In 1888 the first (what is now recognised as) British Lions sailed ‘down under’ – given the hazards, distance and communication difficulties of the time, merely bringing the venture to fruition was an astonishing feat in itself. Remarkably, nine years earlier, England’s rugby captain had made a similar daring attempt at organising a tour.

The first international rugby tours were brought into reality by private promoters in conjunction with leading players – sometimes these were one in the same group of men. No doubt the tours were about adventure, but they were often underpinned by the expectation of financial profit, or at the very least no monetary loss.

These pioneers of international rugby were treading the path blazed by English cricketers, who had begun mounting tours to Australia through the 1860s-80s. The first Australian cricket team visited England in 1878.

As detailed in The First Lions of Rugby, the 1888 Lions squad was brought together by professional cricketers Arthur Shrewsbury and Alfred Shaw, who had taken English cricket teams to Australia in 1881 and 1887. They saw the rugby tour as means to make money from gate-takings, even though the game was still developing as a spectator sport in the Australasian colonies.

The 1888 British team on board the steamer to Australasia
The 1888 British team on board the steamer to Australasia

Though that Lions tour party of 1888 is rightly lauded as rugby’s trail-blazers of international rugby, their implausible but ultimately successful venture wasn’t the first such attempt – amazingly this effort wasn’t merely a year or two earlier, but at the end of the preceding decade.

In late 1879 Frank Adams – Richmond RFC captain and a current England international forward –took inspiration from the tour undertaken by Lord Harris and his English cricket team through the Australian summer of 1878/79. Importantly, Harris’ tour only went ahead after the Melbourne Cricket Club agreed to pay all the tour’s expenses if gate-money was insufficient.

Frank Adams - captained England in the first 'Calcutta Cup' match (1880)
Frank Adams – captained England in the first ‘Calcutta Cup’ match (1880)

Adams opened negotiations by sending a letter to the Southern RFU (now NSWRU) in Sydney, expressing interest in leading an English rugby team to Australia and New Zealand in 1880.

Following the cricketers’ model, Adams sought agreement that the NSWRU would cover the tour’s expenses if there was a loss. This would be a major concern to everyone involved, as a rugby party would by necessity (sizes of teams and cover for injuries) need to comprise more than 20 members, while the cricketers would often travel in a squad of just 12 or 13.

Understandably, the arrival of Adams’ letter in October 1879 caused great excitement in Sydney’s rugby and sporting communities. NSWRU vice-president, William ‘Monty’ Arnold, wrote in a newspaper at the time:

“Personally, I feel confident that if the affair was properly managed there would be no difficulty in taking sufficient money to pay the expenses of a team from England, especially as I understand that Mr Adams would have been willing to meet the Melbourne men half way by playing one match under each code in Victoria, though I feel sure he would repent of such a determination before he was half through his engagements.”

Arnold’s closing point was not only a sly dig perhaps at “the Melbourne (rules) game” that was the game of the neighbouring colony of Victoria, but also an expression of confidence that the rugby matches in NSW, Queensland and New Zealand would make enough money to make playing games under the rival code unnecessary.

Despite Arnold’s indifference to Victoria’s (Australian rules) form of football, the NSWRU not only reached out to the rugby bodies in Queensland and New Zealand to help fund the tour and set up matches, but they also sent letters to the football  associations in Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania:

“We should be glad to know how many matches you could engage the team in, the probable amount the matches would raise in gate money etc., and the prospects you could offer towards the general expense fund. We are anxious to hear from you as soon as possible. If you will kindly wire the result of your meeting we will wire our advice to London either to come out or otherwise.”

William 'Monty' Arnold -
William ‘Monty’ Arnold – “The Father of Australian Rugby”

News of the proposed visit created great enthusiasm, and looked to give rugby a boost. The Mercury published news that the Tasmanian FA (who were still playing football to their own local rules) was in negotiations with the NSWRU for the Englishmen to play two games in Hobart and another in Launceston. One of the members “was of opinion that if the English men would come to Tasmania it would revive football in Tasmania.”

Arnold aside, there’s no doubt that Adams and everyone else involved understood that if any meaningful money was to be generated by the tour, games had to be played in Melbourne under their local rules – the scale of football attendances in the Victorian capital was already outstripping anything Sydney or Auckland could muster.

The rugby match in Melbourne though was not forgotten, with James Pearson, a local-born lad who had captained Blackheath FC after completing his school education in London, taking an active role. Pearson, whose brother Alec was the England fullback (1875-78) playing alongside Adams, wrote in The Argus newspaper:

“As England contemplates sending out a team to the colonies to play a series of matches under the Rugby Union rules, I think it would be disappointing for them to find no rugby club in Victoria. New South Wales and South Australia I understand, both have clubs playing under the auspices of the Rugby Union, and surely Victoria should be represented. I therefore propose the formation of a club playing Rugby Union rules, and would ask the opinion of old Rugby players on the matter.”

Cables and letters were regularly exchanged between Adams and the NSWRU, continuing well into the first months of 1880. Matters seemed to be progressing favourably.

In March 1880 Adams was selected as England captain in matches against Scotland at Raeburn Place in Edinburgh (a drawn game that was the first ever ‘Calcutta Cup’ contest), and Ireland at The Oval in London (on a ground today synonymous with cricket, Adams crossed  for a try in England’s win).

Arthur G. Guillemard writing in “Football: the Rugby Union Game” (by Francis Marshall) :

“Forward, F. R. Adams, of Richmond, who played in seven International matches, proved himself well worthy of his place, being very keen and energetic, and a valuable player by reason of his weight, strength, and vigorous following-up.”

Adams communicated to the NSWRU that the likely expenses would be in the order of £3,000 – it was a staggering amount, and one which the NSWRU, even with the support of the other football bodies (both codes) had little chance at raising. The NSWRU would soon write to Adams:

“We are not prepared to guarantee any amount. We will do our best to make matches successful in a pecuniary sense, and if there is a loss we will endeavour to cover a share by subscription.”

That it was it – the tour was abandoned. Arnold explained later that:

“We had so little data we could depend upon to calculate the probable takings, football clubs here never having troubled themselves about gate-money.”

Guillemard (again in “Football: the Rugby Union Game“) wrote:

“There was some talk during this winter of a visit of a team of Rugby Union players to the Australasian Colonies; but the colonists were not prepared to guarantee expenses, and, as it was also considered that Rugby football had hardly made sufficient headway in the sunny south to ensure good matches, the project fell through.”

Even though Adams’ plan failed to come to fruition, it did inspire Arnold to push onwards with commencing inter-colonial tours. In lamenting the decision by Adams not to proceed, Arnold wrote:

“Should a team of Rugby players visit us, either from New Zealand or from England, we shall have them as brothers in arms, and do all we can to make their visit pleasant, except that we shall do our utmost to send them back beaten, in the hopes that they may return to the charge annually, until the visit shall be looked forward to with the same anxiety as the inter-colonial cricket matches now are.”

Just two years later (1882) the first NSW and Queensland teams were formed, playing against each other in Sydney. That same year NSW toured New Zealand for the first time.

It would not though be for another 80 years (1963) before the England rugby team finally arrived in Australia.

© Sean Fagan