- The first match between the two took place in 1909
- The Wallabies also won an Olympic gold medal on their trip
- Written by Joe Hall
England and Australia renew their rivalry this Saturday in a contest that goes back over a hundred years.
The first fixture between the two took place on 9 January 1909 at Blackheath – Twickenham had yet to be fully built – and the visitors pulled off a symbolic win.
The match was part of Australia’s first ever tour of Britain; an eventful and controversial five-month trip that also saw them return home with an Olympic gold medal.
Rugby had been growing in Australia since the late nineteenth century, and the success of tours Down Under by combined British teams led to the decision to organise a reciprocal trip during the 1908-09 season.
A 32-match tour and a carpet snake called 'Bertie'
This was to be no whirlwind visit. The tourists had a daunting schedule of 32 matches across England and Wales ahead of them when they arrived in late September.
Without a nickname, they were initially dubbed the ‘Rabbits’ by the English papers. Unhappy with that less-than-fearsome moniker, they saw to it that they be called the ‘Wallabies’ – a name that evidently stuck.
The tour got off to a winning start against Devon, but the omens weren’t good. Not only did forward Peter Burge break a leg, but the team’s mascot – a carpet snake named Bertie, who had been smuggled on tour by hooker Bob Craig – tragically perished on the day of the match. Craig blamed ‘the English mouse’ Bertie had eaten.
Snakeless, the Aussies continued. They suffered their first loss on tour against Llanelli, but their next game would bring an unusual and memorable victory.
Winning Olympic gold
By October, the 1908 London Olympic Games were just reaching the end of their six-month duration. The Wallabies had entered the rugby competition.
‘Competition’, though, was a generous way of putting it. No other nations entered a team, so the Aussies went straight to the final – and faced Cornwall, the English county champions.
On a pitch next to the outdoor Olympic swimming pool – of which the ball had to be fished out several times – Australia won comfortably. Whatever the circumstances, they were now the proud owners of Olympic gold medals.
Their gruelling trip wound on, entering a harsh British winter. The first Test match of the tour, against Wales, was lost 9-6. And while having to contend with the weather and the vagaries of form was one thing, putting up with a harrumphing English press was another.
Throughout their trip, the Australians were consistently accused of ungentlemanly play. The chorus reached such a level that their captain, Dr Herbert Moran, wrote a letter to the Daily Mail in their defence. ‘The player who objects to a robust tackle should lay aside his jersey,’ wrote Moran; ‘For him there are other games.’
Many amateur purists were also suspicious that the tourists were out to make a profit. Scotland and Ireland refused to play against them.
It was an increasingly weary Wallaby group, then, that approached their first ever match against England – over three months after first arriving there.
While the Australians were expected to provide a challenge, the English were confident. The Times wrote glowingly before the match of England’s fifteen; ‘a strong combination in both attack and defence.’
In front of 18,000 spectators, England got off to a fine start. Just two minutes had gone when Edgar Mobbs scored a flowing try (worth three points under the rules of the day).
But the Australians hit back when captain and full back George D’Oyly Lyon failed to deal with a high kick and Wallabies forward Norm Row pounced to level the scores. And with 15 minutes to go, Australia’s ‘kick and rush’ tactics paid dividends again, with winger Charles Russell putting the tourists in the lead.
A kick to the head forced England scrum-half Rupert Williamson to leave the field with five minutes left. England were down to 14 – no replacements allowed back then – and Russell scored another to seal it. The Wallabies had deservedly won a hard-fought match by 9 points to 3.
40-year wait to play again
It was to be the highlight of an often difficult touring experience. The Aussies returned home at the end of January – stopping to play a handful of games in the USA and Canada – with the tour having made a loss of £1,500 and accusations of unfair conduct still ringing in their ears.
The Times, indeed, had stated before the England match that ‘until there is an alteration in their present methods the Rugby Union are not likely to give them another invitation to visit this country.’
Thankfully that didn’t come to pass. But it would – remarkably – be almost 40 years until a full Australian side visited again.