Rorke's Drift Test 1914

On July 2nd, 1914, one of the Greatest matches of rugby took place. in fact, it is regarded by many to be one of the most memorable sporting moments ever: The "Rorke's Drift Test".

The scene was the Sydney Cricket Ground with an attendance of close to 40,000. What they were to witness that afternoon would go down in history and to quote loverugbyleague the 14-6 victory of the Northern Union over Australia has come to be a metaphor for the values of courage, solidarity and the ability to face adversity that characterise our game of rugby.

Here we will look at the 1914 antipodean Tour from a Wigan perspective of course, or at least try to...

But first, why is this appearing on earlyWIGANrugby? Of course, Wigan were represented in the Northern Union touring party that travelled 22,000km by boat after the hard 1913-14 Northern Union season. Legendary Welsh centre Bert Jenkins was the star name representing Wigan, backed up by Gwyn Thomas and the forward pairing of Percy Coldrick and Dick Ramsdale. These four men were stalwarts of the 1913-14 season, featuring in almost every match for Wigan. Jenkins had scored 22 tries alongside the prolific wingman Lew Bradley (40), whilst Percy Coldrick had an amazing return of 13 tries from the forward pack as Wigan ended the season in third position in the League, losing to eventual winners Salford 16-5 in the Championship Playoff.

Their reward for a successful season was a place in the Northern Union Touring Party to New Zealand and Australia that summer. With them were many fine players of the NU, such as Huddersfield's captain Harold Wagstaff, Fred Longstaff, Alf Wood, Alf Francis, Stanley Moorhouse and Arthur Johnson. We all recognise the first of these names. The Tour was primarily organised by John Clifford. Dick Ramsdale and Bert Jenkins had already had experience having travelled 'down under' in 1910 alongside club captain James Leytham, and half-back Johnny Thomas.

There was disappointment in the Wigan ranks and in some parts of the Press regarding the absence of Lew Bradley. The ex-Cinderford wing, who would finish the season on 40 tries, possessed greater speed than the selected wings of Robinson and Francis. Johnny Thomas, the long-serving Wigan half-back missed out, O'Garra, the Widnes captain being favoured instead.

Towards the end of April, the Wigan Four made their way to Paris accompanied by John Counsell, Chairman of Wigan, and Mr. Sidney Foster of Halifax. Here, they would make their own way down to Marseille and onward across the oceans to the colonies. Financially each player was to receive 10 shillings a week on the outward journey and 30 shillings per week once they got to Sydney.

Gwyn Thomas wrote in a letter from Port Said, Egypt, dated April 27th:

"We left Charing Cross at 9 a.m. on Thursday en route for Paris via Dover and Calais, and fortunately we were favoured with very decent weather. The gay city was reached without mishap, though on one occasion Ramsdale got into deep converse with a French ticket collector who again demanded "Dick's" ticket after having previously taken it. Following a voluble dissertation by the Frenchman, Ramsdale clinched the argument by declaring with some force, "Sithee yon mon's gettin it," and pointed to a venerable gentleman seated in a neighbouring carriage. There can be no doubt but that the burly Wigan forward's size was the chief factor in convincing the Frenchman. Indeed, the task of making ourselves understood provided us with much amusement throughout the journey."

They reached Marseilles, where they were met by Mr Houghton, and saw the other members of the party.

"They were all looking fit and well... at ten o'clock we started for Port Said ad during the five days' voyage we have basked in a glorious sunshine and sailed on an absolutely calm sea. We are all ripping sailors - at present. At this moment several of the men are in various positions on deck engrossed in Jarman, of Leeds, who is filling the position of chief jester with great success. Our daily routine at present is a rather lazy one, As yet we have not commenced training, and probably shall not do until next Wednesday. The facilities offered for training purposes are many on deck, and we shall be able to get quite fit for the first match after a few weeks' serious work. A step in the right direction was taken when a Sports and Concert Committee was formed, and these sports will serve the dal purpose of providing us with light training as well as plenty of amusement.

"On April 27th we reached Port Said at noon, and had six hours sight-seeing. On getting ashore we were surrounded by a swarm of swarthy, dirty, lying beggars of all nationalities, who pestered us to desperation, following us through the principle streets, offering their services as guides, and trying to sell all manner of useless things. However, we had efficient conductors in Bert Jenkins, Ramsdale, and Smith (Fred Smith of Hunslet, half-back), and eventually we succeeded in getting rid of the majority of these nuisances. Port Said itself struck me as being very dirty and, apart from it's wonderful mixture of inhabitants, most uninteresting."

