While Scotland’s first match in Newcastle (Australia) was not until 2012, many Scots have played in the city with British Lions teams. None though rival the heated controversy and after-effect caused by Scotland Rugby Union Hall-of-Famer, David Bedell-Sivright.
Despite over-stated stories about the scale of Australian rules’ ‘Black Diamond Cup’, rugby was the dominant football code in Newcastle and across the Hunter through the last decades of the 19th century and into the early 1900s.
It wasn’t until late 1909, when widespread dissatisfaction with certain officials of the local rugby union bodies got caught up in industrial troubles in the region’s coal mines, coupled with the fall-out from 14 of the 31 players involved in the 1908/09 Wallaby tour swapping codes, that Newcastle switched allegiance to rugby league.
Such was the scale of support for league that Newcastle seceded from the Sydney premiership it had joined in 1908, and established a local four team Newcastle club competition.
The league game never looked back, and it is probably some indication of its support compared to the older code that it has taken just over a century for the city to be granted a match as significant as 2012’s Scotland-Wallabies international.
Of course, as is generally the case with any rebellion, the seeds of discontent have been simmering for some time beforehand. Though flashpoint was reached in 1909, a rugby match in 1904 between ‘Combined Northern Districts’ (representing Newcastle and the Hunter) against the touring British Lions – captained by Scotland’s David Bedell-Sivright – can be seen as the beginning.
It would be unfair to lay at the feet of Bedell-Sivright and his team the reason Newcastle became a league town – after all, amateur rugby union in a working-class city of the scale of Newcastle was always destined to fall to upon the arrival of a football code offering reasonable player benefits – however, the match and its aftermath lit a bonfire of outrage against rugby officialdom.
Newcastle rugby had long held a chip on its shoulder over selection of NSW and Australian teams, feeling that players from the region were not getting a fair shot at opportunities. Matches against touring teams from New Zealand or Britain (as well as Waratahs and Reds teams en route to Sydney or Brisbane for inter-state contests) were particularly looked forward to as opportunity to prove the worth and mettle of the Hunter’s best.
The 1904 British Lions would later encounter difficult opponents in New Zealand, but on this side of the Tasman they were cutting a swathe through the local teams, notching five easy victories, including the Waratahs (twice) and Australia, before arriving in Newcastle.
Twenty-three year old Bedell-Sivright was mid-way through a sterling playing career as a forward for Scotland. In 2010 he was included as one of 12 inaugural inductees into the Scotland Rugby Hall of Fame. He is still the only Scot to play in three Triple Crown winning sides (1901-03-07), and twice toured with the British Lions (1903 to South Africa & ’04).
One of the hardest men to ever play the game, in 1909, a century before Sonny Bill Williams and his faux pugilistic bouts, Bedell-Sivright ascended through the cut-and-thrust of the serious boxing ranks, drawing upon raw power rather than technique, he became Scottish heavyweight amateur champion.
Stories about his toughness are legion, but the most re-told is the day he is said to have once celebrated a famous victory by laying in the middle of a busy city street for an hour, then went to a cab rank whereupon he is said to have crash-tackled a horse to the ground.
Bedell-Sivright and his Lions faced ‘Combined Northern Districts’ at Newcastle’s ‘Rugby Union Ground’. The most notable inclusion n the home team was forward Pat ‘Nimmo’ Walsh, who had played for Australia in the Test defeat at the SCG just a few days earlier.
The Sydney Mail reported that “the Newcastle men with Walsh in the forefront were playing up [well], and were holding more than their own” against the British. Walsh was soon seen to collide with Lions’ Welsh winger Fred Jowett. The visitor landed so heavily on his head that, suffering severe concussion, he had to leave the field – with replacements not allowed, the British had to battle on with 14 men. The Lions weren’t convinced Walsh’s actions were a mere accident, but got on with the game.
The Sydney Sportsman noted that shortly after half-time, local referee Hugh Dolan awarded the home team a free-kick from a scrum: “The Britishers did not by any means like being penalised for their frequent recourse to a game at which they appear to be very apt, namely, funny business in the scrums.”
After Dolan gave the penalty, Lions and England forward Denys Dobson said, “What the devil was that for?” The referee promptly challenged Dobson for his remark, who apparently replied using indecent language. Dolan provided Dobson numerous opportunities to apologise, but he refused. The referee then ordered him to leave the field – it was the first time a British Lion had ever been sent-off.
Bedell-Sivright remonstrated with Dolan, got no satisfaction, so signalled to his men and the whole of the British team walked off the ground to the dressing room, amongst loud hooting from the crowd. He claimed the referee’s assertions cast a “reflection on the personal character of the team” and could not be allowed to pass without protest.
After twenty minutes of debate with local officials, Bedell-Sivright led his men, minus Dobson and the still injured Jowett, back onto the field. Well ,when the play resumed it was a very ‘vigorous’ game, especially amongst the forwards.
The Sydney Sportsman commenting “After the incident or accident, or whatever it was, the play was very willing, and some of the scrums were very good places to be out of.” The reporter adding “Pat Walsh performed brilliantly, but the visitors made a marked man of him, and tormented him all they knew.” The Lions eventually won the match 17-3.
In the aftermath, the NSWRU removed the investigation into the incident from the local Union and held its own inquiry. The NSWRU found that Dobson had used a hasty and improper expression in saying, “What the devil was that for?”.
Five of the Newcastle players, including Walsh, supported the referee’s allegation, and the reason for which Dobson was sent-off (that the player had also used an indecent expression). Bedell-Sivright, Dobson and other members of the Lions team denied that anything of the kind had been said at all.
The NSWRU took the side of the tourists, and inferentially found that the referee and the Newcastle players had made a mistake as the “indecent expression reported by the referee was not used by Mr Dobson.”
As to Bedell-Sivright leading the Lions from the field mid-match, and any penalty against Dobson for his improper expression, the NSWRU came to the conclusion that the incidents were so trivial as to not merit consideration. Nothing further was to be done.
The Newcastle rugby community were outraged that the NSWRU had sided with the Britishers instead of standing behind their own. They were dismayed that they hadn’t been believed, and worse, the NSWRU had ignored their evidence. Dolan gave up officiating on the spot, while the fuming players, publicly at least, bit their tongues and remained silent.
The situation in Newcastle deteriorated the following year when Walsh, despite excellent form for NSW, was left out of the Australian team to visit New Zealand. Many claimed it was retribution for his refusal to back down at the hearing into the 1904 Lions match. The treatment meted out to Walsh and Newcastle rugby generally was a recurring theme in meetings to establish rugby league in the city.
It was no surprise that Walsh himself later joined rugby league, becoming a member of the Kangaroos on their 1908 tour to Britain. At the end of the campaign he became the first Australian to sign with an English club, joining Huddersfield. During WW1 he served with the Australian 12th Light Horse at Gallipoli, Egypt and Palestine, before returning home.
Bedell-Sivright , who had qualified as a doctor, joined the Royal Navy and was also at Gallipoli in 1915. It was there that he was bitten by an unidentified insect, and despite medical attention, succumbed to blood poisoning.
The following year Dobson, working for the British government as a civil servant in what is now Malawi in Africa, was fatally gorged by a charging rhinoceros.
It may perhaps be an apocryphal after-dinner rugby story, but is claimed that upon Dobson’s old school master hearing the news of his demise famously uttered: “He always did have rather a weak hand-off!”
© Sean Fagan