First Lions of Rugby:
First Lions overcame more than adversity
Greg Growden
May 30, 2013
"We left him standing outside his hotel at Maitland with no hat upon his head and a cigarette in his mouth, in the very best of health and spirits

If there are any complaints from the British & Irish Lions about a congested itinerary and that too much is expected of them while in Australia, all you have to do is tell them to read a certain book that brings it all into perspective.

The First Lions of Rugby chronicles the never-ending demands, difficulties and dramas when the Lions first ventured to Australia in 1888. It also delves into the tragedy of their team captain, Robert "Bob" Seddon, who drowned during the tour.

On the 125th anniversary of the inaugural tour, sports historian Sean Fagan has provided an extensive, near forensic, coverage of what occurred during the five months the Lions travelled through New Zealand and Australia. It was no holiday, due to a 54 match schedule in which, in a bid to ensure the tour was profitable, the Lions showed their versatility by playing 19 games of Australian Rules football against notable sides in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, defeating Bendigo, Port Adelaide, "Twenty of South Australia", Horsham, Ballarat, Kyneton and Sandhurst.

If that weren't onerous enough, the players also had to overcome the grief of losing their popular captain.

Fagan writes that Seddon opted against taking the train to Newcastle after the team had played their final Australian Rules game of the tour in Maitland, against a Northern Districts representative side, preferring instead to go boating with teammates on the Hunter River. "We left him standing outside his hotel at Maitland," said renowned England cricketer and one of the tour promoters Arthur Shrewsbury ,"with no hat upon his head and a cigarette in his mouth, in the very best of health and spirits. It was a most beautiful day, the sun shining out in full splendour and Bob stood looking the very impersonation of perfect happiness and contentment."

Later that day, Lions fullback Tom Haslam ran into the team's Newcastle hotel, tears in his eyes, yelling: "Bob Seddon is drowned."

Andrew Stoddart, the most notable name in the touring party due to his fine cricketing prowess, and Jack Anderton, who had also decided to row the Hunter "headed up the river, and were soon out of sight". Seddon, who was following them, appeared to be struggling with his vessel. "Some witnesses on the shore would later say that almost immediately it was apparent Seddon was unaccustomed to handling such a boat."

The Newcastle Morning Herald stated that Seddon, who was reportedly wearing his football clothing, had been thrown out of his boat when it capsized, and that "two men saw him swimming and encouraged him by shouting, but could render no assistance as no boat was available". Seddon made a last desperate effort to reach the shore and safety. He "swam about 15 yards on his back, and then sank twice, the last time for good".

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

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The body was recovered by Stoddart and Anderton a half-hour later, when the town's doctor worked to no avail for nearly an hour to restore life. An inquest was held. The verdict was Seddon had died "by asphyxia from drowning and no blame could be attributed to anyone".

The tour continued after Seddon's funeral in Maitland, attended by around 3000 people. A team photograph was taken before the next match in Brisbane. "The British players gathered in the usual setting, but where the captain holding a football would normally sit in the centre they left an empty seat, placing the ball on the ground in front of his ghostly feet. Stoddart would be their field captain but Seddon would remain the tour captain.'

Not all mourners were convinced of the circumstances of Seddon's death. Fagan writes that distraught team-mate Harry Eagles, Seddon's friend for more than 20 years, who had saved people from drowning, said when the team returned to England that "no adequate explanation can be given of the accident which resulted in Mr Seddon's death".

"Unfortunately," Fagan writes, "Stoddard, as he had done all tour, remained aloof from the press and despite the gravity of the events, never spoke about what happened on the river that day."

The life of Stoddart, who succeeded WG Grace as England's cricket captain and led them to an Ashes victory in 1894-1895, also ended tragically. He was found dead in 1915 by his wife, having shot himself in the head with a revolver after "considerable silent worry and burden arising from financial difficulties".

Shrewsbury went a similar way. In 1903, concerned that his eyesight was deteriorating, and worried about other ailments, Shrewsbury bought a revolver and killed himself with shots to his lung and temple.

The First Lions of Rugby by Sean Fagan is published by Slattery Media Group

© ESPN Australia / New Zealand

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