Jervois, an Englishmen as governors were in those days, made his remarks at a welcome home dinner to the first representative New Zealand football team in 1884. The team, organised privately and made up of players from Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago, had just returned from a tour of New South Wales where they played eight matches without defeat, scoring 167 points and conceding just 17.
The Australians knew they were beaten by a better team. “The New South Wales players are not much more than muffs by comparison with the genial fellows who are teaching them to play the game,” the Sydney Telegraph commented.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of that first New Zealand team, the first from New Zealand to play overseas. Although it was eight years before the formation of the national union, the 1884 players have come to be regarded as the first All Blacks – their names are recorded in All Blacks statistics and their captain, William Millton, is regarded as the first captain.
The impetus for the tour came from the vanquished. New South Wales sent a team to New Zealand in 1882 but played only provincial matches and the Southern Rugby Union (Southern as in hemisphere; it later became the NSW union) in Sydney sought a reciprocal tour. Wellington, Canterbury and Otago played a triangular tournament in Wellington in 1883 and during it decided they could muster up a combined team to send across the Tasman.
Sam Sleigh, one of the founders of the Otago union two years before, was made manager and he enlisted the aid of the Canterbury secretary, who just happened to be one of Canterbury’s star players, William Millton. He also played cricket for Canterbury and while touring during the summer of 1883-84 he was able to enlist likely rugby players.
Not everything went to plan. Several leading players couldn’t get leave from work; one demanded payment and was told he could stay at home. One of the chosen ones, James O’Donnell of Invercargill, was on his way to Wellington to join the team when he was hauled off the train at Clinton to front up to creditors who feared he wouldn’t return from Australia. (He didn’t – he later became a city councillor in Sydney).
Millton seemed to have been the ideal captain, just the man to weld together players from disparate parts of New Zealand not often in contact with each other: five each from Auckland, Wellington and Otago and four from Canterbury (including himself). He was, according to Sleigh, the right man in the right place. When Millton died from typhoid just three years later, aged 29, the Christchurch Star called him “one of our best and most useful younger men.”
While Millton was regarded as the man more than any other who contributed to the success of the team on and off the field, the star player was undoubtedly the Otago halfback, Jack Taiaroa. He was described as brilliant by Sleigh and was evidently a crowd-puller in his own right. Before the final match, newspaper advertisements in Sydney said simply: “Last great match – final appearance of TAIAROA.”
By then, the Australians had given up entertaining any hope of victory: “Those who watched the game last Saturday possibly went to see our fellows win,” the Telegraph remarked. “Those who may go next Saturday will go to see the visitors play for they give an exhibition of football such as has never been witnessed in Australia before and they are an ocular demonstration of the physical manhood which is being developed in New Zealand.”
Their successful tour was a harbinger for a successful rugby future for New Zealand. One of the team, Joe Warbrick, who first played for Auckland when he was 15, later made the epic odyssey with the Natives in 1888, as did Taiaroa’s brother Dick and his nephew, Tom Ellison, the man who introduced the black jersey with the silver fern to New Zealand rugby and who captained the first official team in 1893.
But the seeds for the playing uniform may have been sown by Sleigh’s 1884 team. They wore the dark blue jersey of Otago but on the left breast was a silver fern.