First British rugby tourists take the field

28 April 1888

The British rugby team that toured New Zealand, 1888 (NZ Rugby Museum)

The first British rugby team to tour New Zealand played its first match, against Otago, at Dunedin’s Caledonian Ground in front of 10,000 spectators.

Behind at halftime, the visitors were expected to tire. Instead they played ‘harder and rougher’, scoring two dropped goals and a try to win 8–3. Four days later, they won a return fixture 4–3.

Unlike later British Lions teams, this was not a full-strength side: only three of the 21 players had represented one of the four home unions. The (English) Rugby Football Union refused to sanction the privately organised tour, ruling it a commercial enterprise that rendered the players professionals – a cardinal sin in the eyes of upper-class administrators. Rugby unions in Australasia, however, welcomed any sportsmen from ‘Home’.

The British team travelled north, losing only two of the seven matches they played before sailing to Australia. After 35 fixtures across the ditch, they returned to New Zealand in September for another 10 games. The British did not meet a representative New Zealand team, but they did defeat an under-strength South Island XV twice. 

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