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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 May 2005, 14:07 GMT 15:07 UK
Early history of the Lions
By Sean Davies
BBC Sport

Within 50 years of William Webb Ellis picking up his football, rugby had spread throughout the British Empire and sides from the home islands began to tour.

As early as 1888 there was a private tour of Australia and New Zealand, arranged without Rugby Football Union backing or official Test status.

The players were drawn mainly from England and the Scottish borders, though there were representatives of all four home unions.

The 22 tourists played a total of 53 games, winning 27 of the 35 matches played under union laws.

They fared less well in the other 18 fixtures, though - these were under Victorian or Australian rules and the British and Irish players lost 11, won six and drew one.

The 1888 tour was also tinged with tragedy, as its captain Bob Seddon was drowned while sculling on the Hunter river.

His New Zealand counterpart, Joe Warbrick, later died in a lava flow from Mount Tarawera.

Bok beginnings

In 1891 a side enjoying backing from Cecil Rhodes and President Kruger of the Transvaal Republic toured South Africa, winning all three Tests and every provincial game.

These were the first representative matches played by South African sides, who were still learning the game.

The success continued on the veldt in 1896, with three games won out of the four played.

England had been weakened by the split with rugby league and for the first time there was a large Irish contingent.

The improvement in South African play from 1891 was marked, particularly in their impressive forwards, and their first Test win in the final game was a pointer to the future.

Aussies slide

On these early trips selection was largely based on the availability of players, with the bulk coming from university students who were able to leave home for six months.

Representatives from all four home nations travelled to Australia in 1899, though, and a successful trip saw them win three of their four games, Wales' Gwyn Nicholls starring throughout.

It was believed Australia would emerge as the main challenger to the home unions in rugby, as it had in cricket, but it soon became clear this view was mistaken and 1899 would be the last time Australia alone would host a Lions tour until 1989.

Australia's secondary rating in rugby union's pecking order seemed cemented in 1908 when the country grasped rugby league to its heart, league and Aussie rules reducing union to a minor role.

The strength of South Africa and New Zealand was becoming formidable, though, as proved by the tours of 1903 and 1904.

These parties were dominated by Welsh and Scottish players, the leading home nations at the time.

In 1903 the tourists lost a series for the first time in South Africa, drawing the opening two Tests before losing the last - a result that shocked the world.

They won just 11 of their 22 games, most laying the blame on a weak and ineffective three-quarter line.

For the final Test South Africa wore the green Old Diocesan shirts that had brought them luck in their 1896 win.

The jersey was again associated with success and was thereafter adopted as the official team kit.

New Zealand nasties

The following year the home union tourists beat Australia in three games, their backs tearing the home side to shreds.

Things changed in New Zealand, though, where the first great Kiwi team was being built.

A tough series of provincial games was scraped through before the tourists were mauled by the home forwards in the Test in Wellington.

A further 2-0 trouncing (with one draw) followed for the British tourists in New Zealand in 1908.

This was the only 'Lions' team to be drawn entirely from England and Wales - they failed to come together as a team and suffered some fearful defeats.

The 1910 tour of South Africa was the first to officially represent the four home unions and, with 26 players, it was the largest party so far.

But the improvement from the home unions was not marked as the tourists won just one of their three Tests.

Lions unveiled

The Great War led to a cessation of touring, but in 1924 the party that left for South Africa became the first to be known as the Lions.

They were ravaged by injuries and badly let down by some shocking goal kicking.

The sorry tour record left them with only nine wins from 21 games, including defeat in all three Tests.

Despite this, it was agreed it had been a fantastic Test series with some thrilling rugby.

In 1930 the tourists of New Zealand were infused with working-class Welsh blood, adding a new element to the traditional upper class feel of such a trip.

The Welsh boys were supported by sponsorship from their clubs to help them meet the expenses of the tour.


The trip was shrouded in controversy after the long break in visits because of differing interpretations of the law.

This particularly surrounded the All Blacks' seven-man, two-three-two scrum formation, allowing for a forward "rover".

There was also dispute over players leaving the field at half-time and over the mark rule.

Tour manager Jim Baxter of the RFU was left furious, and soon after the tour he instigated law changes, including the three-man front row for the scrum.

In the long run, this helped to standardise the laws of rugby, but it led New Zealand to change their style of play from an all-action game to a forward-dominated approach with kicking backs.

The 1930 Lions claimed an impressive first Test win after some tough provincial games in New Zealand, but the home side regrouped.

Their forward power saw the All Blacks win the next three Tests and the Lions also lost a one-off game against Australia.

The sorry trip did establish the Lions' playing colours - red jerseys, white shorts, blue socks and green stocking tops to represent each of the four home unions.

Things were not to be any easier on their next tour, South Africa in 1938.

This was one of the great Springbok teams, acknowledged as world champions after defeating New Zealand and Australia away in 1937.

The first two Tests were easily claimed by the home side, but the tourists recorded a shock win in the third and last.

It was the first Lions win in South Africa since 1910.


Early Lions: Squads and results
18 May 05 |  Internationals

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