How Ulster became the first Irish side to match the mighty All Blacks

 

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The All Blacks side of 1935.

The All Blacks side of 1935.

The All Blacks' Tour diary

The All Blacks' Tour diary

Slice of history: Ravenhill

Slice of history: Ravenhill

�INPHO/Cathal Noonan

The All Blacks side of 1935.

While Ravenhill lies dormant amidst rugby's shutdown, those missing the action are naturally drawn back through history, reflecting on some of the titanic tussles the ground has witnessed since opening in 1919.

For most, 1999 will always be king, the day a highly talented and highly confident Stade Francais arrived in Belfast for a European Cup semi-final as champions-elect only to be beaten by spirited hosts and some David Humphreys magic.

For those with longer memories, it's the night the Grand Slam Wallabies came in 1984 only for Campese and co to lose out to the kicking boots of Philip Rainey. An achievement that is arguably the equal of both, however, has been lost somewhat to time - the day in 1935 that the province became the first Irish side to match the All Blacks.

Ulster had not featured on the schedule of the 1905 All Blacks - 'The Originals' who began the aura of mystique that persists to this day - although were at least connected to the tour with the Donegal native Davy Gallaher captaining one of the most famous rugby sides of all time.

The Second All Blacks did stop off in Belfast, Ulster suffering the same fate as every other challenger on another tour that would go down in lore. 'The Invincibles' returned with contrasting memories of Ulster hospitality, Read Masters remembering both the "very cordial welcome" given by a 16,000 crowd the day of the game only after the visitors had their luggage searched for firearms when crossing the recently-established border by "Belfast police wearing heavy colt revolvers in their belts".

Even in such early days, rugby fans knew what awaited Ulster was a tall order, while their side's form in the build-up to the eagerly-awaited encounter was further cause for concern.

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Slice of history: Ravenhill

Slice of history: Ravenhill

�INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Slice of history: Ravenhill

 

If a journalist writing under the pen name Criticus could describe the side's margin of victory in an 8-3 win over Munster as "humiliating" given that the hosts in Cork had lost a forward to injury, then perhaps the hand-wringing over a ninth consecutive loss to Leinster in Belfast should have been expected.

"As one of the many disgusted spectators who were present at Ravenhill on Saturday, I wish to make a suggestion regarding the match to be played against the All Blacks," read a letter to the editor published by The Northern Whig in the build-up to the team announcement for the All Blacks' visit.

"In view of the dearth of first-class three-quarters in Ulster, I think the selectors should invite one or two capable players from outside the province who would give some stability to the back division and prevent the game becoming a debacle as would undoubtedly be the case were last Saturday's team to take the field against New Zealand.

"After all, the purpose of the game is to give the people of the North of Ireland an opportunity of seeing this splendid combination from overseas playing at its best. This is only possible if the opposition we provide is worthy. We do not want to see a massacre."

The tourists, not considered of the same vintage as those classes of 1905 and '24, had their own travails in the build-up. The meeting with Ulster was to be their 22nd of a 30-game tour, one that had begun with a 34-day boat journey. Upon arrival, tour manager Vincent Meredith - a stern chap who dismissed the haka as 'dancing' - had his mood worsened, his men losing to a club side for the first time when beaten by Swansea, although they had still comfortably overcome Scotland in the first Test of the trip with Pat Caughey grabbing attention with a hat-trick.

No armed customs checks this time around, the All Blacks took the ferry from Stranraer to Larne and were the biggest story in town, their arrival and subsequent reception with James Craig at Stormont considered front-page news.

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The All Blacks' Tour diary

The All Blacks' Tour diary

The All Blacks' Tour diary

 

Feted whenever they left the doors of the grand surroundings of the Imperial Hotel that once stood on the corner of Donegal Place and Castle Lane, a highlight of the visit reportedly came with a visit to the Royal Hippodrome, the theatre that has since been demolished to become the Fitzwilliam hotel.

Like any Kiwi panel, though, rugby was at the forefront of their thoughts. Training at the Ormeau pitches, there were some concerns with Jim 'Rusty' Page and Bill Hadley out injured, but the side named to take the field at Ravenhill were no dirt-trackers. Indeed, 11 of their 15 would be a part of the side that beat Ireland at Lansdowne Road a week later.

Ulster, meanwhile, knew that their strength lay up front.

Prop Douglas Kendrew - or to give him his full title Major General Sir Douglas Kendrew - was an English captain who had toured with the Lions in 1930, was to wed a girl from Donegal and, although a Leicester Tiger, had been turning out for Derry.

Belfast-born No.8 Sam Walker - who remarkably would feature at four different forward positions over the course of his 18 caps - would end his Test career captaining the Lions in South Africa, while Collegians back-rower Jack Siggins was Ireland skipper.

For a team so slanted towards forward play, they got exactly what they would have wanted when waking up that November morning - filthy weather.

As supporters and curious onlookers alike - a large number on special trains from Derry costing the princely sum of seven pennies - made their way to the ground, the rain came down in floods. Those in the press box wrote of having to "shake the water from our hats" and "notebooks turned to pulp" - some things never change - but one who certainly enjoyed what he saw was Howard Marshall of the Daily Telegraph.

"What a headlong, roaring fury of a game," he began his match report for Monday morning's papers.

The All Blacks took the lead when co-author of the tour diary Eric Tindall - a dual international who once caught Don Bradman for 11 - broke through the midfield and kicked ahead for Jack Hart to score a try worth three points. Ulster were level only three minutes later when Tom Dunn - who would have a strong showing in his sole Test cap a week later - dribbled over from a wheeled scrum.

Low-scoring, it had been the battle of attrition that so beguiled Marshall, the efforts of "the whole (Ulster) pack, those mud-plastered heroes" drawing particular praise, though there was one more moment of drama when a drop goal attempt from Mike Gilbert sailed between the posts, appearing to offer redemption for the kicker who had missed six shots at goal only for the ref to decree it had been touched by Victor Hewitt in flight, negating the effort under the laws of the day.

The final whistle and draw was greeted by cheers from Ulster fans and neutrals alike, a result given substantially greater weight by the decades that followed. Ulster would remarkably repeat the feat in 1954 but it would be 1973 before any other Irish side avoided defeat against the fearsome All Blacks.

Fading in the years since, it's a piece of history that has since been eclipsed. Munster's win in 1978 is the stuff of legend while Ireland got their own first victory in 111 years of trying in 2016.

But at the time, it was the quality of the game as much as the size of the achievement that resonated.

"As stirring a game as I ever wish to see," concluded Howard.

Certainly one worth remembering, even 85 years on.

Belfast Telegraph