Lions in Melbourne

As Super Rugby gets ready to welcome its 15th franchise, the Melbourne Rebels, into the fold on the opening weekend, it is interesting to note the famous Australian city has a long standing rugby tradition that dates back to the first British & Irish Lions tour in 1888. [more]

Lions in Melbourne

As Super Rugby gets ready to welcome its 15th franchise, the Melbourne Rebels, into the fold on the opening weekend, it is interesting to note the famous Australian city has a long standing rugby tradition that dates back to the first British & Irish Lions tour in 1888.

Even though the ‘Victorian Rules’ were more often than not applied to the football played in Melbourne more than 120 years ago, the original Lions did play a game against the newly formed Melbourne Rugby Union at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground on 1 August, 1888.

The game ended in a win by three goals to one, 9-3, to the Lions as they continued on their unbeaten run in Australia. The Lions also played 19 games under ‘Aussie Rules’ on that tour and opinions differed greatly on the merits and de-merits of both codes.

Such was the rivalry between the two games that a ‘Victorian Rules’ game was scheduled at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to coincide with the Lions’ rugby clash. South Melbourne and Carlton met in a game that attracted a substantial five figure crowd, compared to the 6,000 who watched the Lions.

“Goal Post”, writing in “The Referee” about the Lions’ match stated: “The team of British footballers played their first game in Victoria, under the Rugby rules, against an equal number of representatives chosen by the Melbourne Rugby Union on Wednesday. The attendance on the East Melbourne Cricket Ground was only moderate, owing to the somewhat unsportsmanlike and selfish arrangements made by our leading clubs for a 'gate' match on the Melbourne Cricket Ground.”

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While Brisbane and Sydney have been the cradles of Australian rugby, the state of Victoria has often struggled to produce top grade teams and players. Rugby football was first played in Victoria in the late 1840s, but dissatisfaction with how the game was played led to the formation of Melbourne FC in May, 1859, adopting its own revised laws of football which was later to become known as Australian Rules.

Club rugby was formally organised in Victoria when the Melbourne Rugby Union formed in 1888 to raise a team to face Robert Seddon’s touring team. The article in “The Referee” highlighted the differences in opinions of the two games.

“The game provoked very little enthusiasm on the part of the spectators, the majority of whom were ignorant of the rules governing this method of footballing, and those who had an inkling of them were unable to rouse up an excitement over the interminable scrimmages, kicking out of bounds in working along the boundary line and throwing the ball from one to the other.

“Of course opinions differ. The skipper of the English team thinks that the Rugby is infinitely superior to the Australian game because all the players are kept in motion throughout the contest, but if this is its only recommendation it is a very poor one. The Australasian game gives everyone plenty to do and affords infinite variety in running and bouncing the ball, little marking, long kicking, dodging and keeping the play well within the boundary lines, whilst the competitors are well protected from unduly rough or foul play.

“In the Rugby game half the time is wasted by the scrummaging, which is neither skilful nor graceful, but sheer bulldogism; and the working the ball up the boundary lines by deliberately kicking it out of play seems an absurdity, whilst the ludicrous attitude assumed by the player placing the ball for a shot at goal must be witnessed to be appreciated. No arrangements appear to exist by which any punishment is inflicted for players wilfully knocking each other about; consequently accidents are numerous, and catch-as-catch-can contests constitute an element in the game which is one hardly likely to gain favour in this community.”

The teams for the game were arranged as follows:
Melbourne Rugby Union: Lee, full back; Stohr, Millar, and Scarborough, three-quarter backs; A. J Murray and Wakeham, half-backs; J. L. Murray (captain), Cowen, Morrell, White, Lindsay, Rice, Graham, Outtrim and Williams, forwards

Lions: Paul, full-back; Speakman, Stoddart, and Haslam, three quarter backs; Bumby and Nolan, half-backs; Seddon (captain), Mathers, Eagles, Burnett, Laing, Penketh, Kent, Williams and Thomas, forwards

The Lions’s tries came from Andrew Stoddart, Jimmy Nolan and Sam Williams and Stoddart added three conversions. The home points were provided by a try from Wakeham and a conversion by Scarborough.

In the match report in the Melbourne Argus the action was described thus:


“The game differs so materially from that play in Victoria that any merely technical description of it would prove altogether unintelligible. A great feature in the game consists in what is termed "scrimmaging". All the forward players place their heads together over the ball and, by a trial of strength, the exact reverse of what is known as a "tug of war," the heaviest team force their opponents away from the ball and leave it to their own three-quarter back players to secure.

“The colonials evidently lacked combination, which is one of the great essentials of the rugby game, which was attributable to their not having had so much practice together as their opponents. In scrimmaging the weight of the Englishmen was always brought to bear with effect.

“Though the game lacks much of the life and rapid change of that played in Victoria, it Is much rougher, and more liable to lead to accident. Two medical gentlemen had been selected as umpires yesterday, and the selection certainly seemed most fitting. On more than one occasion players were stretched out limp and breathless on the turf, owing to the heavy falls which were given them without any breach of the rules. Fortunately, however, they recovered, and were able after a short time to resume the game. No really serious accident occurred.

“The spectators were not roused to excitement during any part of the game. This of course is largely to be attributed to the fact that they did not understand the points, the game being in all its essential aspects entirely distinct from that which they are accustomed lo witness. But it is certainly lacking in the opportunity far brilliant individual display afforded by the Victorian game. On the other hand it is claimed for it by its supporters that it leaves fewer idle men in the field, the whole of the team being constantly called into requisition during the frequent scrimmages. There is little reason to suppose from the exhibition afforded yesterday that the game will prove a rival in public favour with that which is already so popular here.”

At the post-match dinner the Lions skipper, Bob Seddon, talked about the differences between playing rugby union and ‘Victorian Rules’.

“There are very many good points in the Victorian game, but it leaves too many of the men idle. That is the reason I prefer the Rugby game, for in that nearly all the men are employed from the beginning to the end, whilst in the Victorian game half-a-dozen men appear to do nearly all the work,” was the Lions’ skipper’s summation.

“I was surprised at the excellent game played by the Victorian men and they proved themselves a first class team. The game was also played in a very pleasant manner. The Rugby players took the knocking about which they got in the game more pleasantly than the Victorian men.

“If a Victorian was knocked down he was very apt to get up and put up his hands and state that the Englishmen were playing roughly, but the Rugby players took it like men, knowing that they were not knocked down on purpose.

“I hope the Rugby game will get a fair show in Melbourne and that if it does the great majority of people will like it.”

Just how many will be seen 123 years on when the Melbourne Rebels launch their Super 15 career – with a modern-day Stoddart orchestrating their tactics behind the scrum in Danny Cipriani, and a Welsh No 8 in Gareth Delve following in the footsteps of Seddon.

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