‘Rorke’s Drift Test’ should prove inspiration for McNamara’s men

HEROES: The 1914 Great Britain Lions, who clinched the Ashes with victory in a match that became known as the Rorke's Drift Test.  Pictures: RFL.
HEROES: The 1914 Great Britain Lions, who clinched the Ashes with victory in a match that became known as the Rorke's Drift Test. Pictures: RFL.
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THERE will inevitably be times on Sunday when England’s rugby league players will simply want to give in.

Whether it be when trying to desperately inch their way from their own line, utterly exhausted and perhaps already with the game lost, only to be met by yet more seemingly swarming masses of granite-like Green and Gold defenders.

Or being targeted once again by a relentless battering ram who has highlighted the said individual as the weak link or when another of their own finest set-moves is effortlessly negated, snuffed out without a second thought by a knowing Australian who has seen it all before.

It would be easy to capitulate – history proves that Australia have dominated them for more than four decades after all – but they will not because part of their innate character is to strive to overcome all barriers. It is the reason they have reached the pinnacle of their sport.

That, though, might not be enough to secure the rarest of victories in Melbourne that will take them to the Four Nations final and, simultaneously, eliminate the world champions, opening the path for possibly a first notable success since Great Britain lifted the 1972 World Cup.

Yet, if the tourists require that little extra reminder that all is, in fact, not lost, then they need only take a quick look at the shirt adorning their chests.

To mark the centenary of the historic third Test of the 1914 Lions tour, a match that became known as the Rorke’s Drift Test, Steve McNamara’s side will wear commemorative jerseys based on those worn by the Northern Union at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 4, 1914.

The England jersey is a red and white hooped design and features on its front the names of the heroes who defied overwhelming odds to defeat Australia and secure the Ashes.

The feat that occurred on that day, the adversity and travails that Great Britain overcame, almost makes the Gladiator film look like a family-friendly movie.

With only nine fit men on the field at times during a match which was a third Test inside just eight days, England triumphed 14-6 with a performance which Australian journalists, who have never been and are still not the most effusive of commentators, compared to the rearguard action staged by the British military against a Zulu army in South Africa in 1879.

One hundred years on since that epic contest, it remains one of those most evocative games in the sport’s history, symbolising just what can be achieved with bravery, determination and sheer cussedness, no matter what the circumstances.

The tourists had arrived in Australia at the end of May and played six warm-up matches before the first Test which, by mutual agreement, had been put back a week to June 27.

However, the date for the second Test just two days later, was not changed, so, unthinkably now, the two Tests were played within 48 hours of each other.

There was, then, no respite either as the third Test remained in its original slot with the crippled Northern Union struck with injuries before the game even got underway.

First-choice players Gwyn Thomas, Johnny Rogers, Bert Jenkins and Fred Longstaff were all missing while Alf Wood, Thomas’s replacement at full-back, was playing with a badly-broken nose.

Then, soon after kick-off, Halifax’s Frank Williams injured his knee and could only hobble on until half-time, departing permanently early in the second half. Douglas Clark broke his thumb and dislocated his shoulder before eventually succumbing yet the tourists, with their greater experience if not numbers, led 9-0 at half-time, thanks to a try from Leeds’s Willie Davies and three goals from Oldham’s Wood.

Australia, typically, rallied but they simply had no solutions to their opponents’ doggedness and spirit in defence.

Instead, the legendary Harold Wagstaff cut through their rearguard on the hour mark for Chick Johnson to add another converted try.

Only when, a few minutes later, Oldham’s Billy Hall was taken off with concussion did Australia begin eating away at that deficit.

At one point, the British were reduced to just nine men with Stuart Prosser incapacitated having been winded yet still there was no white flag and the most incredible of Test match wins – and the invaluable Ashes – were secured.

Wagstaff, the ‘princely’ centre from Holmfirth who captained Huddersfield at the age of 19 and then his country on this tour, was hailed as the inspiration and his feats that day did fashion him a place in rugby league immortality.

He described it as the hardest game of what would become a stellar, trophy-laden career and most others with him on the field would concur.

As the revered rugby league historian Tony Collins wrote: “Not only had the team won against overwhelming odds, but in doing so they had taken international rugby league to a new level.

“The game now had a tradition to live up to, and pantheon of greats for players to aspire to.

“The match would shape Ashes Test matches for the rest of the century.

“It was undoubtedly the greatest match in rugby league’s short, 19-year history – and quite probably the greatest that will ever be played.”

The challenges, while still great on Sunday, should be less testing for the current England side but, nevertheless, the story is a timely reminder of what belief alone can achieve.