British and Irish Lions: The tale of the forgotten New Zealand match

Lions
The Lions team who played against Auckland the week before facing the Maori
Maori All Blacks v British and Irish Lions
Date: Saturday, 17 June Time: 08:35 BST Venue: Rotorua International Stadium
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app

On Saturday against the Maori All Blacks, the British and Irish Lions will tread on similar ground to their predecessors that first visited New Zealand in 1904, in a match that will probably have a less controversial outcome.

That tour was really the first time the All Blacks asserted themselves as the dominant force, beating David Bedell-Sivright's team 9-3 in the first Test to be played in New Zealand.

It captured the Kiwi nation's attention, it cemented rugby union as the primary sport in the country, with the Lions also losing to Auckland and drawing with Taranaki.

Yet there is one match which has been largely forgotten, erased from the official Lions records despite the impact it had more than a century ago.

Lions 'treated like royalty'

Auckland Weekly News
A cutting from the Auckland Weekly News from the match

The Lions had already played five matches in New Zealand by the time they headed down to Rotorua on 21 August, 1904.

They spent the day sightseeing the "great Wonderland", visiting the Hamurana Springs, seeing the Wairoa Geyser, being treated to poi dances and hakas, and having gifts showered on them by the Maori hosts.

"They were treated like Royalties," according to the Auckland Star. "It was an event equal to that of the Duke of York."

The next day, in heavy rain, the Lions faced a Maori rugby team for the first time at a place called Pukeroa Hill. And by the time they returned to Auckland that evening, little was said about what happened in Rotorua.

According to the New Zealand newspapers, all that the players would say is that it was an unofficial match, a "burlesque arranged for the amusement of the natives".

But the New Zealanders present disagreed. The Lions fully expected to win the match - as did most of the 2,000 spectators present.

'Foemen worthy of their steel'

The game kicked off at 10 in the morning and the Lions struck twice in the first half, through John Fisher and Willie Llewellyn but the Cardiff half-back, Percy Bush, missed both conversions - deliberately, according to him, "to give the Maori a good game without beating them too much".

The Maori needed little encouragement in the second half. They seemed, according to the New Zealand Herald, "to do or die… foemen worthy of their steel".

They were a team of "great hulking fellows, well-versed in the rugby game, very powerful forwards and tricky backs with a marvellous turn of speed" and despite all their efforts, the Lions "failed absolutely".

Tamahau Te Kowhai scored the first try for the Maori - he was "hugged fiercely" by the crowd, hurting his ear in the process.

Lions v Maori
A cutting from the Auckland Weekly News from the match

Soon afterwards Nirai scored a second, this time converted by Tono to give the Maori team the lead amid scenes of "wildest excitement".

Journalists present said the Lions had no answer to the rushes of the Maori forwards. Despite their increasingly desperate efforts to turn the match around, the Maori held on and it finished 8-6, the players were mobbed by a delirious crowd.

More than 1,000 people saw the British team off at the station.

The Maori sang them their traditional farewell songs and the Lions replied with Auld Lang Syne but by the time the Lions were back in Auckland, the high spirits and the narrative had changed a little.

Although admitting to being surprised by the skill of the Maori backs and the power of their pack, the message conveyed was that the Lions were "stale" after a long tour.

One of the players, Sid Bevan, spoke to the New Zealand Herald and while he spoke in glowing terms of the trip to Rotorua, he was tight-lipped about the match.

"There is really not much to be said about that," he claimed. "It was more like a practice match than anything else." At which point the interview was cut short due to the sounding of the dinner gong.

Arthur O'Brien, the New Zealander who managed the tour as well as playing for the Lions, was similarly curt: "All I wish to say is that it was an unofficial scratch match."

The reporter tried one last time, with the captain Bedell-Sivright, but he gave him short shrift, stating that "the pick of the Britishers were not put in the field".

Maori team
The Maori team that defeated the Lions

It all sounds a little like sour grapes.

While it may be true that some players were rested, such as Blair Swannell and Teddy Morgan, 10 of the team that faced the Maori had played against New Zealand 10 days earlier. Of the remaining five, three had played in the Tests against Australia.

There can be no doubt that the Lions were surprised by the quality of the rugby played by the Maori side and perhaps they were a little jaded after a tour which had begun when they left Folkestone on 12 May.

But there may also have been a degree of embarrassment that a British team should lose as they did to the "natives".

The game remains absent from official Lions statistics - as does another played against a Maori side in 1908. Matches have been given official Lions status retrospectively - tours to Argentina in 1910 and 1927 for example.

It must be time to make amends - to remember this remarkable team of Maori rugby players that caused such a sensation in 1904 - by putting the win back on the record.

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