SPIRO: The First Roar of the Lions

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1888 Lions rugby team. Photo via http://www.lionsrugby.com/news/11060.php#.UcMk_D444zM

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Let’s go back in time to 2 June 1888. A British rugby team, dubbed the “First Lions” by writers in the modern era, is going to play a New South Wales side at the Sydney Cricket Ground (known then as the Association Cricket Ground).

This will be the first rugby international match played at what is becoming a sacred site of Australian sport.

It is a hundred years since the First Fleet officers established a distant gulag in Sydney. The gulag is now a flourishing colonial city of about 250,000 people.

Its main sports arena, the SCG, reflects this growth and success. Two years ago a splendid Members’ Pavilion was built to provide a comfortable viewing place in the shade.

Today as the game time draws near, the stand is full with men in their suits and hats. Many are puffing on their pipes. Beside the Members Pavilion is a homely Pavilion (formerly the Members Pavilion but now designated for Lady Members). This is also packed to the rafters.

Near where the Brewongle Stand will later be built are rows of uncovered wooden seats, the Grandstand. Spectators are packed into the Grandstand to get the advantage of its elevated view. But there is only a smattering of people watching from the grassy mounds running around the rest of the ground.

These sloping embankments will be raised in height in the 1890s to become the Hill. Today they offer a restricted view of play that does not seem to appeal.

The rugby football game that has drawn the crowd to the SCG is still evolving. Its essence is a Darwinian struggle that rewards the fittest and the strongest.

On the field the game is becoming (very slowly, unfortunately) a handling/kicking game as opposed to the other all-kicking football game. Off the field there are disputes about how the laws of the game are to be interpreted. So in different places around the world there are different versions of how the game should be properly played. There is not even a points-scoring system that is consistent throughout Australia.

But there won’t be a dispute over the scoring for this game. A decision has been made to use the Sydney scoring system. Following the practice of the times, too, this game has a referee and two umpires. Each umpire looks after the interests of his own side.

The umpires are Jim Macanamey, the secretary of the Southern Union (NSW), and Dr John Smith, a famous Scottish soccer international representing the interests of the Lions. The referee who decides the outcome of any disputes is Bob Thallon, a selector of the NSW side.

Throughout the match the players will appeal to their umpire, much as they do 125 years later, by throwing up their hands when they believe there is an infringement. It is only if both umpires raise their flags that the referee will signal the game to stop. The referee decides on the case and the game gets moving again.

The SCG Trust has agreed to a request from the newspapers and sports magazines that their reporters sit alongside the touchline. This will bring them closer to the action on the field.

These reporters are the early newspaper equivalents of Frank Hyde in his heyday broadcasting the rugby league on radio at the SCG from the touchline. Like Frank Hyde, our 1888 reporters will give us a play-by-play commentary with some analysis of what the plays mean in the context of the game.

Now it’s game time. The 13,000 spectators roar as the two teams, the best of NSW rugby in their red jerseys and the Lions in their red, white and blue hoops, trot out on to a field that is “baked like a brick.” 

The reporters take up the commentary for us:
The first International match between the British footballers and the representative team of New South Wales was played on the Association Cricket Ground on Saturday and resulted in a very easy victory for the former by 18 points to two. The scores were those adopted by the Southern Rugby Football Union, 2 for a try, 3 more for a goal kicked off a try, and 4 for a goal kicked from the field…

The British captain having won the toss elected to kick from north to south, the wind being in his favour but not direct from goal to goal. Belbridge kicked off, and Stoddart returned it with fine drop …

The British forwards rushed the ball into the 25, and Eagles picked it up, got over with a short run, and grounded the ball about halfway between goal and boundary. Williams placed for Anderton, and the result was successful: Great Britain 5, New South Wales 0 …

Mathers marked in the centre, and Paul tried for goal off a place. The ball struck the base of the goal post, and NSW forced …

It was quickly apparent from the certain tackling of the British players, from forwards to full back, that the NSW light weights would have little chance of getting through. Moulton, for instance, who may be taken as an excellent example of a fast light player, had not the slightest show of getting away from his heavy opponents. No attempt at fending was to any avail, except in the case of the heavy players like Hale, Belbridge, C. Wade, and Shaw …

Moulton attempted a run on the western wing not far from the British 25 flag. Paul caught him with one hand without having to budge a step, and tumbled him over without being obliged to call his other hand into play at all …

