The All Blacks went to see a 95-year old woman this week. Like Australian cricketers going to Gallipoli, the players who visited Enid Williams were making a connection with history. Her father, Bert Winfield, was full-back when Wales first played New Zealand in 1905 and her uncle Gwyn Nicholls captain.
But then, Saturday’s Wales v New Zealand match at Cardiff is all about history. It was not in the fixture lists when they were issued last January – the All Blacks had, after all, come to Cardiff only last November. But this centenary year of all years, the two nations simply had to meet.
You can argue whether that first meeting on December 16 1905 was the most significant of all rugby matches. It certainly sits high on any shortlist. It is as if the 1882 Oval test that inspired the creation of cricket’s Ashes had also inspired a controversy to equal Geoff Hurst’s second goal in football’s 1966 World Cup final.
This was the first match that could credibly be described as a world title fight. Home champions Wales took on the first national touring team from the southern hemisphere after they had laid waste the rest of British rugby with 27 consecutive wins, beating England, Scotland and Ireland.
Wales, adopting New Zealand’s potent weapon of a seven-man pack with an eighth detached as an extra half-back, slew them with it. A planned move using this eighth man as a decoy saw scrum-half Dickie Owen reverse the direction of play and wing Teddy Morgan score the try that sealed a 3-0 victory.
Yet it is not Owen or Morgan’s name that is eternally associated with this match but Bob Deans, the New Zealand centre whose alleged “try” remains rugby’s great cuase célèbre. Wales had the affirmation of victory, but New Zealand acquired a potent national myth.
For both nations this was a formative moment. Welsh historian Gareth Williams argues that this was when rugby union became the national game while New Zealander Keith Sinclair reckoned it was the sporting equivalent of Gallipoli.
The 1905 tour’s significance, underlined by no fewer than seven books this year, goes still further. The “Originals” were France’s first international opponents. In the next four years they were followed north by the first South African and Australian touring teams plus pioneering New Zealand and Australian league teams. Their captain Dave Gallaher and vice-captain Billy Stead wrote perhaps the greatest analytical work on the game, The Complete Rugby Footballer on the New Zealand System.
For Wales, beating New Zealand remains the most cherished, but also most elusive, of all victories.
There have been 17 consecutive defeats, including nine brutal hammerings between 1980 and 2003, since Ken Jones’s try from Clem Thomas’s cross-kick sealed the last win in 1953. But they got close at the World Cup in 2003, closer still – falling by a single point – last year.
Third time lucky? Mike Ruddock’s Six Nations champions start, though, without three of the summer Lions tour to New Zealand’s few conspicuous successes: scrum-half Dwayne Peel, prop Gethin Jenkins and flanker Ryan Jones.
Wing Tom Shanklin, on his way to being a fourth when injured, and Six Nations player of the year Martyn Williams are also missing, with Wales’s newest literary Lion, Gavin Henson.
There’s nothing wrong with the deputies. Prop Duncan Jones and flanker Colin Charvis reclaim places that were rightfully theirs before ill-timed injury while wing Kevin Morgan was perhaps the unluckiest of all those left out by the Lions.
Flanker Jonathan Thomas played brilliantly against New Zealand in the World Cup. But they’ll need to cohere quickly in Wales’s first full-strength outing for seven months.
New Zealand leave out their (or anyone else’s) best player, flanker Richie McCaw, but deputising debutant Chris Masoe is no mug. Lion-destroyer Danny Carter returns at outside-half to a line-up abounding in power, pace and invention.
This time? Probably not, but before long, surely.
FT rugby writer Huw Richards is author of Dragons and All Blacks: Wales v New Zealand 1953 and a Century of Rivalry (Mainstream £9.99), which has been short-listed for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award 2005.