When Australia arrived in September 1908, they were the last of the major Southern Hemisphere teams to tour the British Isles. They had played two games in Australia en route and were to play five games on the west coast of USA/Canada on the journey home.
Touring quickly after the All Blacks and Springboks, they were subject of unfair comparisons and author J.B.G Thomas noted, “They were not as good in defence, of course, as the two previous great sides, and their scoring power was not to be compared, although it had its moments of success.” Their game against Yorkshire was the 17th game of 30 played in Great Britain The Australians winning 23, drawing 1 and losing the remainder.
Less than a month before meeting Yorkshire, the Australians won the Olympic gold medal defeating Cornwall, the County Champions who were representing Great Britain. The interest in the game was described as lukewarm; no other country participated and the game was held during the final week of a games that had stretched over six months. It was Australia’s second win over Cornwall after playing them at the start of the tour, and despite being at full strength and the Australians being less so, the Australians triumphed again 32-3.
On arriving in England, the players adopted the nickname of ‘the Wallabies’. During the journey to Great Britain, the press had referred to them as ‘The Rabbits’ but as captain Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran explained, “We dropped considerable cold water on ‘Rabbits’. Modest as though we be, we could not labour under an appellation borrowed from an English imported pest.” They had rejected a number of other suggestions including ‘Waratahs’, the flower emblem of New South Wales which they wore on their blue jerseys, Kangaroos, Kookaburras and Wallaroos. Moran, “All were agreed that any name would be preferable to ‘Rabbits’. ‘Wallabies’ won by a couple of votes.”
The Wallabies faced competition during the tour from their rugby league counterparts, the Kangaroos, who were touring Great Britain at the same time, playing 35 games around the island. This also included playing the Yorkshire Northern Union side, a game they won in front of 3,500 at Hull and they also made a trip to Wakefield, where they lost to Wakefield Trinity 20-13 in front of 3,000. Both sides were to face each other on their return to Australia when a majority of the Wallabies turned professional. It was to act as a kick start to embedding Rugby League in Australia.
Draft itineraries of the tour suggested that the Wallabies would meet a joint Yorkshire and Lancashire XV in a midweek game to be played at Halifax. However, the proposed fixture against Ireland fell through, freeing up the calendar for both counties to have individual games.
The game was played at Belle Vue, the home of Wakefield Trinity. As in previous tour games, the Yorkshire RFU’s attitude at playing games on Northern Union grounds was once again flexible, with it being highlighted that strictly the venue was owned by the Wakefield Trinity Athletic Company Limited. [The Athletics being both the Track and Field variety and Cycling] and not Wakefield Trinity, but in reality, it was Trinity were the shareholders of the Athletic Company!
Australia were to receive 60% of the gate with a guarantee of £50. This would help towards paying the Australian’s 3 shillings a day in expenses – an amount higher than that of their professional colleagues, a fact which was controversial and some considered to be an act of professionalism in itself. On the day 3840 spectators paid admission fees totalling £114.
The Yorkshire team: F.W Hinings (Headingley); J.L Fisher (Hull and East Riding), A.M Greathead (Headingley), A.S Pickering (Headingley) [Captain], A.B Clay (Ilkley); H. Dawson (Headingley), F. Hutchinson (Headingley); Rev A. Thompson (Headingley), J.A King (Headingley), E.D Ibbitson (Headingley), J.H Edison (Headingley), Rev. T Bennett (Wakefield), A.H McIlwaine (Hull and East Riding), T.M Lofthouse (Hull and East Riding) and W.Atkinson (Ilkey).
Only Pickering survived from the team that played the All Blacks. He also played against the 1906 Springboks together with Fisher, Ibbitson and Lofthouse.
Fisher had played for the British (Lions) team who toured Australia and New Zealand in 1904. Pickering, King, Ibbitson, Edison and McIllwaine were capped for England during their careers.
The Australians only named 14 players before the game. It wasn’t a surprising move given the number of injuries and influenza within the squad, but on the day there was shock that Sydney Middleton was included. Middleton had been sent off in the game against Oxford University for punching an opponent in a line out and the unwritten laws of the game stated that he remained suspended until cited by the RFU. However, the Australians argued that they could not field a side without him. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner noted, “The fact that the Wallabies included Middleton…was freely commented upon, the player’s appearance being contrary to the custom of the game.”
Before the game, the Yorkshire players met for a noon lunch at the White Horse Hotel in Wakefield before leaving for Belle Vue at 1.45 pm for a 2.30 pm start.
Before the kick-off, The Australians performed their own version of a war cry. Their tour manager James McMahon had told his squad that the Royal Geographic Society had validated it but in reality, it was taken word for word from the Newton Rugby club programme.
“Gau Gau (opponents’ name) Whir-r-r!
