REVIEW: Best in the Northern Union, by Tom Mather

Neil Barraclough

Sometimes it is our earliest actions that most affect our future. Life-changing moments can be traced back to a throwaway conversation or a lightly-considered decision that reverberates during the years – perhaps decades – that follow.

So it is with the Northern Union’s bold move to send a touring team to Australia and New Zealand in 1910.

While the tour was far from an accident (author Tom Mather’s revelations about the Northern Union’s planning are fascinating), its legacy is still felt today with the dominance of rugby league on Australia’s east coast and the thriving New Zealand scene.

Best of the Northern Union illustrates in breathtaking depth the planning and preparation that went into the tour, before taking us through the on-field action and then considering the lasting consequences of this pioneering trip.

On the matter of planning, Mather explains:

When the NU committee met on 29 December 1909, a year and a day after the first official recorded mention of the tour, they had a counter offer to consider, as the minutes show: ‘A letter was read from the New South Wales Rugby League giving estimates of receipts… and offering 60 per cent of the balance (to the NU)…’
It was decided to cable a reply: ‘Expenses would greatly exceed your estimate, terms inadequate.’

Only Mather knows how many hours of research went into producing Best in the Northern Union, but our guess is that it must have been an enormous undertaking.

The level of detail is at times both astonishing and compelling, bringing to life one of the earliest and most influential events in rugby league’s history.

Alongside Mather’s efforts are action pictures from England’s match with New South Wales in June 1910, and a rare photograph of the tourists on board the ship that carried them across the world.

Rugby league historian Sean Fagan also provides a comprehensive foreword that puts this tour in its own historical context.

“The importance of the 1910 Lions to the game of rugby league can never be understated – that’s why their story needs to be told and recognised.”

If you believe rugby league’s past matters as much as its future, then Best of the Northern Union is a worthy addition to your bookshelf.

Best in the Northern Union, by Tom Mather, is out now. ISBN 978-1903659519, published by London League Publications Ltd. It is available to buy here.