It is a significant fact that the only NSW player who managed to cross the line was Hale, a 12 stone man, playing forward, and he would not have been successful if his weight had not assisted him …

Some fast play took place in front of the British goal, and Haslam and Stoddard kicking the ball across and somewhat to their own line, it went into touch close to the line. Bumby kicked the ball down the eastern wing, and Braddon scored a mark of a fair catch, which was disputed, but ultimately allowed. Stoddart got the ball near the centre and ran across, but although he fended well several times, he could not get nearer goal. From a scrimmage Penketh got possession and ran in, but the ball was called back for being handed forward. Bumby ran the ball right across, but although he was tackled on the line he managed to get in at the western corner. Anderton took the kick but without increasing the total, the scores standing Great Britain 9, New South Wales 0 …

After the kick-off Bayliss made a short run, but he persisted in holding on to the ball until he was tackled, although he had an effective chance of a drop kick …

The ball was worked up to the British 25 and Haslam passed to Stoddart, who jumped right over a tackler as he went low at him and ran the ball down inside the NSW 25 line. L. Wade got the ball just at the flag, and though he was tackled and brought down, he managed to rise and take his kick. Hale got possession of the ball, Haslam not being able to secure a pass, as his leg was injured, and after a splendid run from the centre, he pressed forward towards the western wing.

Hale got in amid great cheering, Paul tackling him as he reached the line. Kent should have secured him, but he went too high, attempting to grip him by the collar of his jersey. Bayliss took the kick, but it was unsuccessful.  Great Britain 18, New South Wales 2 …

Shortly after Hale made another fine run on the eastern wing, and after fending one opponent successfully, was brought up by the next inside the 25 line. The ball being kicked behind the British goal out of a scrimmage, Paul ran it out instead of forcing, and the ball went into touch near the 25 flag. Williams made a fine run along the eastern wing up to the New South Wales 25, and it looked as if he were going to get over, but Braddon laid him low, Shaw and L. Wade dribbled the ball towards the western wing, near the half-way, where it went out, and time was called, the score standing – Great Britain, 18 points; New South Wales, 2.

They Came To Conquer, written by Maxwell L. Howell (former Wallaby and academic), Lingyu Xie, Paul Neazor and Bensley Wilkes, is a magisterial history of international rugby tours of Australia from 1888 to 2002. 

It presents a short and colourful story of the 1888 tour in the context of the many tours by visiting national rugby sides that followed it.

The authors choose this account from the Sydney Morning Herald as the best contemporary summary of the historic 1888 match:
Altogether the play was fast and fairly open, and the scrummages – the wearisome episode of Rugby football – were quickly broken through or else screwed. The British tackling was, in the main, very high, many of the players going for neck holds. Passing and dribbling were not the main features of the game.

Indeed, there was not a great deal of finessing, as the British players made most of the scores by downright hard running, assisted by fending or charging. Seddon, the British captain, however, got his touch by a clever dribble close to the line. Stoddart’s running and fending were the theme of general admiration, and on one occasion when a NSW player went low to tackle him, Stoddart jumped over his back and continued the run he was making … Bumby’s rushes were remarkably effective, and his rapid runs were instrumental in securing three tries for the British players …

At a dinner for the two teams after the match, amid the smoking, the chatter, the clatter of eating, laughing and good old boys gruff behaviour, Arthur Hale, the try-scorer for NSW, rose to make a defence of his team’s losing performance. When the first English cricket teams had come to Australia, he pointed out, the locals had to field teams of 18 or 22 to provide a contest for the visitors. 

The NSW rugby team, at least, had played 15 against the British 15. The Lions captain, Bob Seddon, then rose to confirm this point. However, he insisted that the NSW players were “a couple of seasons behind us in our general method of play”.

The 18 – 2 score line supported Seddon’s contention. Among the more modern rugby methods the Lions used in their play, and as a consequence introduced to the Australian game, was the notion of “heeling back” from rucks. This allowed far more back play than under the continual hacking game practiced in Australia. But as a variation to their heeling back methods, the Lions also held the ball in the scrums between the first and second rows and advanced forward as far as they could. Jack Pollard in his pioneering history Australian Rugby Union: The Game and the Players, called this tactic “the first demonstration of the controlled shove”.

