The Irish series was instituted in 1877. Football in Ireland was then in its infancy, and the consolidated strength of Scotland with so many experienced International players presented a force much too potent for the Irishmen. The game was played at Belfast, and in the compilation of the Scottish score of 6 goals and 4 tries, E. J. Pocock of the Wanderers 'dazzled' both his opponents and the spectators. Pocock was a clever runner and scorer, nothing more, and the conditions favoured him admirably. A few weeks later he became a drag on the Scottish team at Raeburn Place. Malcolm Cross, R. C. Mackenzie, and J. R. Hay Gordon were in the Scottish back division, and R. W. Irvine, J. H. S. Graham, D. H. Watson, and A. G. Petrie in the forwards, so that it was a very strong Scottish side that opposed the Irishmen. The following season Ireland was organising, and was too busy fighting over the details to find time for International matches.
The presence of three Edinburgh Institution players, N. T. Brewis, W. H. Masters, and D. Somerville, in the Scottish team which beat Ireland in Belfast by 3 goals and 2 tries in 1879 was a sign of the times.
One of the goals was dropped by Malcolm Cross from a wide pass by Graham. It was a habit with Graham, even when dribbling, to pick up the ball if the way were closed, and throw it out.
The match produced an 'incident' when the Irish team protested against Irvine and Cross handling the ball while it was being carried out from a try. The Scottish contention was that as the handling took place over the line, where the ball was dead, it was immaterial who or how many touched it. The matter was referred to the supreme authority of the time, the English Rugby Union, and Scotland lost the case.
The matches with Ireland prior to 1880 were largely of a missionary character. Up to that time, and during a goodly number of years later, Irish football struggled along under many disadvantages not felt by the other countries. Scotland was fed from a fertile nursery in the public schools; England had a wide club and University area to draw upon; and from the beginning Welsh Rugby was whole-'heartedly supported as the people's game. There were four or five clubs in Dublin, about a similar number in Belfast, and teams at Trinity College (Dublin), Queen's College (Belfast), and Queen's College (Cork). It might almost be said that until about the opening of the present century the supply of players in Ireland was very precarious.
The first International match won by Ireland was that against Scotland in 1881. In more respects than that it was a memorable affair. Defeat was preceded by rebellion at home that at the time looked serious, but, viewed through a length of years, the matter is not without its comic aspect. In selecting J. H. S. Graham to captain the team, the Union were alleged to have passed an affront on A. G. Petrie, who was Graham's senior. The Royal High School section blazed up in their wrath and were supported 'on principle' by the Institution and the University. The boys met in crowds in 'Daish's,' the 'Albert' and the other howffs, and let loose their indignation on the Union.
It did not require a great deal to ignite a fire. They were inflammable material, and cared less for Petrie's wrongs than they did for a good row. Representatives from clubs as far remote as Thurso and Earlston were said to have attended the indignation meetings, but it need not be assumed that the country was agitated from end to end. It was easy to procure a mandate for a local supporter who was indignant enough to deserve it.
R. S. F. Henderson, the Edinburgh University captain, made himself very prominent in his antagonism and hostility towards the Union. As a player, he was never highly valued in Scotland. He was too stolid and too lumbering for Scottish ideas of the requirements of a forward. Later on, when he went south, he was selected for England, although he was a Scotsman, When the storm over Petrie came to a head, it was abated by the acceptance of a compromise that in future International teams should choose their own captain.
Scotland travelled with a number of substitutes and lost the match, but it was by no means a weak team, as the names will show: T. A. Begbie; W. E. Maclagan, N. J. Finlay, and R. C. Mackenzie ; J. A. Campbell and P. W. Smeaton ; J. H. S. Graham, C. Reid, J. B. Brown, D. Y. Cassels, D. M'Cowan, A. Walker, J. Junor, R. Allan, and R. Robb. Tom Begbie failed with the kick at goal straight in front of the posts from a try scored by Graham, who had been placed onside by the ball from Maclagan's drop touching one of the Irish players.
