British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

British & Irish Lions History: Since 1888

1924-1938 – In between Wars

There was no shortage of firsts for the Lions during the 1920s and 1930s, they picked up their name and played the first international game against Argentina.

1924 Lions

1924 – The Lions’ name debuts

The First World War meant no British side had toured since 1910 – when sides went to Argentina and South Africa.

And the 1924 tourists may have left these shores as the British Isles Rugby Union Team, but they returned as Lions.

The name was not formally adopted by the team until the 1950 Tour to Australia and New Zealand, but it originated in South Africa in 1924.

Journalists from the British Isles and the home nation nicknamed the touring players Lions due to the beast featuring on their official ties.

Bennie Osler’s kicking feats

A legend in South African rugby, Bennie Osler was one of the games great kickers. He was able to kick penalties and conversions from almost anywhere and inspired generations of Springbok kickers.

At over three months long and consisting of 21 games the 1924 Tour was a struggle for the tourists. Nine of the 21 games ended in Lions victories but none of the four Tests went Britain and Ireland’s way.

Four of those victories came in the opening five matches as Cape Town, Kimberley, Salisbury and Pochefstroom were despatched in a strong opening to the trip.

The first Test encounter, in Durban, ended in a 7-3 loss as Osler ‘s drop-goal gave the Springboks a lead they would not relinquish before a first-half try for the hosts left the Lions too much to do.

The series moved on to Johannesburg a week later and four second-half tries from the home side saw them run out 17-0 victors.

‘The perfect game of rugby football’

The spoils were shared in a 3-3 draw in Port Elizabeth before what South African critics of the game dubbed ‘the perfect game of rugby football’ in the final Test in Cape Town.

The Lions put up a brave fight but tries from Stan Harris and Tom Voyce were not enough as South Africa ran in four tries to win the game 16-9.

Lions captain, Dr Ronald Cove-Smith, prior to visiting South Africa, had not tasted defeat in 13 international appearances for England.

The Tour ended on a high note though as Western Province were beaten 8-6, setting up the side for another more positive experience in Argentina three years later.

1927 – Argentina’s first international games


Argentina have established themselves as key players in world rugby with semi-final berths in both the 2007 and 2015 Rugby World Cups.

But such a dramatic rise had to have humble beginnings and for Los Pumas these can be dated back to 1927 as the British & Irish Lions came to visit.

Despite the Lions having toured Argentina back in 1910, the 1927 trip saw the River Plate Rugby Union – now Unión Argentina de Rugby – recognise four of the nine matches played as the first official games of the Argentina national team.

However, there wasn’t much more for the hosts to celebrate as the Lions – made up of English and Scottish players and captained by lock David MacMyn – won all nine matches, racking up 295 points in the process while conceding just nine at the other end.

Ernest Hammett makes a name for himself

Englishman Hammett was the top Test point scorer as he helped himself to 40 points across four matches for the side coached by former RFU president James ‘Bim’ Baxter, who would also be in charge of the 1930 campaign in New Zealand and Australia.

The British & Irish Lions won the four Tests with scores of margins 37-0, 46-0, 34-3 and 43-0, but despite the one-sided nature of the contests, the tourists drew large crowds and left the hosts with a new love for the game that is evident to this day.

1930 – For the love of the game

Lions 1930

“The principles and ideals which guided the founders of the rugby union cannot be stressed too forcibly. Rugby should and must be played for the love of the game.” – Doug Prentice, Lions captain 1930

It had been 22 years since the Lions last set foot in New Zealand when they toured in 1930, and they would not return until 1950, but the hosts’ impressive forward play gave the impression that very little had changed between the two series.

But in other respects, everything was different. While journalists coined the phrase ‘Lions’ in the 1924 South Africa Tour, it wasn’t until six years later that the team left Britain as Lions in name, with a badge on their chest and a brooch in their side as a reminding aspect.

Selection headaches

But it was the question of who would wear the three lions which caused the major difficulties. A year before departing for the Antipodes, for four Tests in New Zealand and one in Australia, 28 players were given a provisional invitation.