Win-nang-a lang (Thur)
Bu rang-a-lang (Yang)
Yai! Yai! Gun-yil-lang-yah!”
It was accompanied by a (six-point instructional) dance which involved slapping the thighs and “putting left foot forward and throwing out left hand, holding right by side.” It comes across as a version of the ’Hokey Cokey’ and therefore it is no surprise that members of the team were embarrassed by it. Captain, Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran recalled, “The gravest affliction we carried was an alleged Aboriginal war cry which the parent union in Australia had imposed on us…I refused to lead the wretched caricature of a native corroboree, and regularly hid myself among the team, a conscientious objector…as soon as the business was over some of us rushed to hide our heads in the first available scrum.”
Newspaper reports vary as to the size of the crowd, with estimates between 4 to 5,000, including a number of Yorkshire ‘greats’ from before the schism. They saw Australia triumph by 24-0.
The Wakefield Express reported that the Yorkshire side was a “better combination than the team that met the New Zealanders  and South Africans . The Yorkshiremen, however, have still a great deal to learn and it is hoped that the teams playing under the auspices of the Rugby Union will follow the example of the colonials and pay more attention to running and passing, which are far more interesting and profitable than kicking into touch in order to gain a few yards.”
The Wakefield Express explained that the Australians’ “sole object is to open out the play and the forwards take their share in running and passing. Their style of play is appreciated by all spectators”, adding “they have showed the men on this side of the water the possibilities of the game and how attractive it can be made.”
The home city club were represented in the Yorkshire team by their captain, Reverend T. Bennett, but they had also hoped that Joe Schofield would be selected after a good performance in the trial games, “but”, as the Wakefield Express explained, “the supporters of the amateur clubs in Wakefield are too sportsmanlike to exhibit that churlish spirit shown by the people of Otley, who, because none of their players had been included, deliberately boycotted the match between Yorkshire and Northumberland at Otley [the previous week].”
In the first twenty minutes, Yorkshire’s forward rushes proved difficult for the Wallabies to handle, but Yorkshire failed to make the most of these and their efforts came to nothing. Arthur Pickering added to the misery by missing a penalty. The Australians, on the other hand, handled and passed the ball around, creating three tries – the Wakefield Express explaining that the tries were due to the cleverness of the Australian play and not caused by the weakness of the Yorkshire defence. Albert Burge was the first try scorer after twenty-five minutes, Phil Carmichael failing with the conversion, and then Ward Prentice, Chris McKivat, Jack Hickey and Charles Russell combined to send the latter over with Carmichael making no mistake with the conversion. Further passing ended with Bede-Smith scoring another try but another failed kick by Carmichael left the half time score at 11-0 to the tourists.
Yorkshire were not daunted by the score and came out after the interval with a further series of forward rushes, which the Australians managed to subdue, whilst Pickering had a shot at goal from a mark, but the distance was too far for it to be successful. The tourists hit back with a rush of their own before the ball was passed out to Hickey, who shipped the ball to Daniel Carroll, who touched down for the fourth try of the game. Carmichael added the extra points with a difficult kick.
Yorkshire rearranged their team to try and cope with the Australians, with King being brought out of the pack to create an extra half back. However, the move had little effect on the visitors and they added further tries by Russell and McKivat. Both were not converted by Carmichael, to leave the final score Yorkshire 0 – Australia 24.
A journalist, who had seen all the Wallabies’ matches, stated that he Yorkshire forward play had been the best seen against the Colonials during the tour, whilst the Wallabies admitted that the forwards were the best and pluckiest set they had encountered so far on their tour.
The one criticism levelled against the Yorkshire forwards was their inability to secure the ball in the scrums. The Yorkshire Post noted, “The Yorkshire forwards got the ball on the average about twice in ten scrummages, and great though their work was in other directions, this failure to obtain the ball handicapped the Yorkshire backs out of the game. Still, the disparity in class between the two sets of backs was too marked for a Yorkshireman’s self-esteem.”
Fred Hinings and the Reverend A.Thompson were the Yorkshire players who were singled out for praise; Thompson “worked like a Trojan.”
Referee Gil Evans stated that he could not have wished for a “better fought-out match.”
After the game, the players were entertained with a meal and the usual speeches. Paddy Moran spoke well of the rushes of the Yorkshire forwards and Manager James McMahon claimed that there was a bond of sympathy between Yorkshire, Lancashire and Australia. There were many Yorkshire and Lancashire people in Australia, and their commercial, as well as their sporting interests, were identical. He hoped the commercial friendship which existed now would ripen into sporting friendship also.
This was to be Yorkshire’s only fixture against Australia. In 1927 they combined with Cumberland to play the touring New South Wales side (rugby union at this time is more or less restricted to the state due to the growth of Rugby League) and twenty years later the two counties together with Westmorland played the full Australian side at Workington.