Super Rugby teams from South Africa are now visitors to Canberra every year. Long forgotten perhaps is that a visit by South Africa’s Springboks in 1937 was the catalyst for the re-birth of Rugby in Australia’s capital.
The 1937 Springboks, captained by Philip Nel, revered in South African and international Rugby history, defeated the Wallabies in two Tests at the SCG, then traveled across the Tasman Sea to confront the All Blacks – the tourists recovered from a First Test loss to win the next two games, and thus become the first, and still only, Springboks to achieve a Test series victory on New Zealand soil.
In their time in Australia the Springboks had done much to invigorate the ongoing revival of Rugby across the country. In addition to the games against the Wallabies, they played (and defeated) Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Newcastle, Orange, Toowoomba, Queensland Reds, and an Australian XV (in Brisbane).
The South Africans’ only loss came via the NSW Waratahs in a dramatic 17-6 upset result. Played under torrential rain in Sydney, the afternoon of the ‘Downing of the Boks’ came to be regarded by generations of NSW Rugbyites as the state team’s greatest ever victory.
That this Waratah triumph remained venerated for so long is a measure of the high standing of the South African team at this time. A newspaper columnist wrote of the tour that the “Springboks provided a dazzling exhibition of penetrative power of match-winning backs, combined with the irresistible force of a pack of giant forwards who are finished footballers to their finger-tips” who gave “an amazing display of co-ordination, faultless handling, and generally superlative Rugby football.”
These Springboks impressed not merely by their Rugby superiority, but the manner in which they conducted themselves on and off the field. After the second Test win over the Wallabies, the Australian parliament issued an invitation to the Springboks management to have the team visit Canberra to attend a dinner to be given in their honour. The South Africans accepted.
Canberra in 1937 was finally emerging as a city and community in its own right. Begun just before WW1 as a compromise location for Australia’s parliament and government offices (to placate Sydney and Melbourne political and social rivalries), through the 1920s it was more construction workers and building site than urban living (Parliament House, for example, wasn’t opened until 1927).
The Springboks were to play in Canberra against the Duntroon Military College’s XV, but the match fell through due to an outbreak of German measles amongst the cadets.The team’s visit to the capital still went ahead though, much to the relief of local Rugby enthusiasts.
By the early 1920s, when Canberra and the ACT had grown to the point that the local communities began to organise sporting clubs and competitions, Rugby was no longer being played in most southern NSW towns. Both Australian rules and rugby league established permanent club competitions in Canberra/ACT in the mid-1920s, and soccer too was well supported.
The NSWRU started a Canberra Rugby club in 1927, and while the team played against the Duntroon cadets and a side from Hall, the code did not gain any permanency. After the Federal government moved the Military College to Sydney late in 1930, Rugby had no presence in the Territory aside from at some schools.
The College returned to Duntroon in 1936, and with it came the first stirrings of a revival of Rugby, with not only the cadets back in the football field, but also the Grammar School, and the newly opened Canberra University College.
At the same time there was a rising discontent, in the ACT at least, against the influence of rugby league ‘Cup fever’ upon the community – primarily loathing how spectators conducted themselves (drinking, gambling and effects on family, church and business), the win-at-all costs attitude of coaches and players, and suspicions that match results were sometimes ‘fixed’ by bookies aided by willing assistants from within the game.
To those aspiring for a higher sporting and social ideal, the Springboks and their doings as they journeyed across Australia’s cities in 1937 were the exemplars of what sport, particularly Rugby football, was all about – the news that they were to come to Canberra was suddenly a beacon of light and hope to the malcontents weary of the example (real or imagined) provided by Cup-driven rugby league.
After touring about the city, the South Africans gave a mid-afternoon exhibition training run on Manuka Oval. In the evening the civic dinner to honour the team’s was held at the Hotel Canberra.
With the function over a small group retired to the hotel’s card room – among them federal politicians, senior public servants, the Duntroon MC’s commandant, representatives of the Grammar School and the University College, NSWRU officials, and local men interested in Rugby.
By the end of the evening they had devised a plan to revive Rugby, founded the ‘Federal Capital Territory Rugby Union,’ and elected its first officials.
The 1938 season opened with four teams competing for the donated ‘Dent Cup’ in the inaugural club premiership – RMC Duntroon, University College, Eastern Suburbs and Northern Suburbs – the opening round was held at Manuka Oval, launched by a short speech given by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.
The year also saw the Victorian state team play Duntroon, and the New Zealand All Blacks defeated a combined Canberra representative side 57-5 at Manuka Oval.
Triggered by the Springbok visit Rugby had finally gained its permanency, and with the rise of the Brumbies in Super Rugby at the end of the 20th century, the code is now arguably the dominant sporting code of Canberra, the Territory and nearby areas of southern NSW.
© Sean Fagan