Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
20 December 2018
By Keith Quinn
For nearly a century the only two players ever sent off in a rugby test match from any country were the New Zealanders Cyril Brownlie and Colin Meads. Their lonely place in rugby’s hall of shame became ammunition for certain countries to have a gleeful view of the manner New Zealanders played the game. British people in particular believed that the way Brownlie and Meads played ‘rugger’ was far outside the only true and honourable way the game was played in the country of its origin. It was always, said the Brits, ‘the colonial rough house chaps from the other side of the world’ who played outside the true bounds of decency!
On the other hand watchers of rugby in New Zealand never accepted the manner and ruling which saw both Brownlie and Meads banished. And while the Meads sending-off incident, which occurred in an All Blacks v Scotland match in 1967 was widely covered in the age of television and video replays the Brownlie dismissal have remained largely discarded in the mists of time. Perhaps here we can be reminded of what was a sensation in world rugby the former of the two incidents was, back in 1925.
[I base my writings for this piece mostly from on a very large scrapbook I have from the All Blacks tour of that northern winter to United Kingdom and France. The scrapbook came to me via the family of Neil McGregor, one of that famous team’s five-eighths. It contains many opinions and observations from newspaper correspondents and pundits covering the tour. Neil McGregor played in the test match at Twickenham.]
In his time Cyril Brownlie was a massive farming man from Hawkes Bay. Along with his younger brother Maurice the two had a family farm in Wairoa. The pair proudly set off from Hastings and then Wellington in New Zealand with Cliff Porter’s 1924-25 touring team to Great Britain and Ireland. The whole thing was a massive undertaking, the team having been chosen in June 1924, departing Wellington by ship on July 29 and not returning until March 17 the following year!
On their journey across the world the team, captained by Cliff Porter of Wellington, played 32 games and won them all; appropriately the brilliant New Zealanders became known as ‘The Invincibles.’ Quite rightly they sit in New Zealand rugby history as one of the All Black greatest sides ever. (Definitely alongside the teams of 1905-06, 1956, 1987, 1995, 1996 and the World Cup winners of 2011 and 2015.)
And yet the 1924-25 tour was not one without significant incidents. The sensational sending off of the biggest man in the team, Cyril Brownlie, caused headlines which, as my scrapbook shows, in their time were at least as big as those accorded to the Meads dismissal 43 years later.
Let us start with Maurice Brownlie. He was a towering figure in the second row of The Invincibles and played 26 games out of 32. Cyril was the older brother who missed some early matches because of injury but still played 17 of the 30. Together the two became a massive force in the second row, Maurice in particular, but with Cyril not far behind. (Maurice went on to lead the All Blacks on the next major tour, to South Africa in 1928. Again his brother Cyril went along, the great combination continuing.)
The two names, Brownlie and Meads, had much in common in their fateful years when they both made the biggest headlines from incidents they would prefer to forget. Both were men who had large followings from their fans at home. And that devotion has no doubt played a part in New Zealanders, at the time and down the years since, never fully accepting the reasons why the two refereeing decisions came down so harshly on one of the All Blacks.
It is here we discuss for the first time possible new light of Cyril Brownlie’s day of disgrace.
Cyril’s departure came during the All Blacks game against England at Twickenham. By that time the British public were aware that the New Zealanders under their tour captain Porter, were something very special. They were unbeaten in all 27 matches on tour. But England fancied themselves in the game as well. They played behind the leadership of the deeply respected Wavell Wakefield, one of history’s greatest forward players, England were also in the throes of one of their greatest ever sequences of success. They were consecutive Five Nations Grand Slam champions in 1923 and 1924, and they were unbeaten at Twickenham against all-comers for 12 years.
So the clash with the All Blacks a couple of days into the New Year 1925 was like that of the immovable object meeting the irresistible force.
Alongside Wakefield in the English pack were a couple of rascally fellows who had a reputation of never taking a backward step. One was Tom Voyce of Gloucester and the other Reg Edwards, a hard as nails prop forward who travelled up from Newport in Wales to play for his native country.
