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Club versus country: Bristol’s international history

After the announcement that Bristol Bears will host the World Champions and current number one ranked team in world rugby South Africa XV in an historic encounter in November, Club Historian Mark Hoskins gives a brief history of the club's previous international clashes.

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Only occasionally in their long history have Bristol had the opportunity to play against a side representing another country. Through much of rugby union’s amateur era, when countries such as New Zealand and South Africa undertook lengthy tours, the senior Welsh clubs enjoyed such fixtures as a matter of course, but in general, tourist fixtures in England were against county or regional selections.

Bristol’s first match against an international side was back in January 1903, when they met a Canadian team at the County Ground. This side, an often-forgotten group of rugby pioneers, played 23 games in a tour encompassing the entire British Isles. Results were mixed, but the tourists proved too strong for Bristol, winning 8-0. According to the Bristol Times & Mirror, the visitors “adapted themselves admirably to the circumstances of a ground like a ploughed field and a wet, slippery ball.” A post-match dinner was held in the Canadians’ honour at the Royal Hotel. During the course of the evening the Canadian captain, J S H McClure, invited Bristol skipper Lloyd Mathias to become a member of the Canadian Brotherhood of Sport. The initiation ceremony involved “bouncing” the Bristol captain high in the air three times, an ordeal he apparently endured with good humour. While they were in Bristol the Canadians were taken on a scenic drive, and they also attended the pantomime at the Prince’s Theatre. Incidentally, the match itself was all pay except for ladies! 

A little over two years later, in the autumn of 1905, Bristol played a match against one of the most famous touring sides of all time, the “original” All Blacks. This seminal group of players employed tactics and playing positions never before experienced in the northern hemisphere, and their only defeat was a narrow one to Wales. Bristol lost 41-0 to them on the County Ground, with the Western Daily Press asserting that the New Zealanders’ play was   “a revelation to the majority of those present.” After the match, the New Zealand captain, Dave Gallaher, spoke in glowing terms of Bristol’s forward effort, and the day ended with dinner at the Imperial Hotel.

We have to wait nearly 80 years for Bristol’s next games against international opposition. They actually played Zimbabwe three times in 1983, twice on a close-season tour, and once at the Memorial Ground. The tour took place soon after Bristol’s John Player Cup triumph against Leicester, and they won the first match with Zimbabwe 16-14. The other game was lost 30-21. The home fixture was early in the 1983-84 season and was convincingly won 38-4, with outside half Simon Hogg accounting for 22 of his side’s points.

Strangely, Bristol’s two most recent matches against visiting countries both occurred during seasons in which the club was relegated. In 1997 they comfortably beat Tonga 35-15, with winger Dave Tiueti scoring a try against his fellow countrymen. Bristol’s most recent game against international opposition was in 2003 when the USA were defeated 31-21. Sadly, this fixture failed to capture the interest of the Bristol sporting public, and only 2,355 watched it.

In addition to the matches covered in this article, it is worth noting that in 1909 Bristol combined with Clifton to play the first Australian side to tour this country, the game being lost 11-3. After the match the tourists’ manager, Captain James McMahon, stated: “The Bristol team played much better than we expected and I think Bristol has the material for a really tip-top team.” The post-match dinner was held at the Royal Hotel with the Sheriff of Bristol in the chair, and the evening featured at least 16 speeches!


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