The ground known as Welford Road, home of Leicester Tigers rugby club, hosted seven major rugby internationals in the 20th century. Physically located south of the city centre between Aylestone Road and Welford Road, the home of Leicester rugby since 1892 has played a huge part in the development and history of English rugby at club and international level.
Twenty thousand spectators were drawn to the ground on February 8th 1902 when England faced Ireland in the second match of their 1901-1902 international campaign. As a principal reason for moving the match to Leicester was to support rugby in the midlands, it was surprising that no players were selected from Leicester or any of the other midlands clubs. It would in fact be another year before the first Leicester player was picked for England, the winger JH ‘Jack’ Miles who won his only cap against Wales in a heavy defeat at St Helen’s, Swansea in January 1903.
England won the 1902 clash with Ireland by two tries to one and the choice of venue was deemed to be a success. The Sportsman declared on the Monday after the match:
“Every attention had been paid to the ground and general arrangements, the local authorities being extremely anxious that the first international in the district should pass off without a hitch, and Mr TH Crumbie and his staff are certainly deserving of the highest praise.”
The Rugby Football Union decided to return to Welford Road two years later on January 9th 1904 for the international against Wales. There was one forward from the midlands in the England side, the 18-year old JG ‘Jumbo’ Milton a schoolboy at Bedford Grammar School who was winning the first of his five caps. A crowd of 17,000 saw a thrilling match against a star-studded Welsh side which ended in a 14-14 draw.
Two years later on February 10th 1906 the England team returned to face Ireland at Welford Road, but disappointingly in front of only 10,000 spectators. They saw a strong Irish side with stars such as Basil Maclear and Brooke Purdon in the threequarters and forwards Fred Gardiner and Alf Tedford, scorer of two tries, move into a 16-0 lead after twenty five minutes of the second half before two late unconverted England tries provided some respectability in their 16-6 defeat.
Three years later at Welford Road on January 30th 1909, England hosted France for the second time with two Leicester players in their line-up. The experienced full back EJ ‘John’ Jackett was winning his 11th cap having established a formidable reputation on tour with the Anglo-Welsh to New Zealand the previous summer in which he had played in all three tests. The young centre Frank Tarr was a student at Oxford University where he had played in the 1907 and 1908 Varsity matches against Cambridge University. He had first appeared for Leicester in 1906 and was winning the third of his four caps in this match in which he scored two tries. With Northampton’s Edgar Mobbs on the wing and also a try scorer, there was a greater representation from the midlands clubs in England’s 22-0 victory.
There was to be one more international match played at Welford Road before Twickenham took up exclusive hosting duties for England internationals from 1924 to 1991. On February 10th 1923, a very strong England side en route to its second Grand Slam in three years under the captaincy of fly half WJA ‘Dave’ Davies faced Ireland at Welford Road. There were two Leicester players in the side, Alastair Smallwood on the left wing and HL ‘Leo’ Price at wing forward. Both were try scorers in England’s convincing five-try 23-5 victory in front of 20,000 supporters.
Ground capacity had become an important issue in the 1920s as rugby increasingly became a major spectator sport with the ability to attract crowds of around 50,000 for internationals. The writing for Welford Road as an international ground was on the wall when the Yorkshire Post stated after the 1923 match that:
“The visit of the England and Ireland rugby teams to Leicester today has proved a success in all but one particular. This was in the patronage it received from the public. The England team triumphed by 23 points to 5, and less than 20,000 persons assembled to witness the performance. Compared with the attendances usually seen at international contests at Twickenham, this, of course, was a disappointing figure.”
As a result Welford Road, despite its enthusiastic support for its local rugby team, was regarded as no longer a financially viable venue for England matches. This approach lasted for almost seventy years until the Rugby World Cup came to Britain in 1991 when Welford Road hosted the match between New Zealand and Italy and a further match at the 1999 World Cup when Italy played Tonga.
To much dismay in the city, despite major development of the Welford Road ground and the raising of its seated numbers to over 25,000 spectators, its capacity was deemed to be insufficient to host matches in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The City Stadium, home of Leicester City football club, with its capacity of 32,000 was chosen instead and there must sadly be a doubt as to whether Welford Road will ever host a major international again.
- The Book of English International Rugby 1871-1982 – John Griffiths (Willow Books 1982)
- Leicester Football Club 1880-1980 – David Hands (Leicester Football Club 1981)
- Leicestershire rugby Union 1887-1987 (Syston Printing, Leicester 1986)
- Tigers 1880-2014 – Stuart Farmer & David Hands (Rugby Development Limited 2014)
- Newspapers: Leicester Daily Post – Sporting Life – Sportsman – Times – Western Mail
About the Author – A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.