The Brownlie brothers were never dirty players but were immensely proud and strong. Locals would later recall that at home on their farm in the sunny fields of Hawkes Bay they could comfortably sling 70 pound bails high onto ever-mounting stacks of hay. No problem at all.
But all thoughts of home were banished for the men of both sides on the fateful rugby day of January 3rd 1925. When the game kicked off in front of a Twickenham record crowd of 60,000 there was immediately a crackling tension on the field. At least twice, maybe three times, there were explosions of fighting among the two packs of forwards. The Welsh referee, Mr. Albert Freethy of Neath appealed for calm.
In the first moments he spoke sternly to the two captains, Wakefield of England and the New Zealander Jock Richardson (who had become regularly chosen as test captain ahead of Porter). At the sight of the scuffles the crowds continued to roar their particular favourites on. Apart from the New Zealand non-test players there were a number of kiwi business people there and it is known that 12 sailors from the ship Royal Sovereign were in attendance. So there was some cheering for the men in black.
What follows here is a summary of the reporting from at least 15 newspaper accounts from the day. The Fleet Street pressmen were at Twickenham in droves and from their reports a quite brilliant souvenir scrapbook was passed to this writer for grateful permanent safekeeping in 1998. It is a superb record of a simply wonderful tour but to be frank, the contrast in opinionated writings about the Cyril Brownlie sending-off can now be seen as being wide enough in disparity to now cast severe doubt on whether the New Zealander should have ever taken the long march that he did, passing as he did under the Royal Box where the Prince of Wales sat along with the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. At the very least there is sufficient evidence to show that at least one other player should have marched in humiliation with the New Zealander.
To that point the incident was the most sensational single one of world rugby’s young history. It occurred less than 10 minutes into the game (some papers say it was after only seven minutes after kick off). There was perhaps the third breakout and skirmish of more fisticuffs among the two weighty packs. Then the whistle blew shrilly and watching from the stands the shouting crowds hushed. Then they gasped and went into an eery silence when they realised what they could now see. Dressed in his dark blazer with a white scarf and pocket handkerchief Mr Freethy could be seen with his finger pointing firmly towards the dressing rooms. The New Zealander Cyril Brownlie could be also seen beginning to walk away from the game. On the sideline from not more than 20 metres away a famous photograph recorded the incident. The New Zealander had been sent off .
It was for allegedly kicking an England player on the ground. ‘You go off’ were the reported words Brownlie heard from the referee. His stunned All Black mates saw one of their famous brothers trudge away. It was a walk no other player from any country had ever made in a test match.
No reasons for his dismissal could be given until the match had ended. Not one reporter of the 15 or so there has written as having seen anything definite through the naked eye.
So we shall leave that for the moment. Meantime there was a game still to be played and a test outcome to be decided. While Cyril stayed out of sight in the dungeons of the Twickenham dressing rooms, the remaining 14 New Zealanders took up again the battle to overcome the might of The Red Rose.
What happened in the end was one of the most famous of All Black victories, either then or now. The 14 played for 70 minutes against 15 and won by 17-11. It was as simple as that. No fewer than four tries were scored by New Zealand, against only two by the English. Reduced by one the All Blacks quite simply ‘raised their game.’ They were magnificent, and none, the reports say, moreso than the remaining Hawkes Bay man playing for the dishonour he believed had been determined on his brother by the referee.
Maurice capped a triumphant day for All Black history by picking up a ball from loose play and rushing 15 metres to score. Not an England player could stop his surging charge. There is scratchy film of the run to touchdown by Maurice. Perhaps in keeping with his concentrating on correcting the injustice which he already believed had been placed on the family name, he is shown on the film getting up from scoring and walking back to his next mark in the game, a picture of concentrated dedication only, no celebration at all.
