British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

1903-1910 – Successes up to WWI

Royalty on Tour, a pioneering Welsh fly-half and the first trip to be sanctioned by all four home nations, the development of The Lions was in fast-forward prior to World War I.

1903 – A royal mentor learns his trade with the Lions


In 1903 the British & Irish Lions travelled to South Africa where they were beaten for the first time in a Test series, having lost just one of 40 previous matches on their first two visits.

There was a royal theme to the touring party with Louis Leisler Greig, the Scotland captain and a future royal equerry to George VI, featuring in all three Tests.

A gifted all-rounder, Greig was also a very talented tennis player, but it was after his Lions experience that he would really rise to prominence.

Three years later he joined the navy, entering officer training at Osborne in 1909, meeting the then-Prince Albert.

He became a mentor for the future king serving with him on both HMS Cumberland and HMS Malaya as well as appearing at Wimbledon with him in the men’s doubles in 1926.

By the time he passed away in 1953, Greig had become such an important figure that Winston Churchill, the five most senior members of the Royal family, and of course the Scottish rugby team, attended his funeral.

Going back to the Tour, the Lions suffered defeats in their opening three matches by Western Province sides in Cape Town.

From then on the results were a mixed bag, although they were able to pick up more wins than losses to finish with 11 victories, three draws and eight defeats in their 22 contests.

An incredibly tight series

However, the side – led by Scottish captain Mark Morrison and coached by Johnny Hammond –  lost the Test series to South Africa 1-0 for a first ever series defeat for the Home Unions representatives.

The two teams could not be separated during either of the first two clashes with both ending in draws – 10-10 and 0-0 respectively.

And it was the hosts who managed a narrow victory in the decider 8-0 at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town thanks to tries from Joe Barry and Alec Reid, plus a Fairy Heatlie conversion.

The Lions would continue to be unsuccessful in their bid to repeat the Test series win they enjoyed in South Africa seven years previously until 1974.

1904 – Pioneering Percy paves the way for Welsh No.10s

A generation of brilliant Welsh backs emerges

The British & Irish Lions have had their fair share of trailblazers and in 1904 it was Percy Bush who broke new ground as the first Welsh fly-half to represent the most famous touring team of all.

Bush pulled the strings in the Lions No.10 jersey – with the likes of Tuan Jones, Cliff Morgan, David Watkins, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gareth Davies and Stephen Jones all to follow in his footsteps.

The Cardiff wizard notched up a century of points on the Tour, including 11 tries, while Llewellyn, Gabe and Morgan crossed the whitewash 19 times between them.

But the first of Bush’s points came from his boot as he dropped a goal against New South Wales – all in the name of a wager with Irish forward Reggie Edwards!

A gamble pays off

Bush remembers in Behind the Lions, “Edwards bet that I would not drop a goal in our game against New South Wales in Sydney.

“He said: ‘You Welsh terrier, I’ll wager you a new pipe that you can’t drop-goal today, if you are game enough to take me.’

“Compelled I accepted the gauntlet and when we had been playing about five minutes Frank Hulme, who was working the scrum, sent me a lovely pass.

“There were about 60 Australian forwards bearing down on me, so I kicked frantically at it and to my surprise the ball soared up and won me a pipe.”

Indeed, by the time he left Australia having played in 13 of the 14 games, Bush had built up a huge collection of pipes, walking sticks and umbrellas that he had won off his touring colleagues.

The Lions marched through Australia, playing exciting and sweeping rugby to win all 14 matches – the only squad to date to win every game Down Under.

Indeed, the Test series was won 3-0 with Australia scoring just three points in as many games as the Lions won 17-0, 17-3 and 16-0.

The first Test saw 34,000 spectators at the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the hosts fared well in the first half to go in level at the break.

But two Llewellyn tries and another Bush drop goal teed up the Lions for an opening victory.

The second Test in Brisbane was a similar story as the Lions took until the second half to really hit their stride, but it was a star performance from Bush that won the game as he added to Llewellyn’s try with a score of his own, a goal from a mark, and a drop goal.

Percy Bush: The Britishers’ secret weapon

Percy Bush was to be come the first in a long line of great Welsh fly-halves to represent the British & Irish Lions as the Capricornian weekly newspaper reported: “The champion of the visitors is Percy Bush.

“When he gets the leather from the half-back he does not immediately pass the ball, but he begins propping and dodging from side to side and the local men are unable to hold him.

“When he gets clear he can run like a deer. Sometimes he runs clean away from comrades and opponents alike, and generally ends up by scoring himself.

“Without Bush I don’t think the Britishers would be nearly as strong as they are, for he opens up all the work for the backs and always beats a couple of men before he gets rid of the ball.”

In 1910 it was the turn of JP ‘Tuan’ Jones to take on the mantle from Bush, starting two Tests in the No.10 jersey despite being a centre by trade.

1908 – ‘Boxer’ Harding left kicking himself in New Zealand


Born in England but a Welsh international, it was only logical that Arthur ‘Boxer’ Harding was chosen to skipper an Anglo-Welsh Lions Tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1908.

