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A White Rose in a Red Hand: Yorkshire fixtures against Ulster

Outside of the other five counties of the North – Cheshire, Cumbria, Durham, Lancashire and Northumberland, Yorkshire’s most regular opponents have been Ulster. The first encounter took place at Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue ground on 5th December 1887, Trinity supplying four of the Yorkshire side who won the match by two goals, one try, two minors to Ulster’s one goal.

The next game was in October 1932. Played at Ravenhill in Belfast, it was to raise money to endow a Rugby Footballers’ bed in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. The Yorkshire Post noted the attendance was almost equivalent to that of an International rugby match in Belfast. Attended by The Duke of Abercom, Governor of Northern Ireland it was the only rugby fixture in the city that day. The game finished in a 9-9 draw. The Ballymena Observer noted it was “a battle between a good pack and a very fast set of backs…the Ulster forwards played a tremendous game…the Yorkshire “threes” gave a wonderful display of in and out passing.”

Yorkshire won five of the next six games before fixtures ceased at the outbreak of the Second World War. The only blemish was a narrow two point defeat in Belfast in 1937. When fixtures resumed in October 1946, the Yorkshire Post explained “the game served two valuable purposes. It enabled Yorkshire to renew friendly rivalry with the hospitable rugby loving people of Northern Ireland and it provided the county selectors with information which should be of value [for the forthcoming County Championship games].”

Irish legend Jackie Kyle scored a hat trick in 1947 as Ulster ran in nine tries and Yorkshire suffered a “devastating defeat” at Skipton, 30-8. This was Yorkshire’s biggest defeat in the series. Yorkshire recovered a lost lead in 1948 and they managed to hold it despite pressure from Ulster during the last part of the game. The following year, Yorkshire found themselves eight points down in as many minutes, but rallied to be only two points adrift in the second half before the Ulster men pulled away, again inspired by Kyle, “a problem not solved” who scored the final try of the match, “coming from a perfect cut through and side step to represent the crowning delight of the game.”

The 1950s saw Yorkshire with a slight advantage in the series, with five wins and a draw. The decade started with Ulster beating, according to JM Kilburn, a “clearly inferior” Yorkshire. The following year was the first in a hat trick of Yorkshire wins, including two victories in Belfast. 1951 saw Yorkshire hold off a “great surge” of an Ulster attack in the last fifteen minutes, whilst poor quality rugby at least provided “a fast, vigorous and, from the spectators’ point of view, exciting match in 1952 –a game where Kyle demonstrated his “shining artistry.” Kyle missed the following year’s game, in which Yorkshire’s 12-3 win should have been larger. Kyle was back in the side for the 1954 and 1955 games, where his “brilliant play” inspired back to back victories for the Ulstermen. Although Ulster scored more tries than Yorkshire in 1956, it wasn’t enough to secure the win, but they bounced back the following year, when their pack was in “brilliant form.” Under the “semi-darkness of industrial haze trapped beneath cloud” at Kirkstall, Yorkshire won the 1958 game 16-11. The decade ended with a 6-6 draw in a game described by the Yorkshire Post as “not an inspiring match and neither side could have been pleased with their performances.”

Ulster won six of the ten encounters during the 1960s starting with back to back wins, Ulster came back twice to win the 1960 game, demonstrating “all-round superiority” and Yorkshire were nilled the following year at Ravenhill. Yorkshire surprised their critics with back to back victories in 1962 and 1963; the winning margin on both occasions was sixteen points, the largest in the series to date. The win in 1963 saw Yorkshire score a record six tries. They were brought to earth with a bump in the following year, with Ulster playing all but two minutes of the game with fourteen men –and forty five minutes with another player hobbling around with an injury, but still beat Yorkshire 11-8 at Kirkstall. Yorkshire’s 25-6 victory in Belfast in 1965 was the biggest away win in the series, as Roger Pickering revelled “in the open conditions produced by slack marking and indecisive tackling.” The selected Yorkshire side did not gel at Otley in 1966 and lost 15-11, Ian McGeechan making his debut in the series. Despite the efforts of Willie John McBride, Ulster threw away the chance of victory in Belfast the following season. Full back Jeremy Grahame scored all eight Yorkshire points as they lost to an Ulster side fielding four British Lions in 1968, including Mike Gibson. Yorkshire could not make it three away wins in a row in 1969 as they were “outplayed in almost every department”, as Irish internationals Ken Goodall and McBride stood out.

