From The Vaults

18 July 2023
Uncapped half backs in Lions tests 1891-1939

England has supplied some distinguished half backs to the ranks of British and Irish Lions in recent test series. The rollcall includes Rob Andrew, Dewi Morris, Matt Dawson, Mike Catt, Jonny Wilkinson, Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell. All these players would rank highly in any list of leading English half backs, but surprisingly there were relatively few capped English players selected for Lions test matches prior to 1939. The word 'capped' needs to be stressed because some players from English clubs were either uncapped at the time of their Lions test appearances or were never selected in a full England international.

No test matches were played on the British tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 so the roster of Lions international matches starts with three tests on their 19-match unbeaten tour of South Africa in 1891. In an era when half back play was shared between two players, the young Cambridge University student Arthur Rotherham played in three tests and Howard Marshall from the Blackheath club played alongside him in the second test.

Both players, them uncapped, were to earn their niches in English rugby history. Although he had not won a 'Blue' while at Cambridge University, Howard Marshall scored three tries in his only international against Wales in Cardiff, a nail-biting defeat memorable for a match-winning penalty goal by the Welsh full back Billy Bancroft in the 77th minute. Arthur Rotherham had to wait almost seven years before winning the first of his five England caps as a Richmond player against Scotland in March 1898. He captained England throughout the 1899 championship in which England lost all three matches and he was not called on again.

Louis Magee

On the 21-match South African tour in 1896, the star half back was Ireland's Louis Magee who played in all four tests and went on to win 27 caps. In the first test, his partner was the future cleric Matthew Mullineux, now playing for Blackheath after studying at Cambridge University. For the remaining three tests Magee's partner was Sydney Bell, the current Cambridge University half back. He was to win a further 'Blue' in December 1896 and become a solicitor and bank manager. He subsequently played for Northern and the Barbarians but he was never chosen for England.

In the summer of 1899, a British team including players from all four countries for the first time visited Australia and played four official test matches, losing the first test but winning the series. It was captained by the now Reverend Matthew Mullineux who won his second Lions cap at half back in the first test but was destined never to play for England. He was partnered in that test by the Manchester and Lancashire player George Cookson who played in all four tests. Cookson played for the North against the South in February 1899 alongside Charles Adamson and for the Barbarians but never received England international honours. For the remaining three tests, he was joined at half back by Adamson from Durham City who had played in the centre in the first test.

The first English half back to be "rewarded" for his efforts on a Lions tour was the uncapped Richmond and Surrey player Patrick Hancock who partnered the Scottish half back John Gillespie in each of the three tests on the 1903 tour of South Africa. It was a drawn series but Hancock enhanced his reputation to the extent that he was selected as one of England's half backs for the 1904 international campaign alongside the already capped Walter Butcher of Bristol. Butcher would win seven caps in all playing throughout the 1904 and 1905 seasons.

Frankie Hulme from Birkenhead Park played in the first of the three tests against Australia on the 1904 tour. Already capped twice by England at half back in the 1903 season, he won two further caps following the Lions tour in 1905. An outstanding county player, he played in Cheshire's 34-0 defeat to the visiting All Blacks in 1905 and captained the North in a heavy defeat against the South in November 1906. He played in the final trial a month later but was not selected again.

The separation of half back positions with one player, the scrum half, specifically chosen to play close to the scrum had occurred by the time of the Anglo-Welsh tour of New Zealand in 1908. The former Cambridge University scrum half Herbert Laxon received his only chance at international level in the first test alongside the Redruth and one-cap England fly half James Davey. The Lions were very heavily defeated 32-5 and both players were replaced by Welsh alternatives for the remaining two tests. A member of Cornwall's championship winning side in 1908, Davey would win one further cap in a defeat to Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in January 1909.

On the 1910 tour of South Africa, three English players filled all the half back positions on the 21-match tour. George Isherwood of Sale and Cheshire played scrum half in the three tests but received no recognition in any trial matches on his return and never played for England. His partner in the first and third tests was the outstanding Bristol fly half Jack Spoors. The leading points scorer on the tour who played centre in the second test, Spoors had the unique distinction of scoring a try in each of the three tests. He had played in three trial matches the previous season and scored two tries for England against the North, but the ultimate honour of an England cap eluded him to universal surprise in the south-west of England.

Cherry Pillman

The choice of fly half for the second test of the 1910 series was a huge surprise. Charles "Cherry" Pillman of Blackheath had already won 4 caps for England and had missed the first test through injury. He was moved from his usual position in the back row and played a huge part orchestrating the Lions' 8-3 victory at Port Elizabeth. He was moved back to wing forward for the deciding third test but the Springboks proved far too strong and ended up winners by 21 points to 5.

After the war the Lions toured South Africa for the fifth time in 1924 and faced a very strong Springbok side in four tests losing the series 3-0 with the third test being drawn. The scrum half position was shared by the then uncapped Herbert Whitley from Northern in three of the tests and the Cambridge University student Arthur Young who had already won four England caps played in the second test. Young would go on to win 18 caps and Whitley would finally win his solitary cap against Wales in January 1929.

The Lions toured New Zealand and Australia in 1930 and included the Old Millhillians and England half back pair Roger Spong and Wilf Sobey in their touring party. Sobey was ruled out by injury after captaining the Lions in the first match against Wanganui, but Spong played 17 of the 28 matches including all the tests and he enhanced his excellent reputation as one of the best fly halves of his era. He would go on to win eight caps for England, a surprisingly low tally for a player described by Terry McLean, the doyen of New Zealand journalists, as "a bouncy ball of a man with sensationally quick reactions who could break inside or out".

Before world war intervened for the second time, the Lions toured South Africa once again for a three-test series in 1938. The Old Cranleighans and England fly half, Jeff Reynolds capped three times, played fly half in the first two tests accompanied by the six times capped Jimmy Giles from Coventry at scrum half in the first test. Although Giles did play in the victorious third test but in the centre, neither he nor Reynolds would play for England again proving the maxim that a successful Lions tour has never guaranteed a place in subsequent England teams.


  • The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982 - John Griffiths (Willow Books 1982)
  • 130 Years of Bristol Rugby - Mark Hoskins (Bristol Rugby Club Ltd 2018)
  • Centenary history of the Rugby Football Union - UA Titley & Ross McWhirter (RFU 1970)
  • Durham County Rugby Union 1876-1936 - Cowell & Watts Moses (Andrew Reid and Company Ltd 1936)
  • Into Touch - Nigel McCrery (Pen & Sword Books Ltd 2014)
  • Lions in Africa - Chris Schoeman and David McLennan (Amberley Publishing 2021)
  • The Visitors - RH Chester & NAC McMillan (MOA Publications 1990)
  • World Rugby Museum international and regional spreadsheets 1871-2023 (compiler: Richard Steele)

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.