A history of New Zealand rugby

in four jerseys – 1884, 1905, 1924, 2011

| Massey University | September 2011 | definingnz |

Malcolm Wood writes.

For a man whose principal interest is sport, Stephen Berg has spent a lot of time worrying about clothes. As the Director of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, Berg is the steward of an astonishing collection of clothing, dating from late Victorian times up until the present: 1250 or so ties last time a count was done; 500-plus rugby jerseys; 300-plus caps catalogued; around 250 blazers; and emblems and insignia almost beyond count.

They are made of cotton, wool, silk, linen and, more lately, synthetic fabrics, and they include three of the museum’s greatest treasures: a handstitched golden fern frond insignia from a jersey worn by Harry Roberts as part of New Zealand’s first internationally touring rugby team in 1884 (on loan from the Roberts family); Jimmy Hunter’s jersey from the 1905 Originals, the first true All Blacks team; and Jock Richardson’s jersey from the 1924 Invincibles, the All Blacks team undefeated in its tour of the UK, Ireland, France and Canada.

None of these heritage items can be handled; they are too precious and fragile.

Just how fragile the museum realised when, in preparation for moving itself and its collection of 40,000 catalogued and 13,000 uncatalogued items to Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History, it enlisted the help of specialist conservators in paper, wood and, of course, textiles.

The verdict on the condition of the 1905 and 1924 jerseys was not good. They were perilously delicate and aging beyond their years. In photographs of the 1905 jersey, the cause of the problems is clearly apparent: a shoulder yoke is quilt-stitched to the top of the garment, making it look almost armour-like.

The body of the 1905 jersey is of a fine, flexible, stretchable wool. The yoke, on the other hand, has no ‘give’, and has become dry and brittle. The two fabrics are antagonists: the wool flexes; the linen breaks. The 1924 jersey, though of coarser wool, has the same problem, although here it is hidden – the yoke is stitched inside the jersey.

In the interest of conservation, these jerseys – made to endure brutal treatment, and worn through tackles and tries, mud and rain – should never again be so much as touched.

The thought was anathema to exhibition planner Bettina Anderson, to whom the soon-to-be-upgraded Rugby Museum, with its mementos behind-glass approach, seemed distinctly dated and two-dimensional. Elsewhere museums were actively putting objects from their collections into the hands of their visitors – and failing access to the physical things themselves, to near facsimiles.

Te Papa, for example, in its natural history discovery centre, lets children step inside a replica dinosaur footprint, inspect an insect under a microscope, or find a fossil.

There is no more physical pursuit than rugby. It is not a ‘look, don’t touch’ affair. So one of the sections of the reborn Rugby Museum is to be called ‘Have A Go’. Here visitors will be able to kick a rugby ball or test their prowess at jumping, sprinting or taking on a scrum machine.

So far, so good, but why not take it further? Imagine the thrill and pride of pulling on one of those legendary All Blacks jerseys – or if not the jersey itself then something as close to it as humanly possible. The idea of creating replicas seems to have emerged organically. Anderson approached Deb Cumming and Robertina Downes of Massey’s Institute of Design for Industry and Environment for help.

Neither is a rugby follower. For Downes, whose broad vowels mark her northern English upbringing, rugby is the game played with a “funny-shaped ball”, and Cumming, though a keen sportsperson and someone whose master’s research examined sports dress for women during colonial times, is little better. When the tall, elegantly built Cumming casts around for a personal experience that resembles that of a true believer trying on an All Blacks jersey, she turns to high fashion, imagining “the deep inner happiness of trying on a Prada woollen jumper or a Comme des Garçons coat”.

But for understanding how it is that garments are constructed – the ins-and-outs of yarn sizing, of cut and manufacturing techniques – it would be hard to find anyone more expert or qualified.  Before turning to academia, Cumming, who has degrees in design and psychology, worked in commercial fashion design and production for various national apparel companies and ran her own independent fashion design label. Downes has worked in the apparel industry in England, China and New Zealand.