It seemed that Dick Ramsdale was not to be messed with! Here we have a snapshot of what life was like heading out on Tour.

On May 19th, the tourists arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia. Four of the men were so ill they had to be seen by a doctor after leaving Colombo, Sri Lanka, after heavy and rough sea's made them very ill, one of them being Gwyn Thomas who had been affected by the excessive heat. Upon arrival Mr. J.H. Houghton, the manager of the touring party, said:

"Whatever the results, we are hoping for good games, and we will play the game, win or lose.

"I should say it is a slightly heavier team than the previous one (of 1910). The men average between 13st. and 14st., and are about two yards faster than the last lot. Some of them, will, however, increase their speed on the hard going in Australia, and others will not increase... I will say, however, that their combined play is better...

"We have adopted the open game, and this openness makes for combination and effective combination. We have endeavoured to make it a spectators' game, for we have realised that in order to make it popular the ball must continually be in sight."

However, after their long journey and illness en route, a game against South Australia on May 24th was just the ticket the Northern Union needed to loosen a few cobwebs. Played at the Hawthorn Oval in Adelaide in front of an estimated 2,500 spectators, the Northern Union won 101-0. (thats 126-0 in today's money) Bert Jenkins grabbed himself four tries whilst Percy Coldrick managed just the two in a 22-try rout. No wonder the League code of rugby never took a hold in the city of Adelaide, we put them off it for life! An Australian representative, E.R. Laskin, went over to Adelaide to meet the visitors, before accompanying them to Melbourne. He was asked "Did they have a run about in Adelaide?" - "Run about! They played a match and won by 101 to nil." he replied to The Sydney Referee paper.

The Northern Union team were still awaiting the arrival of the six Huddersfield men who were contesting the Championship when the first 20 men set off. Amongst them Harold Wagstaff.

The touring party made their way to Sydney two weeks later to face Metropolis at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Metropolis were a team consisting of any player who played for a club within the greater area of Sydney. As it turned out, the same 13 players who represented Metropolis also represented New South Wales two days later. On both occasions, Metropolis won 38-10 and NSW 11-3 against the Northern Union. By now, Harold Wagstaff was captaining the side and Wigan's Gwyn Thomas operated at fullback in place of Alf Wood.

As the NU team settled and got a good combination running, the victories started to come. First was against Queensland on June 13. Queensland had the Bolewski brothers representing them, the most recognisable of which to the Northern Union gents was Mick who had toured the Northern Union in 1908-09 and stayed in England to play for Leigh before returning back to Australia in 1912. An 18-10 victory gave the Tourists a taste of victory against commendable opposition. Further wins against Ipswich (45-08), Queensland (22-08) and Newcastle (35-18) had the Northern Union in a good place before the First Test against Australia on June 27 at the RAS Showground in Sydney.

In a letter home following the match against Queensland in Brisbane, Gwyn Thomas wrote the following;

"We left Brisbane with pleasant recollections and can look back upon the past week as one of the most enjoyable of our stay in Australia. We were inundated with invitations to all the local theatres and to the Stadium there, and some of our time was taken up in motor drives to such beautiful spots as Ascot, on the River Brisbane. The racecourse there equals the more famous one of that in England, and on the river there is a straight stretch of three miles, reputed to be the finest rowing course in the world. At the stadium we saw Nat Williams, the English boxer, and he and Jeff Smith spent much of their time with us.

On Wednesday morning at 9.30 we left Brisbane by motor-char-à-banc for Ipswich, and were expecting to do the journey of twenty-five miles in a little over an hour. The road, however, ran through the bush and became worse than the veriest country lane at home. On several occasions we were stuck in the mud, and it was a case of get out and push with a vengeance. Ten miles from Ipswich we were met by half a dozen motorcars, and the men who were playing finished the journey in comparative comfort. Without any serious mishap we reached Ipswich at one o'clock and were just too late for the reception which was given to the thirteen who were playing that day. The slow journey had its compensations, for we have had more than enough receptions.

The town itself is small and scattered, and we did not expect a large "gate." The local tradesmen, however, had granted a half-holiday, and apparently it was a red-letter day for Ipswich, and the enthusiasm was whole-hearted enough. At the time of the kick-off the whole population had gathered to see the "burly pommies,"... The majority of us decided to make the return journey by train, and reached Brisbane some hours before the char-à-bancs, which gave its occupants many a thrill in its four hours' journey in darkness and over a very rocky road.

