Lions legend: Blair Swannell

A true hero who represented both the Lions and the Wallabies died in battle on this day 98 years ago. [more]

Lions legend: Blair Swannell

A true hero who represented both the Lions and the Wallabies died in battle on this day 98 years ago.

Major Blair Swannell won seven Test caps for the Lions in 1899 and 1904 and one for Australia in 1905 but was killed in action at Anzac Cove on the first day of the Gallipoli Campaign on April 25, 1915.

Swannell’s record both on and off the pitch is a remarkable one and he is rightly celebrated as a sporting and military hero.

One of the few early Lions to feature on more than one tour, Swannell ventured to Australia with the class of 1899 before heading back Down Under when the Lions toured Australia and New Zealand five years later.

The Northampton forward played a total of 32 games for the tourists, making 17 appearances on his first tour and a further 15 on his second despite never playing for England.

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Swannell holds the record for the most Test wins by a single Lion in 125 years of touring, an honour he shares with Froude Hancock thanks to six successes in seven internationals. His only Test defeat with the Lions came in the last of those seven encounters when David Bedell-Sivright’s side were beaten by the All Blacks.

After his second tour to Oz, Swanell decided not to return to England and instead settled in Sydney. He continued to play and coach the game and was capped by the Wallabies in New Zealand not long after officially emigrating.

He led St Joseph’s School to a number of college championships, served as secretary of the Metropolitan Rugby Union and was often asked for his opinion on all things rugby by the local and national press.

But despite his high standing, Swannell had always been known for his ‘aggressive’ approach to the game and Wallaby captain Herbert Moran even went as far to state that "Swannell was, for a number of years, a bad influence in Sydney football…his conception of rugby was one of trained violence".

No one could question his attitude on the battlefield, though, as Swannell rose to the rank of Major following spells in both the British and Australian armies.

Swannell served in South Africa in the Second Boer War and reached the rank of lieutenant by the time he resigned his commission in February 1903. It was reported that during his time in South Africa, he was personally recommended on the field for a commission by General Lord Methuen.

He enlisted with the Australian Infantry when World War One broke out and was commissioned as an officer and posted to Egypt.

When the Gallipoli campaign was launched in April 1915, Swannell’s men were among the first to land at Anzac Cove where they became involved in heavy fighting for a small hill, known as ‘Baby 700’. Early successes with the landings were followed by heavy losses and, as the official Australian historian Charles Bean recounted, Swannell had a premonition of his own death: “he realised that he would play this game as he had played Rugby Football – with his whole heart”.

He died whilst kneeling up to show his men how to take better aim with their rifles and was shot in the head. He was awarded the Military Cross and is remembered in the Australian War Museum in Canberra.

His life and death is also commemorated at the Baby 700 Cemetery in Gallipoli and with a plaque on the walls at Weston-Underwood Church in Buckinghamshire.

Swannell's Lions lowdown

Lions debut: Versus Metropolitan, June 20, 1899
Lions Tests: 7 (2nd, 3rd, 4th Tests vs Aus in 1899 and 1st, 2nd, 3rd vs Aus and 1st vs NZ in 1904)
Lions non-Test appearances: 25
Total Lions appearances: 32
Lions points: 4 (2 tries – 1 point for the first in 1899 and 3 for the second in 1904)
Final Lions appearance: Versus Auckland, August 20, 1904

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