TOUGH TEAM: The 1888 British Lions pictured before their game in Brisbane. The missing space in the middle row would have been for their team captain Bob Seddon.
TOUGH TEAM: The 1888 British Lions pictured before their game in Brisbane. The missing space in the middle row would have been for their team captain Bob Seddon. Contributed

The team that turned Ipswich from Aussie Rules to rugby

IT MIGHT seem a bit hard to fathom at first, but Ipswich used to be an Aussie Rules town.

In fact, several generations before names like Langer and Walters rang out across our footy fields, anything other than the code known as Australian Rules was frowned upon in some circles.

The arrival of the first British Lions rugby team in 1888 would soon change all that, however.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the British Lions' high-risk, non-sanctioned tour of Australia and New Zealand.

While the tour was marred by the tragic death of the team's captain, Bob Seddon, it was also a victory for what was a very different game in those days.

More importantly, for Ipswich at least, it marked a key turning point in terms of the city's preferred footy code.

To mark the anniversary, historian and author Sean Fagan has released the book, The First Lions of Rugby, which takes a step by step look at the tour which, after arriving at the Sydney Cricket Ground from New Zealand in June, worked its way through Melbourne, Ballarat, Adelaide, Bathurst, Maitland, Brisbane and Ipswich.

"It was a ground-breaking tour - the first Lions tour we'd ever seen here," Mr Fagan said.

"There was also the fact that they crossed codes right in the middle of it - amidst a fight between Aussie Rules and rugby.

"Ipswich was typical of a lot of towns of the time because it had a lot of Aussie Rules support, but their allegiances changed after this tour."

Despite the city's preference towards the native code, the arrival of the Lions' team seemed to capture the imagination of Ipswich people at the time.

According to The Queensland Times' account of the day - the only record that Mr Fagan could find - a large crowd gathered to meet the Brits at the railway platform upon their arrival.

The team was carried on wagons and carriages - almost civic parade style - to White's Australian Hotel, where Mr Fagan believes the players didn't hold back on the alcohol, despite the fact that they were due to play later in the day.

"It is possible that a couple of the British players were too drunk to play, because they ended up calling up a couple of ring-ins that day," he said.

In the end they were still too good for the Ipswich Rangers side, which took on the visitors at North Ipswich Reserve that afternoon.

The final score was 12-2, although the scoreline was perhaps not as significant as the game itself, and the effect it had on Ipswich.

The book details how after their strict headmaster unsuccessfully tried to stop Ipswich Grammar boys from seeing the game, the students came back so impressed by what they'd seen that they subsequently demanded to switch codes, from Aussie Rules to rugby.

The school switched to rugby the following year.

Mr Fagan believes this was the point at which Ipswich began its transition into a rugby league city, because a large portion of that touring British side were the same northern Englishmen who later founded the code which is still dominant in NSW and Queensland.

"If nothing else the tour brought a bit of importance to Ipswich, it brought in a bit of prestige and some important people from outside the town," he said.

"A lot of towns tried to get the Lions to visit and failed where Ipswich succeeded."

The First Lions of Rugby - The first British Lions and their dramatic 1888 tour of Australia & New Zealand, is available for RRP $34.95.

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