There was some sophistication in the Lions methods. The backs were given ball to make their running attacks. Tommy Haslam, one of the fullbacks, is credited with inventing the dummy pass. The cleverness of the backs was matched with a robust skill in the forwards. They used their controlled shove from scrums to smash their opposition Australian packs.

In the Howell book, a photo of play shows the impact of this tactic. The British scrum is intact, with the backs and knees of the visitors bent in the shoving position. The NSW scrum is already disintegrating.  Several forwards are standing up and one of them is leaning on his pack in a weak attempt to stop the momentum of the Lions.

The Lions methods were controversial. A reporter at the dinner made the suggestion that “some people are thinking that the scrimmage will have to go”. It was, he insisted, “a dear old antediluvian utterly useless practice” which was only kept because of “the colonial fondness for anything brought across the water”. Professor Threfall, who came from Lancashire and was following the Lions team, rose to make a counter argument. In his time, he pontificated, the “dear old scrimmage” sometimes lasted 10 to 15 minutes. And weeks afterwards, the boys at Rugby School would look at a huge, black patch on Big Side and tell themselves: “My eyes, what a scrimmage we must have had there”. Rugby, pure and simple, the professor concluded as the Lancashire men in the Lions team thumped the table in appreciation, should be “scrimmage, hacking and all”.

The reporter would have none of this: What is the use of this trial of main strength? It brings no corresponding advantage because as often as not, when the scrimmage is broken through, the three-quarters have the ball away to the wing, and then all that the tiresome pushing-match brings is simply weariness to the players.

The advantages of this more open game espoused by the Lions were immediately applied in Sydney. Although the score line 18 – 6 did not reflect this, NSW played much better rugby and provided a tougher contest to the Lions in their second contest a week later at the SCG. The locals were on top in the first half and had a four points lead at half-time: “They were constantly on the ball, their tackling was more decisive, dribbling was used very effectively, and the passing was something less than haphazard throwing to the nearest player, friend or foe”. NSW tired in the second half while their opponents “were able to finish without flagging, while their better combination and generalship also gave them marked assistance”.

In his colourful account of rugby in Queensland, Red! Red! Red!, Ian Diehm quotes a contemporary doggerel that gives credit to the skillful rugby game the First Lions brought to Australia:

Till ‘88 we played a kind
Of ancient game of scrum and maul,
Where muscle triumphed over mind,
And heavy feet chased the tortured ball –
Indeed a very stupid game
Till ’88 when Stoddart came

A vindication of this popular insight, that the Lions brought the real rugby game to Australasia, came more formally from the legendary Dave Gallaher, the captain of the 1905 All Blacks, the creators of the modern rugby game, who gave this tribute in his book The Complete Rugby Footballer:

It was left to Stoddart’s British team to show Maoriland the fine points of the game and the vast possibilities of combination. The exhibitions of passing they gave were the most fascinating and impressive to the New Zealander who was not slow to realise the advantages of these methods. One may safely say that, from that season, dates the era of high class rugby in the colony.

The Lions had arrived in Sydney from the first New Zealand leg of their tour on the Wednesday before the match against NSW.  The team was met at the wharf by officials from the Southern Union (NSW) and taken to the Oxford Hotel in King Street. A former rugby player and rising politician, Edmund Barton MLC, acted as chairman of the welcoming party. In his speech of welcome, he noted the strength of rugby in New Zealand where the visitors had won six matches, drawn one and lost two. He hoped that this visit by the “British” rugby team would lead to “reciprocity on the part of the Australians”. The British captain Bob Seddon, after some emollient comments, called for three cheers from his team for the Southern Union. Not long after this meeting finished at their hotel, the Lions walked to the Agricultural Ground in the SCG precinct to “receive coaching in the Australian game”. In the early afternoon, the team travelled from their hotel to the Town Hall for a meeting with the Mayor.

These first hectic hours were typical of the pressures, what we would call now a “crowded schedule”, on the time of the tourists.

The Lions left England on 8 March 1888 and arrived back home on 11 November, eight months later. They played 53 matches in Australia and New Zealand in that time. They had a squad of only 22 players. Eighteen of their matches were played under the Victorian football laws, the “Australian game” (today’s AFL) they were tutored in immediately on their arrival in Sydney. Of the 35 rugby matches in New Zealand and Australia, they had six draws and two defeats. All these reverses were in New Zealand. In Australia, starting with the opening match against NSW, the Lions played 16 matches, won 14 and drew two.