“Completely outclassed” was Lyndon Armitage’s verdict on Yorkshire’s 12-19 defeat in 1970. The Ulster side included Gibson and McBride; the former “marshalled his forces in masterly fashion, changing the direction of attacks, working scissors moves with his centres and confounding Yorkshire with dummies.” The following year, Yorkshire won their first game for four years fighting back from 14-0 to win 21-20. The win was all the more remarkable as they played seventy minutes a man short as winger Wigglesworth left the field with a neck injury. They made it back to back wins with a 20-9 victory at Bradford. The Yorkshire forwards were put under tremendous pressure, but did not cower. They lost the tighthead 6-1 and were outplayed in the line outs 28-10. It wasn’t to be three in a row as, “in a game as varied as the weather conditions” Yorkshire revealed weaknesses in the Ulster team but ultimately could not turn them into match winning points eventually losing 28-15. Two games were played in 1974, to mark the centenary of the Irish Rugby Union. Lancashire were due to visit Belfast, but withdrew due to the “Troubles” and Yorkshire stepped into the breach and were given a good reception by the home supporters in appreciation. However, as the Yorkshire Post noted, “the red shirted Ulster side had no such feelings” as they won 14-3. Two weeks later at Headingley, Peter Hryschko was one of the best Yorkshire players on show –he managed two against the head against British Lions hooker Karl Kennedy, but Yorkshire once again fell 12-6. Neil Bennett and Les Cusworth made their Yorkshire debuts in a credible 12-12 draw in the 1975 encounter against an Ulster side including five internationals. Gibson failed to convert a last minute Ulster try in the 1976 game and the game finished a 16-16 draw –Bill Bridge noting “not even [Gibson] would have begrudged Yorkshire a draw as a reward for a performance in which work, effort, and superb skills were united…” Peter Hannon scored a “brilliant” try –“he was marked by two men when he took the ball standing still. He dummied past the first, side-stepped the second and touched down without a hand being laid on him.” “Disappointed but not disheartened” was the verdict of Yorkshire coach Geoff Cooke as Yorkshire were comprehensively beaten 22-6 at Halifax in 1977. Bridge said “to have so many men in low form against a side like Ulster can only lead to one result.” Hryschko again once stood, out with Roy Wightman not far behind. George Ace, Sports editor of the Provinces ‘News Letter’, wrote in 1978, “Few if any, teams are more welcome to Ravenhill than our very great friends from Yorkshire. When the chips are down and the going is rough, that is when you really find out who your true friends are and the past ten years in Ulster have been far from pleasant and fraught with danger. But, when others were found wanting, the men of Yorkshire never hesitated to fulfil their Ravenhill fixtures; in fact, it is quite true to state that those who control rugby union football in Yorkshire never really had second thoughts about travelling to Ravenhill.” Much of this camaraderie had been built up over the years with Bob Oakes, Eddie Simpson and Dicky Kingswell to the forefront. The latter was RFU President when, in 1973, England travelled to Dublin to play Ireland at the height of the ‘Troubles’ after Scotland and Wales had refused to play their Five Nations games in Dublin. Kingswell had given his word that England would turn up and they were met with an enthusiastic reception. Irish writer Ulick O’Connor disclosed, I simply had to stop at the Shelbourne Hotel on the way home to leave a note for Dicky Kingswell to thank him for coming here and putting sport above politics.”

“Winning in Belfast traditionally means Yorkshire are in for a good season” Bridge pointed out for the 1978 game, which Yorkshire won 30-16. “It was a reward deserved by players who had endured a rough sea crossing and spent much of the morning trying to make up for lost sleep.” Ken Higgins “was at the heart of the Yorkshire effort, tackling well and winning good ball in the mauls.”