In the second half, J. C. Bagot, a half-back, dropped the goal that won Ireland's first International victory. Naturally the result evoked a demonstration of enthusiasm. In quoting 'Jakes' M'Carthy's description, I should not advise any one to take it too literally. ' Jakes ' was a well-known Irish writer on Rugby. This is what he wrote in regard to the incident:—
'M'Mullin, of Cork, making a miscatch, big Jock Graham, who was leaning against the goal post rubbing his shin, leisurely limped over and touched the ball down. Could we win? Surely we deserved it, as we had been on the Scottish line all day. The spectators became hysterical. On the line, the ball was heeled out to " Merry " Johnstone, who, amidst vociferous profanity, missed his pick up. Campbell, darting on him, kicked the ball into touch. Before the Scotsmen had time to line up, " Barney " Hughes threw the ball out to Taylor, who, quicker than you could think, tossed it to Bagot, who dropped it over the Caledonian goal. Such frantic excitement as these lightning movements evoked was never seen. Men, women, and children embraced each other indiscriminately.'
Inherently weak as the Irish teams originally were, it was on a rare occasion they travelled with fewer than half a dozen substitutes. Yet even in the early times they put up some strenuous fights and produced some great matches. Until comparatively recent years the Irish Union have depended almost wholly upon their forwards. There are those who appear to think that Irish forward play is all dash and impetuosity. Far from that, I make bold to say that some of the Irish forwards have been the most highly skilled exponents of the game. By a strange coincidence, within the last few months, two of our own Scottish International players, and two of our most distinguished players at that, have each named the Irishman, V. C. Lefanu, as the finest dribbler they ever saw.
Lefanu played in a great match at Raeburn Place in 1888. Scotland won by one goal, scored in the course of a run which was started by A. R. Don Wauchope and taken up by H. J. Stevenson, who, as usual, cut out a path in the defence, and left his wing, D. J. M'Farlan, a clear course to the line. That was all the scoring in as grim a struggle as ever took place between two representative teams. I recollect Lefanu working every ounce in the scrummage and handicapped by a damaged nose.
There was a big-boned, powerful Derry man, M'Laughlin, playing quarter for Ireland. In the second half, he broke clean away and bore down on H. F. Chambers, the Scottish back, who was a clever player and a good tackier, but not over powerful, and I am sure that if M'Laughlin had deviated a little in his course, Chambers might as well have tried to tackle a horse. M'Laughlin crashed into the Scottish back and was stopped, but Chambers had to be carried off the field.
We had a fine match with Ireland at Raeburn Place in 1892, when Scotland won by a try scored by the Merchistonian forward, J. N. Millar, a right good player. Lefanu played in that game, as did also C. V.Rooke, who was a true winger and the real father of wing forwards. S. Lee, a tall fellow, was their centre three-quarter, and they had in a half-back, T. Thornhill, a dangerous man who ran with a swerve, and was difficult to tackle.
Because he would not be converted to the ' wide passing' doctrine then in vogue, H. J. Stevenson was playing full-back during these times. The irony of it all was that even from that position he had the finest run in the game, and all but cleared the whole Irish defence. Modern players will have a difficulty in realising that short passing could have been condemned under any circumstances. Yet it is a fact that 'wide passing' was a virulent mania, pursued with the wild devotion that characterised the apostleship of the aesthetic cult, another cerebral disturbance of the times.
Before the Irish Universities obtained their present status the number of Irish students attending the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow was very large. In Edinburgh they formed quite a colony. W. J. N. Davis, R. D. Stokes, J. Nash, and T. M. Donovan, all Irish International men, played together in Edinburgh University forward division. A little later H. Stevenson was one of the finest three-quarters that ever played for Edinburgh University. R. Morrow, the Tristram of Ireland, and L. M. Magee (Edinburgh Wanderers), who captained the Irish team on the occasion of the opening of Inverleith in 1899, were also Edinburgh students. There were many more, and many fine players among them, in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
H. Stevenson played in the Powderhall International of 1897, which was rather an eventful function in its way. T. M. Scott (Melrose) won the match by his place-kicking, converting a try scored by T. Scott (Langholm), and kicking a penalty goal against Ireland's try. It was in this match that Gwynne, the Irish centre, 'punted a goal,' and it was on this occasion the redoubtable Mike Ryan made his first acquaintance with Scottish football.
