The first international touring side to visit the British Isles was the 1888/89 New Zealand Native Football Team, popularly known as the Maoris. Both names were, in fact, misnomers, not all of the players were native New Zealanders; one had been born in Australia while another, Paddy Keogh, was actually a native of Birmingham! There were also five Pakehas or non-Maori players in the touring party.
The Maoris first assembled in June 1888 and played nine matches in New Zealand of which seven were won. The tourists then sailed to Australia where they played and won a further two games. There then followed a six-week trip, by steamer, to Britain where the first fixture was on 3rd October against Surrey, at Richmond. The tourists beat Surrey and followed up that victory by defeating both Northamptonshire and Kent in their next two games.
The tourists then travelled to the west Midlands to take on Moseley at The Reddings on 13th October 1888. The visit of the Maoris aroused great interest in the Birmingham area and The Times estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 people witnessed the match while The Birmingham Daily Gazette reported that the crowd was the largest ever seen at a rugby match in the Midlands. Prior to the kick off the Maoris, most of them ‘attired in their picturesque native rugs’ came out onto the field and received ‘a most enthusiastic welcome.’ Moseley, led by captain Albert Smith, then came out and gave their visitors three cheers to which the Maoris responded ‘with their native war cry’ which was presumably some kind of haka.
The visitors won the toss and chose to play with the wind but against ‘the rather steep hill’-the pitch in those days ran parallel to what later became Reddings Road rather than at right angles to it. During the early exchanges both sides appeared to be nervous and ‘the play was of a straggling and uncertain character.’ After 20 minutes ‘Smiler’ Ihimaira, who incidentally was playing without boots, made a run, which resulted in a try for Ellison, which was converted by McCausland, the score being greeted by prolonged cheering from the crowd. However, the Maori lead did not last very long because shortly afterwards Alfred Rogers, the Moseley three-quarter scored a try following good work by Albert Smith and E.J. Byrne. Smith converted this score into a goal. By this stage the tourists were playing two men short because both Wynyard, a forward, and W. Warbrick, the full back, had been forced to retire with leg injuries. Later in the first half Moseley scored another try through Alfred Rogers’s brother John following ‘a lot of wild passing amongst the home players.’ Many spectators thought that this wild passing had included several forward passes, however, the referee awarded the try and Smith once more kicked a conversion. Thus at half time Moseley led by two goals to one goal.
After the break Moseley were on the defensive almost continuously despite their opponents’ reduced numbers and late in the half Ellison scored another try but the touchline conversion attempt failed. This score was disputed by the home team, who in the words of The Birmingham Daily Post, gave ‘a most childish display of petulance.’ Moseley’s sportsmanship was also questioned when a loose ball near their posts was carried into touch in goal rather than played thus preventing a score which, at that time, was not considered to be the done thing. These were not the only criticisms levelled at Moseley as it was felt, in some quarters, that they had been overly rough. It was alleged that at one stage the Moseley umpire had to prevent one of his team from rushing at one of the Maoris with an upraised fist. It was also said that an injury to one of the visitors during the second half was due to a Moseley player jumping on him while he was waiting for the ball. Warbrick returned to the field during the second half but was little more than a passenger due to his injury. Later in the half one of the tourists did cross the home line but the referee disallowed the score.
Thus this eventful match ended in a Moseley win by two goals to a goal and a try, which gave the club the distinction of being the first team to beat the first ever, tourists to the British Isles. This was a remarkable achievement for a Moseley side that was going through a period of rebuilding and which had been given little chance prior to the game. The Times summed up this feeling when it commented that ‘from an altogether unexpected quarter the New Zealanders have experienced their first reverse.’
Following Moseley’s defeat of the Maoris there was much criticism in the press of both the team’s alleged rough play and of their lack of sportsmanship. These reports first appeared in the Saturday evening newspapers on the day of the match and also in The Referee, which appeared on the day after the game. The local press continued the theme on Monday 15th when The Birmingham Daily Gazette commented that ‘with one or two exceptions they [Moseley] were exceedingly and unnecessarily rough’ while The Birmingham Daily Post reported that Moseley ‘with some honourable exceptions, played a rough, and even a savage game.’
However, the case for the defence had also begun as the same edition of the Post included a letter from J.P. Michel, a Moseley committee member and former player, in which he put the accusations down to the fact that many of the reporters at the match were unfamiliar with the rugby game. He condemned their reports as ‘inaccurate, unwarranted, and damaging,’ which drew the comment from the Post that he protested ‘a little too much.’
