As published by The Sunday Age, 28 April 2013
When the imminent British & Irish Lions tour of Australia was officially launched 18 months in advance it’s fair to say the news struggled to gain traction in footy mad Melbourne.
But as the AFL also continues to send overtures across the seas, the Lions’ quasquicentennial return to Oz serves as a reminder of their own intriguing genesis and quirky encounters with our indigenous offshoot.
To the uninitiated, the British & Irish Lions could be mistaken for yet another anomalous modern sport confection. The reality is the Lions are rugby’s meat and two veg, their tours as renowned for high class Union as fanatical supporters’ high volume drinking and singing.
Chosen from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Lions’ internationals against Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina date back to 1891. Simply, the Lions are a big deal in the rugby world, the real deal, dragging an estimated 30,000 fanatics across the globe.
A historical connection to Melbourne actually goes back further to the inaugural (unsanctioned) trip in 1888. Spurred by England’s burgeoning professional movement, English cricket tour entrepreneurs Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury led the ‘British Isles Rugby Union Team’s’ 249 day expedition. Sixteen rugby matches were funded primarily by an additional 19 games of Australian Rules, whereupon the Brits triumphed six times – including against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval.
Their Aussie Rules debut was a harsh baptism though, against the Blues at the MCG in front of 26,000. The Argus newspaper observed of the clash, theatrically billed as Carlton v England;
“The spectators were fully alive to the difficulties of the task which the visitors had undertaken, and every bit of good play was warmly cheered. The English followers too, were playing an excellent game, and perhaps were a bit too conscientious in striving to follow our rules instead of resorting to a greater extent to Rugby tactics.”
Not surprisingly, the local bluebloods easily prevailed 14.17.101 to 3.8.26.
Essendon can also lay claim to playing ‘England’, at the old East Melbourne ground.
Interestingly, the photo (below) of the 21-man squad was taken at what appears to be one of the old rugby fields at Flinders Park. Extraordinarily, the photo is dated 25 June 1888 – exactly 125 years prior to the Lions’ clash against Melbourne Rebels literally over the road at AAMI Park.
As a measure of the pioneers’ determination and advances in technology, in 1888 the S.S Kaikoura took 42 days to reach Tasmania from Portsmouth. The combined time it will take the 2013 party to reach Australia will be 19½ hours. On their return voyage, the inaugural Lions players passed the time by using catapults to fire at passing albatrosses. On their return flight this year some players may pass time catapulting birds at pigs on mobile phones!
Also worth noting, the 1888 squad were each given £15 to buy clothing and kit to take with them on tour. They were presented with a cap and just one red, white and blue hooped playing jersey. On their last tour (South Africa, 2009) each Lion was provided 80 pieces of individual kit.
Besides the sad lack of gear, there was also an element of real tragedy half way through the 1888 tour. Team skipper Robert Seddon drowned in an accident whilst sculling on the Hunter River in West Maitland, NSW. Andrew Stoddart assumed the captaincy – a future England rugby captain and Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Over the journey, the Brits hold sway 15-5 over the Aussies, although the most recent 2001 tour bucked the trend. The Aussies will require a considerable form reversal to repeat the 2-1 series win. Unlike the significant challenges of 125 years ago, these Lions will be fully onside with the crowd, and the rules.