The online site of the 2013 British and Irish Lions listed these scores in the rugby matches played by the 1888 Lions:

Lions 18 – NSW 2:  Lions 13 – Bathurst 6:  Lions 18 – NSW 2

Lions 11 – Juniors 0:  Lions 10 – King’s School 10:

Lions 28 – Adelaide XV 3:  Lions 15 – Melbourne 5:

Lions 16 – NSW 2: Lions 3 – Sydney Grammar Past & Present 3:  Lions 20 – Bathurst 10: Lions 16 – NSW 2

Lions 8 – University of Sydney 4: Lions 11 – Queensland Juniors 3:

Lions 7 – Queensland 0:  Lions 12 – Ipswich 1:

Lions 15 – Newcastle 7

The first six rugby matches in Australia were played between 2 June and 16 June. The last 10 (after a number of lucrative Victorian football matches in Melbourne) were played between 4 August and 29 August. Then the tourists completed the second leg of their New Zealand tour with another 10 matches, travelling from Auckland in the north to Dunedin in the south.

The reason for the intense schedule of matches and the energy-sapping travelling is that the tour was a business venture. It was an adventure for the players, admittedly, but for the promoters the tour was a vehicle for making some money.

These promoters were the famous firm of Lillywhites. Lillywhites contracted two professional English cricketers, Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury, to organise and promote the tour. These promoters had organised the financially disastrous England cricket tour of Australia in 1887. Several of the important cricket matches, in terms of revenue, had been rained out. So it was decided to try to recover the losses with a rugby tour. A couple of the cricketers, including the formidable Andrew Stoddart, remained in Australia and joined the rugby team when it arrived. The tour did not receive the sanction of the Rugby Football Union, the self-styled England rugby union that ruled rugby at the time rather like the MCC with cricket.

The Rev Frank Marshall explained all this in his seminal text published in 1892, Football: The Rugby Union Game: “The RFU formed the opinion that the tour was being proposed more with a view to the benefit of the promoters than as a means of spreading a knowledge of the game and improving it in the Dominions. The RFU did not feel justified in prohibiting the tour altogether “provided there was no infringement of the rules of amateurism”.

The RFU could hardly stop the Lions. It was promoting a Natives team from New Zealand on a tour throughout Great Britain later in 1888. However, the terms arranged by the agent for Shaw and Shrewsbury for some of the players aroused the suspicions of the RFU. The Halifax ace, Jack Clowes, was declared a professional. He travelled with the team on the tour but did not play in any of the matches. Was he a secret coach or perhaps a spruiker for Lillywhite’s sports goods? Clowes was caught out on a technicality after he accepted 15 pounds to buy equipment for the tour. The real fear of the RFU was that the large amounts of money coming into some of the northen England clubs was going, in part, in secret payments to star players like Clowes. These clubs were playing matches in front of up to 40,000 spectators. The good old boys of the RFU regarded the mild shamateurism of the day as akin to adding dollops of sugar to their Corinthian rugby vintage.

It cost Lillywhites several hundred pounds a week to pay their bills covering the Lions travel, meals and accommodation on the tour. The promoters tried to encourage the various unions in Australia and New Zealand to pay for these expenses. These overtures were rejected. Concessional rates were negotiated, but there were no handouts. In most cases the promoters took 80 per cent of the gross gate takings. But the promoters had to cover all their own costs. The local unions or schools providing the opposition team usually took 10 per cent of the rest of the gate takings. The owners or trusts running the grounds took the last 10 per cent portion. This did not produce good business for the promoters or the locals.

There were big crowds for the Victorian football games played in Melbourne. The crowds were much smaller for the rugby matches in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. There were 13,000 spectators for the Lions first match against NSW. A week later, the crowd was only 7,000. This lower figure was representative of the fact that in the 1880s rugby was regarded more a game to be played than as a spectacle to be watched.

The SCG Museum curators have sourced items from the SCG Trust minute books of June 1887 to June 1893 that give an insight into how the rugby tour was financed, or attempted to be financed.