Downes’ next project? Work on one item of rugby uniform that is unlikely to make its way into street fashion any time soon: rugby caps.

1884 Harry Roberts

He is 84 and largely blind, but in his suit and bowtie Harry Roberts stands ramrod straight, face-on to the camera, alongside his more solid former All Black son Teddy, who clasps a steadying hand in the crook of his father’s elbow. It is 1946 and a state reception is being held for the Kiwi rugby team in Parliament Buildings. Present is a gathering “representative of all sections of the sporting, military and political life of the Dominion as well as of other parts of the British Commonwealth of Nations”. Prime Minister Fraser presides, in his speech congratulating the team on the “grand manner” in which they accepted defeat at the hands of the Scots.

Harry, as the only surviving member of the first representative New Zealand rugby union team, which toured New South Wales in 1884, is there as the guest of honour, and in the photograph in the Dominion newspaper account you can see his badge of distinction: pinned to his very wide lapel and occupying its full width is a 10cm embroidered fern frond, with the surrounding cloth scissored to its margins.

What happened to that snippet of fabric after 1946? Nobody gave it much thought until 2009, when Stephen Berg of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, pursuing an enquiry from a researcher, came upon a photocopy of the fern in the museum’s archives. It dated from 1994 when one of Harry’s grandsons had shown the fern to the museum’s curators during a visit.

Berg knew that the museum already held an embroidered fern from Harry Roberts, but this was the black-and-white affair from his blazer pocket. If Berg could trace the fern frond from the 1884 jersey, he could be on his way to solving one of New Zealand rugby’s enduring mysteries – the nature of the blue of the jersey itself. For as contemporary accounts reveal, the 1884 uniform was not an inky black but a vivid blue – a colour that may say something of the team’s strong connections to Otago, whose provincial uniforms are dark blue still.

After some sleuthing, Berg discovered that one of Harry’s great-grandsons, Maurice Roberts, had inherited the fern, and when contacted he generously sent the fern to the museum on a 12-month loan, with the possibility that this would be extended.

The fern proved, in the analysis of Massey senior tutor Tina Downes, “to be worked in a five-strand gold mercerised cotton with hand flystitch and stem stitches” with a linen backing behind the wool of the jersey providing support. It was in good condition. The material onto which it was embroidered, however, was not. Its colour? A dull and disappointing brown. The mystery was not solved but deepened.

What was the explanation? With Maurice Roberts’ permission some very small fibres were taken from the side of the fabric remnant and sent to Massey’s Brian Caughley, of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health, for analysis. He found that the surface of the fibres was highly degraded. Time and repeated washing, perhaps with ammonia or alkaline soap, had eroded the surface of the wool, robbing it of any visible trace of the original dye.

(The exact blue of Roberts’ jersey is likely never to be known. For producing the replica, Cumming and Downes have used as their reference the blue in an illustration set on a menu card from a dinner reception held for a British rugby team in 1904.)

Perhaps almost as interesting is the fact that none of the jerseys from 1884 remains, when a number of jerseys from the 1905 team and its successors survive as revered collectors’ items.

Photographs show that this was a very non-uniform uniform; no two jerseys were the same. “It is not like the static line-up you have today when everyone looks like they have been popped out of a mould, and must be the same, must wear the same,” says Robertina Downes, a senior tutor in the Institute of Design for Industry and Environment. There were square, turtleneck and boat necklines; various sleeve lengths; and fern frond motifs of various sizes and in various positions. There were even – as can be seen even in the black-and-white photographs, and making the choice of blue for the replica jersey still more problematic – a number of shades of blue. The jerseys were probably sourced from various small businesses that turned to different knitting mills, and the fern frond motifs, although based on a template, were individually sewn to the jerseys, perhaps by the players themselves or, perhaps, given the times, some helpful mother, sister or aunt. In fact, replicating the irregular ‘naive’ needleship of the Roberts’ fern was to prove a challenge for Downes, who is an accomplished – and by nature perfectionist – embroiderer.