Unfortunately for Harding the three-Test series against the All Blacks will be remembered for his missed conversion that cost them victory in the second Test.

In atrocious weather conditions the Lions’ scrum was almost enough to see them to victory as John Phillips ‘Jack’ Jones cancelled out an Arthur Francis penalty.

But in the horrible conditions Harding’s conversion was off-target and the Test was drawn 3-3.

New Zealand had won the first Test and would go onto win the third for a 2-0 series victory but this was a Tour that will be remembered for the massive changes it instigated and the role it played in forming The modern British & Irish Lions.

It was the Original All Blacks’ landmark European Tour in 1905 that set in motion these changes.

Firstly, such was the dominance of Dave Gallaher’s men that New Zealand became the focus of Lions’ tours and not, as had previously been the case, Australia.


Secondly, and more critically, it was a row over the All Blacks’ 1905 expenses that led to Scotland and Ireland’s absence from the Tour party and which in turn, morphed the Lions into a capped international side, fully representative of the home nations’ talent.

Known as the ‘Anglo-Welsh’ Tour, they played in red and white hoops and were deprived of Scottish and Irish players because the New Zealanders that had run Europe and Canada ragged in their 35-game 1905 Tour in which they lost just once had been paid three shillings a day in expenses.

While the English and Welsh unions thought a Lions Tour would help stem the tide of Rugby League overseas, Ireland and Scotland both refused to play against sides they deemed to be ‘professional’.

Following the series loss the tourists now knew they would need the strength of all four nations to compete in future and the Lions jersey became one prized above even those of the individual four home nations.

The allure of New Zealand

The culture and scenario in New Zealand always stays with visitors to the country, no matter how far they have travelled or how long they have stayed.

The Lions have always been very fortunate to Tour this beautiful country and have developed strong ties with the rugby clubs, culture and fellow players.

Indeed in 1908, Henry Vassall, the Oxford University centre, fell in love with a New Zealand girl and contrived to miss the boat back to England. The couple were married back in London two years later.

Two other members of the 1908 Tour party – Harding and Fred Jackson – settled in New Zealand after marrying local women. Jackson’s son Everard went on to play six Tests for New Zealand between 1936 and 1938.

Farewell to Australasia

This would be the Lions final Tour to Australasia for 22 years with trips to South Africa in 1910 and 1924 being undertaken either side of the First World War.

It would not be until 1930 that the tourists returned to Tour in Australia and New Zealand.

1910 – The first fully sanctioned Tour


The 1910 Tour was the fourth time a British side toured South Africa and the eighth trip undertaken overall.

But – 22 years after a British side had first set sail for the southern hemisphere – this was the first official Tour, in that it had the sanction of all four home nations.

Quartered crest of the four home unions

The Lions squad, playing in blue jerseys with a quartered crest of the four home unions, was 26-strong.

Led by Ireland’s Tommy Smyth and managed by the two Walters, Messrs Rees and Cail, the Tour was comprised of 24 matches in total – three of which were Tests against the Springboks.

Gone were the days of near-total dominance from the tourists – the Boks were a world force by this stage as their results on their Tour of the British Isles in 1906 had shown when they beat Wales and Ireland, drew with England and lost to Scotland.

Seven of the squad came from Newport RFC and less than half were capped internationals but it was CH Cherry Pillman that stood out.

The Blackheath and England back-row starred throughout a gruelling Tour that – in addition to the three Tests against the Boks – saw them face the strongest provincial teams like Western Province, Border and Natal twice.

Pillman superb through Test series

Unsurprisingly injuries ravaged the squad but Pillman was superb throughout – according to Clem Thomas in his History of the British & Irish Lions he “revolutionised the South African concept of forward play.”

South Africa skipper Billy Millar called him the greatest of all time and the results bear that out.

Pillman missed the first Test, which the Lions lost, with injury and in a squad now down to the bare bones he returned for the second Test and lined up at fly-half.

That he led the side to victory, levelling up the series in the process, makes it all the more remarkable.

The decisive third Test was won by the Boks for a 2-1 series victory but again the Lions were hamstrung by fitness issues – full-back Stanley Williams went off at the start of the game and in a time before replacements the tourists played the rest of the game with only 14 men.

The series might have ended in defeat but the Lions as a concept was gathering pace.

However, it would be 14 years until the Lions toured again as the First World War intervened – three of this touring party to South Africa died in the fighting.

Visit to Argentina as part of anniversary of Revolucion de Mayo

At same time as the South Africa Tour there was a second trip – organised by Major RV Stanley – to Argentina as part of the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Revolucion de Mayo.

Stanley branded the 19-strong squad an England Rugby Union team but, given three Scots were included in the touring party, the hosts called them a Combined British Isles side.

Captained by England full-back John Raphael, the team played six matches, winning them all including a victory over Argentina in their first ever Test on 12 June 1910.

Argentina made their debut under the name “The River Plate Rugby Football Union” with the match being won by the Lions 28-3 at Belgrano Athletic Field.

Partners & Suppliers

    Regional Sponsors

    Media Partners