The ‘Rank and File’ Lions Tour under ‘Bim’ Baxter

This is part five of a series by Huw Richards into every British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in the lead up to the upcoming visit in June.

Part One: The Lions who awoke the New Zealand beast

Part Two: The tour that threatened the Lions’ existence

Part Three: 1908 – An unmitigated shambles

Part Four: The Lions’ great missed opportunity

Some Lions tours are associated with particular players, often captains, in the way that the undefeated 1974 team in South Africa will for ever more be identified with Willie John McBride. With others it is coaches — Carwyn James in 1971 or Clive Woodward in 2005. But the 1930 party which visited New Zealand is remembered most of all for its manager, the forthright James ‘Bim’ Baxter.

He was a man of many parts. A forward from the Birkenhead Park club, he won three England caps in 1900 and went on to become an international referee, most famously taking charge of the riotous France vs. Scotland match of 1913 after which he had to be smuggled out of the ground in a car driven by French winger Pierre Faillot. A top-class yachtsman, he won a silver medal — admittedly for coming second in a two-boat race against another British entrant — at the 1908 Olympics.

By 1930 he was one of the most powerful men in rugby, a recent past president [1926-27] of the Rugby Football Union, manager of the Lions team which visited Argentina in 1927 and since 1926 one of the six RFU delegates to the 12-member International Rugby Board.

He was a natural choice as manager when the Lions went to New Zealand in 1930. It had been a while — 22 years to be precise, since the Anglo-Welsh party of 1908 — during which time the Lions had gone twice, in 1910 and 1924 to South Africa. Given his personality and influence within the game Baxter was always, as the sole non-player accompanying the party, going to be a dominant figure. A strong captain might have provided some counter-balance and the original idea was that English veteran Wavell Wakefield, who had not played international rugby since 1927 but was still leading Harlequins in 1930, would do the job.

Wakefield was one of 28 players, all of them capped, who received an invitation in April 1929 — a year before the touring party was due to depart. They were informed in the letter from Sydney Coopper, the secretary of the RFU, that the aim was to send a team fully representative of the four home unions, who for the first time were jointly responsible for the tour.

But the team which eventually departed in April 1930 was very different. Only nine of the original selections made it on to the boat. And after one of the tightest Five Nations tournaments in history, a selection originally spread across the four nations had become heavily skewed — with 16 Englishmen, five of them uncapped, and only a single Scot, Willie Welsh of Hawick. As the team left Baxter announced that the captain would be Frank Prentice, a Leicester forward who had won three England caps in 1928.

Welsh outside-half Harry Bowcott, who lived into his 90s, recalled an enjoyable journey out :”The players had great fun on the boat out to New Zealand. It was just the 29 players and their manager and nobody else … Thanks goodness no pressmen, which was a wonderful thing, for we could do as we liked without looking over our shoulders.”

Each player was required to take £80 spending money — a considerable sum in 1930 — and a dinner jacket for after-match functions. The kit-bag included four sets of jerseys, all of them navy blue, a shade which was as near-indistinguishable from New Zealand Black as made no difference.

A dispute over which team would wear their own shirts — settled when New Zealand agreed, with a somewhat ill grace, to turn out in white — was one of many associated with the tour. From the start Mr Baxter’s after-dinner oratory was aimed firmly at the New Zealand practice of playing a ‘rover’, an auxiliary forward who did not scrummage but acted as an additional half-back. British opinion had held firmly since 1905 that this was against the rules of the game, with the rover nothing more than an obstructionist.

Baxter set the tone after the second match at Wanganui, where he described the rover as ‘nothing less or more than a cheat’. It was not his sole complaint, responding that ‘every city needs its sewer’ when asked about the popularity of rugby league in Auckland.

A match programme of the Lions tour game vs. Taranaki. The Lions won 24-7. The Saleroom

Baxter’s critique of the rover was far from an exclusively British view — All Black captain Cliff Porter, a master of the position which New Zealanders justified as enabling much quicker movement of the ball from the scrum, had been booed unmercifully in Australia earlier that year as the All Blacks went down to a rare 3-0 defeat in the Tests. But it set a fractious tone, with New Zealand officials and journalists responding in kind.

The dispute has distracted the attention of posterity from one of the better All Blacks-Lions series. While the All Blacks still fielded some of the giants from their 1924 Invincibles, such as fullback George Nepia and second-five Bert Cooke, they were inevitably past their very best. And while the Lions may not have been as representative as was hoped, they were still a powerful side. Among contemporary New Zealand critics Reed Masters would acclaim them as ‘the greatest attacking combination ever to visit this country’. More recently Spiro Zavos, rarely an enthusiast for British rugby, has written that ‘the evidence suggests that the 1930 Lions were better than the All Blacks.’

