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British & Irish Lions - The First Overseas Tour

Carl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy


The following text is an extract is from The History of the British Lions by Clem Thomas pub. 1996 and Football: The rugby Union Game by Rev. F. Marshall pub. 1892.

During the winter of 1888, Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury (who as cricket entrepreneurs were the managers of a touring team in Australia) together with A.E Stoddart conceived the idea of an English rugby team to play in the southern colonies. Shrewsbury was W.G.Grace's predecessor as England's cricket captain, while Stoddart succeeded Grace.

When they asked the Rugby Football Union to patronise the tour they were refused, which was typical of the conservatism of that august body, with attitudes which prevailed for the next century.

The RFU refused their patronage on the grounds that it was a team which was organised for the benefit of individual promoters, who were not under the umbrella of any recognised sporting body. They saw no reason, however, to interfere with the project, as long as the promoters and the players did not infringe the principle that it was an amateur game.

The fact that it was not under the auspices of the Rugby Football Union considerably weakened the strength of the side, as fewer international players took part than would otherwise have done so. Nevertheless, Shaw and Shrewsbury secured the service of 20 players, including many county players, all but one of whom hailed from the north of England and the Scottish borders. G.Bran, A.E. Stoddart and C. Aubrey Smith (later to become a well known Hollywood film star), all of whom were already in Australia with the cricket team, were also available.

The tour

The team left England on 8 March 1888 and arrived home on 11 November of the same year, having played 53 games in all with only 22 players, making a mockery of complaints by the modern player of too many matches. There was nothing amateur about this number of games.

First Lions Captain


The team was sufficiently powerful to give a good account of itself and the players not only gave Australia and New Zealand an indication of the strength of English rugby, but upheld their country's honour by winning 27 of the 35 matches played in New Zealand and Australia under Rugby Union laws, with six draws and two defeats.


Lions 8-3 Otago Lions
Lions 4-3 Otago
Lions 14-6 Canterbury
Lions 4-0 Canterbury
Lions 3-3 Wellington
Lions 4-1 H Roberts XV
Lions 0-1 Taranaki Clubs
Lions 6-3 Auckland
Lions 0-4 Auckland
Lions 18-2 New South Wales
Lions 13-6 Bathurst
Lions 18-6 New South Wales
Lions 11-0 Sydney Juniors
Lions 10-10 King's School Sydney
Lions 3-3 Sydney Grammar Past and Present
Lions 20-10 Bathurst
Lions 16-2 New South Wales
Lions 8-4 University of Sydney
Lions 15-7 Newcastle
Lions 13-6 Queensland
Lions 11-3 Queensland Juniors
Lions 7-0 Queensland
Lions 12-1 Ipswich
Lions 15-5 Melbourne
Lions 28-3 Adelaide XV
Lions 3-0 Auckland
Lions 1-1 Auckland
Lions 3-2 Hawke's Bay
Lions 5-1 Wairarapa
Lions 8-0 Canterbury
Lions 0-0 Otago
Lions 5-3 South Island
Lions 6-0 South Island
Lions 7-1 Taranaki Clubs
Lions 1-1 Wanganui

The extraordinary feature of the tour was that 18 further games were played under Victorian or Australian Rules. Inevitably, the results here were not as good, with 11 defeats, one draw and only six wins. These matches were undertaken as a means of making money for the promoters, who were underwriting the costs. As there was little or no rugby in areas like Victoria, it was sold on the basis of seeing the Englishmen in exhibition games. Had the tour been under the auspices of the RFU, then no such matches under alien rules would have been permitted.

Indeed, it was remarkable that the tourists, who were totally ignorant of the Victorian rules, let alone the finer points and combinations, picked up the game so quickly.

A. E. Stoddart, in particular, was remarkable in the speed at which he mastered the game. He became extremely popular with the colonials because of his remarkable skill in both codes, and he was the undoubted hero of the tour.

Despite that the team in 1888 played no test matches and was essentially English, not a British side, it nevertheless pioneered the concept of overseas tours by a British team.

Player Banned

Although there are rumours that the players had been paid expenses for their clothes etc. , Jack Clowes of Halifax was the only player to admit to it. He was declared a professional by the RFU and banned from playing rugby by the RFU. The RFU were made aware of the fact that Clowes had received 15 pounds from Mr Turner following an investigation by the Yorkshire committee which resulted in the Yorkshire cup being replayed (Halifax, Clowes's team, still beat Dewsbury without him, to win the cup).

The returning players were made to sign an affidavit that that they had not received pecuniary benefit from the tour, and there the matter ended.

See lions results over the years






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