When he came again in 1899 he brought his bigger but milder brother, J. Ryan, with him. They said, of the two, 'Jack was the.stronger man, but Mike had more of the "divil" in him.' Some of our own forwards, such as W. M. C. M'Ewan and H. O. Smith, were not altogether unsuited to ' Irish football,' and there was some lusty work in the forward play.
It was all fair and above-board, but L. M. Magee had to keep reminding his forwards in the second half when Ireland was holding a fairly comfortable lead that they would lose it if they did not concentrate more on the main question. The inauspicious opening of the new field and the Scottish defeat were accepted ungrudgingly, for it was really a fine Irish team that won, and the game had formed an entertaining compound of good football and legitimate 'divershun.' I recollect one of John Tod's Watsonian forwards remarking, 'I haven't enjoyed a game so much for years.' From the very earliest days this spirit appeared to attach itself to the Irish match. The concern approaching anxiety over the English result or the bite and sting of a Welsh victory have never entered the Scottish relationship with Ireland. Of course, apart from all racial and social affinities, it must not be forgotten that from the times of the 'Dispute' in 1884 Scotland and Ireland have formed a spontaneous and natural alliance that has done more to preserve the game in its present form than is generally known. At the time of the Northern Union disruption English opinion on the adoption of professionalism was divided. The harvest field in Wales was ripe, but Scotland and Ireland presented an adamant rock of amateurism, an assault on which it was futile to contemplate.
Ireland won the International championship in the year of the opening of Inverleith, and had near to spoil the record of the great Scottish team of 1901 on the same ground. Scotland was leading 9 points to 5 till close upon time, when A. W. Duncan stopped John Ryan on the goal-line, a feat which normally was not an easy one, but under the circumstances was a marvellous achievement on the part of Duncan, who had been battered and knocked about, and only a short time previously had been literally swept off his feet and trailed along the ground by the collar of his jersey. He hardly seemed fit to stand, much less to stop a man like Ryan, but he did it, and who knows but that the 1901 invincible team and the Scottish triple crown may have depended upon that tackle by Duncan?
In the years prior to the war Irish football was strong, if not quite reliable, but, as a matter of fact, all the countries had players in abundance, and success depended largely on striking the balance and gauging the adjustment in team construction. Basil Maclear, another prodigy from Ireland, played in a winning Irish team at Inverleith in 1905. Maclear must have been one of the strongest men who ever played football. He was a good player, too, both in attack and defence. It was no joke to have to stop him, and defending on his own goal-line he was positively dangerous. The loose joint in his armour lay in his handling, which was not reliable. Richard Lloyd appeared in the Irish picture later on. He was clever and he had all the details of the game at his finger ends. Even his dropped goals were calculated to evoke the distinctive comment of approval: 'Oh, pretty!' He dropped a lofty one with deliberate and calculated ease in the 1913 match, when a good game was spoiled by the sprinting of the Tasmanian-London Hospitals Scot, A. W. Stewart. Two years previously, Lloyd was in a first-rate Irish team which beat Scotland and England but lost to Wales. That was the year when Scotland, in her plenitude of players, went through a stock of four full-backs, twelve three-quarters, five halves, and sixteen forwards, and did not win a match.
Since the resumption Irish football has not gone above a fair normal standard, very much resembling the position of things in Scotland. During the present season both countries have moved upwards, and with Scotland in first place, and Ireland sharing second, the balance of the countries looks nearer restoration than it has done since 1918.