First British Rugby side tours Australia and New Zealand with a series of rugby union games played by an unofficial British team against invitational Australian and New Zealand teams. Although a private venture, this series of games was the first major tour of the Southern Hemisphere undertaken by a European team, and would pave the way for future tours which eventually manifested as the British Lions. Out of the 16 Rugby matches the British side played, they won 14, lost none, and drew two. No Test matches were played however, on the Victorian leg of the tour, 18 games of Australian Rules Football was played. Attended by some 30,000 strong crowds, the British touring side won 6 of the Australian Rules Football games before heading to New Zealand. The reports of all matches similarly reported that the most impressive aspect of the visitors was their back play, which became the characteristic and the hallmark of the Lions teams for the next century.
The 1899 Tour to Australia was unique in that it was the first and one of only two years, including 1989, that the British Rugby team toured Australia exclusively, prior to 2001. The touring party included seven caps: two English, two Scottish, two Irish and one Welsh. It was the first time the British Lions included players from all four unions. They were also the only Lions teams to win a series abroad after losing the first Test. 1899 was the first British Lions tour to Australia which included the inaugural Test series, which the Lions won 3 – 1.
1904 was the first time that a British and Irish Lions side, made up of players from all four unions, played Tests in both Australia and New Zealand, establishing a tradition that would last almost three-quarters of a century. The Lions marched through Australia unbeaten, conceding just three points in as many games in the Test series itself, winning 17-0, 17-3 and 16-0. The 1904 Lions became the first side to win all its Australian games, playing and winning 14 matches and scoring 265 points against Australia’s 51. It was the most successful British side to visit Australia, being the only one to win all of its matches on a major visit. It was a different story in New Zealand with the matches extremely close. There was terrific interest in the Test matches, drawing around 20,000 people, a huge crowd for those days.
The 1908 Lions were in no sense a fully representative British side – it was the first and last Anglo-Welsh team to go on tour. For the first time, the New Zealand section of the Tour became more significant than the Australian part. The touring side played just nine matches in Australia, with no Test match. This was unusual as Rugby was extremely popular in Australia at this time with over 45,000 going to see the touring All Blacks. The 1908 side narrowly won a three game rubber 2 – 1 against New South Wales and only won 9 out of the 17 matches in New Zealand. They drew the second Test, but were heavily defeated in the other two Tests in New Zealand.
In the 21 years between the great wars the Lions Tours slowed with only 3 teams leaving British & Irish shores during this time, the 1924 and 1938 tours to South Africa and 1930 tour to Australia and New Zealand. The 1930 Tour came almost exactly in between the two great European wars. The Lions travelled by passenger boat via the Panama Canal for a five week journey with the team and Manager only, no Coach, Doctor, physio or media. The Lions played seven matches in Australia, winning five and losing just two against NSW and Australia.
The 1950 Lions tour of Australia and New Zealand was the first completed by a British & Irish Lions side composed entirely of capped players. This was also the first time the Lions red jersey team kit appeared. The new red jersey replaced the pre-war navy blue to avoid the colour clash that forced New Zealand to play in white in 1930. The Lions enhanced their reputation further in the second of two subsequent Test victories in Australia, when they scored five tries in a 24-3 success to follow up a 19-6 win in the first. The Lions played six games in Australia where they rattled off five convincing victories, including the two Test matches and the NSW state side, before losing to NSW XV in their last match.
The 1959 tour to Australia and New Zealand included two matches in Canada on the way home. The tour began in Australia where the Lions won the Tests fairly comfortably but came a cropper in the first game against NSW, losing 18-14. The Lions defeated the Australian team in both Tests, by margins of 17-6 and 24-3. The Lions team scored more points than any other Lions team, 842 in 33 games, 6 of which were in Australia, 25 in NZ and 2 in Canada. For once the Irish were the most predominant of the home nation teams on the tour.
