It took getting Rugby played on the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1870 to really get the code going, but the first game was not without its own dramas.

Wallaroo FC early 1870s
Wallaroo FC early 1870s, Founded in 1870, the club adopted Rugby rules & played in the first football game on the SCG.

Through the 1860s football-playing in the NSW capital had languished far behind that of its southern rival.

In May 1870, with no news of any footballers rousing for the coming Sydney winter, the Australian Town and Country Journal lamented:

“Our neighbours in Victoria have been long hard at work, and play there is in full swing. I trust ere long to hear that a match here is ‘en tapis’ [on the agenda].”

Arranging matches in late 1860s Sydney was haphazard at best. Only four matches are known to have been played at all during 1868-69. The one club to speak of was the Sydney University, who played games against teams organised from amongst the officer ranks of the visiting military.

The largest obstacles to growth in the sport were a lack of grounds on which football could be played, and the obligatory disagreement over rules. The four matches of 1868-69 were held at the Victoria Barracks, the Domain (until being refused further use of it) and “the University Paddocks”.

The Sydney Cricket Ground in the late 1860s was not the facility of today – our “grand old lady” was but a very humble, rustic child. Bell’s Life in Sydney wrote in 1867:

“The Military and Civil Ground at Paddington…is in better order than I have ever seen it, and now that the Club have water on the spot, I expect to see as good wickets on this ground as on any other in Sydney. Last season, however, nothing could be much worse than its playing state.”

The SCG was at the time called the Military and Civil Cricket Club Ground, or the “Garrison Ground” – the latter name denoted the area’s beginning in 1851 as an adjunct to the nearby Victoria Barracks which housed British army units, until replaced by local forces in the early 1870s. The area was used as drill and parade grounds, for a rifle range, and occasionally for tent encampments.

The cricket ground portion and adjacent areas were surrounded by a fence of some description, but it is doubtful that it yet possessed a stand or pavilion, as none are mentioned in the newspapers, and the cricket club itself seems to have preferred the Albert Ground in Redfern for its biggest matches. The original SCG Members’ Stand pavilion was built in 1878, and there was no “permanent grand stand” at that time [SMH 11.2.1878].

SCG rugby photo from FIrst Lions of Rugby book...
Scrum action at the SCG in 1888 – NSW (now Waratahs) vs first British Lions. (Looking towards north-east corner, Moore Park Rd beyond).

On 18 June 1870 an unpretentious announcement hidden in columns of The Sydney Morning Herald signaled the arrival of football as a serious sport in Sydney:

FOOTBALL. – The opening match of the Wallaroo Football Club will be played this afternoon, on the Military and Civil Cricket Club Ground, between sixteen gentlemen of the Army and Navy and sixteen of the above club. 

Those few words heralded not only the arrival of a new club, a not insignificant milestone in itself for Sydney football, but the playing of the match on an enclosed ground (and thus the footballers could enjoy their sport free from people wandering across the field and interrupting the game).

From the day of its first outing in the winter of 1870, to its final and lamented demise at the hands of “the district scheme” in 1900, the Wallaroo FC was Sydney’s premier Rugby club.

Men of influence in Sydney, led by the Arnold brothers (Monty and Richard) they resolved from the outset to only play the Rugby code, and to obtain through their connections the use of the SCG. To achieve that for their opening game was some feat of accomplishment indeed.

How the Wallaroo members gained access to the SCG is not known. Some sports and events held at the ground c.1869-1870 appear to have gained permission directly from the senior British officers at Victoria Barracks, others via the way of the Military and Civil Cricket Club committee. The latter group had fielded a football team in matches against the Sydney University Club in the winters of 1866-67.

With the Wallaroo’s opponents in the first game being a composite of officer “gentlemen of the Army and Navy”, obtaining the use of a ground under the control of British military seems fairly straight forward.

“Our New South Wales Defences” – an engraving from 1870 showing Sydney’s colonial defences with the various naval & military personnel – Panel No.6 (left) is the Rifle Range, Paddington / Panel No.7 (right) is Victoria Barracks.

However, it was still a cricket ground, and the prospect of footballers running and mauling away over a cricket wicket was not palatable to many cricket officials and committees.

All of the Rugby games played by the Military and Civil Cricket Club with the Sydney University in 1866-67 had been held at the latter’s grounds.

So, watched on by a few hundred men of various uniforms intermingled with the sober grey and brown hues of civilian clothing, the first football game on the SCG got underway.

The Wallaroo club rules of 1871 state the team uniform as a grey jersey, white pants and blue cap. The football kit of the military side, based on reports of similar outings, was merely “their undress toggery” and heavy black boots.

A closely fought struggle ensued, with no goals scored at all – the match was continued the following Saturday, and the Wallaroos kicked a goal to take victory.

