England v Cape Colony, 1891. The first match of the Bill MacLagan undefeated tour of South AfricaThe earliest Lions tours date back to 1888, when a 21-man squad visited Australia and New Zealand.
The squad drew players from England, Scotland and Wales, though English players predominated.
The 35-match tour of two host nations included no tests, but the side played provincial, city and academic sides, winning 27 matches.
They played 21 games of Australian rules football, against prominent clubs in Victoria and South Australia, and won six of these (see Australian rules football in England).
The first tour, although unsanctioned by rugby bodies, had established the notion of touring Northern Hemisphere sporting sides to Southern Hemisphere locations.
Three years after the first tour, the Western Province union invited rugby bodies in Britain to tour South Africa. Some saw the 1891 team — the first sanctioned by the Rugby Football Union — as the English rugby team, though others referred to it (and rightly so) as "the British Isles".
The tourists played a total of twenty matches, three of them tests.
The team also played the regional side of South Africa (South Africa did not exist as a political unit in 1891), winning all three matches.
In a notable event of the tour, the touring side presented the Currie Cup to Griqualand West, the province they thought produced the best performance on the tour.
Five years later a British Isles side returned to South Africa.
They played one extra match on this tour, making the total of 21 games, including four tests against South Africa, with the British Isles winning three of them.
The squad had a notable Irish orientation, with the Irish national team contributing six players to the 21-man squad.
In 1899 the British Isles touring side returned to Australia for the first time since the unofficial tour of 1888. The squad of 23 for the first time ever had players from each of the home nations.
The team again participated in 21 matches, playing state teams as well as northern Queensland sides and Victorian teams. A four-test series took place against Australia, the tourists winning three out of the four.
Four years later, in 1903, the British and Irish team returned to South Africa.
The opening performance of the side proved disappointing from the tourists' point of view, with defeats in its opening three matches by Western Province sides in Cape Town.
From then on the team experienced mixed results, though more wins than losses.
The side lost the test series to South Africa, drawing twice, but with the South Africans winning the decider 8 to nil.
No more than twelve months passed before the British and Irish team ventured to Australia and New Zealand in 1904. The tourists devastated the Australian teams, winning every single game.
Australia also lost all three tests to the visitors, even getting held to a stand-still in two of the three games.
Though the New Zealand leg of the tour did not take long in comparison to the number of Australian games, the British and Irish experienced considerable difficulty across the Tasman after white-washing the Australians.
The team managed two early wins before losing the test to New Zealand and only winning one more game as well as drawing once.
Despite their difficulties in New Zealand the tour proved a raging success on-field for the British and Irish.
In 1908 another tour took place to Australia and New Zealand.
In a reversal of previous practice, the planners allocated more matches in New Zealand rather than in Australia: perhaps the strength of the New Zealand teams and the heavy defeats of all Australian teams on the previous tour influenced this decision.
Some commentators thought that this tour hoped to reach out to rugby communities in Australia, as rugby league (infamously) started in Australia in 1908.
The Anglo-Welsh side (Irish and Scottish unions did not participate) performed well in all the non-test matches, but drew a test against New Zealand and lost the other two.
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