British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

1888 – The Touring tradition begins

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Good things come to those who wait.

After a 46-day voyage – a travelling party of 22, skippered by Robert Seddon, arrived in Port Chalmers for a 249-day tour of New Zealand and Australia all the way back in 1888.

The first British & Irish Lions tour was the brainchild of former England cricketers Alfred Shaw – who famously bowled the first ever ball in Test cricket, Arthur Shrewsbury and James Lillywhite.

England provided the majority of the touring squad, while there was a Welshman in Richie Thomas, Scots Robert and William Burnet and Alex Laing and an Irishman in Belfast-born Arthur Paul.

The historic first Lions clash took place in Otago, which Seddon’s men won, with 10,000 spectators watching the clash.

Not yet synonymous with the famous red jersey, the Lions were clad in red, white and blue but it was Otago who took an early 3-0 lead with a drop goal.

The Lions fought back with two tries of their own, worth only a single point each, before Harry Speakman’s two drop goals turned the tide in the visitors favour and they won 8-3.

The New Zealand Herald called it “the fastest and hardest fought game ever seen in Otago” but the mutual respect between the teams was clear from the off.

And in no better way was this demonstrated than by the banquet and after-dinner speeches which followed – the celebrations continuing long into the night, setting the tone for a wildly successful inaugural tour.

The players were “heartily congratulated on their victory by friends and foes alike, no-one grudged them their hard-earned laurels after having come 16,000 miles over the ocean to play in New Zealand,” commented a piece in the Otago Witness at the time.

As the tour moved to Australia, the extraordinary feature was that 18 further games were played under Victorian or Australian Rules – the financial rewards on offer were a factor in the fixtures.

Overall it proved 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.

However, the 1888 tour was tinged with tragedy, when skipper Robert Seddon, who had won three caps for England in 1887, drowned in Australia after a sculling accident on the Hunter River in New South Wales.

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