“Melville lifts gloom”, was the headline in the Yorkshire Post for the 1979 fixture, with Bridge explaining “the precocious talent of Nigel Melville, 18, was the only thing between Yorkshire and complete humiliation when they were well beaten by a far from brilliant Ulster side at Cross Green” , the Ulstermen winning 21-6. “Melville’s weaving runs and his willingness to go on the attack even behind a struggling pack delighted his home club supporters and brought some relief for Yorkshire’s frowning selectors.” The following season Melville once again took the plaudits but once again Yorkshire fell short losing 17-11. In 1981,Robert Waterhouse of the Guardian described how the “game was as exciting as it was eccentric, played in crisp favourable conditions and producing a number of excellent moves as well as its share of mistakes”, as Yorkshire battled back from a 13 points deficit and just failing to beat a struggling Ulster. Once again Melville starred –his “judgement is beginning to match his talents” -whilst Mike Harrison scored one of Yorkshire’s tries, as he was partnered in the centres by Bryan Barley and Roger Shackleton –returning to the County side for the first time since 1967. Bridge, in his report of Yorkshire’s 7-7 draw in 1982, described how “the traditional fixture with Ulster has long been regarded by the players as a junket for the committee, by the committee as a chance to meet old friends and for the selectors as a think tank for the coming season.”  Bridge continued, “Yorkshire survived a desperate last 20 minutes” and became the first side to remain unbeaten in Ulster’s last eleven matches, which included a three match tour of Romania. The highlight of the match was an “explosive try” by Mike Harrison; “He accelerated, swerved inside towards Rainey, then away on the outside and had the pace to beat O’Donnell to the corner. Trevor Ringland was obviously impressed; every time Harrison was given the ball, the Irish winger sprinted across to cover behind his backs.” Ulster hit back and Yorkshire had to rely on a series of “breath-taking cover tackles by Bryan Barley” and others to hold on for the draw. The 16-11 win at Morley in 1983 was Yorkshire’s first home win in the series since 1972. Ulster smarting from an earlier disallowed try –all bar the referee in a large Ravenhill crowd had believed that Keith Crossnan had touched down -snatched victory with a last second drop goal in the 1984 game. Harrison had given Yorkshire a lead after two minutes with a try.

The following year, Harrison intercepted and ran 75 yards for a try in Yorkshire’s 24-18 defeat. Ulster had had a stormy overnight ferry crossing. The Ulster side fielded 8 internationals in the 1986 game and beat Yorkshire 30-15, Ulster celebrated the centenary fixture with a 19-13 win and as Bridge noted,” deserved their win” outscoring Yorkshire by two tries to one. Replacement scrum half Dave Scully “bubbled with confidence and was quickly into the fray” in the 1988 encounter where Yorkshire initially led 12-0 but finished with a 22-18 defeat.

There was no fixture in 1989. During the summer, Wakefield together with Sheffield, supported a Headingley motion that, as the match was scheduled for the opening Saturday of the season, no players should be considered for selection from the three clubs. The motion was carried by 15 votes to 13 at a Yorkshire RFU meeting. As Rugby World noted, “So ends a series of fifty matches against the province after all attempts to find an alternative date were exhausted.” The fixture was briefly resurrected for the next three seasons, but a contest that had survived the period known as the ‘Troubles’ fell foul to the changing face of rugby -first the introduction of the league structure, followed by professionalism.

Yorkshire faced 10 internationals in the 1990 match, but came away from Hull with a 12 all draw when Harrison converted a try four minutes from time. In 1991, Harrison “dummied his way” to scoring a try in Yorkshire’s 22-9 loss; as the Yorkshire Post noted, “Yorkshire could not find the finishing power to reward their approach work.” Simon Croft “quickly asserted himself in the middle of the line out” in the 1992 game, which Yorkshire won easily 31-8. This was to be the last encounter in the series.

It is interesting to note how the sides have fared since. Ulster won nine successive Interprovincial titles from 1985 and have reached the European Cup final twice. They won in 1999 and were runners up in 2012, whilst Yorkshire haven’t reached a County Championship final since their victory over Devon in 2000. (Although they played Cornwall in a one off Challenge game in 2001).


Richard Lowther