Until relatively recent times in the history of Rugby football, it was not uncommon for a team visiting another nation to encounter different interpretations of certain laws of the game.

In Rugby tradition if the jersey colours of the two teams clashed, the home side gave way and found another playing kit to use for the day.

However, when it came to the differences in applying the laws of the game, it was considered ‘bad form’ to start bleating about it to local officials or the newspapermen.

Most touring teams and their captains were content to simply get a clear idea of what was expected, and then get on with playing the game. In many respects it gave the sport a varying ‘accent’ from country to country, and national teams often developed a different style of play.

There are still strong elements of that today, with the robust Romanians and flamboyant Fijians at different ends of the Rugby spectrum, but when television and the internet lets us all watch, study and learn from each other, exposing strengths, weaknesses and tactics, the contrast between nations is not perhaps what it once was.

As everyone that comes to Rugby soon learns, whether as a player or supporter, there aren’t just the written laws of the game to consider, but also that other less certain side of the coin, “the spirit of the game”.

Without custom and tradition to guide how the laws are applied and interpreted, how the game is played, things could and did get lost or morphed along the way, especially back in the late 1800s when distance and technology meant, for the most part, all many had to rely upon was the written word from the RFU in faraway London (and that wasn’t an easy language to decipher!), and the varying views of ‘new chum’ migrants arriving from ‘Home’.

In extreme cases, where there was no heritage and local knowledge to fall back upon, and a desire to pull the rules apart for advantage with the mind of a compensation lawyer, as occurred with Walter Camp and his cohorts in the United States, the Rugby game could be contorted and twisted into something far more brutal and less scenic.

Captained by Cambridge University’s Matthew Mullineux, when the 1899 British Lions sailed to Australia they landed in Adelaide, then travelled by train to Melbourne and on to Sydney. Along the way they stopped at Goulburn, a major NSW inland city on the edge of what is now Brumbies territory in the Super Rugby, and played their first match of the tour.

The game they encountered that day was a different sort of Rugby altogether to anything they had experienced at home. While afterwards Mullineux held back his concerns about interpretations of the rules, the manner and style of the game was something he openly discussed.

1899 British Lions in Sydney
1899 British Lions in Sydney

After talking with the Lions skipper, a Goulburn reporter wrote, “The Britishers found in existence here a new version of the game – one they had never played before; Mr. Mullineux spoke of it as a ‘kick and rush’ game, and described it as the most extraordinary he had ever played in his life.”

“It seemed to them a contest in which the main requisite was brute strength and in which there was little call for science. Passing (the ball) and dodgy runs, the things which differentiate (Rugby) football from a riot, were seldom seen.”

“The spectacle of a number of men bunched together with their heads down and apparently groping about with their feet [for the ball] was about as exhilarating as a mud puddle on a wet day. This, we were led to understand, was Rugby; but it now transpires that Rugby as played in the British Isles and Rugby as exemplified here are widely differing things.”

“If the visit of the Englishmen should result in the introduction of a more scientific game then lovers of a good contest will have much to them for.”

The first international tours served not only as a great adventure and holiday for the players involved, and honour in representing their country, but just as importantly united and reconciled the disparate Rugby outposts into playing something more closely resembling the one game.

© Sean Fagan