England, Great Britain, Northern Union. What's in a (rugby league) name?

For those rugby league supporters who haven't been paying attention, a quick glance at the history of international league will show that the national team organised by the Rugby Football League has changed its name several times over the past century or so. Now known as England, at various times the same team has been known as the Northern Union and Great Britain.

Indeed, on some occasions England and Great Britain have both played matches against the same touring national side. And Welshmen such as Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman have captained England. To unravel the knotty nomenclature of the national side, we have to take a step back into the history of international rugby league.

First internationals

The first rugby league international was played on 5 April 1904 between England and Other Nationalities at Central Park Wigan. Originally it had been planned for New Year’s Day but had been postponed due to severe frost. The Other Nationalities' side consisted largely of Welshmen and a couple of Scots.

It was also a twelve-a-side match, staged as part of the Northern Union’s experiments to find the best way to play rugby. A couple of years later, the game as a whole moved from fifteen-a-side to thirteen-a-side. In fact, the next England international, in 1906, was played under fifteen-a-side rules.

So far, so simple.

But in 1907 rugby league began to expand to the Southern Hemisphere, and in September 1907 Albert Baskerville’s New Zealand tourists arrived in Britain. And things started to get more complicated.

A collection of Great Britain v New Zealand programmes. But the top right one is for the 1947 1st Test 'The Rugby Football League v New Zealand'.

A collection of Great Britain v New Zealand programmes. But the top right one is for the 1947 1st Test 'The Rugby Football League v New Zealand'.

The All Golds - originally a derogatory title but one which came to be seen as a badge of honour - played test matches not against England or Great Britain, but against a side called ‘the Northern Union’. The NU side was selected from the best players in Britain.

The term test match came from cricket and it was seen as the ultimate ‘test’ of a nation’s sporting prowess. 

However, the New Zealanders also played matches against England and Wales. These were not considered test matches but ‘representative’ matches, similar to county matches. During the same season England played Wales for the first time, with the Red Dragons winning 35-18.

England, Which England?

In 1908 the first Kangaroos toured Britain and in 1910 the British toured Australia and New Zealand for the first time. The touring party was officially known as the Northern Union. But most newspapers down under referred to the side as England, despite the fact the Welsh players were also in the side.

However, from 1924 the Northern Union test match team was officially named England. In 1922 the Northern Union had changed its name to the Rugby Football League and clearly the test team had to change its name too.

This meant there were two sides known as England, because England and Wales, and France from 1934, still played each other in non-test internationals. 

The fact that Welsh players turned out for the England side and that it was captained by Welshmen Jim Sullivan raised no eyebrows at the time. In fact, it was common for English national sports teams to include non-English British players.

The England rugby union side routinely included Australians and South Africans. In 1937 England were even captained by South African test cricket HG Owen-Smith. And even in recent memory, the England cricket side has been captained by the Welshman Tony Lewis and the Scotsman Mike Denness.

Even the Indomitables, the 1946 team that toured Australia and New Zealand in the immediate aftermath of World War Two were officially known as England, despite being captained by Welshman Gus Risman.

Enter Great Britain

It was only in the 1940s that this state of affairs began to be questioned. The status that the game had acquired during World War Two when its democratic image seemed to fit with the mythology of the ‘People’s War’ led to a discussion about a more inclusive name for the national side. 

The first test match of the 1947 Kiwi tour of Britain saw a new name appear. The programme for the match announced that it was between ‘The Rugby Football League v New Zealand’. But as an article in the programme explained, this was just a transitional name:

‘The appellation of the team representing the RFL has always been the subject of much controversy. All players of British nationality are eligible to play, and it seemed rather incongruous that Welshmen and Scotsmen should be invited to represent England. The Rugby League Council have decided henceforth to refer to this composite team as Great Britain.’

Bill Fallowfield went on to explain that ‘at first this new title may seem a little strange, but none can deny that it is more appropriate’. So, from the second test match of the 1947 series, the RFL’s national side was known as Great Britain.

Even then, some anomalies persisted. The England side still played in non-test matches with Wales, France and Other Nationalities. In the 1975, 1977 and 1995 world cups, England and Wales played as individual countries, while the Great Britain name was used for the other world cups, including the 1954 and 1972 wins. 

Confusingly, Great Britain matches against France were not classed as full test matches until 1957, despite Puig Aubert’s French side of the early 1950s being unarguably the best team in the world.

And back to England

Sixty years after the name had been introduced, Great Britain played its last game as the RFL’s national side. In 2008 England, Scotland and Ireland took their places in the world cup and a new era of international rugby league began.

But for those interested in the history of the international game, it only served to deepen the confusion...