the late 19th century, the All Blacks have dominated the national rugby circuits, leaving in their wake decades of overwhelming victories and unforgettable titles. One sound of their iconic “Haka Ritual” strikes fear into the hearts of their opponents and has done so for centuries. In many ways, the All Blacks have changed the game of rugby, and with over a century of unmatched success, they have effectively set the standard for excellence in the sport.
Beginnings of a Winning Tradition
On a damp spring day in May 1884, with spectators looking down on the Newton Park Stadium, the yet to be named All Blacks took to the field for the first time against a Wellington XV team. With James Allan leading the team across the pitch that summer, the All Blacks wasted no time in establishing their dominating play style. In eight matches following their first win in New South Wales, the All Blacks maintained a perfect undefeated record and began to attract the eyes and attention of their country. Playing mostly regional matches through the 1890s, the team and its fanatic supporters began to yearn for high-level international competition. By the 1904 season, the All Blacks were slated to play Great Britain on New Zealand soil in what would become their first truly international test match.
After a stout 9-3 victory over Great Britain that season, the All Blacks sparked international interest. Suddenly, North American and European teams were demanding matches against the New Zealand team, as word of their fearless and intimidating play style began to spread across the international rugby circuit. In 1905, New Zealand would oblige their international opponents’ requests, playing a total of 35 international test matches in just a 17-week tour across Europe and North America. In what would prove to be a defining moment for the relatively young squad, the All Blacks posted an inconceivable 34-1 record with just a 25-man roster, and 0 replacement players. The undeniable grit and determination the All Blacks were able to manifest in their play proved overwhelming to their opponents, as one reporter for the Daily Chronicle wrote in 1905, “These New Zealanders turn defence into attack with such bewildering rapidity as to prove that scrummaging is a mere detail. There is nothing in the game in which they do not excel…” With the rugby world now in their grasp, the All Blacks effectively established what has become their own standard of excellence with their 1905 tour. Now over a century later, this standard has not been altered in the slightest.
World War I and a New Rivalry
Over the next decade, the All Blacks continued the success of their 1905 tour and attracted an even wider fan base outside of their own borders. Their name became synonymous with the game of rugby itself. However, with World War I looming in 1914, the All Blacks suspended their international play for nearly 6 years. 13 All Blacks players were reportedly killed in action during those dark times.
Resuming their play in 1921 against the South African Springboks, who would eventually become their greatest rivals, the depleted All Blacks would suffer a disappointing 1-1-0 series match draw.
Though the Springboks were surely the most formidable team to face the All Blacks since the turn of the century, the series draw was intolerable for the All Blacks winning ways. By the 1924 season, with a rejuvenated sense of urgency and a slight chip on their shoulders, the All Blacks would depart for a new world tour to Europe and North America. On this tour, the All Blacks would surpass even their 1904-05 tour, winning all 32 of their matches, and garnering their title as “The Invincibles.”
Drawing sell-out crowds and even more international attention during the mid-20th century, the All Blacks entered the 1950’s season with nearly every accolade imaginable to their name, except that is for victors of a test series match against the Springboks. In fact, their South African rivals had not lost a 4 match test series to any opponent since 1896. In what seemed like destiny in 1956, the Springboks arrived in New Zealand for what would become one of the most truly iconic series in sports history. The next 4 matches between the Springboks and the All Blacks would play as much like a chess game as rugby. As stadiums filled and frenzied fans dedicated their days to following the matches, both sides attempted to make the proper roster adjustments to control the 4-match series. After winning the first match, the All Blacks opened the series with a sense of optimism and control. However, with debutant prop Mark Irwin being lost to injury, the All Blacks chemistry was disrupted. Dropping the next match 8-3, the All Blacks were being obliterated in the scrums by their South African opponents as panic began to set in for many New Zealanders. In what some believed to be a desperate move, the All Blacks management called up Waikato full-back Don Clark and called back veteran Kevin Skinner to fill the pitch.
These moves, though unprecedented, proved to be brilliant. The aggressive play style of Skinner, who was a former heavyweight boxer, combined with the tactical genius of Don Clark tipped the momentum into the favor of the All Blacks, as they went on to win the 3rd match 17-10. With all hopes of their victory depleted, and a divided locker room now beginning to form, the Springboks were on their heels. In what many rugby supporters would call a disgraceful game, the fourth match would hinge on near all-out violence throughout the final minutes. However, as the dust settled, the All Blacks secured their first victory against their bitter rivals in what would become the most iconic series in rugby history.
The Unmatched Success Continues
Since that series victory in 1956, the All Blacks have only continued their unbridled success. Winning the 1987 World Rugby Cup in its inaugural year, the All Blacks ushered rugby into the professional era, which would officially arrive in 1996. In the two decades since the professional era began, the All Blacks have won 3 grand slam titles and 3 world cups, culminating the opening of their professional achievements by posting an undefeated season record in 2013.
The All Blacks rich and unparalleled success over such an expansive period of time has undoubtedly cemented their place in athletic glory. Over 1,100 men have appeared in the All Blacks uniform, passing the torch of expectations and excellence across the span of 100 years. Since their conception in 1884, the All Blacks have played in over 550 test matches and have emerged victorious in over 75% of those matches. Unquestionably, the All Blacks are responsible for breeding a culture of rugby brilliance in New Zealand, and their dominance has put them on the pinnacle of the rugby world.
Celebrate the greatness of the New Zealand All Blacks with the Vintage All Blacks rugby ball signed by legendary test captains.
Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.