England’s centre Manu Tuilagi farewelled the 2011 Rugby World Cup by jumping from a ferry into Auckland Harbour. Bizarrely, he isn’t the first English rugger to end a New Zealand visit with a pier-side dunking in the city’s icy cold waters. The earlier instance was an accident, nearly a sad tragedy…

britsDirectly adjacent to the Auckland Ferry Terminal, where the ferry Tuilagi took his sudden leave from was readying itself to dock, is Queens Wharf – the site of “Party Central” during the World Cup.

It was from Queens Wharf in July 1908 that the British Lions were boarding the steamer ‘Victoria’, heading across the Tasman Sea to Sydney to begin the Australian section of their long tour. 

This Lions team (bereft of any representatives from Ireland or Scotland due to disputes amongst the Home unions over professionalism) had just completed a 17 match tour – a campaign that included a losing Test series against the All Blacks (culminating in an awful 29-0 drubbing in the final encounter).

The Lions though were immensely popular on and off the field, and it seems the whole of Auckland had come down to the dockside early that winter evening to bid adieu to the contingent, and wish them well in Australia.

A number of newspapers at the time suggested that “the members of the British team were treated right royally in Auckland” through that afternoon, and though attempts were later made to dispel reports hinting the players were not entirely delivered to the ship in tip-top condition, the fact that England centre Henry Vassall failed to arrive at all (he reportedly “had been visiting lady friends”) suggests otherwise.

Even when the players were on the steamer, and the deck hands were loosening ropes from the piers to ‘push away’, the long goodbyes were far from done, with many reaching across the void to shake hands and pat shoulders one last time.

One of the British forwards, Bristol’s Percy Down, leaned over to shake a friendly hand (or, as whispered in other accounts, to embrace a young lady), when the steamer suddenly swung out from the dock. Down over-balanced and “became entangled in a portion of the gear, and, turning a complete somersault over the rail, fell with a splash into the water.”

Immediately there were wild cries of “man overboard!” and other shrieks from the thousands assembled on the wharf. Ropes were quickly dropped over the side of the steamer into the water for Down to clutch hold of.

Unfortunately, even though he was a fair swimmer, Down was wearing a heavy overcoat, and in the dim light he could be seen making frantic struggles in the water, while all could hear his desperate calls for help.

Seemingly in an instant, the Lions’ fullback John Jackett (from Leicester RFC), threw off his own overcoat and dived overboard. Meanwhile, close by on the wharf, All Blacks ‘Bolla’ Francis and George Gillett did likewise, and they too threw themselves into the harbour.

With a real possibility existing that the steamer could swing back into the wharf, crushing all the men in the water, the captain of the ‘Victoria’ kept the ship turned away as much as he could to avoid a catastrophe.

In what was a narrow escape for all, it took some minutes before the rescuers succeeded in getting Down and themselves out of the water, amid cheers from the crowd that had been anxiously looking on.

Unsurprisingly, “Down received a shaking and a shock to the system,” and while Jackett suffered a slight concussion on his way into the water, the others were none the worse for the incident.

In an understatement, Jackett wrote during the voyage to Sydney that the dramatic farewell from New Zealand had “made matters rather lively.”

From there, this heroic tale quietly passed into history.

© Sean Fagan