Back to the beginning

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the first British & Irish Lions fixture, so we're taking a look back at where it all began on April 28, 1888. [more]

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Today marks the 125th anniversary of the first British & Irish Lions fixture, so we’re taking a look back at where it all began on April 28, 1888.

It is one of the most significant dates in the history of rugby. Since then the Lions have played 598 games on tours to New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (P598 W440 D32 L126), a further 25 on three trips to Argentina (P25 W25) and three exhibition games in the northern hemisphere.

The chairman of the Lions committee, Gerald Davies, has this weekend written to the Otago RFU to thank them for being the first hosts to the Lions. In fact, they played against the 1888 tourists three times.

The pioneering tourists kicked off what would become one of the game’s greatest traditions with an 8-3 win over Otago in Dunedin. They were driven to the Caledonian Ground in a ‘six-in-hand drag’. After seven weeks at sea, the Lions began their 35-match adventure in fine style in front of a crowd of 8,000 at the Caledonian Ground on New Zealand’s South Island.

Victory was a pretty impressive achievement in itself given that the Lions had left Plymouth on March 8, spent 46 days at seas and only arrived in the Land of the Long White Cloud a few days before their opening fixture. The match was met with great excitement by the local population despite the publicity and expectation paling into insignificance in comparison to that which will accompany the latest Lions adventure.

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And while the vast majority of a record attendance for a game involving Otago were fully behind the home side, that didn’t stop them from repeatedly showing their appreciation for the impressive talents of the tourists on what was a memorable occasion for everyone involved.

The Lions outscored the locals by two tries and two drop goals to a single drop goal, but it was Otago who claimed the first points in Lions’ history. The Otago outside half D Simpson holds the honour of that particular record after his speculative drop gave Otago a surprise first-half lead despite the fact that the Lions had dominated much of the early proceedings.

The Lions hit back with an unconverted try through Tom Kent but the old scoring system meant they still trailed 3-1 at the interval. Jack Anderton, a colleague of Kent's at both Lancashire and Salford, scored a second try after the break but the missed kick that followed ensured that the tourists were still behind until Harold Speakman's intervention.

A brace of drop goals from the Cheshire and Runcorn three-quarter won it for the Lions as they dominated the second half further still after Otago opted to move players out of the pack and into the backline in a move to try and stop the tourists’ momentum out wide.

Although the Lions failed to add to their try tally, it was a move that backfired as far as the hosts were concerned and Robert Seddon’s men were good value for their five-point win.

Otago 3 British Lions 8

Half-time: 3-1
Attendance: 8,000

Otago: W Thomas; W Noel, T Lynch, J Davie, J Thomson; D Simpson, H Treseder; W Turnbull, J Montgomery, W McFarlane, E Morrison (capt), I Hunter, R Martin, A Gibson, C Beck

Scorers: Drop Goal – D Simpson

Lions: T Haslam; A Stoddart, H Speakman, J Anderton, W Bumby; J Nolan, R Seddon (capt); W Thomas, T Banks, B Burnet, T Kent, H Eagles, C Mathers, S Williams, A Laing

Scorers: Tries – T Kent, J Anderton; Drop Goals – H Speakman (2)

Referee: W Wyinks (New Zealand)

Here’s how the Otago Daily News reported the historic events:




For the first time in history a team of Rugby footballers have come over the seas some 16,000 miles to play a series of matches in the colonies; and they have fought and won their first battle on Otago soil.

The match which was played on the Caledonian ground on Saturday afternoon has been talked about in New Zealand for many a long day, and for several weeks past the committee of the Otago Rugby Football Union have been busy making arrangements in connection therewith.

The morning broke fine, with a warm sun and scarcely a breath of wind. It was predicted that the crowd would be the largest ever seen on an Otago football field, and so it turned out to be, for the numbers that crammed the stand, and lined the chains around the playing arena four deep, were quite unprecedented, not even excepting the famous Auckland match four years ago. Small boys and men who could not afford to pay clambered on to the top of adjacent fences, and one or two buildings in the vicinity of the gasworks were black with spectators. The sum of £350 was taken at the gates, and it is estimated that nearly 8,000 persons witnessed the match.

As early as two o'clock it was evident in town that something unusual was going to take place, for the sidewalks were thronged with pedestrians, all going in the one direction – southward; while a large crowd assembled in front of the Grand Hotel to see the Englishmen embark in the sixin-hand drag that was to convey them to the ground.

The men were not long in making their appearance on the ground, the local players in their dark blue uniforms being the first to take the field, amid the cheers of the onlookers. Then the Englishmen, prettily clad in the appropriate red, white, and blue, filed into the field, and the cheering was renewed with increased vigour. The teams then cheered each other heartily, and proceeded to take up their positions.

The Englishmen seemed to have the advantage in weight, but this was mainly owing to the dwarfing nature of the dark blue uniforms worn by the Otago players. As a matter of fact there was little difference between the weights of the respective teams, the English average being 12st 4lb, and the average weight of the Otago team 12st llb. The forwards were as nearly as possible evenly matched, the aggregate weight of the Englishmen being 12st 13lb, while the Otago nine totalled exactly one stone less.

The Englishmen were victorious by 8 points to 3, or two goals and two tries to a goal. The large crowd scrambled over the chains and across the ground, gradually dispersing to their homes. And so ended the greatest football match that has ever been contested on New Zealand soil.

Very little now remains to be said. The game was a splendid one, the excitement being kept up till far into the second spell; and so far as an exposition of Rugby football was concerned, it was almost all that could be desired.

The 1888 Lions: did you know?

The 22-man squad, along with tour managers Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury, were away for nine months in total, with a third of that time spent in transit.

Shaw and Shrewsbury were sporting entrepreneurs who specialised in cricket before turning their hand to rugby but they failed to receive the official backing of the Rugby Football Union, meaning many of the game's best players refused to take part.

Jack Clowes was then banned from participating in matches prior to the team's arrival in the southern hemisphere after he was classed as a professional by the RFU for accepting £15 in expenses from the tour management.

The Lions left England on March 8 and played their first tour game in New Zealand seven weeks later. They then moved on to Australia at the end of May before returning to New Zealand at the beginning of September.

They played 35 games in total across the two countries, winning 27, drawing six and losing just two, but none of those games were Test matches.

Having played nine games in New Zealand between late April and late May, the pioneers took part in their first match on Australian soil against New South Wales in Sydney on June 2. The Lions won that match 18-2, the first of a long list of impressive victories in Australia over a 13-week period.

The tourists left Australia unbeaten after 14 wins and two draws in their 16 games, before heading back to New Zealand for a further 10 games in five weeks.

The first Lions squad wasn't truly representative in the same way that modern-day tours have become, but it did feature players from all four Home Unions.

The vast majority of the tour party were from England but there were some notable exceptions.

WH Thomas was the first Welshman to tour Australia and New Zealand; Angus Stuart was of Scottish descent; Herbert Brooks and John Smith both attended Edinburgh University; the Burnet brothers, Robbie and Willie, played for Hawick along with Alastair Laing; Arthur Paul was the only Irish-born member of the party and Alfred Penketh was from the Isle of Man.

Only four members of the touring squad had been capped by their countries before playing for the Lions.

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