The birth of the Lions
Huw Richards
May 14, 2013
The 1888 Great Britain side
The 1888 Great Britain side © Illustrated London News

The British & Irish Lions squad who set off for Australia at the end of this month can look forward to one of the toughest and most demanding experiences of their lives, with close to six weeks on the road and 10 matches to play.

So perhaps they will spare a thought for their pioneering predecessors of 125 years ago, who on this date in 1888 had already been away from the UK for the best part of two months, but had a little matter of 47 matches - including 19 in Australian Rules Football - to go before they caught the boat back home, a journey which would take their total time away from home and hearth to 33 weeks.

The team of 1888 were not known as Lions, a label which would not be applied until 1924. Nor, like many of the teams now regarded as pioneering England cricket XIs, were they either wholly representative or official.

Instead, they were a commercial venture promoted by two of the great cricketers of the age, the Nottinghamshire duo of Arthur Shrewsbury, rated by WG Grace - 'give me Arthur' - as the best batsman of his time other than himself - and uncannily accurate bowler Alfred Shaw.

This provenance had worried the Rugby Football Union. While not forbidding the tour, it refused to offer its backing to a team committee man Frank Marshall recorded in Football: The Rugby Union Game as "manifestly being organised and conducted for the benefit of individual promoters".

In scenting incipient professionalism, the RFU was undoubtedly right. One team member, James Clowes of Halifax, was convicted of receiving payments for playing even before the squad sailed in March 1888, with the result that he did not play a single match. Subsequent researchers have not had to dig very far to find conclusive evidence of payments to the other 21 members of a squad including few established internationals, but dominated by players from the North of England and the Scottish borders.

Their seventh match, against Taranaki in New Plymouth on Wednesday May 16 1888, stands out as hugely significant. The hosts were not much more official than the tourists. They were billed as Taranaki Clubs, since the Taranaki provincial union was not formed until the following year.

The sense of occasion was, though, unmistakeable. A welcoming party including the Mayor, local dignitaries, a fair number of the home team and a military band greeted the tourists, recorded by the Taranaki Herald as looking "a sturdy lot" when they disembarked from the steamship SS Wanaka following their journey up from Wellington. From there they were taken to lunch, then straight afterwards to the match, for which 'a vast concourse of people had assembled'.

The tourists were not in great shape. They had played and drawn with Wellington, a match they reportedly thought 'the roughest they had ever played' and then taken the field again against a weaker Wellington team on the Monday before taking an overnight boat trip for which, their captain Bob Seddon later said "we could not get berths". Star centre Andrew Stoddart was injured and versatile Swinton back Tom Banks had been so badly hurt in the Wellington match that he was not expected to play again on tour.

Unofficial, tired and almost certainly in blatant breach of what was becoming the game's defining ideology they may have been, but the men of 1888 deserve to be remembered

What followed in two 45 minute halves was perhaps only to be expected. If the breathless account spread over two days of the Taranaki Herald is any guide, it was a hectic contest. One typical passage recorded that "Pinketh dribbled it down the field, H Good stopping it, and making a dodging run passed to Snook who got his kick, but the ball cannoned against a Britisher, and it went out in the Taranaki 25".

The first half was scoreless, and the decisive moment came after the break. Taranaki forward Harry Good, who was playing alongside his younger brother Alan, picked up around 40 yards from the British line "ran through the thick of his opponents, got floored, but freed himself, two of the Britishers being shaken off their feet as he scrambled on the ground. He then made a run for the touch line, pursued by Anderton, who grassed him on the line", but not in time to prevent his touching down. The conversion was missed, but the score, in spite of intense British pressure in the closing stages, was decisive.

Seddon recorded later that "the Taranaki backs were certainly the best tacklers we have met. In the second half we pressed the game, but could not score, owing to their splendid tackling". He also set a precedent for future touring captains by mentioning travel - and in particular that uncomfortable night on the boat - and New Zealand hospitality as contributory factors.

At the end "the ground was rushed by the crowd of spectators and the ovation for the local men got for their splendid win was terrific". Harry Good was carried off shoulder-high. Well he might be, since this was a moment of true note in sporting history.

The Great Britain side line up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to play Australian Rules Football © Guinness Book of Rugby Facts and Feats

It was the first ever defeat suffered by a Lions team, and the first victory over British opposition by New Zealanders. There have, as every fan knows, been plenty since including 24 inflicted on Lions teams by teams other than the All Blacks, most recently NZ Maori in 2005.

The teams went off to a dinner, which captain Seddon missed through illness, and were back on the Wanaka before nightfall, en route for a match with Auckland on the following Saturday. From there they went to Australia, before returning to New Zealand for the second time in September. By then they had lost Seddon, drowned at West Maitland in mid-August. They took revenge on their second meeting with Taranaki, winning by a score recorded as seven points to one.

Some Taranaki players went on to distinguished careers. Both Good brothers played for New Zealand when representative matches against Australia began in the 1890s while half-back Charles Bayly (described in match reports as quarter-back), one of five brothers who played at different times for the province, went on to captain the 1897 tour of Australia and become president of the New Zealand Rugby Union ten years after that. Reuben Kivell, who captained Taranaki from full-back, did not get to play for New Zealand, but his son Alf did in the 1920s. Charles Major was already Mayor of Hawera, in 1889 would convene the meeting which set up the Taranaki Rugby Union, and went on to become MP for Hawera.

Shaw and Shrewsbury made a loss, rather than the profits they hoped for, on the tour. On returning home, the players were formally freed from any allegations of professionalism through sworn affidavits denying they had been paid - a device which would be resurrected a little over 100 years later to cover those returning from the still more blatantly professional matches held to commemorate the apartheid-era centenary of the South African Rugby Union in 1989.

Usually vigorously alert to any suggestion of illicit payments, the RFU appear to have been unconcerned. Historian Tony Collins has suggested that they feared discovering that Stoddart - English rugby's brightest star, in theory an impeccable gentleman amateur and double international, but whose expense claims were to raise eyebrows even in the more relaxed atmosphere surrounding amateur cricket - had broken the rules.

Unofficial, tired and almost certainly in blatant breach of what was becoming the game's defining ideology they may have been, but the men of 1888 deserve to be remembered. By carrying a Great Britain label to the Antipodes, and getting beaten by New Zealanders, they established a tradition which has lasted to this day.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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