Lions’ share of footballing history
The First Lions of Rugby
By Sean Fagan Slattery Media, 304pp, $34.95
IN Australian sport, the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1888, Australia went into a Test cricket series in England as the underdog, the Blues of Carlton drew big crowds to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the team representing the pride of NSW rugby failed to live up to expectations and the battle between football codes for the hearts and minds of sports supporters was intense.
Then, as now, Australian rules was burrowing its way beyond the invisible barriers guarding rugby’s shaky strongholds in NSW and Queensland when a group of footballers arrived from the other side of the world to challenge Australia’s best.
The 1888 British Isles squad of ‘‘ rugbeians’’ was not sanctioned by the game’s haughty administration in England but nevertheless established a tour-and-play blueprint in the colonies that has evolved into one of rugby union’s great traditions and teams: the British & Irish Lions, Australia’s opponent in a threeTest series that starts in Brisbane this weekend.
In The First Lions of Rugby, Sean Fagan’s rich account of that five month, 54-game tour of Australia and New Zealand 125 years ago, the visitors’ pivotal influence in shoring up rugby in NSW and Queensland and fending off the growing threat of Australian rules and to a lesser extent association football (soccer) is carefully delineated.
Appropriately too, the book examines in depth the Britons’ important dalliance with the ‘‘ Victorian game’’, Australian rules — a sport they turned their hand to for the sake of the commercial prospects of the tour. It failed to be the financial windfall they’d hoped for, but, to their credit, they kicked more goals and won more games than contemporary code hopper Israel Folau, the former rugby league international now preparing to face the rugby Lions for the Wallabies after an inglorious twoseason foray in the Australian Football League.
In fact, with only a few weeks’ practice, the 1888 rugby men managed to be reasonably competitive, if awkward, in matches against some of the game’s biggest clubs, including Carlton before 26,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and even snatched a few victories against regional Australian rules clubs in a total of 19 tour games.
In doing so, they gave already rabid Victorian and South Australian supporters of the Victorian game the opportunity to express a blinkered fervour for their still-developing sport in the face of a mighty international rugby presence, helping solidify the foundations of the unique demarcations and ultracompetiveness among the football codes in Australia that are still largely in place today.
Cobbled together by three promoters, including one of England’s finest cricketers, Arthur Shrewsbury, amid a rash of tut-tutting and threats of bans over player payments, the British Isles squad of 22 was led by Lancashire’s Robert ‘‘ Bob’’ Seddon and, later, the prince of three-quarters, London blue blood Andrew Stoddart. It was reported the forwards in the party weighed an average 82kg, making them veritable hulks in their day, especially compared with NSW’s ‘‘ young fellows who, for the most part, had never done any harder work than that required to propel a billiard cue with sufficient force to get an all-round cannon’’, according to Sydney sports publication The Referee.
Demonstrating a fresh approach to the sometimes lumbering game of 19th-century rugby, a fondness for ‘‘ cake and ale’’ — three tour members taking the field drunk against Essendon didn’t improve their Australian rules fortunes — and an odd affection for colonial skating rinks, the visitors were warmly welcomed throughout Australasia, blaming several substandard performances on their cluttered social calendar. Indeed, a loss to Auckland was the result of ‘‘ too much whiskey and women’’. Some would say the Lions have been coming up with a variety of excuses for their inability Zealand ever since.
Fagan brings a historian’s meticulous and occasionally forensic style rather than poet’s lyricism to the narrative in The First Lions of Rugby, which nevertheless wields enough emotional bait to feed several pot boilers, with financial scuttlebutt, match-fixing allegations, violence, glorious victory, bitter defeat, even death visiting the team.
Seddon, the skipper, died in a sculling incident on the Hunter River near Maitland during the tour and, later in life, both Stoddart — absurdly talented at multiple sports (even Aussie rules supporters noted his skill level) — and promoter Shrewsbury killed themselves.
Subsequent British Isles rugby tours across the world gained at least some support from rugby officialdom and eventually became the kind of momentous occasions that have brought the Lions to Australia this month with 30,000 supporters in tow.
As Fagan points out, the first Lions’ antipodean adventure failed to rivet the British press and their on-field deeds, losing only two of their 35 rugby encounters, went largely unheralded. However, the fallout from the treatment of the players by the game’s administrators and the debate over payment and compensation was a seed that sprouted when clubs and players, particularly in England’s working-class north, broke away in 1895 to form rugby league there, a move emulated with devastating effect in Australia from 1907.
While Stoddart and several others went on to enjoy further rugby success, a few participating in the development of league, it’s of little surprise the touring party failed to deliver on diplomatic promises to spread the Aussie rules gospel in London. By midway through their Australian adventure, having earlier paid lip service to the fine qualities of the local game, the tourists were through being generous to their southern state hosts. Fagan reproduces an interview Seddon did with The Referee: ‘‘ I imagine that none of our men like the Victorian game. Mind this: We may be prejudiced by having been brought on from childhood to the Rugby rules. But one thing is certain. The most prejudiced Rugbeian cannot be as one-sided as the Victorians. They are married to their game, and think there is no other game in the world but their own.’’
The more things change . . .
British & Irish Lions team members training in Sydney last week; left, the 1888 squad