Only nine of those were to make the trip, however, while selectors had to ask 100 people before they could find 29 people to fill the squad. It was not an unfamiliar occurrence at the time, particularly between the two wars, although 23 of those travelling had been capped previously.

The availability, or lack of, made captaincy more difficult than usual. In the absence of England rugby pioneer Wavell Wakefield, later to be knighted, Doug Prentice was informed of his appointment in the role in the lounge of the hotel the night before setting sail. As was the norm, Prentice also undertook the role of coach, only playing two of the five Tests.

Scrum rules

But, officially under their new name, the Lions were welcomed in both New Zealand and Australia for their exciting brand of rugby, attacking mentality and individual bursts.

The crowds were appreciative too, although the New Zealanders’ continued use of the ‘rover’, a wing forward who did not pack down in their favoured 2-3-2 scrum formation but instead acted as an auxiliary scrum-half and harassed the opposing stand-off, did cause slight tensions.

It was enough to upset James ‘Bim’ Baxter, Lions manager, who enlisted the help of the RFU to impose a scrummaging law banning the move upon their return to British shores.

A length of the field try

In Dunedin for the first time since before the war, anticipation could hardly have been higher. Despite being clear second favourites for the First Test, the Lions, playing against an All Black side donning white due to a kit clash, showed an impressive resolve as James Reeve’s first-half try was enough for the visitors to be all-square heading into the closing moments.

What followed was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the Lions.

Ivor Jones, the outlandishly brisk back-row forward, ran the pitch’s entirety before drawing in the last defender, setting up Jack Morley to run in the winning score for their first Test victory of the Tour. It was to be their last.

The second Test

Heading to Christchurch, there was a renewed optimism for an under-strength side, but Paul Murray’s mid-match shoulder injury left them depleted still, finishing the game with 14 men – replacements were frowned upon by the Lions at this point.

New Zealand levelled the series through a 13-10 victory far more comfortable than the scoreline suggested, in spite of more individual lung-busting brilliance from Jones to give Carl Aarvold a score.

On to Auckland

Two months and 19 games of the Tour had already elapsed by the time the Third Test came around in Auckland, but not before a bit of fun and festivities were had in the prolonged stay.

Fly-half Tommy Knowles was a major beneficiary, purchasing a set of left-handed golf clubs in Dunedin before making a hole in one on the very first hole to cheers all around the course.

Level at 1-1 heading into the third Test, the series was more than in the balance when the Lions headed to Auckland, although defeat to the provincial side the week previous was hardly the ideal preparation.

A 15-10 defeat was to follow, despite Jones once again being in on the act, this time with a try of his own following clever approach work by Harry Bowcott, who impressed throughout the entirety of the Tour.

However, being 15-5 up in the encounter, New Zealand were never really threatened with defeat, a fact which the touring Lions believed could have been reversed had they been a full-strength outfit.

Destination Australia

But the All Blacks were going from strength to strength, heading to Wellington for the fourth encounter and running rampant, scoring four tries in the second half alone, six altogether in the match to run home 22-8 victors. A match scoreline and 3-1 series defeat was perhaps undeserving of the visitors’ displays.

One highlight for the home side was however, Tony Novis’ fine score:

The Tour was not finished there, however, with one provincial game planned for before the Australia Test, while six were also scheduled afterwards, prior to the side making the six-week trip home once again.

While the anticipation may not have hit the dizzy heights of the 1904 Tour, the Test in Sydney at the end of August was not merely an after-thought, with more than 30,000 people hitting the Sydney Cricket Ground.

But a win was not to come for the Lions, with Tom Lawton masterminding a 6-5 victory despite Tony Novis’ try.

Prentice converted to leave the tourists in with a chance, and in the dying seconds Jones was tackled just a meter short of the try line by Cyril Towers, another case of close but not quite enough as four Test defeats followed the solitary victory.

Despite the results, by all accounts it was a promising Tour both on and off the park, with plenty of social activities to allow the Lions to properly, and responsibly, celebrate their new name.

