Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens; Nov 19, 2012 @ 08:03
In March 1890, Blackheath’s W.P. ‘Tottie’ Carpmael lamented that the rugby season was already over, even though there were still a few good weeks of football weather remaining. It also bothered Carpmael that the club system meant always playing with the same men, and rarely with his friends and foes from other clubs.
Carpmael’s solution was the formation of the Barbarian FC; a composite team of specially selected and invited gentlemen footballers, to go on tour, sharing goodwill while having a good time. The Barbarian FC is a vestige of rugby’s long-faded past; in its antiquated charms lay lessons for today.
Fellow founding player, WJ Carey, composed the club’s motto: “Rugby football is a game for gentlemen in all classes, but for no bad sportsman in any class.” Over 2800 invited players have turned out for “the Baa-Baas” during the past 120 years, forging the club’s untarnished reputation.
The Barbarians, of course, didn’t invent club football tours. At the representative level, touring teams had become the norm in the 1880s, especially in Australia and New Zealand, where the vast distances meant anything up to a week’s journey between the major capitals.
Players would almost “crawl over broken glass” to take part in a rep tour – why not when far from home’s glaring eyes and daily realities, life included lavishly entertained banquets, smoke-concerts, theatre outings and picnic drives, as well as visits to places and attractions that you would otherwise never have had access to, all while playing football with and against top players.
The regular exchange of tours built much good will, and rapidly grew interest in the game. It also effectively left those estranged “Melbourne rules” disciples out on their own. But tours also sometimes had a down side for the game; some of it was reported, most of it not.
There is no doubt there was a conspiracy of silence covering the public reporting of footballers’ rowdiness and bad behaviour. “Footballers are allowed to behave like a pack of hoodlums, and yet never a word of notice or reproof gets into the daily papers,” stated one concerned writer in the early 1890s.
Suffice to say, if alleged misdemeanours by footballers in the 1890s made the newspapers, they must have been on the disreputable side of the “football hi-jinks” ledger.
In 1894 the NSW Waratahs returned from New Zealand with the team’s manager boasting that “the conduct of the NSW footballers was everything that could be desired.” He knew otherwise, but relying on the custom that it was “bad form” for anyone to speak ill of guests, he had little fear of any damaging revelations getting out. He was mistaken.
After the tour the Otago Witness, amongst many, wrote of NSW players being so drunk on the trip across to New Zealand that the ship’s captain was forced to intervene, that after an evening function in Napier players swore at passers-by in the town’s streets, and that one of the most prominent players “grossly insulted” a referee “using language so foul that it is perfectly unprintable.” Some reports hinted at more incidents.
The most infamous incident came as the team left Auckland. Newspapers told of how Auckland RU officials, together with their lady partners, had gathered at the harbour wharf in readiness to officially send-off the visiting team.
The party was mortified at the sight of the NSW players arriving accompanied by “a bevy of notorious nymphs de pave, who were more than affectionately farewelled by certain of the departing guests.” Another reported of the “disgraceful scene on the wharf” where “the visitors made drunken and noisy adieus to some notorious women of the town.”
Taranaki’s newspaper editor wrote that “One visit in a hundred years from such as they would be quite enough,” while the Hawke’s Bay Herald likened the NSW team to one of Sydney’s notorious “push gangs.” Even editors in towns at which the team didn’t play went so far as to state in print that they were thankful for the mercy.
Three years later, New Zealand toured NSW and Queensland. The visitors easily accounted for NSW at the SCG, then headed off into country NSW for a week – on their return they were to face the Waratahs in a re-match, but few doubted the black-jerseyed Kiwis would win again.
The New Zealand Times‘ correspondent who accompanied the team wrote “They were a tattered lot of wrecks as they hobbled into the hotel on their return to Sydney from Bathurst and Orange.” The Bulletin added that the “Maorilanders” had, in addition to playing football, “eaten, drunk, and knocked about considerably during the week.” In a complete form reversal NSW flogged the NZrs 22-8.
The public’s mood though soon began to change. Some was due to a growing conservatism and rise of temperance groups (particularly against alcohol), but the public were also sensing that the “irregular habits” of players was causing “wretched form” in some teams, leading to questionable match results.
“Strange to say conduct ‘off’ usually reacts on conduct ‘on’ and vice-versa,” wrote one rugby columnist. “A team that plays a good sportsmanlike game will usually behave like sportsmen when not on the field, and a rowdy mob will seldom do much good in their matches.”
The change in sentiment was also driven from within the code itself in the years after the birth of professional rugby league, as the 15-man game reinforced the principles of amateurism and the ideals of playing and behaving in a “gentlemanly spirit.”
It was an ethos that served the code through the rest of the century, and while there are plenty of examples to demonstrate the “paid amateur” was commonplace, there is merit and underlying values in its message about being a gentleman.
Both rugby codes are now truly professional; club footballers are full-time and living a life that equates to being permanently “on tour.” Adding to the lethal cocktail, the 21st century has brought with it a veracious media willing to seize upon misdemeanors of professional footballers.
Ironically, while at times the words and messages of rugby’s gentlemanly culture has often been lampooned, misunderstood, and even at times been followed superficially or little better than a convenient charade, it still nevertheless serves the 15-man code well in the professional era, providing core values that continue to underpin the game.
For the Barbarians “the only qualifications considered when issuing an invitation are that the player’s football is of a good enough standard and secondly that he should behave himself on and off the field.”
As an invitational team, the Barbarians have the advantage of the players being under their club and custody for very brief periods.
For other club officials and representative selectors, the Barbarians criteria could still serve equally as well.
Playing for any club, province or national team is a rare privilege.
© Sean Fagan