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Hacking the Rose bush: The early ‘Roses’ games

The enmity between Yorkshire and Lancashire can be traced back to the ‘War of the Roses’ (1455-1487). The rivalry resumed in 1849 with the first First class cricket match between the counties, with the first accredited ‘Roses match’ being played in 1867.

Three years later J.G Hudson, one of founders of the Leeds club, organised the first rugby game between the counties.  The Yorkshire side was selected from the four leading clubs of the broad acres – Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and Hull, together with the ‘dribblers’ of Sheffield, who played normally under the Sheffield Association laws of 1857. Hudson later remarked of the latter, they “played as if they had never seen a rugby ball.” Future home games would be organised by the club on whose ground the game was played, with Hull taking responsibilities for the away fixtures.

The 20-a-side match was played on the Holbeck Recreational Ground in Leeds, under the “distinguished patronage of Sir A Fairburn, Lieut. Colonel Swinfen and the officers of the 5th Dragoon Guards.” Before the game the Lancashire captain William MacLaren approached his counterpart Howard Wright and explained, “”many of his men were in situations and it would be a serious matter for them if they were laid up through hacking, so it was mutually agreed that hacking should be tabooed”. Wright agreed, only to find the Lancastrian’s hacked as soon as the game kicked off.

The Huddersfield Chronicle noted that “there was a good attendance of the admirers of this now popular game, there being also a large number of the fair sex who graced the ground with their presence during the whole of the two hours fixed for play. “

Yorkshire kicked off and the first half lasted forty-five minutes during which Mr W Grave, son of the Mayor of Manchester kicked the only goal of the game.  The Huddersfield Chronicle noted “the Lancashire gentlemen showing to better advantage in general than their opponents, who struggled manfully, but without success, and the proceedings closed with a splendid display of the sport by Mr MacLaren catching the ball with which he made off, hotly pursued by Mr A Bradley, who ultimately caught his opponent, and both came to the ground in a manner which could only be appreciated by those who were eye witness of the feat. “Lancashire won with the goal and a rouge in their favour, Yorkshire not scoring. In a later interview Albert Firth, rather than Bradley took credit for this incident. “In the first Yorkshire v Lancashire match… perhaps the fastest man in either team was William Maclaren. He was making a good run for Lancashire, and I tracked him, and just collared him on our line at the corner flag, and pushed him into touch-in-goal. He then swung round into goal and claimed a try. I objected and commenced laying down the law, pounding away with my hands to clench my arguments, with the result that Maclaren, who had risen with the ball in arguing with me, stepped back into the field of play. Then I said, “Oh, this will settle it, “and snatching the ball from him I grounded it and claimed a touch-down. “Dash, you, you’ve done me.” was the Lancastrian’s reply; and with a smile from both of us, the game proceeded.”

Lancashire were favourites for the 1871 match and despite dominating the game they were to lose to Yorkshire who scored the only goal through a ‘flying kick.’  The reports of the game described the kick, by Harry Beardsall, as a fluke but interviewed in 1900 he explained. “Yes, I know it was said to be a fluke. But the statement is unfair and untrue. I can see the game now just as it was on that afternoon in 1871. You must remember that football at that time was very different in the matter of ‘dead ball’ that is now. Unless you picked up the ball practically on the bounce you were liable to be called back and have a scrummage ordered for picking up. For that reason, there were more attempts to kick a rolling ball in one match than we should probably see in a dozen games now. I was considered a good kicker at goal and with either foot. My position in the team was quarter back, or, as it would now be called, half back I have seen it said I played in the forwards for the county, but that is not correct, so far as I can recollect.

Well as scrummage was in progress near the Lancashire goal, and the posts being a little on my left, it was a splendid position for a kick at goal. I have a most distinct recollection of saying to myself, ‘if the ball should come out to me just now, I am certain I could kick a goal.’ By one of those strange strokes of fortune that do come one’s way occasionally, the thought had no sooner flashed through my mind that the ball, kicked by someone or other, did come out from the scrummage towards me. I instantly put my thought into practice and with a quick and most certainly a well-intentioned kick I had the good fortune to kick a goal the first scored against Lancashire by Yorkshire or anyone else. The ball was kicked by the right football on the left side of the scrummage. This was early in the match and it caused something like consternation in the Lancastrians’ ranks, and, of course, jubilation in our own. Goals settled games at that time, and they were not easy to score, as Lancashire found out. Three tries were scored by our opponents but not one of them could be turned into a goal and we won the game by a goal to three tries.”

The third encounter in January 1872 was played in fog at Huddersfield. A crowd of 2000 probably saw little of the play but Bells Life explained “testified their appreciated of the game by repeated and enthusiastic cheers.” The heavier Lancashire players scored the only goal to win. The Huddersfield Chronicle noted “Both teams appeared in splendid condition, but in size and muscle the Lancashire men had much the advantage, but the activity and pluck of the Yorkshire amply made up for any deficiency on this score.  Thus, ended the best contested match ever played between the two counties”

Yorkshire were outclassed in February 1873, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph describing it as “an easy victory for Lancashire” who scored two goals, six touch downs and four rouges to Yorkshire’s one goal and one touchdown.

The next three games ended in draws “in favour of Lancashire” as the Red Rose side outscored their opponents but could not add the crucial goal which, under the laws applicable at the time decided the winner. In 1874, Lancashire scored two tries and Yorkshire failed to score, 1875 saw Lancashire score four tries and three touchdowns with Yorkshire again failing to score and in 1876 Lancashire compelled Yorkshire to defensively touch down twice compared to Lancashire’s once. For the latter game the Athletic News explained that there was a “biting frosty wind from the west, which was very exhilarating to those actually engaged in play, but was decidedly uncomfortable for onlookers and for the gentlemen on either side who acted as backs. These latter, had indeed, little to do during the whole of the game, so equally matched were the teams.”

This was the last of the 20 a side game. Harry Beardsall welcomed the reduction to 15 aside during the 1876/77 season, explaining “for scrummaging had become almost nauseating, especially when there were two or three men who were able to keep the ball between their feet in the scrummage and allow the other forwards to buzz around them like a lot of bees.”

Richard Lowther