That is took more than one afternoon to land a single goal is perhaps not so surprising when we learn that the playing field, when marked out, had been pushed to the side of the oval to ensure the cricket wicket was not trampled upon by the footballers. The Australian Town and Country Journal reporting:

“… the dimensions of the ground, which is altogether too small, 90 x 60 [yards]. On Saturday last the ball was in touch during a great portion of the afternoon. The ground for effective play should be at least 150 x 100, especially when the wind is high. I am informed, however, that the small size of the playing ground is attributable not to the framers of the rules, but to necessity, as it is the only piece of the M. and C.C. ground available, except the centre, which is kept for cricket. This is a matter of regret, as the game on so limited an area is necessarily deprived of much of its excellence.”

By way of comparison, a Rugby field today is usually 100m (110 yards) x 70m (74 yards). Australian rules in the early 1870s prescribed 200 yards x 150 as maximum dimensions for the playing area, but even if reduced to 150 x 100 as a means to get the code going in Sydney, could not have been played on the SCG unless the whole oval was made available.

The same reporter took exception to the teams preference to play under Rugby rules:

“The play on both sides, considering the want of condition and practice of most of the players, and the high wind, was very fair. Mauls and scrimmages were, however, too fierce and frequent…The rules of the Wallaroo Club are very nearly identical with those of the Sydney University Football Club, which were framed from the Rugby School code. The greatest objection thereto is the encouragement given to mauls and scrimmages, consequent on efforts to get down the ball. This was particularly observable on Saturday last. The advantage accruing to either side from such contests is very questionable, and a captain would do well to keep most of his men out of them, waiting the reappearance of the ball in the field. Many a goal has been won by such tactics. Moreover, the best of players soon get pumped [worn] out, if they go into every maul and scrimmage.”

Another account of the game is provided by a letter published in the Sydney newspaper Empire , which said, in part: 

“On Saturday last I was much pleased at seeing a game of football carried out with much spirit and good humour, between about forty or fifty young gentlemen, civil and military, on the cricket ground near the rifle range at rear of military barracks, Paddington.”

“The game was played in accordance (I was told) with the Rugby rules. These rules, I must say, are calculated to spoil much of the dash that is generally indulged in at the game of foot-ball. There were amongst the players assembled on Saturday some smart young fellows, with any amount of pluck and determination to give to the game a more lively appearance than it assumed to me.”

“Looking at it from an Irish point of view, I considered it fearfully tame; and why? In the first place the boundary lines were too narrow; the distance between the goal posts too short; the ball too large and oblong; and, worst of all, no tripping allowed. These matters ruined the game.”

“If the boundary lines were enlarged, and tripping allowed, then some science could be displayed, and a smart fellow might readily manage to grass three or four men before the ball left the boundary. In a narrow boundary, and no tripping, the game, so far as skill is concerned, is ruined, and a smart man who is anxious to secure the game, is actually pulled to pieces, as was the case with about half-a-dozen young gentlemen on Saturday. These young fellows, if they had half a chance, would have shown some sport; but they were hemmed in on every side.”

“Then the practice of ten or eleven falling over a man by way of getting the ball from him is monstrous; one man to hold him round the arms should be sufficient, and the man holding the ball should be made throw it to the nearest man on his side in the field. These are some of the few matters I think, if altered, would prove a benefit to the game…”

“The great danger of being hurt is, when two parties run from opposite directions at the ball -both fierce determined fellows, with their blood well up…You will see in the headlong dash after the football the same spirit of daring determination that is to be met in the soldier’s storming the fort or boarding a ship. Such manly sports should be encouraged.”

Bell’s Life in Sydney concluded its report with:

“We must say that we enjoyed the sport immensely, and hope it will be kept up by more than one club. The game is played in the Rugby style and not the Irish, every one being allowed to catch the ball, and get away with it if he can. The spirits of some gentlemen got rather scarce towards the end of the game, and we saw several cases of limping home.”

Australia vs England - Ashes cricket at the SCG in 1883
Australia vs England – Ashes cricket at the SCG in 1883

As if the footballers in Sydney didn’t have enough obstacles in their way, the first game at the SCG was regularly punctuated by the sound of musketry fire from the military’s adjacent rifle range, which was used to train and give instruction to many of the NSW volunteer units. The spectators watching the Rugby soon had their attention diverted:

“Whilst looking at the game on Saturday, a poor fellow was wounded at the rifle range. I did not go to look at him. If I could have been of assistance I would have gone readily; but seeing so many running to his assistance, I felt satisfied he would be looked after. “

The full extent of the range’s location is difficult to pin down, however, when the Sydney Sports Ground was opened (1903) various newspapers stated part of its land came from the rifle range, that the 1,000 yard mark reached near Paddington’s Captain Cook Hotel (opened 1882), and how dodging the shot and bullets was a hazard locals endured for decades. The range also extended eastwards towards Centennial Park, and many people preferred to risk life and limb by running across the Moore Park fields, instead of taking a long detour (the sight of the puff of the rifle’s gunpowder smoke a signal to make the dash before the soldier could re-load).

The Sydney Football Stadium replaced the Sports Ground in 1988, and is now the home of the NSW Waratahs.

© Sean Fagan