From The Vaults

13 August 2021
‘The Rugby Championship of the World’

From June to September 1921, the rugby world waited expectantly as New Zealand and South Africa, two of the legendary teams in rugby history, met for the first time in a three-test series.

The All Blacks and the Springboks had already earned the respect of the northern hemisphere with their own hugely successful overseas tours of the United Kingdom and France before the First World War. Their competitive clashes at home against representative teams from Australia and the British Isles, now known as the British & Irish Lions, had further enhanced their reputations.

This momentous tour of the Springboks to Australia and New Zealand comprised twenty matches, the first five of which took place in Australia. The ravages of rugby league meant that there were no matches played in Queensland and the three "test" matches, each won convincingly by the Springboks, were played against players from New South Wales only. The Australian Rugby Union retrospectively awarded test status to the three matches, but their South African counterparts have never done so.

The South African touring party captained by Theo Pienaar consisted of 29 players, two of whom had international experience from before the war. The fullback, Gerhard Morkel, had played outstandingly in all five internationals on the Springbok tour of the UK in 1912-13 and, although thirty two years old and slower than in his prime, was to exert a massive influence on the outcome of this series. The forward WH 'Boy' Morkel was thirty six years old and his international career had started against the British Isles in 1910. Immensely strong and a revered leader, he came out of retirement for the tour and was appointed Springbok captain for each of the three tests against the All Blacks as Pienaar's form had dipped during the Australian leg of the tour.

The Springboks played nine provincial matches in New Zealand before the 1st test. Although they drew with Taranaki and lost narrowly to Canterbury in the sixth match of the tour, their record suggested they would be formidable opponents in the test matches. One player selected for the first test was the front row forward Frank Mellish from Western Province who had already played six internationals for England in 1920-21 so three of their players had experienced that unique test match atmosphere.

The All Blacks picked a new side for the 1st test at Carisbrook, Dunedin under the captaincy of Wellington centre George Aitken, later to represent Scotland in the mid-1920s and play in their Grand Slam side of 1925. There were five players from Wellington and just one pre-war international, the front row forward EE 'Ned' Hughes who had won four caps way back in 1907-08 and aged forty remains the oldest player to represent New Zealand in a test match. There was much press comment when their pre-war scrum half EJ 'Teddy' Roberts who had played three tests against Australia in 1914 was unexpectedly omitted, and not a single player from Canterbury was picked despite them being the only province to have defeated the Springboks.

23,000 enthusiastic spectators packed into Carisbrook and a try by the Transvaal winger and Olympic 400-metre hurdler AJ 'Attie' van Heerden towards the end of the first half gave the Springboks a 5-0 interval lead. The second half belonged to the All Blacks who scored three tries, two converted by Mark Nicholls, without reply to win the match by 13 points to 5. The second try was scored after a magnificent fifty-yard run by the right wing Jack Steel who caught the ball from a very high pass and continued running at full pace while he adjusted the position of the ball without dropping it.

After winning their next three provincial matches, the Springboks made six changes to their side for a test match in front of a 40,000 crowd at Eden Park, Auckland that they had to win. Mellish was replaced by 26 year old Nic du Plessis in the front-row. It would the first of five caps for du Plessis in which he would not taste defeat. The All Blacks restored Teddy Roberts at scrum half and made two changes in the forwards.

Once again the Springboks took the lead when centre Billy Sendin, one of the smallest and lightest players to play international rugby, scored from an overlap after twenty minutes and Gerhard Morkel converted the try. The All Blacks responded quickly when AL 'Les' McLean went over after a forward rush for a try converted by Mark Nicholls. The second half was hotly contested and both sides had their chances, but it took a magnificent drop goal from Gerhard Morkel in the 68th minute to separate the sides and give the Springboks victory by 9 points to 5.

Four matches remained on the tour and the Springboks disposed of their two provincial opponents comfortably and the New Zealand Maori team much less comfortably, winning 9-8 in a very tight and controversial match. All that remained was the third test at Athletic Park, Wellington on September 17th 1921, a match dubbed 'The Rugby Championship of the World', which would decide the world's leading rugby-playing nation.

There have been twenty one international matches played in the history of rugby which have ended without a point being scored by either side, but this was surely the most exciting. The test was played in driving rain and appalling conditions which meant that running rugby was virtually impossible. The All Black captaincy was given to their scrum half Teddy Roberts with Aitken dropped controversially in favour of a new cap in the centre, Karl Ifwersen a former rugby league international. The selectors picked four new caps in the All Blacks team and the Springboks made several changes, mainly due to injuries at the end of a long tour, with two new caps in their team.

The match was described as a "strenuous mud scramble" and kicking by the backs on both sides allied to driving forward play replaced running and passing. Both sides had their chances but chasing a kick ahead and touching the ball down in such conditions was a lottery and no tries were awarded, not always with the agreement of the crowd nearest the try line. Gerhard Morkel earned most plaudits with his immaculate line kicking which time and again saved the Springboks.

The impact of this historic series was summed up in Wellington's leading newspaper The Dominion on the Monday following the match:

"The conditions that prevailed for the third Test match between South Africa and New Zealand were not conducive to spectacular football. Owing to the heavy rain the ground was in parts covered with water, and the greasy nature of the ball made handling difficult, with the result that the play developed into a great forward contest. On the day a draw was a very fair indication of the merits of the teams. The Springboks previous to this match were second only to New Zealand in the Rugby Football world, judging by their record in England. Each side having won one test and drawn the third, South Africa now shares pride of position with New Zealand in leading the world in this particular branch of sport."

100 years after this historic moment in rugby's history, the World Rugby Museum was contacted by the 93 year old daughter of South Africa forward Nic du Plessis. Consequently we are able to pay tribute to this generation of pioneering rugby players as we will soon be displaying the Springbok jersey that du Plessis wore in the second and third tests in New Zealand.


  • Men in Black - RH Chester & NAC McMillan (5th edition - Moa Beckett 1994)
  • The Pioneers - Hans Saestad (Hans Saestad 2011)
  • Springbok Annals 1891-1958 - DH Craven (1st edition - Mimosa Publishers Ltd 1958)
  • A Statistical History of Springbok Rugby - Teddy Shnaps (Don Nelson Publishers SA 1989)
  • Toughest of Them All - Grant Harding & David Williams (Penguin Books 2000)
  • Scrapbook of EW Roberts Volume 2
  • Newspapers: Auckland Star - Dominion - Otago Daily Times - Wellington Evening Post

About the Author - A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book 'England Rugby 150 Years'.