1924 All Blacks access

100 years since the Invincibles – What made them special?

In the All Blacks' celebrated history, the tour 100 years ago by Cliff Porter's 1924-25 All Blacks, who became known as the 'Invincibles', stands as the greatest of all ventures outside of New Zealand.

If there were any debate, Brian Lochore's side to England, Wales, France, and Scotland in 1967 and Sean Fitzpatrick's team, which was the first to achieve a series victory in South Africa in 1996, would be contenders.

But neither of the later tours was as long as that by the 1924-25 side. They left Wellington by ship, the Remuera, on July 29 1924, returning on March 17 – 232 days later, during which time they played 32 games without defeat, with Test victories over Ireland (6-0), Wales (19-0), England (17-11) and France (30-6).

How did the tour originate?

After the All Blacks drew their 1921 debut series with South Africa, one win each and the third Test drawn, the New Zealand Rugby Union extended an invitation for a representative British and Irish side to tour New Zealand in 1924. This was declined, and the British & Irish Lions toured South Africa in 1924 instead. But, an invitation was received from England in March 1923 for a New Zealand team to tour in the winter of 1924-25. The tour, formally accepted by the NZRU in November 1923, saw an extended series of trials in New Zealand by a selection group of seven that had started with a sole selector, Ted McKenzie, but was twice extended. First, two selectors each, who chose the North and South inter-island sides were added, and then two extras, one from each island.

How controversial was the team chosen?

After the side was announced, there was concern about the halfbacks, Jimmy Mill (who had played once for the All Blacks in 1923) and Bill Dalley, who would make his debut on tour. There was an emotive bid by concerned interests to add the Auckland halfback Dave Wright to the touring party. That concern reached high in New Zealand's halls of politics with soon-to-be Prime Minister Gordon Coates approached to be an emissary to the NZRU to have Wright included. 

The selection convener, Ted McKenzie, was unimpressed that there might be political pressure to change the selectors' thoughts. Because NZRU meetings were held in open committee, a fascinating record of how the Union reacted to outside pressure survives, and as McKenzie was also on the NZRU Council, he defended the panel's choices and was proved right. It was decided Wright should not be included because The Rugby Union (England) was only prepared to pay for 29 players. Any extra players would be the responsibility of the NZRU.

Before they departed 1905-06, 'Originals' veteran George Tyler wrote a stinging column in the NZ Herald saying that the 1924-25 All Blacks team would be the worst to leave the country. Other Originals were kinder in their thoughts and hoped the side could go one better than them and be undefeated. 

All were conscious that in 1905-06, captain Dave Gallaher's play as a 'wing-forward' had incensed the 'Home' countries. The Originals' vice-captain, Billy Stead, advised the 1924-25 side to call their wing-forwards, Cliff Porter and Jim Parker, 'Rovers', after the treatment meted out to Gallaher.

But, there was one surprise. The NZRU decided at the last minute that a new leader was required. The night before the team sailed, Cliff Porter was asked to accept the position, with five-eighths Ces Badeley demoted – his would be an unfortunate tour afflicted by injury and poor form.

What was the 1924-25 team's motivation?

Apart from the natural desire to prove Tyler wrong, the early focus of the side was achieving revenge for the 1905-06 side's controversial loss 0-3 to Wales – the only defeat on their tour. The Welsh were the second Test of three on the 1924-25 tour. Scotland opted out of playing the All Blacks, making it impossible for the side to become the first Grand Slam winners. Scotland refused to play New Zealand because England organised the tour when it had been agreed earlier that the Four Home Nations committee would invite and organise tours. Scotland's decision was not because of bad blood surrounding the 1905-06 Test in Edinburgh when they refused a guarantee for the touring All Blacks and instead offered them the gate, minus Scotland's expenses. It was a disastrous decision as a full house for the game ensured the All Blacks made a massive profit. And it was also not because of daily payments for touring players. Players' expenses were covered by a payment made by England to the NZRU.

Porter's side was less revolutionary than the Originals', who introduced specialist players in their 2-3-2 scrum, wing-forwards, great ball-handling skills and constant support play from forwards and backs to the British.

Porter's players were as effective against better-prepared opponents, especially in the forwards. Porter's men had to cope with issues with their scrum through the early stages. Porter and Parker played less obstructively than Gallaher had done; Porter playing close to the scrum while Parker, a national 400m champion, was fast enough to spend much of his time among the backs, scoring 18 tries on tour, including five tries on the wing on one occasion.

The forwards had not been a concern before the tour. Despite their 2-3-2 scrum managing less than 50 per cent possession across the tour, they developed into a powerful unit. But they were fast, fit and strong. Giants of the game like Maurice Brownlie, Cyril Brownlie, Jock Richardson, Len Cupples and Andrew 'Son' White ensured plenty of lineout ball and could best be compared to blindside flankers of the modern game. They were big and fast and could handle like backs, allowing the All Blacks to play a support game against static and unimaginative sides more content with kicking down the touchline to contest lineouts. Read Masters proved crucial as a strong lock. Front rowers Quentin Donald and Bill Irvine were speedy hookers who supplemented the more prominent men.

Concerns about their backs proved unfounded. Fullback George Nepia, a teenager when the tour started, was ranked the greatest player of the side, playing in every game. Bert Cooke, who burst onto the scene in 1924, proved brilliant in the midfield. They overcame issues at centre, when good form from new first five-eighths Neil McGregor solved their problem. Mark Nicholls moved to second five-eighths, and Cooke played at centre. The wings, Jack Steel and Karl 'Snowy' Svenson, while not especially fast, were strong defenders. 

What is the Invincibles' legacy?

By their unbeaten success, they restored New Zealand's name at the forefront of the game after the drawn series against the 1921 Springboks had shaken the faith of All Blacks' supporters. They continued the adaptation in the game that is now referred to as the All Blacks' DNA while demonstrating the virtues of fitness, support play, and skills across all positions. In all their British, Irish, and French games, they were only behind on the scoreboard five times.

Across their 32 games, they scored 206 tries. In 35 games in 1905-06, the Originals scored 243 tries against weaker sides. 

However, invincible as Porter's men were, it would not be until the era from 1966-70 that the All Blacks would again enjoy similar dominance. They would remain the only New Zealand side to be unbeaten on a longer form of tour.