  • There is a letter dated 23 February from James Lillywhite requesting the use of the SCG for 2 and 9 June 1888. This request was granted with two requirements: the promoter had “to name what further dates he requires. No Football to be played upon the Ground after the 11th August”.
  • James Lillywhite sent the Trust a letter dated 3 March 1888 “conveying his thanks to the Ground authorities for courtesy and help given to himself and his team during the tour”. The team concerned was the English cricket team that had suffered from wet weather.
  • A SCG Trust meeting held in March 1888 received another letter from James Lillywhite “asking as liberal terms as possible for these matches and assistance in getting special Railway rates”. This request was deferred by the Trust.
  • The Lillywhite request was read again at a SCG Trust meeting on 5 April. The Trust agreed to allow “the secretary to see what can be done regarding Railway fares – terms for Ground to be deferred”.
  • The minutes of a Trust meeting on 26 April give an insight into the financial realities the Trust and James Lillywhite were facing at the time. A new member, no 332, was elected. The Trust’s bank balance stood in credit at 506 pounds, one shilling and nine pence. And, good news for Lillywhite, the Trust secretary reported that “the Railway Department had granted a concession and would charge half Concession rates as notified in their letter of 21/4/88”.
  • On 14 June, after the first match of the rugby tour, the minutes of the SCG Trust confirmed under the heading, James Lillywhite and Ground Charge Football Matches: “It was decided to charge 20 per cent on gross”.
  • At the 5 July meeting of the Trust, with a number of the Sydney matches already played, it was decided to grant Lillywhite’s  telegrammed request for the use of the SCG on 4 August. This match became the third Lions – NSW contest.
  • The dimensions of the financial commitments to the tour were detailed at the 23 August meeting of the SCG Trust. The gross takings from the English team’s four matches at the SCG amounted to 1,051 pounds, five shillings and six pence. The SCG takings, at 20 per cent, amounted to 210 pounds and five shillings. Total ground revenue for football matches at the SCG during the 1887 – 1888 season totaled 327 pounds, eight shillings and 11 pence. The bank balance of the Trust was in credit at 137 pounds, 10 shillings and nine pence.
  • The minutes of the Trust for 30 August 1888 record a letter from James Lillywhite “requesting a rebate of 5% on the Ground charge made for Football matches … taking that so far does not promise to be a financial success”.

The Trust decided that “taking into consideration that the visit by the English footballers has been financially a failure it is suggested to the Trustees to allow a rebate of 25 pounds”.

The 1888 rugby tour lost money, about 900 pounds by one estimate.  We shouldn’t feel sorry for Lillywhites about this though. The promoters had a shrewd business model with their tours. In the manner of the modern celebrities tours, Lillywhites made their money through the massive sales throughout Australia of the sporting goods they manufactured. The tour costs were a form of lost leader to the sales of their footballs, cricket gear, boxing gloves and fishing equipment.

The 1888 Lions were pioneers of the modern, extended and heavily promoted rugby tour. The conventions that lasted for more than a century were created on this tour: the Governor shaking hands with the two teams before play started, the ‘smokos’ after the match, the interviews before and after matches, all the activities off the field arranged for the players, the making of friendships on and off the field, the arguments about the referees and the gathering of big, gawking crowds greeting the players at their various stops in their journey.

The team became a community on the tour. Lifelong friendships were made between players who might never in the real world have managed to know each other very well. Friendships were made with their opponents, too. And within the opposition team the common purpose of defeating the tourists worked forged friendships that lasted a lifetime.

Being part of the tour marked the participants for life as blood brothers.

Among the Australian blood brothers was Sir Edmund Barton, the member of the NSW Parliament who made that first speech of welcome to the Lions at the Oxford Hotel. 1888 was an important year for him. It was possibly the last time he would have the freedom of time and movement to engage in the serious nonsense of an international rugby tour. Within a year he would join the ministry and remain on the front bench of the parliament throughout his time there. Later he would become a Federation Father and unanimously accepted by historians as Australia’s first Prime Minister.

Charles Wade was the star Waratahs player in the opening match of the Australian leg of the tour, and a selector of the local side. At Oxford University, the patriotic Wade adorned his jersey with a kangaroo badge. He identified as an Australian through sport, through the rugby game in fact, before the states federated into the Commonwealth of Australia. He was Premier of NSW in 1907 and later a judge of the NSW Supreme Court. Wade was born in 1863, the year or a year later (the point is moot) when the Sydney University rugby club was founded. It is asserted that the club was the first rugby club founded in the southern hemisphere. Sir Charles Wade attended rugby matches in Sydney up to his death in 1922.

