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Rugby League's hero of Rorke's Drift test

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: May 02, 2014

  • Wolverhampton's Alf Wood (1883-1963)

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A BLACK Country-born player, one of the great names in Rugby League, features in a new commemorative booklet entitled The Rorke's Drift Test: The Centenary of One of the Greatest Rugby Matches Ever Played by James W. Bancroft.

The book celebrates the match between the British Lions and Australia played in Sydney on July 4, 1914, when the tourists were hit by injuries but showed great courage and determination in a terrific struggle to defeat the Australians in the deciding match. In an era when the Northern Union rules did not allow substitutes they played much of the game with only ten men, and a short time with only nine!

Their achievement of winning against the odds prompted a Sydney newspaper reporter to refer to it as the "Rorke's Drift Test", remembering the 1879 battle when a small garrison of British soldiers successfully defended the depot at Rorke's Drift in South Africa against vastly superior numbers of Zulu warriors – and the name stuck.

Alfred Ernest Wood, who, because of his surname perhaps inevitably was given the nickname Timber, was born in Wolverhampton on November 27, 1883, the son of Thomas Wood, a railway engine driver, and his wife, Mary Ann. The family eventually moved to Devon, where Alf worked as a railway engine fitter's apprentice. However, he kept his association with the Midlands and during 1907 he married Rose Clark in Birmingham. Away from rugby he was landlord at the Prince of Wales pub in Cheltenham.

He played for Gloucester as their extra half-back against the original New Zealand All Blacks in 1905, but he was mainly noted as a full-back with a strong kick. He came to the attention of the England selection committee playing in the County Championship, and he was selected to make his international debut against France in 1908.

He was approached by the Oldham committee and persuaded to change codes and signed for the Rugby League side in time for the start of the 1908-09 season. He gained a championship winner's medal in 1910. Wood went on to represent Great Britain in four rugby league tests between 1911 and 1914, scoring goals in each game. He was considered by many to be one of the best full-backs of all time.

On the 1914 Australian tour, injuries had left the British in a seriously depleted state, including Alf, who injured his leg in the first match of the tour, and played in the deciding game nursing a broken nose. After a moving team talk by the manager, John Clifford, which reduced many of the team to tears, they ran onto the Sydney Cricket Ground pitch determined to fight hard whatever the outcome. They lost another player early on, but despite this they led 9-3 at half time, with Alf having kicked three goals. Two more players left the field injured in the second half, and although the Lions were reduced to ten men with about 30 minutes to go, they scored another try, which Alf converted, and to the applause of the Sydney crowd they left the field having won 14-6 to win the series. Alf kicked 47 goals in all during the tour to become the top points scorer.

The booklet includes a detailed narrative of the match and pictures and biographical tributes to all 26 men who embarked on the tour, thus providing more information about the event than has ever before been collected in one publication. New action illustrations have been commissioned and there is a carefully-researched colour picture on the cover depicting the players in the kit worn by both teams on the day. A limited-edition copy of which is presented with the booklet.

You can get pre-publication copies (signed by the author on request), with the limited-edition print, at £4.99 (plus £1 postage) by cheque from James Bancroft, 280 Liverpool Road, Eccles M30 0RZ, or online at www.bancroftpublishing.com. Email: jamesbancroftuk@aol.com

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