February 16 - 1889 NZ 'Natives' beaten by England

On the scoreboard the Natives” were well beaten, a goal and four tries to nil, which is hard to argue with. But there were aspects of the match the New Zealanders were most unhappy with. They disagreed with some of referee Rowland Hills’ decision and one, as described below, so annoyed the “Natives” that three left the field in protest. They were persuaded to return, but later the team had to apologise for their actions

So, there was/is much about the match to reflect on.



“London, February 17. The Maori football team played against All England team yesterday. The Englishmen played a very powerful team and won the match by four tries. The Maoris did not score at all. Very great interest was taken in the match, and there were fully 9,000 spectators present on the ground.”


“But there were still problems. For the players, a week was hardly long enough to heal so many injuries. For Scott, there was friction with the Rugby Football Union over the venue for the international match — Blackheath or The Oval — as well as his need to recover costs. For the Union, there was doubt that the match should even proceed, but in the end it did, and at Blackheath, the ground they preferred.

Because of continuing disagreements with the other three home unions — Ireland, Scotland and Wales — this was to be the only international match played by England in 1888 and 1889. Indeed, some felt that the loss of their traditional opponents was the only reason England agreed to play against the Native team. A hotly disputed England try against Scotland in 1884 had prompted the Scots to call for the establishment of an international board to arbitrate and clarify the developing laws of the game. England were adamant that they would join such a body only if they held the majority of votes, a position based on the fact that they had more affiliated clubs than any other union. It was also clear enough that they did not welcome any Gaelic or Celtic threat to their traditional control of rugby. As a result of England’s continuing stubbornness, Scotland refused to play them in 1885.

When England refused to attend meetings of the new International Board in 1886 and 1887, the other unions refused to play against them. Not until 1890, after independent arbitration by the president of the Football Association, Major Marinden, did England finally agree to join. The Rugby Football Union held half of the seats on the Board in a system which required a three-quarter majority to pass decisions. But at the beginning of 1889 the Union still held firmly to its notions of supremacy, as the Native team were soon to discover.

Although England named no fewer than twelve new caps for the match, including an entirely untried forward pack, ten were northerners and all were experienced club and county players. Opposing them was a Native team very close to full strength; perhaps only Fred and Arthur Warbrick would have bolstered it. Moreover, in the bitterly cold conditions and on the very heavy ground it was felt that Native team forward power would have a great advantage over fleet-footed English backs who preferred hard, dry surfaces.

The game began, and as expected, for much of the first half strong tackling and scrummaging by the Native team kept England scoreless. What happened next is a matter for much debate. British press reports mentioned disputes between the Native team and the referee, Rowland Hill, but gave no precise details. Only Eyton in his tour book, and Tom Ellison in his The Art of Rugby Football, gave full accounts, but their versions are hardly likely to be unbiased. Ellison referred to “distinctly erroneous and depressing decisions of the referee”. Late in the first half, Hill awarded two tries to Bedford when first Billy Warbrick and later Harry Lee claimed to have touched the ball dead in goal.

The third decision, shortly after the start of the second half, was altogether more unusual. It began with Ellison attempting to tackle Andrew Stoddart as he ran for the line. Ellison later explained:

‘I lured him into my arms by applying the feign dodge. By a quick wriggle, however, he escaped but left a portion of his knickers in my possession. He dashed along and the crowd roared; then suddenly discovering what was the matter he stopped, threw down the ball, and in an instant we had the vulgar gaze shut off by forming a ring around him.’

With most of the Native team encircling Stoddart, and believing that he had called “dead ball”, they were in no position to stop Frank Evershed who picked up the ball and appeared to score in the corner in spite of a desperate tackle from Madigan. Nor was this the end of the matter. As the Native team vigorously disputed the try with Hill, Evershed took the opportunity to gather the ball and place it under the posts in a better position for Sutcliffe to convert. As Hill awarded this try, Williams, Taiaroa and Sherry Wynyard walked from the field in disgust. Several minutes elapsed before Scott persuaded them to return and finish the match, which Hill had restarted without them. Although the Native team rallied to place England under a great deal of pressure in the final stages, Sutcliffe broke away for another try and eventually a 7-0 win to England.

Assessed more than a hundred years later, events do not become any clearer, although the contrast between Ellison’s detailed account and the vagueness of the English press reports may offer some indication. Ellison’s view was given some support by at least one prominent member of the Rugby Football Union who was reported as saying that England might have “given way” over Evershed’s try.

Ellison was particularly scathing about Rowland Hill, maintaining that his real mistake was more serious than anything he did on the field.

‘I may add that gross as these errors were, they were insignificant when compared with another that Mr Hill committed at the outset of the game, viz, refereeing at all in that game; he being the most important official of the English Rugby Union [sic] and the father of the team pitted against us.’

This was not to be Ellison’s last word on the matter, even allowing that his book was primarily a coaching manual designed to teach the skills and etiquette of rugby.

The Rugby Football Union immediately demanded an apology from the Native team for their behaviour. Accordingly, Mac McCausland, captain in place of the injured Joe Warbrick, forwarded the following telegram from Cambridge on 20 February.

‘To Rowland Hill,

As captain of the New Zealand team I beg to apologise to the Rugby Union committee for the insults offered by my team to their officials on the field of play on Saturday last, and beg on behalf of my team to express their regret for their behaviour on that occasion.’