He continued:

"We left Brisbane at 8.30 on Sunday morning, and travelling all day and night, we reached Newcastle at 7.30 on Monday morning. From here I was sent on alone to Sydney to Dr. Hughes there, and upon examination was found to have two ribs broken. My playing last Saturday did not improve them. I received the injury in our first match at Brisbane, and I look like missing the big games at Sydney this week-end. I suppose one must regard these things philosophically, but it is very annoying. Wood is training now, but he weighs about 13st. 3lb., and his ankle is quite not fit."

The Northern Union had asked for this first test game to be moved back a week to the 27th, to which the Australians granted. However, the Aussies refused to postpone the second test match which was due to take place two days later on Monday June 29th.

The Sydney Showground

The Australians donned their now iconic maroon and blue hooped jerseys as 40,000 spectators watched the First Ashes Test match. For Wigan, Bert Jenkins, Percy Coldrick and Dick Ramsdale took part with Gwyn Thomas out of the team. The NU ended up taking first blood, winning 05-23 thanks to two tries from Huddersfield wing Stan Moorhouse and singles from Doug Clark, Dave Holland and Jack Robinson.

With only a two day turnaround, both teams made changes to their line ups for the Second Test played a few yards away at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Gwyn Thomas took up his full back position in place of Leeds' Billy Jarman whilst Bert Jenkins was absent in the centre position. Australia made six changes to the side that lost a few days earlier with Wally Messenger (Daly Messenger's brother) taking his place at centre.

55,000 spectators witnessed a battle as Australia drew the Series level after a 12-07 win. Wigan's Percy Coldrick got the only try for the tourists in the first half as injuries started to mount up for the Northern Union. Rochdale's Robinson had to retire after a bad shoulder. With problems arising in the NU ranks, the tour managers Joe Houghton of St. Helens and John Clifford of Huddersfield had a few requests to put towards the Australians. They firstly wanted the Third Test to be put back until after the Tourists had been on the second part of their tour to New Zealand, as originally planned; secondly they anted the game to be moved from Sydney back to Melbourne, a world away from the rugby heartlands to the North. The New South Wales Rugby League did not meet these requests and dug their heels in, staunchly insisting that the Third Test remains on the date of July 4, and to be played in Sydney. To maximise profits.

The factors for this ill-will, or simply refusal, are plentiful. The Northern Union code of the rugby game was still in it's infancy in Australia, and the governing body wanted as much a higher profile as possible from the English and Welshmen to help grow the game. They were competing with the old code of Rugby Union, and if they allowed the game to be played in Melbourne, at a later date, they thought they would lose whatever positive outcome they were hoping for. As such, a telegram was sent to the Northern Union back in England by the New South Wales secretary Ted Larkin stating what was happening. The Northern Union back at home responded and took the side of Larkin. The Northern Union secretary Joe Platt replied stating that the touring party should play with pride and basically 'get on with it':

“We confidently anticipate that the best traditions of Northern Union football will be upheld by you,” he said.

“We hope that you will expend every atom of energy and skill you possess to secure victory; failing which, we hope you will lose like sportsmen.”

With no room for manoeuvre, the British had no other option but to 'get on with it'. Joe Platt stated to the Yorkshire Post that "Very little is known of the real circumstances which apparently culminated in the team managers applying for a postponement of the Test matches. It is, however, almost certain that, in spite of the tremendous handicap under which the tourists are labouring, with five of their best players on the injured list, the match will be played as arranged."

Of course, Clifford and Houghton would have had perfectly justifiable grounds for asking for a postponement. But they had no choice. The game was to go ahead. It seemed that the thirty or so men in the Touring party were all alone, isolated, thousands of miles from home.

Dejected and with morale low, it was up to Clifford on game day to get the rugby players in the right frame of mind. Before the match, in the dressing room, Clifford gave a passionate and hearty speech worthy of a Hollywood underdog sports film.

This quote is taken from loverugbyleague : "You are playing a game of football this afternoon but more than that you are playing for England, and more even than that, you playing for the right versus wrong," said Clifford, "You will win because you have to win. Don't forget that message from home. England expects every one of you to do his duty."

