It's hard to believe but Wiganers were late-comers to Lancashire County honours, let alone representing England! Ned Bullough has the honour of being the only Wigan player to represent England Rugby Union before the great split of 1895. Bullough played through the Home Nations Championship with England a they cruised to the title without conceding point, and Bullough as an integral part of their success.
Playing for England was, of course, the highest honour one could get. For most players, catching the eye of the County selectors would have been a first priority before even thinking about higher tiers. As stated, it took a while for a Wigan player to catch the eye of the Lancastrian selectors. The crack teams from the Liverpool and Manchester areas usually filled up the teams but as the game developed and the older established clubs faded, the strength and might of collier men could no longer be ignored.
In November 1888, Billy Atkinson became the first Wigan player to earn his Lancashire County Cap in a match against Cheshire, played at Birkenhead Park. Since then he became more or less a permanent fixture and cornerstone of the Lancashire forward pack.
It wasn't for want of trying though. Fellow forward Tom Brayshay, a tanner by trade, had a County trial a year earlier at the start of November, 1887. The way it worked was simple. A trial game was usually played between Probables versus Possibles so that the selectors could gage what they needed. We all know this. Brayshay was unfortunate not to be selected but he would later get his honours in 1890-91 when Wigan were at the peak of their powers.
Jim Slevin, Dick Seddon and Billy Atkinson had their first taste for a trial game on 3rd November, 1888. On the same day Wigan travelled to Barrow without these (and comfortably won in the absence of Jim and friends). It was here that Billy caught the eyes of the County men and broke into the squad to claim his first County Cap as mentioned above.
Dick Seddon did not have to wait long to get his chance when a month later, he and Billy were selected to face the touring New Zealand Maoris at Whalley Range, Manchester. Whalley Range was at that time where Lancashire played their home matches. Seddon again was selected to play against Durham after the new year, which was to be his last County honour in Wigan colours.
Ned Bullough was a slow starter. Moving from Aspull where he played in the three-quarter line, he did not have the best of starts in a Wigan jersey. He asked his captain Jim Slevin whether he should move into the forwards or stop playing football. Slevin moved him into the forwards, and the rest is history. Bullough blossomed into one of the finest forwards Wigan ever had, in any era, and his partnership in the pack with Atkinson, Jack Lowe, Ellis Wardle and Tom Brayshay (amongst others) catapulted Wigan to another level. He caught the Lancashire eye in November 1889 where he got his chance against arch rivals Yorkshire. He and Atkinson became a mainstay for Lancashire for a couple of seasons after that.
As for the North v South matches, it was basically a trial match for England. Billy Atkinson got the first crack at this on 29th december, 1890 in a match played at Headingley, Leeds. Despite playing well it wasn't good enough for him to make the next step and have the highest of honours representing England during the 1891 Home Nations Championship.
Bullough, however, got his chance a year later in 1891. The North v South match was played at Jesmond, Newcastle. Bullough scored a try and his England selection was assured. His first cap came against Wales at Blackheath on 2nd January 1892 and went on to play twice more against Ireland and Scotland - winning the Calcutta Cup along the way! These Caps elevated his already superstar status in Wigan and he played proudly in his England attire on his first match back against Halifax to great applause.
Tom Brayshay finally got what he worked hard for in November 1890. He played in another trial match of Probables v Possibles alongside fellow Wiganer, fullback Jimmy Halliwell. Halliwell was unsuccessful but the second match (1st November) saw Brayshay join Atkinson, Bullough and Jack Mitchinson for a place in the first team. He did it and made his first Lancashire Cap alongside Atkinson against Northumberland at Newcastle.
Once the powerhouses of Brayshay, Atkinson and Bullough had retired, Wigan had to rebuild quickly as times were changing in the rugby world. Billy Unsworth was a bright kid hailing from the Hindley All Saints junior club (who when he threw his lot in with Wigan had just won the junior Wigan Charity Cup competition). Unsworth rose rapidly and was more than a replacement for Atkinson and Bullough. When Atkinson quit football after a seizure during a match against Walkden in february 1893, Lancashire opted to replace im with Unsworth as a like-for-like replacement you'd think. He went on a Tour to South Wales and Devon earning his first caps, alongside Wigan halfback Billy "smiler" Halliwell (who'd got his only cap pre-Northern Union). Lancashire took Billy Atkinson with the party on the trip as a thankyou to him and as a treat.
Looking further down the line we come to West Lancashire representation. Coming from the West Lancashire and Border Towns Union, the West Lancs were trying to build an exciting competition to rival that of the Yorkshire Cup and County. Starting in the early to mid 1880s, Wigan were better represented alongside teams such as Aspull, St Helens Recreation and Walkden.
Jim Slevin, captain Charlie Holt and Daff Banks faced the crack Yorkshire team of Batley, played at Widnes on September 18th, 1885. Being seen as a second rate representative team, it did not matter to the Wiganers at all. They viewed it as important to grow rugby football in West Lancashire with an aim of breaking down the barriers that had been put up by the older traditional Liverpool and Manchester clubs. Many fine Wiganers played a game or two for West Lancashire such as Ellis Wardle and Jimmy Hatton. Opponents were of similar stature: Westmorland, West Cumberland and South East Lancashire.
It was an absolute travesty that James Slevin never represented Lancashire
England Cap 1892
North v South Cap 1891
Whilst compiling these records I am indebted to Mike Latham. His painstaking research years ago focusing on this area made me realise how much information had been missed within my own research. His work is indicated by a star *. Below are a list of Honours from a Wigan player pre-Northern Union (1895-96)
Notes on the statistics:
*- indicates matches from Mike Lathams work and written records, used with thanks.
(West Lancs) - The WLBTU competition was won by Walkden in 1890-91 season and a representative team of the best of the rest of the union played against the winners. Similarly a WLBTU team played Wigan a year earlier.