The Albert Freethy Whistle

It is rare to find many links between the worlds of rugby and antiques, but this month’s World Cup in England does just that, with a quadrennial tradition connected to the very first international between England and New Zealand.

The Gil Evans whistle is an otherwise unremarkable whistle which is kept at the New Zealand Rugby Museum in Palmerston North; in the modern era, only seven referees have used the whistle; Australian Bob Fordham (1987), Scotsman Jim Fleming (1991), Welshman Derek Bevan (1995), New Zealanders Paddy O’Brien (1999) & Paul Honiss (2003), Englishman Tony Spreadbury (2007) and Irishman George Clancy (2011), each time to start the opening game of a world cup.

The whistle was first used during England’s first ever match against New Zealand in 1905, which was won by the Kiwis (the so-called “Originals”) 15-0. It was presented by Evans to another Welsh referee, Albert Freethy, who used it for the 1924 Olympic Games final between the USA and France.

A year later, in 1925, it was used to send off All Black Cyril Brownlie (All Black #291), earning him the dubious honour of being the first rugby player to be shown a red card. (Freethy had tried to send off a player in the 1924 Olympic final, but had been persuaded otherwise!). The whistle is engraved on each side, with details of the 1905 and 1925 matches.

The actual sending off was captured by a photographer, the walk of shame has changed very little in 90 years!

The coin which will be used to decide kick-off also links to the 1925 England – New Zealand match. Unfortunately, neither the referee nor the team captains had a coin for the pre-match toss; All Black supporter Hector Gray came to the rescue and produced a florin. New Zealand won the toss, and the match. Delighted with his role in the fixture, Gray had the coin embossed with a rose and a fern.

After 2007, Tony Spreadbury wrote of the “…wonderful ritual of using an old Florin that had been first ‘flipped’ at Twickenham in 1925. However, even in the highly charged atmosphere of a World Cup a smile broke out from the captains of both teams, Raphael Ibanez and Agustin Pichot, as one of them had to select the rose!”

“…Then at 9pm at the Stade de France in front of 80,000 people and with a TV audience of millions, I gave a huge blast on the whistle and the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the Webb Ellis Cup, was underway. I have to admit to being somewhat superstitious. I therefore passed the whistle, for safe keeping, to Stuart Dickinson, the touch judge, at the first lineout and continued with my ‘Acme Thunderer’ which I have used for some 30 years.”

Jaco Peyper will be in charge of the England – Fiji match in two weeks time, and the story of these two modest items will have another paragraph!