footballer-rugbyJust over a century ago, Sydney was on the brink of becoming an Australian rules city. Had it fallen, the rest of NSW and then Queensland would have followed.

Rugby union officials, their hands tied by the game’s amateur-driven leaders in England, could do nothing to improve playing rules to counter the growing appeal of the home-grown football code.

Ever since football was first seriously taken up in Sydney in the mid-1860s, there have been those who have preferred the game “invented by Australians for Australia” over the scrum-driven rules from England’s Rugby School.

Many footballers and clubs dabbled in both codes, even mixed-rules matches.

Upon its formation in 1874, the NSWRU affiliated itself with the Rugby Football Union in England – meaning all its clubs had to play under rugby rules. To play anything else, would necessitate cutting the chord with “Home”.

While such attitudes held no sway in colonial Victoria, to many in NSW, being British still mattered.

Though Australian football had fair support in Sydney, particularly through visits from Melbourne clubs, the NSWRU kept the southern foe at bay.

The years immediately after Federation changed the attitude of many – no longer colonial-Britons, but Australians. In 1903, a small group of men thought it was time Sydney football fully embraced the “the Australian game”.

Led by NSW politician (and former Tasmanian) Edward O’Sullivan, an 11-club Australian football competition was formed.

O’Sullivan, a supporter of the Federation movement in the 1890s, told the Sydney public that “Australia is a big paddock, and there is room enough for all of us to play in it, whatever game we may prefer”. He argued that it was time NSW supported its own Australian-born code.

A mid-season showcase-match at the SCG between Fitzroy and Collingwood suggested O’Sullivan had hit the target. More than 26,000 spectators flocked to the ground. It was a spectacular result in terms of Sydney crowds. Australia’s first rugby union Test against New Zealand only weeks later attracted just 4000 more (and that was a record for a Sydney Test).

The VFL instructed the two Melbourne clubs to leave the gate-money behind, so it could be spent in Sydney on expanding the code. Much of the money went towards employing “lecturers”, who would visit schools to teach the points of the game, and leave a football behind for the boys’ use.

The investment paid off. By the winter of 1905 rugby’s hold on schools and juniors had been cut in half as youngsters embraced the alternative of Australian football.

NSWRU officials were startled by the trend, but could do little to prevent it. Many openly admitted rugby was on the wane, and they were facing a real challenge to hold the support of the city.

The amateur-based RFU in England was not interested in making rule changes to improve the spectacle and help the NSWRU earn more gate-money. Nor would they contemplate allowing rugby players to receive financial compensation for injuries and time away from work for tours. The refusal of the NSWRU to break from the RFU led to many critics labelling the body as “un-Australian”.

There was a general recognition in Sydney, a predominantly working-class city, that the time would soon come for professional football. After all, it existed in cricket, so why not football? The question was which football code would it be?

What was clear was that it could not be rugby union (unless it broke away from the RFU and/or adopted an outright form of “shamateurism”… the latter though was unlikely given rugby players in Sydney expressed the view they preferred to be openly paid rather than participate in a charade just to suit the NSWRU).

While the VFL was not yet openly professional, it was no secret to Sydneysiders that monetary support to Melbourne players was being provided.

Football crowds in Sydney and Melbourne were some of the largest in the world at the time. With a little encouragement, many entrepreneurs reasoned, Australian football could provide great financial opportunities and allow for working-class footballers to be openly paid money. The thought of the possible gate-takings and interest arising from a NSW vs Victoria football match sent many into a dizzy spin.

Money had also been at the centre of bitter dispute between the NSWRU and its counterpart in New Zealand. As a result, thoughts of one day having an Australasian rugby team tour Britain were suddenly gazumped by the NZRU – it secretly negotiated with the RFU for a tour by the All Blacks during the northern winter of 1905-06.

Most thought that the time had not yet come where such a tour could be financially successful, and that the NZRU risked bankruptcy by attempting it. The critics were wrong.

The impact of the All Blacks tour, on and off the field, reverberated all the way back to Australia and New Zealand – and cruelled the rise of Australian football in Sydney just as it seemed certain of success.

The tour by the New Zealanders (all amateur players) garnered £10,000 for the NZRU. With the annual wages of a working man rarely topping £100, the news caught everyone’s attention.

What was also well recognised was that rugby league in England, the professional code that had split from the RFU in 1895, had more clubs and footballers than the amateurs. It suggested similar riches could be earned from a professional rugby league tour of England. Trumper and O’Sullivan led the charge away from Australian football, as clandestine meetings began in Sydney in July 1906 to form rugby league.

The successful challenge from rugby league saw the NSWRU’s income reduced so far that it could barely pay its way. Combined with a substantial loss of players and support, the code went into serious decline in NSW and Queensland.

Ironically, in May 1911, The Referee pronounced that interest in Australian football had surpassed that of rugby union. The supporters of the Victorian code had achieved their dream of defeating rugby union in Sydney. Unfortunately for them it was too late – by then a NSW Blues rugby league match at the SCG attracted more than 46,000 fans.

Had Australian rules taken hold of NSW and Queensland, Australia would have truly had one football code. In Melbourne, Australian rules became inclusive – the VFL (professionalism) and VFA (amateurs) gave everyone the chance to play football, irrespective of their views on what sport was for. The same is likely to have happened in Sydney, effectively choking rugby union (even as an amateur sport) out of existence.

As it was, the NSWRU resolved to defend itself against rugby league – it discarded its semi-professional ways and fully embraced amateurism. The decision gave rugby union the means to survive, and to set out on its long path to recovery.

© Sean Fagan

Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
The Referee
The Sydney Morning Herald
M P Sharp, Football in Sydney Before 1914