In that year, Harry Braddon, a punter with a mighty boot and the safest of hands for the 1888 Waratahs in that first match against the Lions, was President of the NSWRU. Braddon was the son of a Tasmanian Premier, Sir Edward Braddon. He had returned to Australia after living in Invercargill with the first New Zealand rugby team that toured Australia in 1884, an event that changed his life.

The captain of the Waratahs against the Lions was Charles Tange, the son of a migrant from Denmark.  A newspaper reported that Tange was “a nugget second row forward who drew blood whenever he played”. Banjo Paterson, an avid rugby man who wrote a splendid poem about the Rev Mullineux, the manager and sometime player in the next Lions side to tour Australia in 1899, was Tange’s best man at his first wedding. Tange was a tea merchant. His splendid country residence in the Southern Highlands about 100 years later became a home away from home for Nicole Kidman. Sir Arthur Tange, one of the most powerful of the Canberra mandarins between the 1940s and 1970s, was his son. Sir Arthur liked to claim that the three great achievements of his student life were gaining a first-class honours degree: playing for Western Australia against the 1937 Springboks: and marrying Margaret Shann, the daughter of the UWA professor of economics and history, Edward Shann.

Arthur George Paul was a rock at fullback for the Lions in their first match against NSW. He was the only Irishman in the touring party, although he was never selected for Ireland. A.P.Penketh, a member of the British pack that monstered their smaller Waratahs opponents, remains the only Manxman to play for a Lions side. A fellow forward in the pack with Penketh, Angus Stuart, remained in New Zealand at the end of the tour. In 1893, he came back to Australia with the first New Zealand national team.

Perhaps the most famous blood brother in the Lions team (not at the time but certainly so in the 20th century) was Charles Aubrey Smith, who was later knighted for his services to what Hollywood likes to call ‘the motion film industry’. Smith was in Australia on the 1887– 1888 cricket tour. In the tradition of the English sporting gentleman he accepted an invitation to play for the First Lions, even though he had no rugby experience. In the team photos he can be seen at the back, tall, and saturnine in looks, with the patrician nose that became even more noble as his film fame grew and the lantern jaw that made him look the part in his famous movies, Clive in India and The Prisoner of Zenda. Smith did not play in the rugby matches but he was one of the better players, because of his height perhaps, in the Victorian Rules matches. He died aged 85 in 1948, the year an Australian rugby team toured the United Kingdom.

Henry Speakman was a centre who scored the winning try for the Lions in their second match against Bathurst. During the first match of the 1888 tour against Otago, the local side was in front 3 -2. The ball was passed to Speakman who immediately dropped the winning goal. The British players on the sidelines threw their hats and sticks in the air. They shouted themselves hoarse with cries of “Speakman! Speakman!” Speakman stayed in Australia and New Zealand when the tour was over. He played for Joe Warbrick’s 1888/1889 Natives Side when it visited Australia on its return trip from Great Britain.

This same Maori side, which had made a fabulous rugby tour of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand some months after the First Lions, had defeated Speakman’s old Runcorn club. Later, Speakman went north to Queensland. He was so influential in the spread of rugby out of Brisbane that he became known as the ‘Father of Charters Towers Rugby’. Years after his death he was still remembered for his call on the rugby field: “Coom, lads, Coom!”.

In the Manichean world of human existence, there is no good without evil, no joy without sorrow and no life without death.

Speakman was one of the tourists who had an untimely death. On 4 January 1915, the Northern Miner reported “his sudden death” at Townsville. The cause of death was put down, initially, as “apoplexy arising out of excessive heat”. A reporter from The Newcastle Morning Herald wrote that he was “an idol with the sporting men of the time, all eager to hear him talk about his football career”. In his younger days at Runcorn, Speakman’s nick-name was ‘Local’, a reference to his penchant, like some the modern stars of the professional era, for enjoying the pleasures of his local pub. A Newcastle reporter made it clear that it was the drink that killed Speakman, not the heat: “I often befriended Speakman, but John Barleycorn had a bootlace tackle on him and he drifted along – to death!”.

