The British and Irish Lions Tour of Australia is just around the corner and the fact that tickets sold out in 15 minutes proves what a great sporting event the Lions Tours have become. With the team only heading to Australia every 12 years the series is one that no player or fan wants to miss.
Former All Black Justin Marshall suggested a few years ago that the Southern Hemisphere nations should form a composite side every four years in between the Lions Tours and take on the Northern rugby playing nations, and idea that probably had a greater appeal to the fans than it did the administrators. It certainly would be far more interesting than some of the games in the current European Tours. In the current rugby climate one has to wonder how many Australian players would force their way into such a team, which is bound to be dominated by All Blacks and Springboks.
The idea of a team from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales going on tour as one also did not have appeal when it was first raised, but luckily for those of us around today cricketers Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury thought otherwise. As it was these two men who conceived the idea of a tour to Australia along with England Cricket Captain A.E. Stoddart. Little did they know the impact they would have on the game. (Shaw and Shrewsbury opened a sports business under this very name manufacturing cricket balls and bats. The business was later bought by Grays of Cambridge, who also own Gray Nicholls, so their influence on sport was immense).
The Tour took place in 1888 without the backing of the Rugby Football Union, and all of the players were not to be paid so that they maintained their amateur status. Was it representative of all of the ‘Home nations?’ As it happens it was, W.H. Thomas become the first Welshman to Tour Australia and New Zealand, while Angus Stuart although he played for Cardiff was in fact from Scotland; the latter stayed on in New Zealand and played for their national team in 1893. Arthur Paul from Lancashire wa sin fact the only Irish born player in the squad and was the principal goal kicker. He wrote his name into the cricket record books when with Archie Maclaren he established the then English batting record of 424 in a first class innings against Somerset. He also played in goal for Blackburn Rovers!
Also on that first tour A.P. Penketh became the only man from the Isle of Man to ever tour with a British team for Rugby Union. Also of far greater consequence J.T. Haslam was credited with inventing the dummy pass.
The team played 16 games in Australia, where they won 14 lost none and drew two. In New Zealand they played 19 won 13 lost two and drew four. In addition to these games they played 18 exhibition games in Victoria which were played under Australian Rules, something that did not go down too well. Here they won six drew one and lost 11. No Test Matches were played and with only twenty two players on the trip the results are remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that Harry Eagles, a forward, played in every single Tour match; an achievement that no other touring player has ever matched.
The Rugby fraternity owe a great deal to these pioneers and it is worth remembering their feats as the Lions prepare to head down under.