Another Tour to Australia and New Zealand, which included a visit to Canada on the way home. The Lions went unbeaten through Australia, winning the two Tests 11-8 and 31-0, the first thanks to Ireland’s R.J. McLoughlin getting his team out of jail and the second through a five-try rampage. The Lions played eight matches in Australia, winning seven and drawing the other. There was an Australian record crowd of 42,303 for a Rugby Union game at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Despite Australia recently beating the Springboks and All Blacks that year, the Lions managed to run away with the biggest winning Test match score of 31 – 0 against any country in their whole history.
In the 1970’s the Lions were the unofficial world champions having soundly beaten all the Southern Hemisphere nations. The Lions only played two “warm-up” matches in Australia against Queensland and New South Wales before heading to New Zealand. Queensland beat the Lions 15-11 whilst New South Wales were defeated by just two points, with the Lions scraping home a 14-12 win. The Lions suffered only one further defeat in the entire 26-match tour of Australia and New Zealand. They won the Test series in New Zealand 2-1, with the final international drawn. This was an historic occasion for the 1971 Lions as they became the first to win a Test series in New Zealand in almost three-quarters of a century of trying. It wasn’t a classic, but the 14-14 draw was all the tourists needed. A Dixon try, two penalties and a conversion from the boot of John, topped by a 45-metre drop goal proved sufficient for the Lions to make history.
In April 1986, the Lions, beset by the world lobby against apartheid, broke the Lions tour schedule by calling off their projected tour to South Africa. Because of the South African boycott The Lions had a six year gap since their last tour. They were the first team to visit Australia on a full-blown Lions tour since the Rev Mullinex’s side in 1899. It was also the first time the Lions introduced an assistant coach. With 12 matches, including three Tests, it was also the only sizeable British tour to Australia since 1959. Australia had been deemed worthy of hosting an entire tour for the first time in exactly 90 years. Out of the 12 matches the Lions won 11.
The 1989 side became the first Lions to come from behind, after losing the first Test, to win the series 2-1. The Tour clearly illustrated the new and growing strength of Australian rugby and the ability to easily sustain a 12-match tour. It was a physically demanding Test series and the second Test in particular was one of the most brutal with the media and players speculating about an ‘open warfare’ type match for the third Test, which proved not nearly as violent.
The Lions won their first six games before the first Test, including the 2 mini-Tests against Queensland and New South Wales. Every game counted, the Lions were struck badly on injury which affected the team selection.
History was made in the Test series, as Finlay Calder’s side became the first Lions to triumph after losing the opening match. They needed every ounce of toughness they had in a Test series of huge physical intensity. In the opener, the Wallaby pack gave their half-backs the platform to create four tries and engineer a huge win by 30-12. In this first Test Australia scored 4 tries, all converted by Lynagh, in front of a capacity crowd at the SFS.
The Lions took heart from recovering from a 21-11 half-time deficit to beat ACT 41-25 before the second Test but were criticised for the hardness of their play in completing the comeback.
It was a bruising 19-12 win over the Wallabies in the second Test in Brisbane. The Lions came out ferocious – the game was ill-tempered and violence was sparked by the tiniest incident with the first scrum erupting in a brawl.
Open warfare was predicted for the decider, but an exciting game of rugby broke out instead, decided on the scoreboard by Australia wing David Campese’s error that gifted a try to his opposite number, Ieuan Evans, but in reality won by a performance of complete control from the Lions pack.
The Lions were hanging on as the Wallabies fought to the finish, but when the final whistle blew a 19-18 scoreline said they had made another piece of history.
The Lions played ten matches in Australia with a squad composed of 18 English, 10 Welsh, 5 Irish and 4 Scots. It was the first year the Test series is played for a new Cup named after Tom Richards, a country Queenslander who played for NSW and won Rugby Olympic Gold for Australia in 1904. He was among the first to land at Gallipoli and a distinguished army career led to him receiving the Military Cross.
Tom Richards holds the unique distinction of being the only man who has played for both the Wallabies and the Lions. As well as playing in the Olympic Games, Tom played numerous games for Australia. He was co-opted to play for the Lions who were on Tour in South Africa due to the fact he had played club rugby in England. He played in all three Tests and has been hailed as the greatest player of his time.
