On Saturday, January 12, 1924, the first match at Ravenhill, the then new home ground of the Ulster Branch, was played between provincial rivals Ulster and Leinster. We take a look back at the Irish rugby landscape of 90 years ago.
A preview of the game in the Freeman’s Journal said: “The last of the interprovincial trial games will be played today when at Belfast Ulster engage Leinster. This is always regarded as the most important of the matches in which the provinces antagonise, as it does most to assist the ‘selecting five’ in picking a national side.
“The Leinster team, accompanied by officials, left by the 6 o’clock train from Amiens Street last night.
“It is doubtful if C. F. Hallaran will be able to make the journey from Portsmouth to Belfast, and if he cannot do so his place in the Leinster pack will be taken by his club-mate, R. C. O’Connor (United Services). Otherwise the team will line out as selected.
“A. C. Douglas will be unable to turn out for the northerners, and his place on the wing will be taken by R. McClenahan.
“The match, which starts at 2.45, will be played at Ravenhill, on the new ground of the Ulster Branch of the IRFU.”
A note at the bottom of the Leinster team announcement stated that ‘players will please notify without delay their acceptance or otherwise to Mr. V. V. Drennan, Glenmuir, Palmerston Road, Rathmines’.
The match itself finished in a fitting 14-6 victory for Ulster – 2 goals (1 penalty) and 2 tries to the visitors’ haul of 2 tries. O’Connor and McClenahan were the two changes in personnel from the selected sides.
The teams that day were as follows:
ULSTER: W. E. Crawford (Lansdowne and Malone); H. W. Stephenson (United Services), G. V. Stephenson (Queen’s), J. B. Gardiner (NIFC) (capt), R. McClenahan (Instonians); J. C. McDowell (Instonians), J. R. Wheeler (Queen’s); J. H. Andrews (Derry and Royal Engineers), T. N. Brand (NIFC), G. Caruth (Queen’s), H. H. Copeland (Instonians), T. McClelland (Queen’s), H. McKee (Collegians), J. T. Smyth (Queen’s), J. McVicker (Collegians).
LEINSTER: J. Ballagh (Bective); A. P. Atkins (Bective), S. Hogan (UCD), M. Sugden (Dublin University), D. Cussen (Dublin University); D. Robertson (Lansdowne), J. C. Clarke (Bective); J. D. Clinch (Dublin University), R. Y. Crichton (Dublin University) (capt), W. R. Collis (Wanderers), W. P. Collopy (Bective), J. Collopy (Bective), R. D. Gray (Old Wesley), R. C. O’Connor (United Services), I. Stuart (Dublin University).
A report in the Sunday Independent said that the new Ravenhill ground ‘will fill a long-felt want in Belfast, and the surface, despite the frost, snow and rain during the week, was in splendid condition’.
The reporter’s assessment of the game was that it was ‘disappointing’. “After a promising start, the quality of play fell away, though it was desperately keen from start to finish,” he wrote.
“Ulster were rather flattered by the result, as they had not eight points the better of the play, Leinster attacking hotly in the last 20 minutes.
“Halfway through the first half G. V. Stephenson had to retire hurt, but Leinster were without Stuart a good bit of the first half and until halfway through the second half.”
Ulster centre George Stephenson from Dromore, County Down was a remarkable player. He famously rose from the ranks of the Queen’s University thirds to winning his first Ireland cap (against France in 1920) in just the space of a few months.
He missed only one match for Ireland through injury and was international rugby’s most-capped player (42 caps) and leading points scorer (89 points) when he retired. His 14-try haul remained an Irish record until Brendan Mullin broke it in 1991.
Stephenson’s older brother, winger Henry, featured prominently for Ulster at Ravenhill that day. He scored four tries himself during his Ireland career, including three in successive games against England, Scotland and Wales.
Mark Sugden gave Leinster an early 3-0 lead at ‘a bitterly cold’ Ravenhill but the Ulster forwards quickly ‘brought play back down the other end’ and full-back William Crawford, another of the international contingent on show, kicked a ‘fine goal that went over off the bar’.
Ulster then scored a ‘grand try’ as the Stephenson brothers combined to finish off an attack started by international scrum half Jim Wheeler back in the province’s ’25’.
Wheeler was a noted doctor who went to referee international matches and he was IRFU President in 1959/60. Luck was on Crawford’s side again as his kick hit a post on its way over.
Leinster’s promising forward play was spoiled by some astute kicks to touch by the covering Crawford and the hosts improved their lead to 11-3 by half-time as McClenahan ‘dribbled over to score’.
George Stephenson was unable to continue so his brother moved in to the centre berth with McKee being taken out of the pack to play on the wing.
McClenahan turned provider as he transferred the ball for Ulster captain James Gardiner to ‘go over at the corner’. Crawford’s kick ‘failed to improve the score’.
Henry Stephenson prevented UCD’s Sarsfield Hogan – another future IRFU President – from getting over the line for Leinster, but the visitors did finish strongly with ‘Joe Clarke slipping around a scrum to let (Robert) Crichton burst over’. Alfred Atkins’ kick at goal was off target.
The reporter hailed the performance of Ulster full-back Crawford, who had ‘seldom played a better game’, and overall ‘the Ulster backs were much better than the Leinster men’. Henry Stephenson stood out as ‘the best back on either team’ – ‘his handing off being quite refreshing’.
Leinster had several plucky performers – including Ian Stuart and Billy Collopy – but ‘with their advantage in weight their forwards should have put them level’ with a number of promising openings spoiled.
Monday’s Irish Independent dubbed it a ‘convincing win’ for Ulster, saying that ‘H. W. Stephenson gave a brilliant display’ on the wing and in the centre. Their reporter added: “It is very likely that all the back positions for the Irish match against France on January 26 in Dublin will go to Ulster.”
Ulster players duly dominated the back-line selections in the following week’s Probables v Possibles trial match at Lansdowne Road.
Sadly, there is no online footage of that historic Ulster-Leinster clash at Ravenhill, but the Belfast ground hosted its first international match the following month – England beat Ireland 14-3 on Saturday, February 9, 1924 – and the British Pathé archives give us a glimpse of what Ravenhill looked like 90 years ago:
William Crawford captained Ireland from full-back and as anticipated, Ulster dominated the backs division with the two Stephensons, Ulster skipper Gardiner, Douglas and Wheeler starting alongside Crawford. Leinster’s Clarke, at scrum half, was the odd man out.
The aforementioned Ian Stuart made his debut for Ireland in the second row that day, with brothers Billy and Dick Collopy also featuring in the home pack.
The 1924 season was a very successful one for Ulster as apart from their Ireland call-ups and the Ravenhill win over Leinster, they also defeated Munster 47-7 at Lansdowne Road (video footage here).