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125 years on - The birth of the Barbarians

Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

The Barbarians, who celebrate their 125th anniversary this year, clearly started as they intended to go on. The first page of the club minute book records that they were formed at 2am on this day - April 9 - 1890 at the Alexandra Hotel, Bradford.

There is sadly nowhere to stick the blue plaque that the occasion surely befits. The Alexandra closed in the 1970s and the building was demolished in 1993. An off-road car park fills the gap in Great Horton Street.

While the 'oyster supper' of club legend is probably mythical - Nigel Starmer-Smith's history suggests that it was a corruption of Leuchter's, a Bradford restaurant - it is not hard to visualise the scene, with glasses raised around a bar table to toast the new venture.

Nor was that outlandish starting time out of the ordinary. A newspaper account of their first tour, later the same year, had the team travelling up from London on Boxing Day, arriving in Bradford at 10.15pm, having supper at the Alexandra at 2am and then going on to a dance. One team member went straight from the dance to breakfast at 7.30 am, before a 10am departure for the journey to Hartlepool. Arriving just after 2pm on December 27, they took the field - led by Andrew Stoddart - half an hour later and beat Hartlepool Rovers 9-4.

Two days later they drew 6-6 with Bradford (now Bradford Park Avenue FC), then one of the strongest clubs in England, and heard not long after the game had finished that one of their number - the Hartlepool Rovers captain Fred Alderson - had been chosen not merely for his England debut, but as captain.

"To play for them is still an honour, and their name offers a promise of open, attacking rugby. For potential opponents there is the promise of high quality opposition, but without the pressures of a full international." Huw Richards on the Barbarians

Those events in Yorkshire and Durham created an important, but rarely fixed or immovable, feature of the rugby landscape which endures to this day. That ability to adapt to the times and think on their feet off the field as much as on it has been a key to their survival and distinction.

It was behind founder WP 'Tottie' Carpmael's thinking in creating the club. He liked the idea of the short tour - the club was founded at the end of a northern trip by a team he had raised - but recognised that individual clubs might often struggle to find enough players who could afford to be away for several days.

From the start he went for distinction, recruiting players like Stoddart, his fellow cricket/rugby double internationals Sammy Woods and Gregor McGregor, and Alderson. To be a Barbarian rapidly became a serious honour.

And when relations with leading northern clubs, leading to their secession to form the Northern Union (now rugby league) in 1895, made Yorkshire a less appealing tour destination there was a gradual shift to Wales, with the first full four-match tour taking place in 1901. That routine - Penarth on Good Friday, Cardiff on Saturday, Swansea on Easter Monday and Newport on the Tuesday night - became a fixed part of the fixture list and a highlight of the Welsh season for much of the twentieth century, with (from 1921) the Mobbs Memorial match against East Midlands in the autumn and the post-Christmas visit (from 1909) to Leicester making up the framework of the Babas year.

The tour-ending clashes with international teams which have made the club most famous came after the Second World War, and with some reluctance. The Babas organisers were determined that their club should never become a representative team or an alternative British Lions, but they responded to an appeal for an extra fund-raising fixture to be added to the 1947-8 Australian tour.

That desire to avoid being seen as a Test team informed one tradition established at the match - the choice of an uncapped player, on that occasion the Blackheath winger Martin Turner. Another tradition, the selection of veteran members of the tour party for the Babas, came a decade later when Nick Shehadie, a member of the 1948 Australians, returned for his second tour. Repeated in 1964 for All Black Ian Clark, also making a second tour 10 years after his first, it led to the veteran prop claiming the only points scored by the Babas in a 36-3 loss, with a drop-goal.

A 45,000 crowd solved the Wallabies financial headaches and enabled a missionary trip to Canada, replicated by the Babas in 1957, on their way home. It also made the farewell fixture a highlight of tours to come - notably in 1960 when the Springboks lost their unbeaten record in a match in which their captain Avril Malan, who had strong-armed his way around Britain and Ireland, was laid out by a tackle from full-back Haydn Mainwaring, and the never-to-be-forgotten All Blacks match of 1973, launched by Phil Bennett's side-stepping initiation of the 90-metre try completed by Gareth Edwards.

It was those traditions which were threatened by changes which started before rugby went professional. Clubs with league and cup commitments were no longer so ready to prioritise a friendly, however attractive. There was no great meeting of minds in the year when the Barbarians complained that Swansea had put out a shadow team against them, on the not unreasonable grounds that they had a Cup Final five days later. The current management will doubtless be more understanding of any such dilemma facing their next opponent, Heriot's, who entertain the Babas on April 21, four days before their BT Premiership final against Melrose.

Short tours scarcely needed farewells. Traditional five-month tours meant that teams became part of the fabric of the British game for that year. Previously unknown players became national figures, but then left - probably forever. There is much less point in heartfelt farewells or choruses of 'now is the hour' for teams who arrived only three weeks ago, were here last year and back next and in the interim will can be watched most weekends on satellite TV.

But the Babas have remade themselves and their fixture list to survive into the professional era. To play for them is still an honour, and their name offers a promise of open, attacking rugby. For potential opponents there is the promise of high quality opposition, but without the pressures of a full international. Several developing nations regard their interest and influence with gratitude.

There are elements in their history that grate slightly. The RFU presumably gave them no option but to expel members who joined rugby league, but did they really have to be listed separately in the club history? Never electing Clive Rowlands, one of the liveliest, most questioning minds in rugby, diminishes the Babas far more than it does him.

But for the most part they've been a source of pleasure and entertainment, the supreme markers of anniversaries and openers of grounds. That they'll play the first match at the Olympic Stadium, and that it will be against a developing rugby nation Samoa is both typical and appropriate. They're well worthy of the glasses that will be raised to them, many at 2am or later, as they celebrate their 125th.