28th April 1888- First British rugby team to play in NZ
The first British rugby team to tour New Zealand played its first match, against Otago at the Caledonian Ground in South Dunedin. A huge crowd of nearly 10,000 turned up on an unusually warm Saturday afternoon. The blues of Otago drew first blood with a dropped goal, but the red, white and blues soon responded with a try. Behind 3–1 at halftime, the visitors were expected to tire. Instead they played ‘harder and rougher’, combining well to score two dropped goals and a try and win the match 8–3. They took no harm from subsequent banqueting, winning a return fixture on Wednesday 4–3 thanks to a try from a solo run two minutes from full-time. With a half-holiday being observed in Dunedin, the crowd was nearly as large as that for the first match.
The tourists had arrived at Port Chalmers on the steamship Kaikoura on Sunday 22 April. Unlike later British Lions teams, this was not a full-strength side: only three of the 21 players (one of whom seems to have been on the tour mainly as a touch judge and after-dinner speaker) had represented one of the four home unions. The (English) Rugby Football Union (RFU) refused to sanction the privately organised tour, which it saw as a commercial enterprise that rendered the players professionals – a cardinal sin in the eyes of upper-class administrators. Rugby unions in Australasia, however, had no scruples about welcoming sportsmen from Home in an ‘exuberantly hearty manner’.
The RFU had banned one tourist for accepting a £15 clothing allowance and required the others to sign affidavits stating that they would not benefit financially from the enterprise. Their sincerity was never put to the test: the tour’s promoters lost nearly £1000 (equivalent to nearly $200,000 in 2011) on the venture. The team’s weekly expenses in Australia were said to be at least £400, and their hosts in Victoria were ‘grasping’ in their financial demands. On the other side of the ledger, the promoters received £710 as their share of the gate money from the four matches they played in Dunedin.
After their first visit to Dunedin, the British team travelled north to Christchurch by train. After four more victories, a 3-all ‘tie’ with Wellington and losses to Taranaki and Auckland which they blamed on ‘generous hospitality’, they sailed to Australia in late May. They played 35 matches across the ditch (winning just six of 19 under Australian rules, but losing none under Rugby rules) before returning to New Zealand in September for another 10 matches. As there was as yet no colony-wide rugby union, they did not meet a representative New Zealand team. An under-strength South Island XV whose forwards ‘played with very little combination’ was defeated twice. Three of the tourists stayed on in New Zealand after the tour; two found work in Wellington and joined the Poneke Football Club.
Image: Headline from this newspaper article (PapersPast)