MELBOURNE’S FIRST RUGBY REBELS AMBUSHED NSW

NSW team in 1894 at SCG
NSW team in 1894 at SCG

The NSW Waratahs playing in Melbourne is now an annual event on the Rugby calendar, but it was a long time coming. The team’s first game on Victorian soil was 118 years ago – a match that produced an unexpected defeat, and gained Rugby a fleeting moment of Melbourne’s football attention.

Through the 20th century the NSW team made just five Rugby-playing visits to Victoria. The first was in 1927, when the soon to find international fame ‘Waratahs’ went to Melbourne to board their ocean liner taking them to London.

Though a Victorian Rugby team had come to Sydney in 1889, the code endured a ‘spit and sputter’ existence in Melbourne – in the early 1890s Rugby was again extinct.

In 1893 a revival movement led to the establishment of four clubs – Pioneers, Rovers, Crusaders and Pirates – with matches on the ‘Friendly Societies Ground’ (now Olympic Park) and the (long gone) East Melbourne Cricket Ground.

One of those involved seemingly felt obliged to explain to Melburnians why Rugby was being played at all, writing in The Argus:

“We Victorian Rugby enthusiasts felt that, in establishing the game here, we might ultimately have this colony represented in a united venture [an Australian representative team], and in our turn welcome British teams, as well as others from New South Wales, Queensland, and New Zealand to play their own game.”

It took over a century, but with the presence of the Melbourne Rebels, that aspiration is now being realised.

Back in July 1894 the NSWRU were keen to foster that same ideal, and arranged for a representative team to undertake a 3-game visit to Melbourne.

The NSW men were to play the Victorian XV twice, with an intervening mid-week game against a team of ‘Victorian seconds’ – the latter were boosted to 17 players to give locals more hope, but the fifteen of NSW still won 20-nil.

One could imagine the Victorian ‘first XV’ were equally novices of the Rugby game. However, as New South Welshmen were soon to find out for themselves, these resident Victorians were primarily a mix of Britons and New Zealanders that had moved to Melbourne following work or family.

A fair crowd (though not as large as the newspapers on match morning had anticipated) gathered at the East Melbourne ground to watch the unusual attraction of Victoria and New South Wales meeting not only in Rugby, but in any form of football.

The NSW team were frustrated by the Victorians’ resolute defending of their line. By fulltime the home team had crossed for the only try of the afternoon, and with neither side landing any goals, took victory 3-0. The telegraphed result appeared in Sydney newspapers, with many seeking confirmation the report wasn’t in error.

NSW weren’t to be caught out twice though – in the return game a week later, in front of a much larger attendance, the Victorians were vanquished 9 points to 5.

The visit didn’t ultimately provide Rugby in Melbourne any permanency, but naturally triggered the usual newspaper kerfuffle between proponents of the two football codes, arguing the tos and fros of each.

The Argus thought the debate ultimately futile:

“In making a comparison between rugby and Australian football it would be pure waste of time to do so on the assumption that rugby is ever likely to displace the Australian game in Melbourne or that our game has any chance of taking the leading place in Sydney. In this particular sport, at any rate, the two colonies have agreed to differ.”

On one point at least – then as now – proponents of both codes found common ground:

“Like rugby the Australian game has one common fault – too much whistle, which in the first named game means scrums, and the latter ball up, more scrimmaging, and more ball up.”

© Sean Fagan

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