James McManamey, the umpire representing NSW and a Major in the First World War, died at Gallopoli not long after the bloody landing.  There is a poignant reference to him in a letter back home from Clarrie Wallach, who was a Wallaby against the All Blacks in 1913:  “We arrived at Hellopolis about three weeks ago. We have been in pretty solid work but expect the real stuff next week. All the rugby union men are well here, from the Major down to the privates.”

Tommy Haslam, the Lions winger marking Wade in the opening match and the dummy expert, died young aged 33. Andrew Stoddart, the Lions centre who scored a try against the Waratahs in that opening match, committed suicide.

Stoddart was a Boys’ Own Hero of Victorian sport. He captained England at cricket and rugby, a unique achievement. There was a verve and zest about everything he did, on and off the field.  Photos of him reveal a trim, wiry man in build. His hands were noticeably large. He had a handsome face and a thick drooping moustache in the mode of the times. Posed cricket photos show him launching into a cover drive. The shot was a distinctive part of his batting style, and his life style. He was a front foot player. When his England side won the Ashes in 1894 – 95, Punch wrote a poem of praise to the captain:

Then wrote the queen of England
Whose hand is blessed by God
I must do something handsome
For my dear victorious Stod

“Dear victorious Stod” was the try-scoring and match-winning centre for the First Lions, the Brian O’Driscoll of his day. His running, fending, daring and startling innovations like jumping over tacklers, enabled him to score a try and be rated the best player on the field in the opening match of the 1888 tour against the Waratahs. On the tour in Australia he played in 14 matches and scored 14 tries and 65 points in total with goals. The next highest, Jack Anderton, scored 28. Some time after the tour, Stoddart became a foundation member of the Barbarians invitational rugby club. He was the captain in the club’s first match against the Hartlepool Rovers.

The golden life of the sportsman turned to dross after his playing days. On 5 April 1915 the London Echo carried a report of the inquest into his suicide that reads like an O. Henry short story:

At the inquest, the deceased’s widow gave evidence that he had resigned the secretaryship of the Queen’s Club owing to a nervous breakdown. He had been without work since, and was very depressed. He lost money through the war. Late on Saturday night he took a pistol from his pocket, and said he was going to finish it. His wife advised him to consult his friends, and after a slight struggle she secured the pistol, but returned it, as it was not loaded, but took away the box of cartridges. Later she found him dead in bed, and then discovered that he had another box of cartridges.

For some of the blood brothers there was a full, challenging and always interesting life after their sporting days. For others there was a shabby and lonely death. In rugby terms, the bounce of the ball in their lives was unpredictable.

As fate would have it, the cruelest bounce of all was reserved for the captain of the First Lions, Bob Seddon.

By the end of July, Seddon was having trouble keeping his team sober. The relentless travelling and the hectic schedule of matches, in the rugby code and in the Victorian Rules code, were unsettling the players. The tough forward, Charles Mathers kept a diary of the tour. On Tuesday 31 July he noted:

In the morning had General Meeting to form a new Committee owing to last Saturday Dr Smith, Dr Brooks and J. Anderton coming onto the field to play drunk. We formed a new Committee R. Seddon, A. E. Stoddart, S. Williams, H. Eagles and myself was put on. In aft. Billiards. At night I went to T. Roberts & we found W. Cook in Fitzroy. He was doing very well. I stayed all night at Tommy’s.

The team came back from Melbourne where they had drawn an enormous crowd of 25,000 to watch their first match against the premiers, Carlton. The results in NSW reflected a team that was on the brink of unraveling. On 11 August 1888, the Lions defeated the Sydney University FC Club side 8 – 4 at the Sydney Showground. The team then travelled to Maitland. Three days later, the Lions were defeated by the Northern Districts side 9 – 4 at the Albion Showground.

Bob Seddon spent some hours after the match writing a long and brave letter to the editor of the Manchester Courier about the fun and games he and the team were enjoying. There was no hint in the letter of the strains that Seddon was under to hold the tour together:

Dear Sir, My last letter was sent to you after playing Bathurst. The following morning was looked forward to with great interest, being the day fixed for a day’s kangaroo hunting on the mountains. Six o’clock next morning saw about 15 waggonettes at the hotel ready to take up to the field of slaughter …  After two hours’ drive we arrived at the forest, and very soon all was bustle and commotion … The beaters drove the kangaroos, hares and &c[L3]  which were shot down … After this we moved on to the mountains, where we were successful. The scenery here was simply wonderful. I was so lost in admiration that I had almost forgotten the shooting … We started for Sydney the next morning at 10.30 and arrived at our destination at 5.30 on Friday evening. Saturday turned out a very hot day. Our match v Sydney University had caused some excitement, especially among the schools. This team, which really are past and present players, have not been defeated for two years, and have scored 200 points against 12, a very good record.