With veiled anger at the message from home in his words, he knew how to gee up the men. The two Wiganers missing from the line up were full back Gwyn Thomas and Bert Jenkins. Five would-be starters were missing in total which included Fred Longstaff and Johnny Rogers. The NU were that beaten up that Alf Wood started the game with a broken nose as there were no more reasonable options to fill in at full back.

Percy Coldrick and Dick Ramsdale took their positions in the forward pack. They were ready. 40,000 Australian spectators entered the Sydney Cricket Ground expecting the full strength Australian side to turn over the Northern Union. Not long after the commencement, Halifax wing Frank Williams suffered an injury to his knee and had to go off the field towards half time. Playing against effectively 12 men, the Australians fell behind due to a penalty goal by Alf Wood. William Davies of Leeds managed to dribbled the ball over the line to score the opening try, to which Wood converted, furthering the Northern Union lead. Just before half-time, Alf Wood, nose broken and bloodied even more so now you'd imagine, managed to kick another penalty goal which gave the Northern Union a 9-0 lead at the interval.

With Williams not returning for the second half, Widnes loose forward Arthur 'Chick' Johnson took up position fully on the wing leaving the tourists a man short in the forward pack. But things were to get a lot worse. Huddersfield's Douglas Clark left the field in tears as he couldn't continue having broken his thumb and dislocated his shoulder. The eleven English and Welshmen then perhaps surprised themselves. Johnson, who had moved to the wing, succeeded in breaking away in his opponents "twenty-five", and dribbling over the line scored a much welcomed try. Alf Wood made no mistake in converting.

The Australians, playing with renewed vigour, forced a scrimmage in the English "twenty-five," and after a good bout of passing, Messenger scored a try which wasn't converted. Messenger also missed a good opportunity of a penalty moments later. It seemed that luck was with the eleven Northern Union men. And now the onslaught...

The Australians made determined efforts, but the Northern Union team's defence was excellent and their tackling deadly. Spearheaded by Wigan's Percy Coldrick and Dick Ramsdale, the Australians could not break through. Wave after wave of attack peppered the Northern Union line but they held firm. Oldham centre Billy Hall had to retire later on, leaving the Northern Union men with 10 players, against 13.

With five minutes remaining, Australian captain Sid Deane broke through to give the Aussies hope. But yet again Wally Messenger failed at the goal. Against all the odds, the Northern Union held on for a famous win. Collapsing to the field in triumph, the joy those men must have felt when the whistle blew for time. The score read Australia 06 Northern Union 14 and with it the Ashes.

The game has gone down in history as a lesson in courage, triumph over adversity and honour. Harold Wagstaff later said that they "would play like men, and lose like gentlemen".

Being summer 1914, a simple history lesson would make you realise that World War I was about to commence fully. As the Austrians started to advance into Russia at the start of August, the Northern Unionists sent a telegram home stating that all was well. At home, the Northern Union met to discuss whether the season should commence or not. They said it must.

Back in Wigan, Central Park was being used to station eight companies of the TA.

With the outbreak of War, the tourists were heading home to a very different Europe to the one the left in May. Whilst in Australia and New Zealand, a lot of talk was had in the footballing world as to what was going to happen to the competition and which men will be called up. This is for a different part of the website which I am sure one day will be on here. War. As for the sail home, they arrived safely back in Plymouth

And finally, what of the Legacy of this Tour? In time, the Third Test against Australia became known as the "Rorke's Drift Test", named due to a backs-to-the wall British victory against all odds and named after the Battle of Rorke's Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. In November 2014, 100 years after the 1914 tour, England faced Australia in Melbourne, ironically, with both teams wearing commemorative jerseys giving a nod to the famous Test 100 years earlier.

That day, Australia came out close winners via a 16-12 margin. On this occasion, the Wigan Rugby Football Club supplied six men viz., Josh Charnley, Dan Sarginson, Matty Smith, Liam Farrell, Joel Tomkins and Sean O'Loughlin. Sam Tomkins at the time was playing for the New Zealand Warriors, but that's a minor technicality.

It is nice to know that Wiganers were involved in an almost forgotten piece of sporting history. Today, their names are unknown largely, apart from the efforts of this website. In the North-Western corner of the Lower Ince Cemetery in Wigan lies one of the men who played the game of his life on July 4, 1914.

His family headstone states proudly and simply:



So the next time you visit Lower Ince, have a look out for Dicky Ramsdale.