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The First Red Card

Picture Courtesy of The Lordprice Collection

January 3rd 1925 Twickenham. In a highly anticipated match England were to face the touring All Blacks on a sunny if blustery afternoon. Some sixty thousand spectators including the Edward the Prince of Wales and Stanley Baldwin the Prime Minister had crammed into Twickenham stadium for what was hoped to be the showpiece of the New Zealand tour. There was much to play for. The only time that the two sides had met previously in 1905 the All Blacks had been easy victors by fifteen points to nil. Recently England had been on a run of good form, having been unbeaten for the previous two seasons and achieving back to back ‘grand slams’, a rare achievement in itself. Although the English trials had not gone as well as may have been hoped they retained enough residual strength, particularly in their pack, to have a real hope of taking the game. For the All Blacks there was also much to be gained by victory. Vilified as an almost embarrassingly weak squad before they left New Zealand they were so far unbeaten in twenty seven games and had already bested Ireland and Wales . It was a record that they would guard jealously at this late stage of their tour.

The Twickenham atmosphere was charged. The crown was electrified with the players, and particularly the opposing packs, hyped up almost to a frenzy. That the referee Albert Freethy was going to have his hands full soon became clear. From the kick off the two sets of forwards showed that no quarter could be expected in this game, their play being robust to say the least. Lest the game should descend into little more than an open brawl Freethy issued three general warnings within the first few minutes of the start. Finally with just seven minutes on the clock he ordered the New Zealand Forward Cyril Brownlie from the pitch. It was testament to the All Blacks skill and determination that despite the disadvantage that this left them with for the majority of the match they still managed to dig deep and win the contest by seventeen points to eleven. Here the matter should have rested, but it did not.

Perhaps the controversy that subsequently raged was because this was a first. No player had ever been sent off in an international match before. There is little doubt that New Zealand would have preferred that such an ignominious historical fact would belong to any team rather than their own. Within hours of the match Freethy would feel it necessary to issue a statement justifying his decision, which was duly reproduced in the Times of London the following Monday: “In some loose play the ball had been sent away and two or three England forwards were lying on the ground. C. Brownlie was a few feet away from them, and as he came back he deliberately kicked on the leg an England forward lying face downward on the ground. I had taken my eye off the ball for a moment, and therefore saw exactly what happened. Previous to this I had warned each side generally three times, and therefore I had no option but to send Brownlie off the field. I much regretted having to do this, but in the circumstances I had no alternative but to take this drastic action. ” Freethy was at this time a highly respected Welsh referee. From Neath he had refereed the Olympic Final in 1924 and also officiated over every France versus England match played in Paris between the wars. A teacher by profession he was regarded as firm but fair.

The battle lines were swiftly drawn in the press. The Times itself stated that “... if Brownlie paid the penalty for ignoring the referee’s warnings to both sides he had only himself to blame.” and further “This was an unprecedented indignity in the match, and perhaps the sooner it is forgotten, and the longer merely its meaning is remembered the better it will be for the game.” Unsurprisingly this was not a view shared by the New Zealand team or press. In the Evening Post on January 5th 1925 the All Blacks team manager SS Dean was quoted as saying “the referee made a mistake... It is felt that a grave injustice has been done to Brownlie and the unfortunate occurrence has cast a gloom over the whole party”, the article later adding that the event “could not help the spirit of Imperialism.”

Claim and counter claim abounded. The New Zealand players were incensed that the England Captain had apparently ignored the appeal “well it is up to you” from his All Black counterpart Jock Richardson, alluding to the New Zealand sometime practise of the opposing Captain interceding on the behalf of the dismissed player to allow his return. In the press Wavell Wakefield would counter this by stating that he had not heard Richardson’s plea, nor seen the incident itself further commenting that given the state of play it could just have easily have been an Englishman who infringed next and was sent off. In his book ‘Rugger’ of 1927 he would further add that any such custom was unheard of in Britain and in any case “Such action clearly undermines the authority of the referee, and it is a captain’s business to support a referee’s decision at all cost, whether he agrees with that decision or not... it is one of the basic rules of Rugby that a referee’s decision is unalterable.” This may all have been true, but at the same time it would be naive to think that Wakefield was unaware of the potential advantage that England would gain facing the All Blacks a man down for seventy minutes of a match.

It also remained a sore point that the English player who had allegedly been stamped remained unnamed. Reg Edwards an English prop went so far as to state on record that he had not been the player to feel the force of Brownlie’s boot, whilst the England back Leonard Corbett could say little more than his Captain in as much as that he had not seen the incident and some years later that he had never made any attempt “to establish the facts which caused the regrettable incident and have always studiously avoided being drawn into the numerous controversies that arose out of it.” Corbett was also generous in his praise of the referee himself agreeing with the commonly held view that “Mr Freethy was the ablest, fairest and firmest referee it was ever my experience to play under and. unfortunate and regrettable though this incident undoubtedly was, I have no reason to suppose that his judgement was at fault or that his actions were unjustified.” He also felt that the sending off had the desired effect as it was to “steady the more exuberant and excitable players on both sides.”

The New Zealand press were not so forgiving. An article in the Evening Post on March 7th 1925 related how the sending off actually resulted from a line out and an altercation between Edwards and Brownlie which led to them both being personally warned and Freethy “in a state of rage and was determined that Cyril Brownlie should go off.” Edwards, who was reported to the Rugby Football Union by Freethy for his own actions in the match, admitted the incident, although stated that this was three or four minutes before the sending off and denied that he was personally warned. Conversely another article in the Evening Post that had been published on February 17th complained that Brownlie was merely retaliating for dirty play by English players that had preceded the event and that HAD he been personally warned then in all probability the outcome would have been different.

In all it was a morass. Taking Freethy’s statement at face value it seems almost inevitable that someone would be asked to leave the pitch. There may well have been other players who could, perhaps even should, have been excluded. Freethy’s view of Brownlie may have been clouded by the lineout incident a few minutes before, but aggressor or not, retaliation or not Brownlie did something that made Freethy decide that enough was enough. The event did not seem to unduly effect his playing career within New Zealand itself, and indeed just a couple of weeks later he took the field to play France in the final test of their tour. If nothing else Freethy’s decision did seem to have the desired effect as the game settled into something more akin to rugby than a bar room brawl. New Zealand would go on to remain unbeaten and claim the title of ‘The Invincibles’, a genuinely historic feat, albeit one that will always be tinged by the fact that a member of their party was also the first to be sent off the international field of play.



‘Fifty Years of the All Blacks’, Wooler W & Owen D, Phoenix House Ltd, 1954

‘Rugger’, Wakefield WW & Marshall HP, Longmans, Green & Co, 1927

The Times Online Digital Archive

Papers Past at the National Library of New Zealand

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© D A Hunter, 2010
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