The Rugby League Ashes

The Ashes is the name given to the trophy awarded to the winner of a Rugby League test series between Great Britain and Australia. The format used is usually that three matches are played, with the winning team being decided on the basis of most matches won.

The team representing Great Britain were originally known as the Northern Union after the sport’s govorning body and the team representing Australia were and still are known as the Kangaroos

First Ever Ashes Test Match
December 12 1908                  Northern Union 22 Australia 22          London

dominated the match early on and led by 14-5 at half-time. They seemed assured of victory when leading 17-5 early in the second half but Australia fought back with tries from Devereaux and O'Malley to bring the score to 17-15 to the Northern Union . The home side scored another try to lead 20-15 with time fast running out but with five minutes to go the great Dally Messenger intercepted near his own try line. He evaded the chasing defenders to within sight of the try line where he passed to Devereaux who crashed over under the posts. Messenger kicked the goal and the Kangaroos took the lead for the first time at 22-20. Unfortunately for them, the Northern Union were awarded a last minute penalty for obstruction and when they kicked the goal the match ended as draw.

Australia win the Ashes for the first time
1st January 1912          Northern Union  8  Australia 33         Birmingham

The 1911-12 Kangaroo tour of Great Britain was the second ever Kangaroo tour and was actually a tour by an Australasian team (it included four New Zealand players) rather than the Australian team alone. They became the first tourists to win the Ashes and the last to do so on British soil for over half a century.

After 1922 the Great Britain RL team became known as the Lions which was many years before the RU team followed suit. In the same year they side beat Australia 6-0 at Salford to win back the Ashes. They would not be lost again until 1950.

In 1928, the City Tattersalls Club in Sydney, Australia donated The Ashes trophy

Controversy in a Rare Scoreless Test
January 4th 1930           The Lions 0 v Australia 0                      Swinton

In 1930 at Swinton near Manchester, in the third and deciding Test, Australia’s half-back Joe “Chimpy” Busch picked the ball up at the scrum base and ran 20 m for what seemed like a match winning and Ashes winning score. Busch and his team were ecstatic but referee Bob Robinson over-turned his original decision to award the try after consulting the touch judge.

Things didn’t improve for the Kangaroos when they were beaten 3-0 in 1933

Station Road, Swinton  -  The Aussie Graveyard
6th November 1948     Great Britain 17  Australia 6          Swinton

Despite the baffling omission of their captain Len Smith, the Kangaroo tourists played their part in a great First Test matches as Great Britain won 23-21. Their form deserted them and they lost four games in a row before the Second Test at Station Road, Swinton.  Before the game, the players paid homage at the corner of the ground where Joe “Chimpy” Busch had been famously been denied in 1930 but they lost the match and The Ashes 17-6. Station Road, once again proved to be the graveyard of the Aussies as it hosted another British Ashes triumph. A 23-9 win for Great Britain at Bradford resulted in only the second ever whitewash in Ashes history.

Alan Prescott
Darren Lockyear
Alan Prescott Plays on with a Brokrn Arm
5th July 1958    Australia  18 v Great Britain  25            Brisbane

“We’d lost the first test and, whether the tour was a success or not depended on the second game. We got off to a shocking start losing Dave Bolton and Jim Challinor and Alan broke his arm. We didn’t know for certain it was broken but we guessed it was. He was asked to go to hospital at half time but refused because he reckoned he could still provide an obstacle for the Australians if he threw himself in front of them and he did just that. I don’t know how he did it but he did. It was a double break from what I could gather afterwards and it finished his career really. Whether it was bravery or bloody madness, I couldn’t make my mind up at the time! 

The third game was a question of doing it for Alan in his absence. We owed him something and came up with a big win.”      – Great Britain centre Eric Ashton.

“I’ve got to live here lad”
21st November 1959    Great Britain 11  v  Australia 10                        Leeds

In 1959, the Kangaroos again thought they had won the elusive Ashes Trophy when Barry Muir scored a try under the posts but referee Gelder, to everybody’s amazement, ruled forward pass. They felt particularly aggrieved because they also hit a post and also questioned the validity of a Great Britain try. After the match, Kangaroos centre Harry Wells angrily confronted Gelder, and said:
“You’re a thief and you cheated us”
Gelder replied,
“I’ve got to live here lad”

Great Britain
went on to win the third and deciding test 18-12 to win the series

“We were robbed”
14th July 1962              Australia  18  v  Great Britain 17     Sydney
“1962 was a great side. Even the Australians said it was the best side for years. We wrapped up the Ashes in the second test at Brisbane with a 17-10 win despite losing Alex Murphy early on which was a blow but Poynton came on and did very well. In the third, we were robbed. We were 17-11 up and had Mick Sullivan and Derek Turner sent off. We were penalised under the posts for 17-13 then they went in at the corner and converted to win by a point and the game didn’t even kick off again. We would have been the only ever side to win a series 3-0 in Australia. However, that tour was the highlight of my career. To captain an Ashes winning side down under was fantastic.” – Great Britain captain Eric Ashton.