Out on the field, individual choices also prevailed in how the jersey was worn. “If you look at the line-up of the 1884 team, you can see that some team members have cut the sleeves off, some have cut the neck out, some had the neck pinned over to the side. Can you imagine Daniel Carter cutting the neckline out of his jersey to come out and play?”

What happened to the jerseys when the tour was over? It is likely, says Downes, that the players saw them more as functional work-a-day items of clothing than as future memorabilia. As working garments, they would have been worn until there was no more wear left in them. The end of life for an 1884 jersey was most likely not a glass cabinet but a rag bin.

Jimmy Hunter – 1905 ‘The Originals’

“Hunter was the most destructive medium on attack and his personal tally was five tries. One half of this little wonder’s tricks have not been told yet and the Oxford men were simply paralysed by his tenacity.” This was New Zealand’s Jimmy Hunter at work during the 1905 rugby tour of Britain, France and North America as described by the Morning Leader.

Stephen Berg, of the New Zealand Rugby Museum, which holds Hunter’s jersey from the tour, holds Hunter in similarly high esteem. “He was a significant player on the tour. He’s got a remarkable try-scoring record, something like 44 tries from 36 games. He stacks up well against the players of today.”

He was also quite literally a ‘little wonder’: at 165cm (five feet, five inches) he was the shortest member of the team. (See pages 28 to 29 for some detail of how the physique of the All Blacks has changed over time.)

But for a still-disputed disallowed try by All Black Bob Deans in a test match against Wales – a piece of sporting folklore in both nations – the team would have won every one of its games.

It was during this tour that the New Zealand rugby team gained the name All Blacks – by one account a newspaper had described them as “all backs” and a typographical error did the rest, but the all-black team uniform is a more likely explanation – while the team itself would be forever known as the Originals.

When had the jersey become black? The blue of 1884 seems to have been an anomaly. According to an Encyclopaedia of New Zealand published in 1966: In April 1893, when the New Zealand Rugby Union was established, it was resolved that the New Zealand representative colours should be “…Black Jersey with Silver Fernleaf, Black Cap with Silver Monogram, White Knickerbockers and Black Stockings…”. At some point between 1897 and 1901 there was a vital change, concerning which the records of the New Zealand Rugby Union are silent. But by 1901 the New Zealand team to meet New South Wales wore a black jersey (canvas top, no collar), silver fern (now neater and smaller), and black shorts and stockings.

The 1884 team had jaunted across the Tasman to play a neighbouring colony. Undertaking a 40-day ocean voyage to the heart of the Empire to play against the mother country was a much more significant undertaking. On the British side, the pomp and ceremony surrounding the matches included commemorative medals struck to mark a number of the club matches. The New Zealanders, for their part, proved great collectors of match memorabilia – and the jersey itself was the best memento of all.

“Our research has shown that there are something like eight or nine of those jerseys still surviving around the world,” says Berg. “There is George Nicholson’s one up in Ponsonby, Duncan McGregor’s one down in Wellington and Steve Casey’s one is in Sydney. Bob Deans’ one is still with the Deans family in Christchurch – and we believe it is unscathed after the earthquakes. There’s one in Twickenham; there’s one in Cardiff.”

Another reason for so many of the 1905 jerseys remaining may be that they are striking garments, combining an almost Icebreaker-fine wool, a brownish-black leather neckband and frontlaced opening with either six or seven sets of eyelets, and that distinctive – and in conservation terms problematic – deep-grey linen shoulder yoke treated with a water-repellent coating and quilted to the wool beneath.

To set about creating the replica of the 1905 jersey, Cumming and Downes began by examining the Hunter original. In doing so they discovered a quirk: knitted into the jersey at the hem was a small ‘M’. A similar ‘M’ had been noted by Te Papa conservators examining the ‘Originals’ jersey held by New Zealand Rugby Union headquarters in Wellington, but it had been supposed that this was the ‘M’ of Duncan McGregor, the jersey’s original owner. Now the ‘M’ turned up in every jersey examined. Its origin? It may be to do with the manufacturer. According to former Palmerston North Mayor and researcher Jill White, the order for rugby jerseys for the 1905 All Blacks was fulfilled by J. Stubbs, Hosiery Manufacturer – later to be known as Manawatu Knitting Mills – which was founded by John and Mary Stubbs in 1889 in Palmerston North. The 1905 order was filled during a period when the business had temporarily relocated to

Wellington. The ‘M’, it is speculated, may be the ‘M’ for Mary, who had imported a Griswold handoperated sock circular machine and later a Harrison flat machine to serve her family needs and bring in income.