At least two of the Lions won rave reviews from New Zealand critics. England outside-half Roger Spong was recalled by Terry McLean, who watched these Lions as a teenager, as ‘a bouncy ball of a man with sensationally quick reactions who could break inside or out’. Welsh back rower Ivor Jones, struck Winston McCarthy as ‘as gifted a player on the flank as could be wished. He could run, pass, drop goals, anticipate — do anything’.

Spong might have been still better had his Old Millhillians and England partner Wilfred Sobey not been ruled out by injury after the first match. With only the uncapped Cardiffian Howard Poole as an alternative scrum-half, the Lions gave the role to the versatile Irishman Paul Murray, already capped at centre and both half-back positions.

And they became the first Lions team to beat the All Blacks on a brutally cold day in Dunedin. Prentice left himself out and England centre Carl Aarvold led the Lions. It was 3-3 when the Lions produced a brilliant last minute counter-attack. It started when Jones intercepted a wayward pass from half-back Jimmy Mill, charged to half-way, drew Nepia and sent wing Jack Morley away with Cooke in hot pursuit. As McLean recalled :”There they went. Fifty mortal yards…The goal-line coming up and Cooke inching nearer and nearer. Almost ready to dive. And Morley zipping along. Immortal. Morley won, by a yard.”

New Zealand, beaten four times in consecutive Tests and trailing 1-0 in the series, went into the second Test understandably anxious. Both half-backs were dropped. They showed a clear improvement with new scrum-half Merv Corner kicking a goal from a mark and wing George Hart crossing, but a try from Aarvold meant that the Lions were still in contention, trailing only 8-5, when Murray went down after half an hour with a damaged shoulder. Jones, pulled out of the pack, played remarkably well as an emergency scrum-half but with only 14 men the Lions had little chance, although Aarvold’s late try cut the final deficit to 13-10.

Minus Murray and Sobey, the Lions had to rely on the uncapped Poole in the third test which was played in front of 40,000, then a record crowd in New Zealand. Back rower Hugh McLean, elder brother of Terry, scored twice on his All Black debut and the hosts won 15-10.

A tour which had begun so promisingly ended in anti-climax as the All Blacks closed out the series 22-8 with Porter and Cooke, both playing their last Test, each scoring two of their six tries. It was also the last international played by Nicholls, Nepia and — astonishingly given that he was still only 28 and would play for Llanelli until 1938 — the prodigious Jones.

The great Georgie Nepia played his last Test for New Zealand in 1930. Central Press/Getty Images

All Black selector Ted McKenzie launched a post-match assault on the Lions tactics, accusing them of committing obstruction. Baxter concluded his campaign of gunboat diplomacy by saying that the rules were laid down by the International Board: “We don’t intend to alter them one jot. Those who don’t want to play them can stay outside.”

Since the International Board was still a British and Irish monopoly — and would remain so until 1949 — the implication was clear. The rover was never formally outlawed but by 1932 changes in the regulations governing hooking and front row numbers had made him an impracticality. Debate had in any case been raging in New Zealand since Springbok scrummaging on the 1928 tour had exploited the inherent limitations of the seven-man scrum.

So in one sense Baxter won. But McLean, an astringently objective commentator, reckoned him one of the main reasons why his team — undoubtedly one of the best Lions parties to visit New Zealand — lost. While dividing the blame for the failure to replace Sobey equally on the NZRU’s Stan Dean, a man of equally implacable temperament — McLean indicted Baxter for a poor atmosphere in his party, citing in evidence an icy exchange between Spong and Aarvold overheard following a tour reunion more than 30 years later.

McLean argued that “Worst of all, Baxter played favourites. In-form or specially gifted players were so often overlooked that, under the presidency of a Cumberland prop, the genial Sam Martindale, a so-called ‘Rank and File Society’ was formed during the tour. Except for [Irish lock George] Beamish and the brilliant Welsh flanker, Ivor Jones, its membership was confined to those who failed to win caps in the international matches.”

It was not to be the last divided Lions party, and still came close to winning than most of the others that could be classified that way. Perhaps more importantly, the first truly competitive All Blacks vs. Lions series established another tradition. As Zavos points out “The All Blacks won because All Black teams generally win matches the opposition might have won”.

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