The first Indigenous Australians to turn their natural gifts to the Rugby game were in the 1890s.
Our story begins though a little earlier, with the visit of the English cricket teams to Sydney over 1887/88.
That summer the cricketers vied for the attention of cash-paying patrons against a series of sprint races being held in Sydney between the English champion Harry Hutchins, and Aboriginal athlete Charlie Samuels.
Melbourne’s Sporting Judge newspaper reflected that:
“Without any doubt Charlie Samuels was Australia’s greatest product in the speed line, and it was a sight to see him at his top.”
Charlie’s brother, Cassidy, may well have been the first Aboriginal to play Rugby in Sydney, turning out for the Botany club in 1898.
Others at the nearby La Perouse settlement could well have wished to play sport as well, but, under government restrictions in place, Aboriginals couldn’t just come and go from the camp as they pleased.
The Botany team won a lower tier club competition in 1898, with Samuels playing a major part in the successful campaign.
The Sydney Mail reported:
“The club’s record for the season is an excellent one, it having played 12 matches, winning 10, losing 1, and drawing 1. The points scored were 116 for, and 5 against, a result that clearly shows the great defensive powers of the team, a feature that is evidently the strong point in their play.
With the team will be observed an aboriginal, Cassidy Samuels, who possesses nearly the speed of his brother, Charlie Samuels, the one time champion pedestrian, and to his fleetness of foot, agility, and wonderful dodgy runs the club’s success no doubt is largely due.”
Jack Marsh, another professional runner/hurdler (though better remembered today for his cricket story), also appears to have dabbled in Rugby football.
Originally from the Clarence River districts of northern NSW, in 1897 he fixed on playing for the Newcastle Centennials club.
The Newcastle Morning Herald informing its sporting readers:
“It is whispered that Jack Marsh, the aboriginal runner, intends to don the colours of the Centennials, and that as soon as he obtains the necessary permit he will make his first appearance as wing three-quarter in the Cent.’s ranks.
Marsh’s inclusion means a lot to the blue and gold contingent, as he is one of the speediest runners in the colony, and has a capital knowledge of the rules of the game.”
The same decade also saw the rise of Maryborough’s Frank Ivory who won selection for the Queensland in 1893 and ’94 seasons.
A fast-paced outside back, Ivory was also the Maryborough team’s captain. He moved to Brisbane, where he joined the City Club, but in the same era was also found playing in Rockhampton and Mount Morgan.
In 1894 after seeing his display in Sydney for Queensland, the Australian Town and Country Journal declared as a fullback Ivory “was an impassable barrier”. In Brisbane that winter Ivory played against the visiting New Zealand (now All Blacks) team.
More than a stone-wall defender, ivory also possessed a strong kick of the football to compliment his speed across the ground.
In the lead up to a representative match between Maryborough and Bundaberg in August 1895, Ivory commandeered the local gym, where he drilled the forwards in the arts of packing the scrum and combination.
Ivory had first come to football prominence in the late 1880s with Maryborough’s Victoria FC. At that time Australian rules had been the only code played in the town. Ivory had visited Brisbane with representative teams and won selection for the colony.
However, at a meeting of Maryborough’s footballers and supporters in April 1891, Ivory (now captain of the ‘Victorias’) took a leading role in having Rugby adopted instead. In a city where his word was almost rule when it came to football matters, it was a strategically important moment in the spread of Rugby across Queensland, and by the mid 1890s the Victorian code was extinct.
Yes, our thoughts will travel backwards to the days of Auld Lang Syne,
And the many football champions of the past;
And of all the sterling players who in their day did shine,
There was one that we’ll remember ’till the last.
In our memory good old “Ivo” still keeps the foremost place
When playing for our city or the “Vics”
We can see him yet before us with his dark, determined face,
As he puzzled all opponents with his tricks.
But Frank Ivory of the lot was aye the king.
He could play in any “posie” from the full-back to the front;
He could tackle with the best that ever played;
If his side was getting beaten, he would bear the battle’s brunt.
For opponents never saw old Frank dismayed.
[Maryborough Chronicle, 1921]
‘The Frank Ivory Medal’ is now awarded to the best player in the Reds’ Indigenous Match each year.
© Sean Fagan