By the following day the Gazette seemed to have calmed down a little because, while still commenting that the game had been marred by unnecessary roughness, it did also say that the game had been ‘a thoroughly good one’ and that the result had been one of Moseley’s greatest achievements. It also praised the ‘masterly’ captaincy of Albert Smith. That day’s Gazette also carried two letters defending Moseley’s play, one form ‘an old Moseleyan’ and one from a gentleman by the name of Mr. F.N. Spain who, in grand Victorian language, condemned the ‘hypercritical censoriousness’ of the press.
The same day’s issue of the Post congratulated Moseley on their victory but also regretted that the win had not been obtained without rough play. It did, to some extent, then excuse Moseley for this, commenting that unfortunately rough play was taking hold in all of the midland clubs. Interestingly, the correspondence columns of the same newspaper contained a letter from the honorary secretary of Moseley in which he reproduced a letter from the captain of the Maori side at The Reddings and the captain of the tour party. This letter from the tourists stated that the match had been ‘a hard and fast one’ but that there had been ‘no intentional rough play’ and that ‘the misfortunes that befell us were pure accidents.’ (This letter also appeared in the following day’s Gazette). There was, however, still criticism of Moseley’s methods as a letter in the Post of the same day, from ‘Fairplay’ shows. In this missive he deplored the ‘startling and lamentable exhibition of brute force,’ which he compared to a bullfight.
Amidst all this correspondence there was still a rugby tour taking place and on the Thursday following their visit to The Reddings the Maoris played Burton, then one of the leading sides in the Midlands, and once more they were defeated, on this occasion by a goal and a try to a goal. By now it seemed that the wind of controversy had died down and there was only one more letter in the local press on the subject of Moseley’s alleged rough play. This was from the Dickensian-sounding Henry Murgatroyd who wrote to the Post condemning the ‘unmistakeable acts of quite unnecessary violence during the match.’
A week after their visit to Moseley the Maoris took on the Midland Counties, at Edgbaston cricket ground. Although there were Moseley players in the side Burton refused to release their players as they were playing Cardiff on the same day. It was therefore a weakened Midland Counties side which took on the tourists. The Birmingham Daily Post reported that ‘the five thousand persons present were treated to a rare exposition of Rugby football by the foreigners.’ The newspaper thought that the Maoris’ play was as near perfection as possible in all aspects of the game. Although the Midlanders played with ‘rare pluck’ most of the game was played in their half and not surprisingly the tourists won by three goals and a try to nil.
The Maoris then made an extensive tour of the rest of the British Isles playing many matches against the leading sides in the North of England. They also played full international matches with Ireland and Wales, beating the former and losing to the latter. The tourists returned to Moseley, on 4th February 1889, when they played a return fixture with the Midland Counties. It was hoped that following the easy win for the Maoris in October that the Midland Counties would put up a better show on this occasion, however, the home side was again forced to field a weakened team.
Despite the cold blustery weather around 1,000 people were at The Reddings to witness the game. This match, unlike the tourists’ last visit to Moseley, did not attract any controversy and The Birmingham Daily Post reported that the match was ‘an exceedingly fast and interesting one.’ Because of the wintry conditions accurate passing was difficult and the backs were so cold that they had problems holding onto the ball. The Post was of the opinion that the Maoris had learnt a great deal since their last visit to the area four months before. The reporter, on this occasion, had obviously not read his newspaper’s account of the Maoris’ previous game with Midland Counties, mentioned above, which spoke of the tourists’ near perfect play. In this second encounter with Midland Counties the Maoris’ passing was far superior to that of their hosts and the Post also commented on the tourists’ kicking, which was of ‘wonderful excellence’ both with and against the wind. The strongest part of the Midland Counties side was up front where the forwards ‘played a very fine game throughout, dribbling, collaring, and supporting their backs in capital style.’ The weak link in the home side appears to have been the halfbacks who were unable to stop the rushes from which the Maoris gained most of their advantage. The Maoris made good use of their superiority and ended the game with a win by three goals and a try to a try. This was their final fixture in the Midlands and the tour continued with more games in the North and also with an international against England, at Blackheath, which the hosts won.
The British Isles section of the tour finally ended in March 1889 after 74 matches of which the Maoris won 49 and drew five, however, the tour was still not over! On their return to the Antipodes the Maoris played a further 14 matches in Australia and another eight in their homeland. After a tour that lasted a little over a year the Maoris final record was played 107, won 78, drawn six and lost 23.
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