Oddly enough, the discovery of the common ‘M’ settled another question. Were the seven- and six- eyelet jerseys produced by the same manufacturer? On the evidence of the ‘M’, they must have been.

To construct the replica jersey, Downes and Cumming turned to Manawatu Knitting Mills, which revived the same – now largely outmoded – techniques and similar machinery to that which it had used to make the 1905 original. Downes replicated the original embroidery stitch for stitch in an antique pearl silk thread apparently identical to the original.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the 1905 replica is the reaction it provokes: ‘I want’. This is a garment people hanker to own – and not just own, but wear. Somehow the designers of the 1905 jersey produced something that could easily pass as contemporary semi-rustic chic. It looks like something that could bear the label of Calvin Klein.

Stephen Berg of the New Zealand Rugby Museum knows this first-hand. “The demand is out there. I said to a guy it might be $1000, or it might be $1500 so you are probably never going to want to wear it. And he said, ‘If I paid $1000 for it, I still would wear it’.”

Creating a line of commercially available replicas, he says, “is just something that we have to do”.

Jock Richardson, 1924 – the Invincibles

Officially the vice-captain of the 1924-25 All Blacks tour of the UK, Ireland, France and Canada, Jock Richardson stepped into the captaincy part-way through the tour after captain Cliff Porter was prevented from playing owing to injury.

Jock Richardson’s team won each of its 32 games and four test matches – and was known thereafter as the Invincibles. But its members may not have been very comfortable when playing.

His 1924 jersey, which is held by the New Zealand Rugby Museum and now exists in the form of a faithful replica, is made from a relatively rough wool, such as you might find in a farmer’s work jersey. “You want to take it off after about five minutes. Horrible, scratchy, itchy,” summarises the museum’s Stephen Berg.

Nor is the 1924 jersey as distinctive as the 1905 version. The linen yoke of the 1905 jersey is still there, but sewn to the inside of the garment. There is a certain rough-and-ready quality. “[The British] garment was very very structured, as if you had gone to a tailor. Our collar was a square of fabric that was falling over and stitched on; theirs was a proper tailored collar,” explains Tina Downes. In many ways, she says, its pattern and construction resemble the Canterbury-brand-era All Blacks jerseys – and indeed that of the present-day jerseys worn by provincial rugby clubs.

The next major change to the All Blacks jersey would be the replacement of wool by cotton – always the material of choice in Britain – then, when Adidas became the major sponsor of the All Blacks in 1999, the replacement, in turn, of cotton by high-tech, lightweight, tough, breathable synthetics.

2011 Richie McCaw

In 2011, marking the Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks have adopted a new jersey, featuring bonded seams to reduce chafing and irritation, a lighter-weight fabric incorporating Adidas’ patented ClimaCool technology, which has helped reduce the total weight by 45 percent, and a design giving full play to a player’s natural range of motion – arms out from the body to catch or pass a ball or set up a tackle.

Aesthetically the jersey builds on the All Blacks jersey tradition, sporting the traditional embroidered All Blacks fern on the left chest, which now has an echo in a new stylised fern frond motif embossed onto a side panel.

Also new – though in fact drawing on a long tradition – is the white collar. For much of the 20th century the All Blacks jersey featured a white collar – as the many New Zealanders who followed the extraordinary success of the 1987 All Blacks side will remember.

The technology in the 2011 jersey is so advanced that, according to Adidas there is only one machine in the world capable of making it – a machine to which adidas has secured exclusive rights. This has allowed the torso of the jersey to be created as an anatomically shaped tube, giving a perfect seamless fit.