Having won nine England caps between 1894 and 1897 and having toured South Africa with the 1896 British side Moseley legend J.F. ‘Fred’ Byrne was, in 1898, invited to captain his country.
His first match as captain was against Ireland at Richmond Athletic Ground on 5th February. Interestingly, the Rugby Football Union committee selected the England side on 11th January almost a month before the game; however, the committee’s choice of captain was not made until the evening prior to the match! The match generated a great deal of interest because in the previous four encounters between the two countries Ireland had been victorious on three occasions. During this match, at Richmond, the Irish loose forwards were superior to the home pack and their three quarters also performed well. England, on the other hand, had problems at halfback, which resulted in poor quality ball being passed to the outside backs. The Times reported that ‘the inferior work of the English halves was irreparable.’ Behind his struggling halfbacks and three quarters Fred Byrne ‘was as strong and as safe as ever’ and kicked a penalty goal for his side. The final score was an Irish victory by one penalty goal and two tries to one penalty goal and one try, which meant that Ireland had now defeated England in three consecutive matches.
Despite this defeat Fred Byrne was retained as captain for England’s next match, the Calcutta Cup game with Scotland, at Powderhall, Edinburgh on 12th March. In those days this was the premier event in the international rugby calendar. The Scottish forwards dominated proceedings thus ensuring that the England halfbacks and three quarters once more struggled to create any chances. They were further handicapped when one of the halves, G.T. Unwin who was then a Blackheath player but who also played for a time for Moseley, had to leave the field for a quarter of an hour with concussion. Despite Scotland’s forward superiority their backs were not able to take advantage and frequently knocked on, no doubt not helped by a strong English showing in defence which was spearheaded by Fred Byrne. The first half of the match was scoreless but in the second period England scored a try following a charged down kick. Byrne’s conversion attempt was from a difficult angle and it failed. With about a quarter of an hour remaining Scotland got a try back but the easy conversion attempt was missed and so the match ended in a draw.
England’s last international engagement of the season was against Wales at Rectory Field, Blackheath on 2nd April and once again Fred Byrne was chosen to lead the side. The outstanding player for the home team, both in attack and defence, was R. Livesay, at halfback, who had only been selected as a third choice following injuries to the two players that the selectors had preferred. Livesay was instrumental in three of the four tries scored by England whose three quarters, like the forwards, all played well. Fred Byrne seems to have had mixed fortunes during the match, The Times commenting that ‘Byrne was, on the whole, perhaps not so good as usual; but he did much excellent work in the second half.’ England scored their first try after ten minutes and later in the first half gained another to which Wales replied with a try of their own on the stroke of half time. Early in the second half Wales dropped a goal but the hosts replied with a further two tries, one of which Fred Byrne converted. The final score was thus a win for England by one goal and three tries to one dropped goal and one try. England did not defeat Wales again until 12 years later. This was Fred Byrne’s last match in charge and his final record as England captain was therefore played three, won one, drawn one and lost one. This game was also Byrne’s penultimate international, his last appearance being against Ireland in 1899.
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