The heaviest defeat of the trip was still to come though, a 28-3 overturning to New South Wales, but September and the Australia leg finished on a positive note. A 71-3 win against South Australia was followed by a 45-0 trouncing of Ceylon in Colombo, Sri Lanka, a full five months after the Tour began way back in May.

But there was more to take from the Tour than just results. A hugely under-strength Lions had pushed the mercurial New Zealanders close, captured the imagination and the acclaim of the public both there and in Australia, all while playing under a new Three Lions emblem.

1936 – A world record for Obolensky


Tours to Argentina may one day become a regular feature again, but for now they remain firmly in the past with the 1936 trip marking the last time the Lions went to South America.

Past Tours to Argentina are now known as the ‘forgotten Tours’,  but there is nothing forgettable about their adventure in 1936 – during which they played 10 matches and won the lot, including the only Test.

In their ranks was the great England winger Prince Alexander Obolensky, known as the ‘White Russian Prince’, who had inspired England’s first-ever win against New Zealand on his international debut with two stunning tries earlier that year.

Obolensky, born in Saint Petersburg, was a member of the Rurik dynasty that fled after the 1917 Russian Revolution and settled in North London.

Known for his searing pace and sharp agility, Obolensky reportedly scored a remarkable 17 tries in a thumping 83-0 win over Brazil in Santos. That stands as a world record.

The team stopped over at other interesting locations on their Tour, including Madeira and Montevideo, on the Andalucia Star – which was sunk by a German submarine off the African coast six years later during World War Two.

Obolensky, who played for the Barbarians seven times, never played for England again, despite his fine Lions form, and three years later he was called up to active service by the RAF.

Just before the outbreak of war in 1939, he was transferred to Digby and six months later he was killed in a training accident at Martlesham Heath Airfield, when his plane dropped into a ravine.

The day before, the 24-year-old had been recalled by England for a match against Wales.

1938 – Facing the unofficial World Champions

Lions 1938

The 1938 Tour to South Africa was the last undertaken by the Lions before the Second World War and while they were unsuccessful in the Test series – they won plenty of admirers.

This was the 14th British Tour and the sixth to South Africa and the 1938 crop scored more points than any previous visitors to the country and they did it against the unofficial world champions.

The Springboks had whitewashed the four home unions in 1931-2 then won in New Zealand in 1937 – leading the local media to call them the best side to visit that country – before downing the Wallabies 2-0 on the way home.

Facing these all-conquering Boks was a Lions side led by Tour manager Major Bernard ‘Jock’ Hartley – then a colonel – and captained by Ireland’s Sam Walker.

It was by no means a weak side with legends like Vivian Jenkins and Jeff Reynolds on board but they were at least half a dozen stars short of being the best of British.

Danie Craven and Boy Louw were the biggest stars for the Boks but the Lions impressed in the initial stages of the Tour.

The Springboks best-ever performance

They had only lost to Western Province and Transvaal out of the provincial sides and came into the first Test having claimed revenge over Transvaal.

But in what Craven described as the Springboks’ best-ever performance, the Lions were eventually outgunned in a game that they led at four different times.

Injuries would once again rear their ugly head for the Lions – particularly for the backs – as three different players played scrum-half in the Tests.

A squad of 29 players was clearly insufficient to play a 24-match Tour with and the series was sealed in the Boks’ favour in a scorching Port Elizabeth for the second – labelled the ‘Tropical Test’.

A first Test win since 1910

But the Lions finished the Tour triumphant – coming from 13-3 behind to beat South Africa 26-10 in the third Test.

In a side that included all eight Irishmen on the Tour, Walker was carried off the pitch in glory as the Lions won a Test for the first time in South Africa since 1910.

Overall they played 24 matches on the Tour – 19 provincial clashes in South Africa of which they won 16, two matches against Rhodesia and the three match Test series.

The onset of War

Every player on the Tour was to have their career curtailed by the onset of the second World War and one Lion in particular bears mentioning for his effort in the fighting.

Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne was a champion Heavyweight boxer, and an Ulster, Ireland and Lions rugby player.

Mayne was an original member of the SAS, won a DSO and three bars – he is only one of seven men in history have achieved that quadruple honour.


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