England made several changes for their Home Nations Championship match against Ireland on 6 February, 1892, but it was the inclusion of James Marsh that proved most controversial.

Marsh came into the side in Manchester in place of Fred Alderson, who had captained England in their 17-0 defeat of Wales the previous month.

Born and raised in nearby Rumworth, he was a three-quarter of some repute having represented Swinton, Lancashire and the North of England. However, that told only part of his story.

Following his older brother, John into medical practice, Marsh had left England as a teenager to complete his schooling at Edinburgh Institute and subsequently trained as a doctor at Edinburgh University.

During this time, he caught the attention of the Scotland selectors and made two appearances against Wales and Ireland in 1889, a time when England were not competing in the Home Nations Championship.

Although there were no formal laws around eligibility at the beginning of 1892, with the International Board (now World Rugby) in its infancy, no player had ever played for more than one of the home unions.

The appearance of Marsh in Manchester, therefore, was enough to elicit a sense of déjà vu in Joseph Jameson, the only Ireland player selected at Whalley Range who had also faced Scotland in Belfast three years’ previously.

“Jameson must have thought that he was seeing things,” John Griffiths wrote in Rugby’s Strangest Matches. “Either that or he had partaken the night before in one glass too many of the famous whiskey that bore his name.

“The reason for his confusion was one James Marsh, standing before him in the white jersey and red rose of England. Hadn’t this same James Marsh stood before him almost three years earlier at the Ballynafeigh Grounds in Belfast … in the navy blue of Scotland?”

“Unique distinction”

It was indeed the same centre three-quarter, Marsh having represented the North of England as early as 1890.

Although it is believed he returned to the Manchester area to gain practical experience in pursuit of his medical qualifications, which he would be awarded from Edinburgh in 1893, this was not a permanent move.

Newspaper reports published in The Glasgow Herald on 1 February, 1892, and uncovered by Griffiths, suggest that he maintained much closer links to Scotland than previously assumed.

According to the newspaper, Marsh played a pivotal role in Edinburgh University’s win at Hawick on 30 January, scoring an unconverted try just seven days before he made his England debut.

Moreover, it seems that he had been selected as a reserve for Scotland in their Home Nations Championship match in Wales, which unusually for the time, took place on the same day as England entertained Ireland in Manchester.

Commenting on his appearance in the England team, the Herald wrote: “Marsh, of Edinburgh University, takes Alderson’s place at centre-half, and, strange to say, that player, who is an old Scottish international, is first reserve centre-half for Scotland against Wales.

“Marsh is not the first Englishman who has played for Scotland – we could name several – but he is the first man who can rejoice in the unique distinction of having been selected by two unions.”

“He was definitely still in Edinburgh in February 1892, and actually played for the university the week before his [England] cap,” Griffiths told World Rugby.

“There used to be trials before international matches in those days and one of the big trials for the English team was the North against the South, and he played for the North as a Swinton player in 1890.

“So, he was back and forth between Scotland and England, even while he was being educated in Scotland. But he played for the North in 1890 and again in 1892 and he regularly turned out for Lancashire in county matches.

“I suppose it wasn't that long a journey from Edinburgh down to Manchester for a county game or something like that, but I think he was moving around quite a lot judging by the matches he played at representative level.”

Scottish protest

On 6 February, Marsh, listed by England as a Swinton player, helped the country of his birth to a 7-0 win against Ireland that maintained their push for a Triple Crown.

Not much is known about his personal performance at Whalley Range, but it unsurprisingly caught the eye of the Scottish Football Union (now the Scottish Rugby Union).

Scotland, having also beaten Ireland and Wales, were due to play England at Raeburn Place in March in what would be a Championship decider. They did not believe Marsh should play.

At a meeting of the Board in Manchester on Monday, 8 February, Scotland raised the matter, much to the distain of the local press.

“They couldn't understand what the Scots were protesting about,” Tony Collins, Emeritus Professor of History, De Montfort University, said. “He was Manchester born and bred, so their objection was what was he doing playing for Scotland in the first place?”

Ultimately, it was “recommended to the consideration of the Unions the adoption of a qualifying rule based preferably on birth qualification”.

The decision only applied to member unions, i.e. England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, but effectively ended Marsh’s international playing days. He would go on to have a long career as a doctor, serving as medical officer for health in Boothstown for almost three decades.

On his death in August 1928, it looked as though his place in rugby’s history, as the only male player to represent two home unions at test level, was assured.

That could be set to change, however. Some 131 years after Marsh made his one and only appearance for England, Ruaridh McConnochie could match his international double, albeit in reverse.

McConnochie played twice for England in 2019, including once at that year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan, but under a regulation amendment is now eligible to represent Scotland having not appeared in the white jersey since.

The Bath winger has been selected in Gregor Townsend’s Six Nations squad and could make his Scotland debut when they begin their Championship campaign, ironically enough, against England at Twickenham.

“I look back on England with an immense amount of pride. I’ll never not be proud of my career and my journey up to now,” McConnochie told the Daily Mail.

“My family are all Scots. They’ve all grown up supporting Scotland and we as kids grew up supporting Scotland as well.

“It’s not paying them back, but it’s giving them an opportunity to text me saying ‘Welcome home. We can’t wait to start wearing our blue shirt again rather than supporting England’. I’m 100 per cent committed.”