The English, under Wakefield competed bravely but the New Zealanders were quite simply ‘playing out of their trees.’ And while they honoured ‘Wakers’ for playing so strongly against them that day the All Blacks never quite forgave him for not appealing to referee Freethy to keep the dismissed Cyril Brownlie in the game. While Richardson had remonstrated keenly with Mr Freethy, Wakefield stood nearby and uttered not a word. In the Grandstand the Prince of Wales watching had asked officials if he could intervene on behalf of keeping Cyril on the field, but Wakefield did not.
According to the reports from the McGregor scrapbook there was no great jubilation by the All Blacks at the end of the game. In different circumstances they might have shouted to the heavens that they had gone through the best of Britain and Ireland unbeaten but in truth they were a downcast team at what had happened to their always dignified and outstanding tour member.
The reporters rushed to find their various ‘angles’ on the incident and over 90 years later they mostly add up to confusion of the highest order, not the least in the various utterances of the referee himself.
Said Mr Freethy in an official statement released at the ground straight after the game; ‘Cyril Brownlie deliberately kicked on the leg of an English forward lying face down on the ground…. I had taken my eye off the ball for a moment and therefore saw exactly what happened. I had warned both teams generally three times.’
That in itself sounds solid enough, but E.E. (‘General’) Booth, the 1905 All Black, who was there reporting for ‘The New Zealand Truth’, dug deeper, writing that ‘Mr Freethy could not name the England player reported by him as being kicked. There is no evidence of any player actually being on the ground at that time…. And from information received from most reliable quarters it appears Cyril Brownlie was not one of those players previously cautioned. Actually it was Maurice Brownlie who had been spoken to,’ wrote Booth.
Initially at the ground Wavell Wakefield declined to comment to the press beyond saying he had ‘witnessed the incident but preferred to say nothing’. This quote appears in most of my yellowing clippings. But later at the official dinner at London’s famous Café Royal the England captain suddenly became more expansive. He told another paper ‘Brownlie only had himself to blame. He was cautioned twice or thrice for swinging his arms and legs about and persistently playing the man instead of the ball. The referee finally caught him tackling a man five yards from the ball…we can’t stand that behaviour from any team.’
All that in only seven or ten minutes of play?
Another player from the England team offered this, ‘...the incident followed an incident where Tom Voyce of Gloucester was hurt in the mouth.’ My clippings also tell me that Voyce and Reg Edwards were openly using their fists and received a caution from Mr Freethy early on in the game.
And yet another Englishman spoke up at the dinner, ‘...it was Brownlie who foolishly gave backchat and that settled it. The referee then pointed to the pavilion.’
So we now must ask - did Mr. Voyce cop a punch in the mouth? Certainly he was outraged and swinging punches. Maybe, to be fair, it was a kick to the leg. But if that was the case how was he then ‘hurt on the mouth’. Another paper reported ‘A.T.Voyce made a complaint to the referee and the matter was ended when C.Brownlie was ordered off.’
So now we have Brownlie sent off for either kicking a player, (according to The Referee’s own statement), or for tackling a player away from the ball (Wavell Wakefield’s view), and from the unnamed English player for ‘back-chatting the referee.’
Or did in fact Brownlie go toe to toe with Tom Voyce and punch him in the mouth. Afterall the New Zealander had been warned for ‘swinging his arms about’ had he not?
So the issue is, at the very least, racked with puzzlement and confusion.
Another thing which comes out of the newspaper reports is that Mr Freethy, for his actions, had a number of the British writers on his side. W.E.Hayter Preston wrote ‘that the referee’s action was justified there can be no doubt.’ The esteemed Percy Rudd added ‘had Mr Freethy overlooked such an offence the game might easily have become a free-fight.’ And this from an unnamed correspondent ‘C.Brownlie had to go from this incident which was without precedent in international rugby.’
But the New Zealanders also had their opinions and their doubts. The most significant thing was that they knew their man. Cyril Brownlie was a towering figure in the game at that time (his 6 foot 3 inches would equate to a 6 foot 8 or 9 inch tall man today) and he came from impeccable family of the highest quality. It was beyond comprehension that he would go over the top in fighting and squabbling on a rugby field. Certainly he was a powerful man and it is true that the unbeaten record to that point on the All Blacks tour created the deepest pressures perhaps any New Zealand team had ever faced.
