FIRST GORDON, THEN ZEALANDIA

In 1889 both Sydney and Melbourne senior Rugby competitions saw the formation of new clubs, comprised entirely of New Zealanders – an initiative analogous to the earlier establishment of “London Scottish” and “London Welsh” clubs in the English capital.

1884 New Zealand touring team
1884 New Zealand touring team

The catalyst towards the founding of these clubs was a severe economic downturn in New Zealand in the mid-late 1880s, that saw many young men move across the Tasman Sea to the major Australian cities in the pursuit of employment.

In Sydney the “Zealandia Football Club” resolved to adopt a “uniform being black with a silver fern-leaf on the breast” (replicating the 1888/89 New Zealand Native team that toured Britain),  The club name was taken from the steamship operating the Pacific Ocean run from San Francisco via New Zealand to Sydney. In 1888 the Zealandia had brought to Sydney from Auckland the first British Lions team.

In Melbourne the “Pakeha Football Club” chose a jersey in “crimson with a silver fern on the breast” (Otago Daily Times 14 May 1889). A report of the club’s founding in early 1889 noted “there were about 80 or 90 present” and “the majority were Aucklanders.” When a toast to “the health of the new Pakeha Club was proposed” it was agreed that “it should be drunk with war cry honours” and “then a strange cry went out of the windows into Bourke Street, and no doubt our ‘Ake! Ake! Ake! Kia kaha! Kia kaha!‘ was a cause of wonder to those who heard this novel shout.”

Earlier in Sydney in 1886 a group of ex-pat ‘Maorilanders’ had met and founded the “Ponsonby Football Club” for the coming season. Australian Town and Country Journal reported: “It was resolved that no limit should be put to the number of members, but that all future members must be bona-fide New Zealanders.”

Deciding that the club’s name was too representative of Auckland and not the whole islands, it was changed to the “Kiwis Football Club”. The Globe newspaper felt a need to explain to its readers “the kiwi being an indigenous Maori bird”. The club adopted the black and white colours of the Ponsonby club (now black and blue), adding “The secretary (care of Mr. Barnard, of the Southern Cross Hotel) will be glad to hear from any New Zealand Rugbeians who wish to rally round the black and white flag.”

The Gordon club was founded by James O'Donnell in 1886.
The Gordon club was founded by James O’Donnell in 1886, winning both the Sydney first grade premiership and Challenge Cup in its debut season.

The ‘Kiwis’ though never played a game – it was soon realised most of the players had earlier given advice they would join the about to be formed “Gordon Football Club”, being organised by James O’Donnell (a powerful forward from Otago who remained in Sydney following the 1884 New Zealand team’s tour).

After some debate, the ‘Kiwis’ decided to throw in their lot with the ‘Gordons’, who had already adopted a colourful playing kit of “royal blue, cardinal and old gold” Rugby jerseys and blue pants.

The Gordon club almost certainly had no connection to its like-named but at that time a semi-rural suburb. All the Gordon club meetings were held in city hotels, and its players were from all points of the metropolitan area.

Taking the name ‘Gordon’ at their 1886 club founding may have been styled on Auckland’s Gordon club (a rival of Ponsonby), however, it is more likely to have been a tribute to British soldier and “hero of the Empire” General Charles Gordon (killed at Khartoum in 1885), or to Australia’s “sporting scenery” poet Adam Lindsay Gordon who was often quoted at the start of football newspaper columns across the colonies (in 1887 Town and Country Journal printed a drawing of O’Donnell along with a short stanza of Gordon’s work).

The Sydney Morning Herald reported in April 1886:

“A letter was also read from Mr. M. A. Arnold, hon. secretary of the Southern Rugby Union [NSWRU], admitting the club into the Union. Messrs. Braithwaite, Shields, Croker, and Scott, of the late New Zealand Club, were present, and the whole of the team were enrolled as members of the Gordon Club.”

The ‘Kiwis’ club had not lived a fortnight before its demise. With enough players to enter teams in two grades, the combined forces of the ‘Gordons’ under the captaincy of O’Donnell proved a spectacular success on the Sydney competition (The Evening News):

“The Gordon Football Club has undoubtedly been the wonder of the season. Ever since its inauguration the Gordon Club have won all their matches, with the exception of two that were drawn in their favour, and one that was lost with the Balmain.”

A glance of the NSWRU’s Sydney first grade premiers confirms that Gordon were duly awarded the crown as “Premier Rugby Club of New South Wales” as champions of the 1886 first grade club competition, as well as winners of the Gardiner Challenge Cup competed for by 16 clubs. An incredible double-feat for a new club.

There seemingly were plenty of New Zealanders still at the Gordon club at the start of 1889 – newspapers report of the Gordons club preparing for the new season, but it suddenly disappeared, just at the time the “Zealandia Football Club” came into being. O’Donnell had left the Gordons a year earlier, joining the Arforma club and then moving on to Randwick. 

The Zealandias had sufficient footballers for two grades for their debut in 1889, and continued playing in Sydney competitions until at least 1893.

© Sean Fagan

With thanks to New Zealand rugby writer/historian Ron Palenski for information on Auckland’s Gordon club.

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