‘GREAT BRITAIN’ v. ‘THE COLONIES’ 1892-96

An annual Australia versus Great Britain series of Rugby matches in mid-1890s Western Australia?

Well, maybe if we squint a little…

The West Australian (Perth, WA) Saturday 11 June 1892
The West Australian (Perth, WA) Saturday 11 June 1892

Few realise it today, but Rugby was in 1882 the first football code to establish clubs in the major centres of the west coast colony. Ultimately though, with Perth and Fremantle forming economic and cultural connections with the closer Adelaide and Melbourne, by the end of the 1880s Victorian rules had gained the ascendancy, and Rugby was formally declared extinct.

The rush though to join the West Australian gold mining boom in the early 1890s saw many Rugby men from New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand heading west. Along with ‘new chums’ from the UK, the rise in population reinvigorated support for the game.

By the middle of the decade five Rugby clubs were playing in Fremantle (Pirates, Zingari, Swans, Fremantle & Midland), with other clubs founded in Perth, Kalgoorlie, Boulder and Coolgardie. The Daily News observed:

Those who hail from Great Britain are divided between the merits of the ancient Rugby and the British Association forms of football, the former being supported strongly by the arrivals from certain parts of New South Wales.

The Western Australia Rugby Union was founded in 1893. Its beginnings lay in the formation in May 1892 of a club that alternated between two football codes. A report in The West Australian of the first meeting recorded:

After a considerable amount of discussion as to whether the Rugby game alone should be played, it was decided to form a club to be called the ‘English Association and Rugby Union Football Club’.

It was resolved that Mondays and Thursdays be the days fixed for the practice of the English Association game, and Tuesdays and Fridays for Rugby, Wednesday [4pm kick-off] being the day set apart for matches.

 One of the first moves by the club was the instituting of a series of matches variously titled as ‘Great Britain’ or ‘England’ versus ‘Australia’ or ‘The Colonies’, with players and supporters giving their allegiance to one side or the other on place of birth, or where they had spent most of their upbringing.

The opening game was played on Perth’s ‘New Recreation Ground’ (Esplanade Reserve). Western Mail:

There was a large attendance of spectators, and after a hard fought game the match resulted in a win for the colonials by 7 pts to 2 pts. Simpson captained the Britishers, and Moran led the Colonials.

An account of the return match in The West Australian described how the British turned the tables on the locals, winning 5-3 “in the presence of a considerable number of spectators”.

Under the newly formed WARU, and amidst the rise of an organised club season (4 teams) fixture list, the annual series between Britain and Australia continued from 1893 to 1895. In the latter season The Daily News noted how serious the game had become:

The selection committees for the test matches ‘Great Britain v. The Colonies’ was the next item for discussion, and it was decided that each club send two representatives (1 Britisher and 1 Colonial, if possible) and that the men [teams] be selected from the two selection committees.

… public interest should not fail to be aroused in the case of the three ‘test’ matches between teams representing Great Britain and the Colonies. One is to be played on the Perth Esplanade, the second on Fremantle Park, and the final on the Association [WACA] Ground.

The team colours for each season were:

‘the Colonials’: blue and white (1892); “plain jerseys” (1893-94); blue (1895)
‘the Britishers’: white (1892); “striped jerseys” (1893-94); cardinal (1895)

As the date neared for the 1896 series to kick-off The Inquirer and Commercial News revealed:

Much interest is centered in the forthcoming matches with the Coolgardie [WA goldrush town] team of Rugby footballers, who are expected to arrive in the city tomorrow morning. The ‘first test match’ between Great Britain and the Colonies, which was to have been played tomorrow at Fremantle, will not take place in consequence of the preparations that the Rugbyites are making for their first match with the goldfields team on Monday at Fremantle.

The series though was not rescheduled for later in the 1896 season, and was never played again.

In 1899 the first Test match between Australia and Great Britain was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

To the great disappointment of Rugby supporters in the west, neither the 1888 or 1899 British Lions tourists extended their visit to play games in Perth or Fremantle.

© Sean Fagan

Scrum action at the SCG in 1888 - NSW (now Waratahs) vs first British Lions. Looking towards n-e corner & Moore park Rd..
Scrum action at the SCG in 1888 – NSW (now Waratahs) vs first British Lions (from ‘The First Lions of Rugby‘).
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