… Their excitement worked up to such a pitch that is [L4] was hard to have victory snatched so cruelly from them when they fancied they had it within their grasp. The spectators also took the defeat very bad … Monday afternoon at five o’clock saw us on our way to Maitland, part of the journey by train and part by steamer. The sail was the most beautiful sight, which will be long remembered by most of our players. Sailing up the river, a bright moon was out, and creeks and tall mountains covered with trees on each side of us, while we were smoking and singing as if we had not a care in the whole wide world.

Half-past 12 was the time we got to the Royal Hotel, Maitland, getting to bed without delay.

Our match against the Northern Districts under the Victorian rules was played in 78 degrees of heat. This is the winter weather we are enjoying here. Our men don’t seem to enter into this game with any spirit whatever. The consequence was we were defeated by eight goals to four, though Stoddart missed three or four (an unusual occurrence) very easy goals. In the evening our team was invited to the skating rink, where a special night was given in honour of the English football players, which most of us accepted … Tonight we leave for Newcastle playing Newcastle and Northern Districts under the Rugby Rules …

Seddon never got to Newcastle to play the rugby matches there. He drowned the day after he wrote the letter.

He was sculling on the Hunter River when he capsized. His may not have been able to get his feet out of the foot strappings or he may have cramped up while clinging to the up-turned scull. His last letter, which contained so much fond detail of the joys he experienced on the Lions tour, was found in the breast pocket of his suit after his belongings were searched for possible clues about his death.

The Argus ran an account of the drowning under the heading: The Late Mr. R.L. Seddon:

Mr R.L. Seddon, the captain of the English football team, was drowned at West Maitland today. The footballers, after the match yesterday, were having a day’s spell, and Mr Seddon visited the River Hunter, which flows past the town, for the purpose of indulging in a little sculling exercise. He procured an outrigger at the Floating Baths, and pulled some distance up the river, when the boat accidentally overturned, and Mr Seddon was drowned. His body was recovered 20 minutes after the accident, and every means of restoring animation was tried, but without avail. Mr Seddon was watched away from the baths by two members of the team, but he was a considerable distance away from his friends when his boat upset.

The two friends were Jack Anderton and Andrew Stoddart. It was Anderton who discovered what the newspapers called “Captain Seddon’s Last Letter” as he went through Seddon’s belonging in his hotel room. Seddon was buried the next day at Maitland. After the funeral service the team boarded the train for Brisbane. With Stoddart captaining the side, the Lions defeated Queensland 13 – 6 at the Exhibition Ground before a large crowd of more than 10,000 spectators.

The 2013 British and Irish Lions will wear black armbands in memory of Bob Seddon when they play NSW – Qld Country at the Hunter Stadium in Newcastle on 11 June 2012. This will be a sign that the rugby community, rather like the Catholic community of saints, is made up of all the rugby players and supporters in the past, all those currently living and the millions to come into the game in the future.

During the Seven Years War of 1756 – 1763, Thomas Osbert Mordaunt, a British officer, wrote a poem titled The Call. There is one memorable verse in the poem among the forgettable verbiage of the rest:

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

One of the wonderful aspects of the sporting life is that players can have their “crowded hour of glorious life” and because of their heroics be remembered a hundred years or so later. Teams like the First Lions and their greatest players are invested with a touch of immortality.

Through the work of countless journalists, photographers and diarists at the time, and their latter day counterparts 125 years on (as well as the bloggers and the tweeters), along with the gifted rugby historians like Max Howell and Sean Fagan, we can be involved in the 1888 Lions rugby tour of Australia and New Zealand as if it happened yesterday.

The past creates the present. In the history of rugby, it will not be forgotten that the First Lions was “the onlie begetter” of the 31 tours, including the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour, that have been a blessed memory for the rugby community since 1888.

O my Stoddart and Seddon, and my Wade and Tange long ago!

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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