Apparently this was McCausland’s second apology. His first had been rejected by the Union who insisted that unless he provided another, at Hill’s dictation, the tour would effectively be ended, because players affiliated to the Rugby Football Union would be barred from playing against the touring team.

Even if this was technically the end of the dispute, the Rugby Football Union did not forgive easily. When the Native team returned to London at the end of March, they were largely ignored by the Union and were given no official farewell from Britain.

However, one Union official must have occupied an ambiguous position. S. E. Sleigh, who had managed the New Zealand team to Australia in 1884, and made many of the advance arrangements for the Native team in Britain, had become a member of the Rugby Football Union committee during 1888. Regrettably, his views on the proceedings of the tour have not been recorded, although it may have been he who felt that the Union might have “given way”.

Eyton included the following rather vague account of the international

match in Rugby Football Past and Present.


England has maintained its supremacy in the football field. So much success has attended the New Zealand natives in their tour, that there were not af ew supporters of our winter game who looked with some anxiety towards the trial of strength between the Mother Country and the Maoris. After the greatly improved form shown by the visitors, there was certainly a little reason for this misgiving, although the generality of the players seemed pretty confident. The result proved favourable for the Englishmen, who registered a goal and four tries to nothing. There was no doubt which was the better side, yet it must be admitted that an element of luck attended the Home sides early scoring. What struck one in the play, as much as anything, was the effective tackling of the visitors and the way they kept on the ball. Especially was this noticeable in the early period. Indeed, the first twenty minutes’ play promised a brilliant match all through. A foolish mistake by W. Warbrick, the full-back, gave the English the first try, and from this point the visitors seemed to lose heart. As the game subsequently progressed the back play of England became more and more brilliant, and the Maoris afterwards never appeared likely to win. Behind the scrummage the Home team had a great advantage. All the three-quarters ran and passed well, while Bonsor and Scott were both prominent at half The latter, however, did more work than any of the backs, and from start to finish his play was always vigorous. Robinson, Cave, Evershed and Wilkinson were very prominent forward, and Royle proved safe at full-back. Forward, the Maoris were fast and kept well on the ball, while the pretty kicking of the backs at times elicited loud applause. Keogh took first honours in this respect. Some of the decisions of the officials caused much dissatisfaction amongst the Maoris, and early in the second half three members of the team withdrew from the field. This was caused in the following manner; Stoddart in running collided with the referee. His clothes had been torn just previously in such a manner as to necessitate his withdrawal. The players formed a ring around him, and he left the field to change. Then the visitors claimed to have a scrummage where Stoddart had run against the referee, but while they were protesting, Evershed got in, and the try was converted into a goal by Sutclffe. After a few minutes’ absence, the three malcontents were persuaded to return. This incident was greatly to be regretted, and more than one prominent unionist thought that the English might have given way. The match, however, proved exceptionally good, and the 12000 people present at the Rectory Field, in spite of the wretched weather and wet ground, seemed to thoroughly appreciate the play.

Bonsor kicked off towards the pavilion at ten minutes past three. Elliot failed to return the ball, but the forwards soon carried it to the centre. The play proved very fast in the first quarter of an hour, and there was really little to choose between the sides. Scott made several useful kicks and runs, but the Maoris showed superb defence, and each time repelled the attacks of their rivals. Free kicks for off-side were frequent, but they only served to relieve in turn the pressure at each end. Lockwood got away along the left side, after which there were a couple of pretty runs by Stoddart. For some time the play remained in the Maoris’ quarters, and at length Bonsor dropped the ball behind the line. Warbrick — the full-back — attempted to run it out instead of touching down; and when half-time arrived the ball was close up to the English line.

The Maoris started the second period in dashing style, but brilliant play by the English forwards — in which Cave and Robinson were very prominent — got the ball to the other end. A beautiful pass from Sutcliffe to Stoddart enabled the latter to get a try after a brilliant run. His kick at goal failed. Then came the incident mentioned above, and Sutcliffe placed a goal from a try by Evershed, while subsequently another try was added by Sutcliffe. Next the Maoris had to touch down. In the last few minutes the New Zealanders came with great dash, and drove the ball over the line twice, but each time it was kicked against the boundary. Then “No-side” was called and England won by 1 goal and 4 tries to nil.

Why did the Rugby Football Union pursue an on-field dispute, serious though it was, to the length of demanding two apologies and threatening to end the tour? One answer is simply that they always regarded the game as being far more important than the individuals who played it. They stood by a strict code of sportsmanship and amateurism which demanded restraint and respect for the ideals of rugby and saw referees as being beyond question. On the other hand, from their earliest matches in Britain, the Native team had not conformed to these requirements. Their behaviour at Blackheath was not isolated, but merely the worst in a long list of indiscretions. A cynical view is that the Union needed a scapegoat through which to reaffirm its power and protect the reputation of its leading official, Rowland Hill. The idealism of the establishment was always under threat from pragmatists in the north, and more immediately from a British touring team which had failed to gain official sanction and yet still been heartily welcomed by rugby officialdom in Australasia.”

From “Forerunners of the All Blacks” by Greg Ryan. Published 1993 by Canterbury University Press. P.82-87.

Sir George Rowland Hill. Despite the obvious bias, Rowland Hill, who was President of the Rugby Union, also refereed the match.