Of all the 4s that cricketer Victor Trumper – “that matchless magician of the willow” – put on the scoreboard at the Sydney Cricket Ground, one stands alone from all others – for it wasn’t with his bat, but via his boot! Not a cricket boot either, but a football boot!
Playing for the Newtown rugby club in the winter of 1897 on the hallowed SCG turf, Victor Trumper banged a drop goal over the crossbar – a kick worth four points under rugby’s laws in those days.
The sheer scale of Trumper’s cricketing fame ensured his football deeds were quickly lost in obscurity.
As one sports journalist put it in 1901: “It is not generally known that Trumper played a fairly good game of football.”
That’s probably the last time anyone ever wrote about “Trumper the footballer.”
It’s only now that Trumper’s exploits as a footballer are being rediscovered.
The story of Trumper’s involvement in the founding of rugby league in Australia has been told often enough – of how he was friendly with Dally Messenger and other rugby stars, many of whom were amongst Sydney’s sporting fraternity that regularly gathered at Trumper’s city sports emporium for lunchtime and after-work chin-wags.
Trumper spoke out in the newspapers in favour of rugby league, its ideals of “fair pay for fair play” and for paying the medical expenses of injured players. It was no surprise that Trumper, by then a 28-Test veteran, was elected by the footballers to be the NSWRL’s first Treasurer.
What has remained a mystery though is why Trumper was so particularly concerned about the plight of the footballers. Most accounts put it down to Trumper simply being a kind-hearted man, who saw that a wrong was being done, and did something about it.
As accurate as that assessment of Trumper was, it belied his own connections to the plight of the amateur footballer, which included twice breaking his own collar-bone in rugby matches.
It turns out that Trumper was not only a schoolboy prodigy at cricket, but also at rugby and Australian rules – playing first grade in all three sports while still in his teens. In his early 20s he played baseball for the Paddington Club, and represented NSW “in the Yankee game” against Victoria at the SCG in 1900 and 1903.
Trumper was described as a “fair-haired lithe figured young man” and “the beau ideal of an athlete….his pace and sureness of foot and hand, made him attractive to watch on and off the field.” A physique found in outside backs in rugby, but probably better at home in Australian rules.
By the time Trumper made his debut for the NSW cricket team in January 1895, two months after his 18th birthday, he had already become an automatic selection for the Sydney club in the city’s Aussie rules competition.
Within weeks Trumper was judged as amongst the city’s top Australian rules players by being chosen in a “Metropolis” representative side against “Northern Districts” (Newcastle).
Newspaper accounts of the Sydney club’s matches, held on the open fields of Moore Park during that winter, note that “Trumper kicked a nice judged goal” and “V. Trumper – who marked splendidly – dodged Fallon, and put up Sydney’s first goal.”
The Sydney club also occasionally played on the SCG itself, though no mention has yet been found of Trumper kicking a goal on the famous ground.
Trumper’s emergence as a popular young star in Aussie rules came a winter too late for the Victorian code’s hopes in Sydney – in 1895 the competition collapsed and the city’s clubs disbanded.*
For his school – Crown Street Public – Trumper played rugby, usually as fullback.
A newspaper report of a 30-5 thrashing in a win over the Cleveland Street School’s rugby side noted: “The passing of Crown Street demoralised their opponents. Some good play was shown on the side of Crown Street by Trumper…” and “A feature of the game was the kicking of Trumper, who potted two goals from the field.”
By 1897, perhaps earlier, Trumper had made his way into the Newtown rugby club’s first XV. On 29 May of that year, in a game against the Carlton club from Newcastle, “Trumper scored a splendid goal from a mark” – his only known rugby points on the SCG.
In November 1897 at the SCG, Trumper played for the NSW cricket team against the visiting England side, captained by dual cricket and rugby international Andrew Stoddart.
During the match Trumper called on all his rugby fullback experience, taking a sensational diving catch deep in the outfield in front of 30,000 wildly cheering fans.
NSW cricketer turned journalist Les Poidevin claimed for years after “I have seen many great catches, but none so magnificent as this one.”
“Although running at top speed,” explained Poidevin, “just when the ball seemed to have passed him, he threw himself at it, in the way that a rugby footballer brings off a diving tackle from behind. It struck and stuck in his out-stretched right hand, less than a foot from the ground.”
Trumper played other rugby matches on the SCG, amongst them a game for “Combined Juniors” in July 1898 against a selection of Sydney’s best XV.
Trumper was fullback, and amongst his team mates were forwards Harry ‘Jersey’ Flegg (who founded Easts rugby league club and reigned as NSWRL/ARL Presidents until 1960) and Dinny Lutge (who played for the Wallabies in 1903-04 and captained the Kangaroos on their 1908 UK tour).
After making his Test cricket debut in England on the 1899 Ashes series (playing in all five Tests), Trumper was keen to renew his football career back home in 1900.
Twelve months on though, a tired Trumper had to come to the realisation that “his continuous innings of cricket, football, and baseball” made before and after that trip to England was taking its toll on his cricket performances.
It was rare for a NSW cricketer to risk his body playing rugby in winter, and there’s little doubt Trumper was counseled by cricketing men to give the “muddied oaf” game away.
With an eye towards the English cricket team’s arrival for the 1901/02 summer, Trumper resolved not to play rugby at all in 1901.
As summer approached, a Sydney cricket correspondent observed that Trumper had “put in his Saturday afternoons watching the big rugby football matches. The spell has done him no harm. His form at the practice nets has been decidedly good, and boded little fun for bowlers who meet him.”
The winter away from playing rugby had done the trick. Trumper opened the cricket season with an innings of 158 in a club match at Hampden Park (now Trumper Park) in Paddington, and went on to secure selection in all five Tests that summer.
Having permanently cast his rugby boots aside, Trumper’s cricket career never looked back.
© Sean Fagan
* The code was revived in 1903, and while Trumper is often cited as the driving force behind that initiative, his role was limited to publically endorsing the movement, and accepting appointment as Honorary Treasurer of the Paddington club.