Remember – they were trying to leave Britain with an unbeaten record, which was to secure one more win than the famous ‘Original’ All Blacks of 1905-06 had achieved. To be sure, when the 17-11 score was posted and 14 had beaten 15 the ‘Invincibles’ showed they could rise and play their best when the occasion was the greatest.
But let the following quotes perhaps go part way to summarising this piece – and perhaps raise the question – did the venerable Mr Freethy have any idea at all just why he had sent the New Zealander off on that famous day, to condemn him to place of notoriety that he does not wholly deserve?
E.E.BOOTH - ‘NZ TRUTH’:
‘There is every reason to suppose that he (Freethy) was considerably overwrought and overly excited about the fiery aspect of the opening play.’
NEW ZEALAND TEAM MEMBERS (QUOTED AT THE CAFÉ ROYAL DINNER):
“Cyril Brownlie was not the aggressor but he retaliated when struck by a player who had been warned three times.’ ..also.. ‘the incident took place at a lineout so no player was on the ground. The ref made a mistake.’
S.S.DEAN (THE NEW ZEALAND TEAM MANAGER):
‘I had a long chat afterwards with Mr Freethy and asked him point-blank who it was who Cyril Brownlie had deliberately kicked. The Referee said he did not know.’
THE BROWNLIE BROTHERS:
At The official dinner all Maurice would say was ‘anything may have happened. But nothing deliberately.’
And according to one newspaper (the origin of which cannot be identified as its masthead has been clipped off) Cyril Brownlie himself offered the following personal (but typically reasoned) observation about the incident which was to follow him until his death in Wairoa, New Zealand, in 1954.
Said Cyril, ‘It was a piece of sheer ill-luck on my part. I found myself involved in a series of minor retaliations and was unfortunate to be dropped upon (sic) as the second man in the affair. I do think another man should have gone off the field besides myself.’
The great New Zealand rugby writer Sir Terry McLean perhaps came up with the last observations on that fateful skirmish. In his excellent work New Zealand Rugby Legends’ McLean wrote that when the brothers returned from the tour to New Zealand ‘no one, unless invited, ever spoke about it to any member of the Brownlie family.
Maurice, according to McLean, was ‘keenly sensitive about the incident but harboured no grudge against Freethy.’ Further on Maurice says,’the best referee I ever played under was Albert Freethy of Wales; he was outstanding. And he was quite right about my brother, Cyril. Cyril did punch Voyce, though this was a retaliatory blow after Voyce had belted him.’
The great Maurice went on, ‘After the game I said to Freethy:”Why didn’t you order the other man off too? They were both at fault. Freethy replied; I’m sorry, I can only adjudicate on what I see.”
The ABs win in the Wellington wind v France!
Ships couldn't berth on this fierce stormy day but the test went ahead anyway. NZ won 5-3 and hundreds of hats and scarves disappeared forever!
Buller, Wellington, and Scotland
2 internationals for New Zealand 1921
8 internationals for Scotland 1924–29
One of a number of players to have played for more than one country, Aitken came from Buller in New Zealand’s South Island. He made his ﬁrst-class debut as a teenager before the outbreak of World War I and resumed his career after the war.
Aitken’s debut for New Zealand in 1921 was in the ﬁrst test against South Africa – the ﬁrst game between the two countries.
Two years later Aitken, having been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, was in England studying at Oxford University. After becoming an Oxford rugby blue he won his ﬁrst cap for Scotland in 1924. (He had Scottish parents.)
George Aitken was a centre of considerable speed and talent. He is perhaps best remembered in the rugby world as part of a very fast and dangerous Oxford University three-quarter line, all of whom joined him in the Scottish international team at various times.
Which former Springbok test rugby captain won a Rugby World Cup winner's medal for Australia in 1999?