How the All Blacks got their name

There’s an enduring belief that the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, acquired its nickname during the pioneering tour of Britain, Ireland, France and North America in 1905-06. The players, so the story goes, left as New Zealand footballers and returned as All Blacks.

One theory, which was perpetuated by the longest-lived of the players, Billy Wallace, was that a reporter was so impressed with the team’s play that he wrote it was as if they were “all backs” and some subeditor or typographer inserted an “l,” making them All Blacks. That reporter was supposedly John Buttery of the Daily Mail and the “all backs” line was used in his report of the match against Hartlepool Clubs. It’s a nice story but has no evidence to commend it. It simply did not happen. Buttery’s story nowhere mentioned “all backs” but did say in the fifteenth paragraph: “A glance at the undermentioned weights of the invincible ‘all blacks’ will convey some idea of the calibre of the team.” (Daily Mail, Oct 12, 1905).

Another version of the naming was that when the players arrived in Taunton to play Somerset, they saw posters exhorting people to “see the wonderful All Blacks play.” According to the 1966 An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, that marked the debut of the name. Wallace, in memoirs he wrote in 1932, said of the Somerset posters: “The name ‘All Blacks’ had now stuck to us. It is the name with which we were christened by the Daily Mail and it caught on with the general public …” (Reminiscences of a Famous International, p19).

Welsh-born Buttery also had a part in another version about the naming, this one involving another of the players, Ernie Booth. The pair were chatting at a training session in London and, according to a story later recounted by Booth – who was also a journalist – Buttery asked him why captain David Gallaher and another player, George Gillett, wore black belts and anklets. “Oh,” Booth supposedly replied, “just to be all black.” (Evening Post, Oct 19 1935).

The truth is the nickname left New Zealand in 1905 with the team and all British newspapers did was to make it more popular and give it a wider use. Buttery was not at the All Blacks’ first match, against Devon. The Daily Mail report of the game was supplied by the Devon secretary. A local paper, the Express and Echo, reported the morning after the first match: “The All Blacks, as they are styled by reason of their sable and unrelieved costume, were under the guidance of their captain …” The paper’s wording makes it plain the team was the All Blacks from the outset. (Exeter Express and Echo, Sept 16 1905).

In fact, the national rugby team had first been referred to as the All Blacks in 1893 when the first team under the auspices of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union was in Sydney. It had been beaten by New South Wales and in a preview of a return match, an Auckland weekly newspaper, the Observer, carried this sentence: “I expect to see the all blacks come out on top with a substantial majority.” (New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, July 29, 1893). It was common for teams in the nineteenth century to be referred to by their colours and in fact, the first All Blacks were Wellington from the days they wore black rather than white shorts. A reporter in 1889 wrote: “I think the all blacks should be pleased if they can obtain a draw against the blue and whites [Auckland].” (Evening Post, Aug 31 1889).

The name “All Blacks” was regarded as unofficial by the NZRFU until 1986 when it registered the name for commercial purposes.

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