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Original perspective offered on All Black Original

4 November 2005

Original perspective offered on All Black Originals

Sports historian and author Greg Ryan’s latest book might ruffle the odd feather amongst Kiwi rugby fans as he tackles a few myths surrounding the Original All Blacks.

For most rugby followers, the 1905 All Black tour of Britain has assumed legendary proportions. By its end, this unheralded team had taken the traditional rugby strongholds by storm, dazzled with its athleticism and innovative style, accumulated a string of huge victories, and put its young colony firmly on the world map.

The tour created the ‘All Blacks’ name and mystique and enshrined expectations of international success that show little sign of receding. Its associated myths and symbols are etched in the collective consciousness of New Zealand rugby enthusiasts.

The Contest for Rugby Supremacy: Accounting for the 1905 All Blacks, released this month by Canterbury University Press, provides a new and critical perspective on the events and personalities of the 1905 tour and the broader rugby world in which it took place.

“What I’m offering is an entirely new angle – a somewhat provocative book that completely reassesses the achievements of the 1905 All Blacks and presents arguments and evidence that are not to be found in other accounts of the tour,” says Dr Ryan.

While the book does not seek to belittle the achievement of the All Blacks, it does aim to set it the tour in a far more comprehensive context than previous writing on the team and tour. This centenary year has seen a number of books published on the 1905 All Blacks, but Dr Ryan says many are almost entirely uncritical, celebratory in tone, downplay the tour controversies, and are largely devoid of context.

“Most of the stuff written about the 1905 All Blacks stops in March 1906 when the team get home and leaves you with a ‘happily ever after’ ending to the story. What actually happened was a bunch of the players went back to Britain with a rugby league team which established the professional game in New Zealand and plunged rugby union into chaos. By 1912 New Zealand and British rugby did not want to have anything to do with each other.”

The Contest for Rugby Supremacy is the first book on the tour that bases its research largely on British sources and their perspectives rather than the selective range of reports that were published in New Zealand, so it offers the sporting enthusiast some new perspectives to debate in the changing room, the pub, or over the airwaves on talkback radio.

The Contest for Rugby Supremacy examines key themes in the formative years of New Zealand rugby that both shaped the success of the All Blacks and produced frequent controversy around them; explores significant political and sporting debates during the course of the tour; reassesses the achievements of the team within a British sporting world in which soccer was dominant and rugby union was severely weakened by the rise of rugby league in the north; sets the supposed controversy of the loss to Wales in a wider context; and finally considers the significant deterioration in British–Australasian rugby relations in the years immediately after the tour.

“I don’t know whether I’ll be shot down in flames or banned from rugby clubs,” Dr Ryan says. “I don’t set out to antagonise people but hopefully make a convincing argument and people will see I’ve done my research.

“I think some of our sporting myths can be unhealthy. Our present teams are saddled with unrealistic expectations. They have to live up to this mystique of these great All Blacks, who if you go back and look into it were not invincible and were subject to a good deal of criticism at the time.”

Greg Ryan is a Senior Lecturer in History at Lincoln University and is a former lecturer and alumnus of the University of Canterbury. He is the author of Forerunners of the All Blacks: The 1888–89 New Zealand Native Football Team in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (1993) and The Making of New Zealand Cricket 1832–1914 (2004) and editor of Tackling Rugby Myths: Rugby and New Zealand society 1854–2004 (2005). He has also published numerous popular and academic articles on the history and contemporary state of New Zealand sport.

- The Contest for Rugby Supremacy: Accounting for the 1905 All Blacks, by Greg Ryan, published by Canterbury University Press, October 2005, RRP NZ$34.95, Paperback 228 x 152 mm 240 pp plus 16 pp illustrations. ISBN 1-877257-36-2.


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