Lions’ share of foot­balling his­tory

The First Lions of Rugby

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Greg Tru­man Greg Tru­man

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.’’

to win

reg­u­larly

in New

The more things change . . .

Bri­tish & Ir­ish Lions team mem­bers train­ing in Syd­ney last week; left, the 1888 squad

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