The 1880s are remembered for NSW, Queensland and New Zealand first meeting on the rugby field. Long forgotten though is that Victoria too made its debut in that decade – a happening that caused a cross-code controversy to erupt in Melbourne newspapers.
In 1888 the impending arrival of the first British Lions team led to CE Chapman, a young Cambridge University educated teacher, employed at Melbourne Grammar School, successfully founding the colony’s first rugby club.
Through July and August 1888 the “Melbourne” team played against the Britishers (losing 15-5) and then in two contests against the New Zealand Natives who were on their way to England (the home team were beaten 3 tries to nil in the first game, but secured a praiseworthy draw in the second).
When the Natives returned the following winter the teams met again with the visitors winning two further games. The latter match is recorded in some rugby books as being against “Victoria”, however the newspaper reports at the time make no such distinction, referring to the contest as the final meeting between the Maori party and the Melbourne rugby club.
Nevertheless, the presence of seemingly proficient rugby players in Melbourne (who had since split into three clubs and formed a Victorian Rugby Union) did not escape the excited attention of the NSWRU in Sydney.
Records of a meeting early in 1889 note NSWRU Secretary Monty Arnold saying:
“He thought every footballer should notice with pleasure that rugby was gaining ground in Melbourne, and he believed from what he had ascertained that an intercolonial match with Victoria would be played here in July.”
With barely a skerrick of mention in Melbourne newspapers, a team of Victorian players was chosen in early July 1889 to make the train journey northwards.
Meanwhile a representative of the VRU wrote to The Referee newspaper in Sydney (reproduced 9.9.08):
“We are a small, but devoted band, endeavoring to plant the flag of Rugby Unionism in the enemies’ citadel, surrounded by an indifferent public and hostile press…But in spite of all obstacles we have emerged with renewed strength and enthusiasm to commence the present season with a very bright future before us.”
The Victorian team were to stay a week, playing NSW twice, and against a side of players selected from Sydney’s “Juniors” clubs (a reference to clubs outside of the main premiership competition) – all the contests were set for the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The tourists arrived in Sydney the day before their first match against NSW, and were housed at the Empire Hotel – “second to none in the city” (situated on the corner of Pitt and Hunter Streets, where “Currency House” now stands). It was reported that John Calvert, President of the NSWRU (from 1874-1915):
“…gave the visitors a hearty welcome, and referred with much pleasure to the fact that intercolonial rugby matches had at last been established with Victoria.”
The Victorians (light blue jerseys) performed well in both games against NSW (red/maroon jerseys). The home team took victory in each (13-6 and 17-14), but the visitors won good plaudits for the closeness of the scores, and their apparent quick mastery of the finer points of the game – a view reinforced by the severity and manner of the Victorian’s 23-6 mauling of the city’s best Juniors’ players in the mid week game, despite the contest being played out in heavy rain and upon a slippery surface.
The Sydney Mail enthused about the visitors:
“Without the shadow of a doubt the Melbourne men have some rattling good players in their ranks.”
The same journal reported that the managers of the New Zealand Natives, casting an entreprenuial eye towards a bountiful crowd-puller at the SCG, had made (an ultimately futile) attempt with the NSWRU to arrange a match against a combined XV of the pick of the NSW and Victorian sides.
Meanwhile The Sydney Morning Herald endeavoured to explain to its readers the Victorians’ surprising form:
“Although the Rugby Union in Melbourne has been in existence only a few months, it must not therefore be supposed that the players from the sister colony are novices in the game.
“As a matter of fact, they learnt their football in past seasons in the various strongholds of rugby, notably New Zealand, and therefore came here on the same footing as our representatives so far as acquaintance with the game is concerned.”
The Daily Telegraph wrote of the team:
“The southerners came over with an excellent reputation, it being know that the team was made up of ex-New Zealand and English players, all of whom had been players of ‘the first water’ [the highest degree of quality or purity in diamonds or pearls] in their native countries, and they had proved their skill in Melbourne by having played very hot games against Shaw’s English team last season and the Maoris during the past and present seasons.”
The Sydney Morning Herald suggested it was only a lack of combination that ultimately let the Victorians’ down:
“The visitors played with more fire and dash than our men, and, undoubtedly, finished in better trim, but they did not play well together, and it was only their excellent following and working close on the ball that saved them from a heavier defeat. The efforts of Miller, Diamond, Scarborough, and Smart would individually bear comparison with those of our own players.”
The Victorians were led by Tom Scarborough, who had migrated from northern England, and had been a rugby player of some repute for the Halifax club, his county, and is praised by Frank Marshall in his 1892 book, Football: The Rugby Union Game.
Bob Seddon, captain of the 1888 British team had told reporters in New Zealand that:
“Tom Scarborough used to play for Yorkshire County [1885-86], and was a very good dodger and runner, and was noted at Home for his dodging runs.”
At a NSWRU dinner to farewell the team after the final game, Scarborough thanked their hosts for their hospitality, but added:
“I regret to say there is not a single native-born Victorian in the team.”
Monty Arnold then rose to his feet, and, according to various reports, including The Sydney Morning Herald, took a few pot-shots at Victorian rules and Melbourne business generally:
“… said that in Melbourne if a young man took to rugby football he was told by his employer that he need not come back to work again.
“He considered that the Victorian game was going from bad to worse. The amateurs were crushed out by paid men, and the game was an outlet for a class of players they did not want to have in rugby football.”
Despite the apparent limit and brevity of Arnold’s salvo – and that he wasn’t the first person to have suggested some Melbourne footballers were paid, nor that instances of employers in New Zealand and England banning their workers from playing rugby had occurred – Melbourne’s newspaper columnists and football community reacted with all the fury of a whipped dog.
If Arnold had done it for effect, to get rugby in Melbourne noticed, he got his wish and then some.
Not content to deny the charges, as well as point to the paucity of Sydney football crowds compared to Melbourne’s as self-validating confirmation of the Victorian code’s superior merit, some commentators went so far as to take aim at the Victorian rugby team itself.
The Argus opened with:
“A number of rugby footballers resident in Melbourne, have just visited Sydney, and at the close of the trip a Mr Arnold connected with the rugby game would seem to have ‘ran amuck’ on the subject of the Australian game of football. But for this fact many would not have known that such a thing as a Victorian team of rugby players existed.”
…and then added:
“The rugby players are not likely to help their game by making childish and improbable charges. Yet had it not been for Mr Arnold’s outburst people here would scarcely have been aware of the fact that a few retired English and New Zealand footballers had somewhat impertinently borrowed the name of Victoria as a title for their team, and taken it upon themselves to represent the colony in the football field.
“The team by-the-by seems to have been named Victorian on something of the ‘lucus a non lucendo’ principle [ie. an absurd contradiction], because there is no Victorian in it and it has never been, so far as anyone knows, victorious.”
The first Victorian rugby team had come into being, and though it comprised able exponents of the game from all parts of the rugby globe, it had been delivered into a harsh world.
© Sean Fagan