Yorkshire rugby union has never followed in the footsteps of its cricketing counterpart ‘birth right’ rule, where only cricketers born in the Broadacres qualified to play for the county – although there were notable exceptions, the most famous being Lord Hawke.
Yorkshire County Cricket Club maintained the restrictions until the early 1990s, when first they relaxed the rule to allow players educated in the county to play, followed by an abandonment of the principle altogether.
Yorkshire’s rugby qualifications were far looser. Over the years players who were born or had ancestry, resident, educated, working or playing in the county have worn the white rose jersey.
Over the years these loose restrictions allowed Bob Porrisse to play for Yorkshire, despite being born in France to a French father and Belgian mother, and who played for Cheshire club Sale, whilst working in Lancashire. He qualified by virtue of living in Saddleworth, now part of Lancashire which before the boundary reorganisations of 1974, fell in Yorkshire.
Scottish international Pat Munro was invited to play for Yorkshire against the 1906 Springboks but declined the offer on account he didn’t think he was qualified to play for the county, although he was educated at Leeds Grammar School. Herby Wade, the South African cricket captain was part of Yorkshire’s 1925/26 County Championship side, qualifying by virtue of living in Redcar. Doctors, New Zealander Ernest Fookes and Australian Doug Kellor qualified through working in the county. (Fookes later played for England, Keller for Scotland.)
In December 1926, the Yorkshire committee discussed an amendment to qualification for the County. Harrogate’s J Simpson proposed – (1) Birth; (2) Parentage; (3) three years residence in the county. This was due to an influx to the new Catterick Camp. He explained that players who were only temporarily resident in the county should not be selected above the players from Yorkshire’s junior clubs, adding that Yorkshire “had got sufficient number of clubs and players to provide a good team of men who were Yorkshiremen.”
American born but to Yorkshire parents, former Yorkshire and England international Bradford’s Eddie Myers thought they should continue to play to the current rules, whilst Mr Harrap opposed the proposal: “Were [Yorkshire] going to have the standard of county play ruled by junior clubs and not be the best football side in the country?” He would never be party to playing a man in a Yorkshire team that was going to be here today and gone tomorrow, but he did think they ought, for the sake of the game in the county, to use the players who came and qualified properly for the county and we in a position to give the county undoubted help. If this resolution was carried it would limit the selection of the team, and would mean that Yorkshire was going to play under one set of rules and penalise itself. His suggestion was that they should attempt to get the County Championship rules altered. Bob Oakes, “That will never come to pass.”
International referee David Helliwell stated he would like to see the Yorkshire Rugby Union have the same rule as YCCC; Mr Harrap responded by pointing out that Yorkshire County cricket was entirely different from Yorkshire Rugby Union – one was professional and the other amateur. It was the general attitude in rugby union that players should be free to play for who they wanted and when they wanted, and they should be free from unnecessary restrictions, although for the County Championships some restrictions were imposed to ensure the integrity of the competition. Journalist J.M Kilburn explained, “Rugby careers are too short for any birth qualification or long residence to be operative and players moving from one part of the country to another are given every encouragement to assist new counties and develop their own play.”
Over the years Yorkshire benefitted from a number of players based at the camp. Probably one of the most famous was Scottish international Hugh McLeod, who played twice for the county, but forty times for Scotland and a double British Lions tourist.
H.S Taylor wrote to the Yorkshire Evening Post in October 1934, after Yorkshire had selected their side to face Ulster. “One notes the usual selections of Headingley, Cambridge Blues, Welsh Internationals, etc. – men with “fancy” reputations and names from all parts of Great Britain. When will the selectors face up to it, and give Yorkshire born players their rightful chance? Give men who are playing consistently and brilliantly for their clubs the honour of representing their county. “Taylor made the point that a county with over one hundred rugby clubs should “supply a team worthy of representing the county – a team which no doubt would possess, besides the necessary skill that all essential quality, team spirit, and the will to win.” He finished his letter, “The ordinary man in the street, with the interests of the county at heart, is sick of this pandering to outsiders, and this fashionable snobbery which is still all too prevalent.”
His views were supported in part in a follow up letter by ‘Rugby enthusiast’. “While disagreeing with his view that only Yorkshire born players should be picked, I think that the committee should only pick an outsider if he is definitely better than a Yorkshire born player.” He continued, “It seems to me that unless a player comes from one of the so-called senior clubs, he stands little chance of selection however well he players.” He gave an example of a player from Hornsea who outplayed his opposite number in a trial game but was overlooked for the county presumably because he played for a less fashionable club, but the selectors had overlooked or were unaware that the he had previously played for London Irish.
‘Time Traveller’ writing in the Leeds Mercury in 1938 “The sounder policy would be to concentrate on searching Yorkshire to find the best home talent with particular regard for youths of promise. Not must it be taken for granted all the likely material is confined to the top-class clubs. Yorkshire have many more clubs to pick from than have Lancashire, but it is quality and combination that counts, and actually we may have too many clubs for the selectors to do the job to their own satisfaction.”
Qualification to play for Yorkshire Schoolboys teams was stricter than for the adult side. Players who were born in the county, or where either parent permanently resided or who were pupils at a Yorkshire School were eligible for selection. Until the Local Government re-organisation Sedbergh School fell inside Yorkshire and the county benefited from many a schoolboy from there including future England captain Will Carling who captained Yorkshire Schools Under 18s. War hero Douglas Bader qualified through his parents’ residence in Sprotborough, Doncaster.
It wasn’t only Rugby Union which had problems with qualification, both Golf and Hockey had similar debates and in 1911 the Yorkshire Northern Rugby Union passed a resolution that only men who were born in Yorkshire would be picked for the county side “whatever attitude be adopted by Lancashire.”