The tradition of touring has been an essential element of rugby from the beginning.
For almost as long as the game has been played, touring has helped to forge friendships between team-mates and enabled players to test themselves against the very best. But even the oldest traditions start somewhere and in the case of The British & Irish Lions, April 28, 1888, marks the date of the first match, a meeting with Otago.
Dreamt up by former England Test cricketers Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury, the project had been quite a undertaking even prior to getting a team on the field. Unlike the 2017 Lions squad, who will fly to New Zealand on state-of-the-art planes, simply getting to the Antipodes at the end of the 19th century was a huge undertaking. The tourists had arrived at Port Chalmers on the steamship Kaikoura on Sunday 22 April, a full 46 days after setting off.
The squad of 21 players was made up of representatives from all four home nations; England provided the majority but there was a Welshman in Richie Thomas, Scots Robert Burnet and Alex Laing and an Irishman in Belfast-born Arthur Paul.
This series of games was the first major tour of the Southern Hemisphere undertaken by a European team and would blaze a trail for future trips. And there was a real air of expectancy surrounding the tourists – who played in red, white and blue hooped jerseys with white socks and dark shorts.
Team of rivals
That historic meeting with Otago took place on the Caledonian Ground in South Dunedin. Extensive reportage in the newspapers of the day had helped to build expectation with crowds turning out to watch the Lions train, and reports speculating as to their likely approach. A crowd of almost 10,000 witnessed the match with New Zealanders travelling in from the surrounding countryside.
Of the Lions starting XV, Thomas was the youngest player in the Lions lineup at 22 with Thomas Banks the oldest at 29. Only three were capped players: Andrew Stoddart & Robert Seddon for England, and Thomas for Wales.
But while the blues of Otago drew first blood with a dropped goal, the Lions soon responded and the honour of scoring the tourists’ first-ever point went to Thomas Kent.
A try at the time was worth only one point and 25-year-old Kent’s score served notice of the quality that would see him win six successive caps for England between 1891 and 1892. Jack Anderton crossed for the Lions’ second try shortly after the interval to trim the deficit to 3-2 before 24-year-old Harry Speakman came to the fore.
The three-quarter dropped two goals – there have still only been 14 instances of two drop goals in the same match occurring in Lions history – to turn the game on its head and seal a resounding 8-3 success.
The Lions’ proud tradition of creating excitement was present from the beginning. The Otago Witness newspaper reported that: “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.”
A few days later, the Lions and Otago met again and again the Lions came out on top, though by a smaller margin (4-3).
Those were the first victories of what would prove to be a fantastically successful tour – the 1888 team played 35 games of rugby in New Zealand and Australia, winning 27, drawing six and losing only two. Remarkably, they also played 19 games of Australian Rules – winning six despite having never played it before arriving Down Under.
The tour was tinged with tragedy when skipper Seddon, who had won three caps for England in 1887, tragically drowned during the Australian leg of the tour as a result of a sculling accident on the Hunter River in New South Wales.
2013 Lions skipper Sam Warburton visits the grave of Robert Seddon
The tourists' legacy was honoured by the International Rugby Board in 2013 when the team, along with initial captain Seddon, were inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.
And in the same year the 2013 Lions tourists paid their own tribute to the trailblazing skipper, visiting his grave on their tour of Australia.
28 APRIL 1888
LIONS XV (1) 8, OTAGO (3) 3 (Caledonian Ground, Dunedin)
Lions XV: Tommy Haslam (Batley); Andrew Stoddart (Blackheath & England), Harry Speakman (Runcorn)(2D), Jack Anderton (Salford)(T), Walter Bumby (Swinton); John Nolan (Rochdale Hornets), Bob Seddon (capt, Swinton & England); Willie Thomas (Cambridge University & Wales), Tom Banks (Swinton), Robert Burnet (Hawick); Tom Kent (Salford)(T), Harry Eagles (Swinton); Charlie Mathers (Bramley), Sam Williams (Salford), Alex Laing (Hawick).
Otago: W.G. Thomas; W.H. Noel, Tom Lynch, Joe Davie, Jack Thomson; D. Simpson, H. Treseder; W. Turnbull, J.R. Montgomery, W. McFarlane; E.E. Morrison (capt)(D), Irwin Hunter; R. Martin, A. Gibson, C. Beck.
Source: National Library of New Zealand