In 1888/89 the RFU officially recognised the title of County Champion. The manner of deciding the winners was down to a committee of the RFU who simply chose the team with the best record and declared them champions.
Yorkshire had won all six of their County Championship matches. It wasn’t just the fact that Yorkshire had won all their games but, the manner in which they had achieved it, for example Lancashire were crushed by 4 goals and 2 tries to nothing. In ‘Football the Rugby Union game’ Francis Marshall noted, “Yorkshire in 1888/89 had a wonderful team and it is open to dispute if any county, at any time put a fifteen into the field which could have lowered the colours of the Champions of that season.” Eleven Yorkshire players were selected for the North and seven were to play for their country. The strength of the Yorkshire side could be judged when they inflicted the biggest defeat on the touring New Zealand Natives– five goals and one try to only one goal and one try conceded – contrast this to England’s one goal and four tries to nothing victory over the same opponents.
The Leeds Mercury made the point that the county was invincible. The fixture was originally suggested by Yorkshire and the invitation was taken up by the RFU, the paper suggesting to prove that Yorkshire were not unconquerable, but the reason was more prosaic, England were in dispute with the other home nations over the formation of an International Rugby Board and had no international fixtures (bar the New Zealand Natives) and the fixture would bring in much needed revenue.
The first game was played in front of 13,000 spectators at Halifax. Before the game there was optimism that Yorkshire would win, repeating the combination and clean play which had seen them declared as champions. Yorkshire fielded a first-choice side with only J.L Hickson, who was abroad, missing. The Rest of England won by three goals and two minors to nine minors. The Yorkshire Evening Post noted, “it is only right to state that this score does not faithfully indicate the play, the game being considerably more in the England team part of the ground than in that of the County. The latter’s scoring powers were, however, for once weak, and they had none of the best of luck. On the other hand, the England backs played superbly.”
After the game there was a dispute between Halifax and the Yorkshire committee over the ‘gate’ money, Halifax originally withholding £80 as their share, but under threat of being expelled from the Yorkshire Cup, they had to hand it over and the club were left feeling badly done too.
Yorkshire were once again declared champions at the end of the 1889/90 season, one in which they had remained unbeaten but with six wins and two draws, including a pointless match against Middlesex which the newspapers declared Yorkshire, who due to injury were down to fourteen men, were fortunate to draw.
Apparently weakened by the absences of Dicky Lockwood and Fred Lowrie the confidence of the previous year was missing and when England took an early lead through a drop goal and a try, it seemed like the previous year’s result would be repeated but the Yorkshire forwards forced the play to eventually win by one goal and three tries to England’s one drop goal ,one try and one minor. By this time the international dispute had been resolved and the week before the game Wales had beaten England at Dewsbury and there was worry that the English forwards would not be good enough to take on Scotland who were England’s next opponents. Fortunately, as described by Marshall. “The Yorkshire triumph…. was a gleam of sunshine breaking through the lowering clouds. As the rush succeeded rush bearing back the England forwards with irresistible onslaught, it was apparent that in the Yorkshire team were to be found the men capable of stemming the Scotch forwards, and if they could be held in check in the forwards the English backs could be depended upon to win the day.” Five Yorkshire forwards were picked for the game, together with two backs. Marshall noted, “the defeat of England by Yorkshire in March 1890 will always be remembered as having resulted in the victory over Scotland by revealing the merit and determination of the forward contingent of the Yorkshire team.”
Lancashire took Yorkshire’s crown in 1891 and they lost to an England side that included Dicky Lockwood, J Dyson, Donald Jowett, W.E Bromet, W Nicholl, and H Wilkinson.
20,000 attended the 1892 game at Headingley, many who had set out early to secure a place and who had to wait in the cold, snow had fallen on the ground. The Leeds Mercury noted, “the whole scene was suggestive of a huge Roman amphitheatre with its holiday crowd waiting for the sport provided by the Emperor.” Both sides attacked from the start but the defences held. Just before half time, “Amid the greatest excitement, while the air rang with cheers, the Yorkshiremen found themselves beneath the goal posts. Still the opposition was too good, the citadel seemed impregnable and like the baffled waves on a rocky shore, the Yorkshiremen spent themselves all their efforts appearing futile.” But with half time beckoning Donald Jowett, returning from his honeymoon to play, found an opening and “dashed through with the ball close by the goal posts”. Albert Goldthorpe hitting the uprights with the conversion attempt.
Nicholl fell on the ball over the line after a Yorkshire rush for the second try. Lockwood missing the conversion. Goldthorpe had a chance to add to the score but held onto the ball when he should have passed, “In fact all through the game he seemed to forget what a centre three-quarter is intended for, and his passing was conspicuous by its absence. “As the game was nearing its conclusion England pressed heavily for a score but the Yorkshire defence held firm to win by 4-0 – the unconverted tries being worth two points each.
After the game the England selectors named eight Yorkshire players for the game against Scotland – Dyson, Lockwood, Briggs, Varley, Toothill, Nicholl, Bromett and Bradshaw.
Yorkshire were unbeaten during the 1892/93 County Championship with seven wins and two draws, which enabled them another opportunity to play England. Yorkshire wore blue shirts for the game, which due to wretched weather kept the crowd to around 12,000 at Huddersfield. The York Times described it as a “very fast and exciting game” which Yorkshire won by one try to nil. “The play of the Rest of England team, was, taken all around, much more clean and smart than that of Yorkshire. The only try of the match by Firth was scored with in the first quarter of an hour, but after that England never allowed the Yorkshiremen to cross their line again.”
In 1894 the Yorkshire Evening Post pointed out that there were two dangers to be guarded against – overconfidence and individualism, explaining that the former had nearly cost the previous year’s game and that the latter could occur if some players “eager to distinguish themselves above their fellows with a view to international honours, may feel inclined to study individual rather than collective play,” adding, “the present Yorkshire team has won its reputation by its collective as distinct from its individual excellence”, giving the example that 25 tries had been scored by 13 different players.
It was a “splendidly contested match” according to the Leeds Times, with the score equal at one try each at half time. However, in the second half England got the upper hand eventually winning by two goals including a drop, and two tries to Yorkshire’s three tries to win 15-9.
In 1895 Yorkshire were not considered as strong as in previous seasons and it was generally expected that there would have their work cut out to win, with many predicting an England victory to level up the series. Fortunately for Yorkshire the naysayers were wrong as they triumphed by three goals and two tries to one try. This was to be the last game in the series.