Lansdowne Road legend lives on
November 5, 2010
Peter de Villiers' South Africa will be Ireland's first opponents at the Aviva Stadium. © Getty Images
Whether tomorrow's meeting between Ireland and South Africa in Dublin is the first international match at the Aviva Stadium or the 248th, after a hiatus of four years, at Lansdowne Road is an issue for the statisticians to settle.
What it certainly does is renew international action to a site that hosted it longer than any other now used for test rugby. When Ireland first played at Lansdowne Road, on 11th March 1878, England were still playing at The Oval - at that time a true national stadium - and Scotland at Raeburn Place. Wales, along with France, Italy and all the southern nations, had still to play anywhere.
The location is almost as old as the Irish team, which first appeared in the 20-a-side era, in 1875, and older than the Irish Rugby Football Union, which finally evolved out of earlier structures in 1880.
That first visit by England was only Ireland's third home match. They had previously used Leinster Cricket Club in Rathmines, Dublin and at Ormeau in Belfast. It began a record sequence. No international fixture has been played more often on a single ground than the 57 times - a number to please Ireland legend and former Heinz boss Tony O'Reilly - that Ireland have entertained England at Lansdowne Road.
If Ireland were starting one sequence, they hoped to halt another. It was their fifth match, and fourth against England. They had yet to score, let alone win. They were not to do so on this occasion. An England team somewhere below their full strength - they fielded eight debutants and only four from the team that had drawn nil-nil with Scotland the previous week at The Oval - won by two goals and a try (scoring by points was still several years away) to nil.
How this was perceived was a matter of perspective. Arthur Guillemard, writing from an English perspective, reckoned it 'an easy win'. Jacques McCarthy, from Ireland, reckoned it 'a very even match notwithstanding'.
Guillemard's account explains why both versions were possible, recording that Ireland 'played up pluckily as usual, and penned their opponents during the second half of the match, though without being able to obtain any definite advantage' and picking out a fine performance by powerful forward Hugh Kelly, described by McCarthy as 'a magnificent man, six feet six or so'.
Inaugurating the longest-lived international ground was not the match's only mark on history. England's captain Murray Marshall became the first man ever to play in 10 international matches. Debutant William Penny, one of two full-backs in the formation of the time, became the first to score an international try from the position.
The match offers a snapshot for early international rugby. It was a time when most careers were short and transient. There were 15 debutants, for nine of whom this would be the only taste of international rugby, while seven more players - including Marshall - would not play at top level again.
One of the Irish rookies who did get another game was wing R.N.Matier, in spite of his being blamed for England's first try, scored by forward Harold Gardner. Another, Barney Hughes, epitomised an Irish tradition which has persisted to this day - longevity. A powerful scrummager, he would play for Ireland until 1886, winning 12 caps. At that time he would rank second among Irishman only to James McDonald, another forward in that first Lansdowne Road XV, a lightweight with real pace in the loose who was one of two survivors from the first ever Irish team three years earlier.
McDonald and Hughes were the only members of this team to last long enough to play in Ireland's first victory, against Scotland in 1881. If Marshall was first to double figures, none of his English team-mates followed him, but three Irishman did with full-back Robert Walkington, the other veteran of 1875, getting there first of all in 1882.
McDonald epitomised another strong early element, the importance of medical students and doctors. Historian Jean-Pierre Bodis has calculated that almost one third of Ireland's pre-1914 internationals were drawn from the medical profession. Penny, England's third try scorer Edward Turner, and Australian-born goal-kicker A.W Pearson, whose wide-angled conversion of two of the tries into goals were vital at a time when a single goal outvalued any number of tries, were among England's medical contingent. None, though, rose as far in their profession as McDonald, who in later life chaired the council of the British Medical Association.
Another significant feature was the missionary influence of rugby-playing English schools. Both of Ireland's half-backs had attended Rugby School. Thomas Gordon had lost his right hand in a shooting accident while his partner George Fagan, winning his only cap, had a younger brother, Arthur, who was capped by England in 1887. George, sadly, was not around to see it. He had died in 1885.
Life in those days was less certain, often shorter and wont to end, given the attractions of empire for young men of means, in unlikely places. Kelly stayed in Belfast and lived into his mid 90s, but English forward Courtenay Verelst would die at 34, a coffeeplanter in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Only Turner of England's scorers ended in England Gardner became a Justice of the Peace in Queensland, Penny died at sea and Pearson in Australia.
Neither Penny nor England forward George Vernon, who died in Elmina, Ghana survived to 50 - a number whose significance would have been fully appreciated by Vernon, one of two England players who also played test cricket. The other, threequarter Arthur 'Monkey' Hornby became the first man to captain England at both cricket and rugby, and the only one to do so concurrently. That young men might also excel at more than one sport was also a given, although few have done so quite so bizarrely as Turner, who set world speed records for tricyling at every distance from 2 to 25 miles, on each occasion beating the record for a bicycle.
And in a new sport, high administrative office was something reached early in life - there as yet being no tribe of former-player elders to fill these posts - rather than towards the end of it. Walkington was president of the IRFU in 1881-2, heading a body whose founding committee included team-mates Kelly, McDonald. Hughes and Frederick Schute.
England debutant Arthur Budd would become president of the RFU and the most ardent defender of old school amateurism in the growing disputes of the 1880s before emigrating to South Africa and dying there aged 45. A medic who attended Cambridge and played for Blackheath, he lacked only a Rugby School education - a Bristolian, he went to Clifton - to be the complete archetype for the early England player.
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