In the lead up to the visit of the first British Lions team in 1888, joint promoter of the tour, English Test cricketer James Lillywhite, twice put proposals to the Victorian Football Association.

The 1888 British team on board the steamer to AustralasiaAs revealed in The First Lions of Rugby, Lillywhite was seeking sanction for a series of matches under Australian rules against Melbourne’s leading football clubs, and a three-game series against a combined Victorian team.

On both occasions the VFA rejected the Lillywhite plan. The tour still went ahead, and after arranging matches with individual clubs, the Lions played 19-games of Aussie rules, including against Essendon, South Melbourne, Fitzroy, Norwood, Port Adelaide and Carlton.

The latter contest drew over 26,000 to the MCG, a very sizable gathering even by the Victorian capital’s already long-established reputation for big attendances, and more than any English FA Cup final could draw until West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa met in 1892.

One can only speculate the numbers that would have gone to see an All Victoria Twenty meet the British Lions. The VFA voted against the tour and the combined Victoria match as its club delegates were concerned it would mean less Saturdays available for club football.

Melbourne’s The Argus stated: “The natural consequence of the colony being shut out entirely from international football cannot but have an injurious effect. May not the decision of the VFA react upon themselves in a manner they have not foreseen?”

History tells us the decision of 125 years ago hasn’t hampered the development of the code and the VFL/AFL. But may The Argus ultimately be proven correct?

The best tool for expanding codes doesn’t appear to be merely planting a franchise in new territory, but via the Australian-wide interest brought by representative matches and, in the case of the round-ball code, visits by club teams that are international brand powerhouses.

The two rugby codes and soccer would have little or no presence in Australia if not for the visits from overseas teams over the past century or more.

The 1888 Lions, with a new and crowd-pleasing way of playing rugby that had arisen in Britain, gave the code an enormous boost in popularity in NSW and Queensland, just when it appeared certain Australian rules would sweep away the British codes from the colonies.

Further Lions tours in 1899, 1904 and 1908 (as well as All Blacks visits in ‘03 and ’07) reinforced the view that rugby could give the international appeal that Australian rules could not.

The SCG crowds in 1907 were so large (52,000 in one instance) that it triggered the founding of rugby league as the players wanted to get a divide of the vast profits the NSWRU were enjoying.

But even in the face of the rise of a rival rugby code, there was no immediate fear the 15-man game would fold.

“The universal nature of rugby union football is one of its most potent features. Let us keep up the connection with the Old Country (Britain),” wrote Sydney’s The Arrow newspaper in 1909. “We do not want our football legislators to do anything likely to cut us off from such matches. These are the great events in our Rugger. Let us retain them jealously.”

In the post-war 1920s, when rugby in Australia really was in trouble, reduced to a handful of first grade teams in Sydney and the schools, it was visits from the Springboks and All Blacks that continued to draw large crowds, shoring up the finances of the NSWRU and interest in the code.

At that point enough money was found to send the Waratahs on a tour of the UK – a campaign so successful and so well-received that it inspired a revival of the code from extinction in Queensland, and its establishment in Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide and Perth (the latter city being where the Lions played the final game of their 1930 visit to New Zealand and Australia).

© Sean Fagan