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Controversy in the Land of the Long White Cloud

1930 brought the first British Lions to visit New Zealand for some twenty two years. With the Great War receding in memory interest in the tour ran high in New Zealand . Although the Lions suffered from the usual problems of selection, availability and injury the as ever keen players and supporters of New Zealand craved the spectacle and challenge of the test series.

Despite the high expectations the Lions visit was shrouded in controversy almost from the second that the touring party stepped off the ship and onto New Zealand soil. The foundation of the problem was the tour agreement between the Rugby Football Union’s of the Home Nations and that of New Zealand , which quite clearly stated that the tour was to be played to International Rugby Board laws. Whilst it would be incorrect to say that the Home Nations had a complete monopoly over the laws of the game, the International Rugby Board having taken responsibility for this from 1890, it would be fair to concede that they formed a presence on the International Board that was in essence a stranglehold. It was therefore unfortunate that over the years the way that the game was played in New Zealand had gently diverged from that accepted in the Northern Hemisphere.

If the tour agreement was the foundation of the series’ problems then James Baxter, the Lions manager was its catalyst. Baxter himself was an ex England international, who had further been President of the Rugby Football Union in 1927. He remained a high ranking member of both the RFU Committee and the International Board. In short he was not the sort of man who would allow any diversion from the established laws to remain unchallenged. He was infuriated by the conduct of the tour and the New Zealand RFU, a fury that he was quite happy to share publicly in virtually every after dinner speech that he made during the tour.

There were a number of areas where the New Zealand game differed from what the visitors were used to at home. During the tours' first game with Wanganui the Lions players were bemused when the home team left the pitch at half time for the changing rooms, presumably for a ten minute break and a cup of tea. The Lions won the match 3-19 so any coaching that may have occurred during half time seems to have one the home side little good and it is likely that in 1930 this did not extend beyond the Captains words of wisdom on how to improve. In any case British teams just did not do things like this, and as Baxter pointed out (no doubt vociferously at the after dinner speech) it was against the International Board laws for a player to leave the pitch unless leave was granted in special circumstances. The New Zealand game also allowed players to call the mark with both feet off the ground, another transgression which would be perfectly acceptable under the laws of the game today, but undoubtedly was not in 1930. They also allowed their players to appear in advertisements, an act that must have had the British authorities reaching for the brandy so jealously did they guard the amateur ethos. It appears that even sixty five years before the opening of the game New Zealand was more pragmatic on this point than could even be conceived in the British Isles .

Serious as these were, the full weight of Baxter's ire fell on the New Zealand seven man scrum including its “Rover” system which was the customary way for the All Black's to pack down. This 2-3-2 formation of two hookers in the front row, a lock and two flankers in the second and two loose forwards at the back had the ball put in by the eighth forward or “rover” who remained on his feet now free to either attack the opposition half backs or join his own back line as conditions dictated. The Scrum Half stood at the base of the scrum ready to feed the incredibly fast ball produced by this system.

Baxter was incensed with this to the point that he publicly called C G Porter the All Black's rover and, coincidentally, their Captain a cheat. The New Zealand authorities pointed out in mitigation that the International Board laws did not specify how many players had to pack down in a scrum, and as the rover system was therefore perfectly legal they did not see why they should dispense with something that had served them perfectly well since the 1880's. In point of rugby law New Zealand were correct and despite his anger Baxter was powerless to act.

To make matters worse New Zealand played a rule that prevented players advancing beyond the middle of the scrum. Ironically the International Boards' law book had no such provision and as the tour was being played to this the New Zealand rule book was sidelined allowing the All Black rover ridiculously fast access to the Lions half backs from the scrum. Baxter was furious, but on this point he was hoisted by his own petard.

Despite the controversy raging after dinner and in the press the tour continued. It is likely that the Lions themselves metaphorically shrugged their shoulders about it all and got on with enjoying both the hospitality traditionally offered to tourists in New Zealand and with playing the game. On the pitch despite a spirited win in the first test in Dunedin the Lions were unable to overcome the strength of the All Blacks for the whole series, eventually losing it by three tests to one. If this was due to the All Blacks methods is arguable. Then as now they were an extremely formidable team.

Baxter may have been frustrated and enraged during the tour, but he was far from beaten. On his return to the British Isles he set about using his influence to instigate changes to the scrummage, off side and hooking laws which were all amended by the International Board in 1932 effectively ending the rover system. These changes were seen to be detrimental to the All Black style of play causing some ill feeling in New Zealand . In response the All Blacks simply changed their strategy to a pack orientated game with kicking half backs and a strong full back and then continued more often than not successfully in their quest to vanquish all opponents.


Full credit is given to the late Clem Thomas and his son Greg whose book "The History of the British & Irish Lions" (Mainstream, 2005) formed the basis of the research for this article.

© D A Hunter, 2007
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