Canada Rugby 1902-1903 Tour to UK - Part 2

September 08 2020


Canadian rugby team 1902-1903 tour to UK
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Canada v Ulster Match Report; Hybrid Rugby/Emerging Gridiron Team Claims First Tour Win; Ulster Surprised by Canadian Buck-kicking Attack - Predecessor of Garryowen



Part 1 - The Forgotten Canadian Rugby Tour of 1902-1903: 22 Games Over 56 Days With Wins Over Ulster, Bristol, London Welsh, London Scottish and North of Scotland

The first Canadian rugby tour to the UK took place in December 1902, it lasted 56 days and during that time 22 matches were played. We call it the forgotten tour as it hasn't been celebrated and recognized by either Rugby Canada or World Rugby. It predates the famous 1905 All Blacks tour to the UK.

Part of the problem is it could be claimed by Rugby Canada or the CFL as although the tour was played under rugby rules the makeup of the team was half rugby (British rules rugby) and half emerging "gridiron" football (Canadian rules rugby). For that reason the hosts were a little curious about what would be presented come game time. Before the first match on December 13th 1902, the Welsh publication Western Mail wrote (December 11th), "It may be explained that in Canada each player dons headgear, nose, shoulder, and elbow guards before taking the field...". They were half right, the 11 players coming from Ontario/Quebec would be used to playing the modified rugby/football game with padding but the 9 players coming from BC/Maritimes still played British rules rugby with no padding.

In the Ulster match report it notes, "There was not the slightest visible sign of the oft-mentioned armour that they are popularly supposed to wear when playing in their own country - nothing, in fact, to distinguish them from one of our own teams".

The reported match attendance was "considerably over 3,000" and the team were well received as they took the field in their "dark-blue jerseys and knickers, with scarlet stockings". It may seem unusual today to see a Canadian national rugby team not wearing red and white but it wasn't until 1921 that Canada's official colours became red and white by order of King George V.

The choice of dark-blue may have been influenced by the Scottish contingent on the team. M'Clure, the captain, had played his youth rugby at Greenock Collegiate School, Tait had played for the Watsonians in Edinburgh, and there were two more Canadians of Scottish descent, Ogilvie and Gillespie, who had attended the Loretto boarding school in Scotland. Gillespie was one of the two Victoria, BC based players on tour.

Even though Canada wore blue not red they wore the familiar Maple Leaf. The Maple Leaf has a long history as a Canadian emblem, the song written for Confederation in 1867 was the "The Maple Leaf Forever".

The day before the match the team was well hosted and given a tour of the Dunville Distillery outside of Belfast. Dunville & Co had been around since 1825 and the company had built a large distillery outside Belfast in 1869 where they turned out 2.5 million gallons per year of their whiskey blends, Dunville's VR and Duville's Three Crowns. The company went out of business in 1936 but their Dunville brand was recently brought back by the Echlinville Distillery in 2016.

The early appraisal of the Canadian team by the Irish writer was that "they were a very athletic looking team, plenty of bone and sinew, without being weighty, and evidently trained to the hour".

The first try ever by a Canadian rugby team on tour was scored by Ken Scholefield, one of the halfbacks, and one of the two players from Victoria. The play had been setup by S.S. Dumoulin of Hamilton, the CFL Hall of Famer, and it was Powers from Ottawa, one of the three-quarters, who made the break before offloading to Scholefield.

The half ended with Canada ahead 8-5 with one try (3 points) + 1 goal (5 points) to 1 goal for Ulster. A goal being the equivalent to a converted try in today's parlance and a try was worth 3 points. Another variation from the modern game was the length of the half, as the match account recounts, "After a brief interval the second thirty-five was entered upon...".

The final was a famous victory for Canada on their first overseas tour, Canada 1 goal, 2 tries (11 points) - Ulster 1 goal, 1 try (8 points).

The match summary, written from an Irish perspective, concluded the Canadians were good athletes with impressive speed but lacked teamwork, "The one feature of their play that stood out most prominently before all others on Saturday was their marvelous speed, and this it was which really won them a match in which they were decidedly the inferior team." It's not surprising considering the team had recently assembled in Halifax from all parts of the "Dominion" and had come from two similar but different codes of rugby football. British rules rugby (BC/Maritimes) played with 8 forwards and 7 backs; Canadian rules rugby (Ontario/Quebec) played with 6 forwards and 9 backs (1 full back, 3 half backs, 1 quarter back, 4 wings). Also the scoring in Canadian rules rugby was different, 4 points for a try instead of 3, and 6 points for a goal (converted try) instead of 5. A touch in goal (rouge) was worth 1 point (There's a sample match report from the October 27th 1890 Toronto World newspaper appended for reference).

The commentator also remarked on their unusual strategy of frequently employing the high kick, the up and under in modern parlance or the Garryowen in former times, "Another feature of their game to strike one is the quite unnecessary amount of buck-kicking or "high-potting", as they call it, which they indulged in without much attempt at judiciousness, and even against the wind." Buck-kicking was a term used in Irish rugby articles at the time to describe a high kick (see Munster v Leinster, Cork Examiner, Jan 15, 1900).

Is it possible the Garryowen, which attributes its name to the Irish club of the 1920s who used the tactic successfully, was actually introduced as an attacking match tactic by the Canadian rugby/football team of 1902-1903? The tactic certainly seemed to surprise the Irish rugby writer in 1902. Also note the term "punt" was in frequent use in Canadian rules rugby and showed up in match reports at least going back to 1890, so the Irish writers term "high-potting" as he heard the Canadian team call it was possibly a misunderstanding of accents and the Canadians were calling it "high-punting". The CFL (Canadian Football League) still allows the punter and anyone behind the punter to be onside and recover the kick, although the tactic is now used as more of a "trick play" than standard play.

So Canada's tour was off to a great start, 21 more matches to go and the next one would be in two days. They would enjoy their hosting Saturday evening by Ulster, likely get the train to Dublin on Sunday, and play Dublin University on Monday, the 15th of December. There would be one change to the XV man roster.

Next article, Part 3, the Dublin University match and beyond.

Match report Canada v Ulster


British Colonist (Victoria, BC) Jan 7, 1903

Newspaper articles referenced


Western Mail (Wales) - Dec 11, 1902


Sample rugby match report from Toronto World October 27th, 1890


Munster v Leinster, Cork Examiner, Jan 15, 1900

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