The biggest ever squad to represent the British and Irish Lions was announced for the 2001 tour to unprecedented media coverage. The Lions record in Australia had so far been excellent with a record of 14 Test wins out of 17. The Lions had never lost a series in Australia and had won the last series in South Africa in 1997 not a too distant memory.
On paper the squad looked impressive with the necessary depth and, therefore, if they played to their full potentially there was every chance the Lions’ third century of rugby would start on a winning one. On his third tour, Captain Martin Johnson made history by becoming the first player to captain two Lions Tours.
The Lions broke with tradition by appointing their first coach from outside the British Isles in New Zealander Graham Henry, then in charge of Wales. Captain Martin Johnson, meanwhile, became the only man to lead the tourists twice. Graham Henry was under pressure from day one with tension from the start, including criticism surrounding the need for a 37-man squad given it was only a 10 match tour. It was later increased to a 44-man squad due to injury.
The foot and mouth epidemic and Six Nations Tests disrupted due to travel restrictions put in place by the British and Irish Governments leaving selectors short of matches to assess potential candidates, and the players short of crucial Test match preparation.
The tour included a three-Test series in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney plus several provincial matches including the opener at the WACA in Perth, against West Australia on Friday June 8th, against Queensland at Ballymore on Saturday 16th June and NSW, ACT, Australia ‘A’, NSW Country and a Queensland select XV.
The Lions kicked off the tour with a 116-10 against Western Australia at the WACA in Perth. The competition increased against the Queensland President’s XV but the Lions came away with the win by 83-6 in Townsville. The Lions faced a real test against Queensland in Ballymore at Brisbane but they smashed the injury depleted Qld 42-8.
The fourth match of the tour against Australia A at Gosford was basically the fourth Test of the tour and a major hurdle for the Lions’ midweek XV. Australia A won 28 – 25.
It was another brutal and bloody match in the game against NSW with the infamous rumble between Duncan McRae and Ronan O’Gara – an incident which caused deep friction between the Lions and Bob Dwyer’s Waratahs. Five other players were also sent to the sin bin in the same match and at one point during the second half the Waratahs had 12 players against the Lions, 13.
There was a psychological warfare of words in the lead up to the Test following the NSW game plus further injury news. The Wallabies training home of Coffs Harbour was the next venue for the game against the NSW Country Cockatoos in the last game before the first Test. It was an unconvincing yet still a win from the Lions with a final 46-3 victory.
By the time the first Test came around the Lions looked on the verge of cracking as the defeat by Australia A was followed by revelations of discontent in the camp, fuelled by an apparent distinction already having been drawn between the Test and midweek sides. It took the Lions just two minutes of the first Test to answer the questions about their well-being, as Robinson scored in the corner. Further tries from James, Quinnell and O’Driscoll, cemented a 29-13 win.
The demolition of the Wallabies in the first Test was remarkable for its ruthfulness. With total dominance up front, the Test put the Lions on the front foot and put firmly on the Wallabies to win both remaining Tests.
The second Test was also decided in its third quarter, but this time it was the Wallabies who made the decisive move, remarkably turning the 11-6 deficit into a record winning margin to run out victors 35-14. The Wallabies emerged to score 15 points in 10 minutes, successfully turning both the match and the series around.
The Olympic Stadium in Sydney, fresh from hosting the most successful Games in history, provided the backdrop for the deciding rubber. Tickets were harder to find than for the Games opening ceremony a year earlier, and for sheer tension and drama its hard to remember a more intense match.
The decider could hardly have been closer as the two teams kept pace to stand level at 23-23 with 12 minutes to play, Robinson and Wilkinson having scored tries for the tourists.
Matt Burke then kicked two penalties to give Australia a 29-23 advantage with only minutes to go. A depleted Lions side, suffering greatly from injury, engineered one last chance for the try and conversion they needed to win with a lineout in the Wallabies 22.
Wood threw to Johnson but Australia lock Justin Harrison pulled off the steal of the series to take possession and make his side’s victory safe in what was a huge blow for the 15-20,000 sea of red enthusiasts who had travelled to support the Lions.
Prior to the 2001 Tour the British & Irish Lions had not lost a series in Australia.