From The Vaults

18 July 2022
Legendary Four Nations tries

Rugby lovers over the last sixty years have been fortunate to grow up with a visual library of the great tries from the International Championship now readily available on video, DVD and YouTube. But what of the great tries of the pre-visual era which can only be recalled from grainy newspaper reports of long ago and, much more rarely, even grainier pre and post-World War One highlights footage from Pathe News?

The first Five Nations Championship took place in the 1909-10 season with the official arrival of France as one of the competing countries, but the original competition started in 1883, twelve years after the first international between Scotland and England, with the four home countries taking part in the tournament for the first time. The Twickenham and Murrayfield grounds had not yet been purchased but Lansdowne Road and Cardiff Arms Park were up and running and other grounds around the United Kingdom were being used for these increasingly popular contests.

From the championship in the closing years of the 19th century, some remarkable tries stand out from the pages of the sports journalists and historians. On March 3rd 1883 in a close-fought encounter at Raeburn Place, Edinburgh with the score tied at 3-all in the second half, the powerful Blackheath winger Wilfred Bolton in his first season of international rugby scored under the posts. It was his third try in three games and secured the Triple Crown and the title for England.

Two years later at Whalley Range, Manchester on February 7th 1885, Bolton was again the English hero. Ireland had won only one championship match but they took the lead with a try before England equalised similarly before half-time. Both conversions were missed so the second half opened with all to play for. With under fifteen minutes remaining Alan Rotherham made an incisive break and passed to Bolton now winning his ninth cap. Bolton's exceptional speed took him clear of the Irish defence and "he ran in amidst the wildest enthusiasm". His try proved decisive in England's victory by two tries to one.

Ireland at last broke their streak of 13 matches without a win on February 5th 1887 at Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Playing against a strong English side, the match was scoreless after 68 minutes but Ireland touched down two tries in the final twelve minutes to huge excitement among the 6,000 spectators. Charles Tillie on the right wing scored the first try and then left wing Robert Montgomery on his international debut crossed for the decisive second Irish try two minutes from time. Both tries were converted by Daniel Rambaut to give Ireland a thrilling and unexpected victory by two goals to nil.

Just after half-time on February 15th 1890 at Crown Flatt, Dewsbury a most unusual try was scored by the Welsh half back WJ "Buller" Staddan. A line-out formed in the English '25' and Staddan feinted to throw the ball with a catapult action which led the English forwards to retreat expecting a long throw to the back of the line-out. Staddan then bounced the ball into play, retrieved the ball himself and evaded two opponents to score his try. There was no other score in the match so Staddan's gambit had won the match for Wales.

In 1893 there was huge excitement for the 20,000 spectators at Stradey Park, Llanelli on March 11th as Wales faced Ireland with an opportunity to win their first Triple Crown. Once again there was only the one score in the match. After 35 minutes the Welsh fly half Percy Phillips feinted to pass leaving the Welsh defence flat-footed and the ball passed through the hands of the great centre Arthur Gould to his brother and fellow centre Bert Gould who scored in the left hand corner. Full back Billy Bancroft could not convert the try but, as the second half was scoreless, the try was sufficient to give Wales the championship title.

The try scored by the Cardiff winger Tom Pearson against Ireland at Cardiff Arms Park on March 16th 1895 is perhaps the finest international try scored in the 19th century. With Ireland leading by three points, the Welsh three-quarters broke out from deep inside their own '25' two minutes before half-time. The Newport left wing Llewellyn Thomas made a break and then transferred promptly to his clubmate Arthur Gould. The veteran Welsh centre, after drawing his opposing centres, passed to fellow centre Owen Badger who threw the ball out immediately to Tom Pearson.

Pearson received the ball just outside the Welsh '25' and set off for the Irish line 75 yards away. He sprinted around the experienced Irish left wing Willie Gardiner and then outdistanced the covering Irish full back, Jack Fulton in the first season of a distinguished 16 cap career, to go on to score underneath the posts to the acclamation of the large partisan crowd. The conversion presented no problem for Billy Bancroft and there was no further scoring in the match leaving Wales the winners by five points to three. The long-serving secretary of the Welsh Rugby Union, Walter Rees, declared Pearson's try on the morning after the match as "the finest that had ever been scored in an international match."

On March 18th 1899 Ireland under the captaincy of their great half back Louis Magee travelled to Cardiff in search of their second Triple Crown. Wales had overwhelmed England and then were themselves beaten heavily in Edinburgh, but Ireland had beaten England at home and then convincingly disposed of Scotland by scoring three tries to one penalty goal at Inverleith, Edinburgh. A record crowd of 40,000 eagerly awaited the clash. The long-serving Welsh full back Billy Bancroft in his 27th international left the field after fifteen minutes with fractured ribs and the only score of the match, a close range try by the Irish right wing Gerry "Blucher" Doran, occurred after his departure and just before half-time.

The eventual outcome of the match turned on a moment in the second half when the Welsh centre Gwyn Nicholls broke from his own half and handed the ball on to his fellow centre Reg Skrimshire whose long run was finally halted by a covering tackle from Magee five yards from the try line. Had Skrimshire passed out to his unmarked left winger Willie Llewellyn, Wales would have equalised and his failure to pass was a source of much comment in the newspapers over the following days.


  • The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982 - John Griffiths (Willow Books 1982)
  • Fields of Praise - David Smith & Gareth Williams (University of Wales Press 1980)
  • Football - The Rugby Union Game - Rev Frank Marshall (Cassell & Co Ltd, London 1894)
  • History of Welsh International Rugby - John Billot (2nd edition, Roman Way Books 1999)
  • The International Rugby Championship 1883-1983 - Terry Godwin (Willow Books 1984)
  • The Story of Scottish Rugby - RJ Phillips (TN Foulis Limited, Edinburgh 1925)

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.