A mighty performance was witnessed at Rodney Parade when the Usksiders pulled off their first of four victories over major Southern Hemisphere international touring teams.
Rugby had been started in South Africa in 1861, they first welcomed the British Isles in 1891 with the tourists playing and winning 20 games! Rugby Union prospered - South Africa improved - in 1896 the British Isles were defeated in one of the test matches - in the 1903 tour South Africa won the series 1 nil with 2 drawn games. They travelled to Europe in 1906 - the first time the nickname 'Springboks' was used - lost only two games, to Scotland and, I have to say it, the team at the other end of Cardiff Road (17 v 0). In October's Rodney Parade game Newport were not outclassed, but overwhelmed by the size and physicality of the South Africans and lost 0 v 8 in front of 19,000 spectators.
Compared to most Welsh towns the town visited by the 1912 Springboks had a broad based economy, with foundries, engineering works, a cattle market and shops that served much of Monmouthshire. With heavy industry so thriving, Welsh commerce and shipping flourished equally. Electric trams had been introduced in 1904 and in 1912 the Argus was carrying advertisements by Newport Corporation Electricity Department with the slogan "Electricity is the next best thing to Daylight".
But we should not run away with any impression of good times for all. There was much industrial strife with tempestuous unrest throughout the South Wales Coalfield and heavy industry. In 1909 39 lives were lost in building new docks in Newport. Working people's lives were hard - life expectancy for men was only 50. Nevertheless, it was a golden age for Newport, and so too sport in Newport - in particular that under the umbrella of Newport Athletic Club with a record of success in Cricket, Hockey, Gymnastics, Athletics and Rugby being established.
Pride and confidence in the town was demonstrated when the South Africans arrived the day before the match to be entertained - with a tour of the expanding Docks on a grey, raw morning with rain falling. Their train met at Newport station, they were drawn through High Street and Commercial Street with horses and their drivers' whips decorated with rosettes of green colour. The Transporter Bridge, opened in 1906 was also on the agenda, after which lunch was taken at the Queens Hotel where the Newport captain Walter Martin, in looking forward to the game, and perhaps recalling the physicality of the 1906 encounter whilst surveying the tourists sat before him, said ".... he did not know whether he felt more like David before Goliath, or Daniel in the lion's den, but he was reassured because he felt that the South Africans hearts were as big as their bodies."
The auguries for the game were not of the best. "Dromio" in the Argus wrote "Newport in the last 3 games have been poor in attack, and in the last 2 games have been weak in defence. .... Unless Newport do a great deal better in their tackling against the South Africans they are going to have a very bad time indeed." The opposition were undefeated in games against Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Monmouthshire, Glamorgan and Llanelli. Despite making special arrangements for ticket selling 3 days before the game the Argus reported "NO GREAT RUSH FOR SEATS". .... One enthusiast was present as early as 7 a.m. but only half a dozen or so had joined by nine, and at 9.30 about 100 persons were formed in line, awaiting their time to book." With production of the official programme sold to a Newport printer there was to be no team news until the evening before the match.
But the rugby supporting public turned up in their droves. 20,000 arrived to see "Victory of Newport" as The Times proclaimed it. The game was dominated by the thoughts and actions of the home teams superlative half backs. Tommy Vile and Walter Martin. The visitors had a larger pack and much quicker backline than the Black and Ambers but were often pinned back in their own half by the precise kicking of the half backs as well as Fred Birt from the centre and Herbert Wreford at full back.
Against predictions, Newports forwards managed to hold their own against the powerful opposition and made great efforts to hit the tackles hard and disrupt the continuity of the South Africans. Aggressive tackling dislodged the ball from the carrier on several occasions, hence stopping promising attacks.
Just before half time, following a tremendous forward surge, Jack Wetter managed to cross the try line but was recalled. Soon after however, the ball was worked quickly to Birt who dropped a goal to give the home side a four point advantage. Soon after the break, the South Africans swarmed up field and Douglas Morkel scored underneath the posts but amazingly, defied his reputation, by missing the conversion.
Wreford was by now performing heroics with several last ditch tackles to keep the opposition backline out but it looked as if South Africa would gain the decisive score at some stage. Suddenly, Wetter broke and sliced his way through the cover defence. He raced up field and lined up a pass but much to everyones surprise he instead choose to kick towards the posts. Van der Hoff raced across to cover and dived towards the bouncing ball but missed it and was beaten to the touchdown by Fred Birt who had chased well to follow the move. Birt also successfully converted his score to finish the game with all of his teams points and an ecstatic cheering crowd.
it is worth noting a few newspaper headlines: The Daily News and Leader "It was a great personal triumph for Birt .... who was carried shoulder high from the field". The Daily Telegraph "Newport played extremely well but the gaining of the victory was the work of one man. Birt ..." . The Western Mail "First to beat Springboks .... Birt's brilliance ... a record gate.... as an individualist Birt is a phenomenon". Still creating headlines sixty nine years later 'Fields of Praise' the official history of the WRU records "Newport, with five Welsh caps and the English international, Bob Dibble, in the pack, .... won a pulsating game" .... "Birt had secured an inestimable prize for Newport".
After the post-match dinner in the Kings Head Hotel the South African captain William Millar "...... then presented to Mr. Walter Martin the springboks head, given to the team by the Kimberley Evening Star as the mascot, to be presented to the first team defeating them ... He hoped that .... when [Newport] saw it .... they would think not only that they beat the South Africans but that the South Africans took their defeat in a sporting spirit. There might be as much honour in losing as winning a game...". Most of you will know that trophy still sits proudly in the clubhouse.
The coverage of the game in the Western Mail and South Wales Argus was immense spreading across many columns with the following days' editorial in the latter entitled "Hands Across the Sea":-
"By their defeat of the South Africans on Thursday the Newport Rugby Football Team have added one more to the athletic glories of the town. The Springboks came as an all-victorious side. ... Newport surpassed themselves. They responded to the call made upon them; they revealed unexpected powers; they played as they have not played for years; and they won deservedly...".
This fantastic achievement in Newports history was to be repeated over fifty years later, when the 1969 South Africans also lost at Rodney Parade. It is worth noting that the Welsh national team did not achieve its first victory over South Africa until 1999.