It was payback time as Australian referee Darcy Lawler sent off Great Britain winger Mick Sullivan and awarded the Kangaroos a last minute try from a forward pass leaving replacement kicker Ken Irvine a touchline conversion to win the game. Referee Lawler guided Irvine when the placing of the ball, and he famously kicked the match winning goal.

So Close yet So Far
November 10th 1990   Great Britain  10  Australia 14               Manchester

The Lions won the first test 19-12 at Wembley to end Australia’s unbroken run of consecutive victories stretching back two tours. With injuries to key Australian players Bradley Clyde and Brad Fittler the Lions entered the second test with their best chance in twenty years to regain the Ashes.

The Kangaroos led 4-2 at half time following a Dale Shearer try with Paul Eastwood replying for the Lions with a penalty. Dixon scored for GB shortly after the break and they held onto this 6-4 lead until Cliff Lyon scored a great try with twelve minutes to go. The Kanagaroos led 10-6 and were controlling the game until a Ricky Stuart pass to Dale Shearer was intercepted by substitute Paul Loughlin who raced the length of the field to score. It was 10-10 with a kick to come and for a few moments the Ashes were on their way home. Unfortunately Eastwood missed the kick but the Lions took control of the game and were continually pressing the Australian line but in the last minute of injury time Ricky Stuart dummied Lee Jackson and broke downfield. Mal Meninga barged his way into position before taking a pass close to the line and crashing over for a dubious but match winning try.

won the third test to retain the Ashes they had held since 1973 and have held them ever since. This was closest the Lions ever came

Simply the Best
July 1992         Australia  10 v Great Britain  33                                    Melbourne

After losing the first test 22-6 in Sydney and with injuries to key players Ellery Hanley and Andy Gregory The Lions were not given much chance. They chose an all Wigan pack and Shaun Edwards came in at half back for his first against Australia

Despite their injuries and the poor weather, The Lions raced into a 22-0 lead with tries from Clark, Newlove and Schofield. The expected Kangaroo comeback saw tries from Lindner and Johns but the Lions pack held firm giving Graham Steadman and Martin Offiah the opportunity to score great tries.

They lost the decider 16-10 but the glorious night in Melbourne represented the best performance by Great Britain during their long Ashes drought 

Steve McQueen would’ve been proud
7th November 2003      Great Britain 18 v Australia 22  Wigan

Adrian Morley had a reputation as the best forward in the world and he had played a big part for the Sydney Roosters in their drive to consecutive NRL Grand Finals. He was expected to continue in this vein for the GB Lions but to the home supporter’s dismay he was sent off by referee Steve Ganson after only twelve seconds of the first match at Wigan. The performance that followed from the twelve remaining GB players was top class. Phil Bailey and Trent Waterhouse scored tries for the Kangaroos and Brian Carney replied for the Lions to give them an 8-4 half time lead. A Keith Senior try and two Sean Long goals gave GB a 12-8 lead before a Craig Gower try and a brilliant conversion by Craig Fitzgibbon from the touchline put Australia ahead but another Brian Carney try put the twelve man Lions 18-14 in front with less than ten minutes to go. Australia escaped when Darren Lockyear created and scored the match winning try with help from Craig Wing and Fitzgibbon landed a last minute penalty. 

Two other close and exciting matches followed with The Lions surrendering a good lead in the Second Test at Hull to see Australia win 23-20. Inspired by their captain Darren Lockyear The Kangaroos scored twelve unanswered points in the last four minutes at Huddersfield to win 18-12. Despite the 3-0 series victory for the Kangaroos the thirteen point difference in the aggregate score line tells the true story

Although the Kangaroos have been dominant in recent years, they are only slightly ahead in terms of series and Test matches won

Ashes Series won         Australia  20                 GB  19
Test Matches won        Australia  59                 GB  55

Apart from 1911/12, the Kangaroos were beaten in every Ashes series in Great Britain from 1908 until 1963. Even in Australia, the GB Lions triumphed in fourteen Ashes series between 1910 and 1970 The Kangaroos won just four times in 1920, 1950, 1954 and 1966

The GB Lions held the Ashes for thirty years from 1920 – 1950

The Australian Kangaroos currently hold the Ashes and have done since 1973 although they have not been contested since 2003 and not on Australian soil since 1992.

Sadly Station Road, Swinton is a now a housing estate.


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