By the middle of the 1880s support amongst footballers for the Rugby code in Queensland was gaining momentum.

“Rugby, when properly played, is not the rough game that is exhibited in Warwick.”

In late 1883 the Northern (later Queensland) Rugby Union was founded, and in readiness for the 1884 football season two Brisbane clubs established – the Fireflies and Wanderers. Country towns and schools across Queensland soon followed the lead. 

In Warwick, located in the Darling Downs on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range, some 130kms south-west of Brisbane, the winter of 1886 was a time of great change for football.

For a decade football in Warwick had meant Victorian rules, though the reports of the first game against footballers from the ‘nearby’ [80 kms distant] town of Toowoomba back in 1876, suggest there was a decided lack of agreement (Warwick Examiner and Times, 5 August 1876, at Queen’s Park):

“…we should call attention to the different rules under which these clubs were playing. One player was evidently under the impression that he was playing the ‘Rugby’ [School] Rules; another went in for ‘Rugby Union’ Rules; while others for the ‘Victorian’ Rules. Now we think that some arrangements should be made between the different clubs to draw up Rules that would meet with the approval of all the clubs. It was evident to see by the number of ‘marks’ that were called out on Saturday, that some alterations were badly wanting; for instance they should not allow the bouncing of the ball when caught on the hop, and running with the ball on condition that you bounce it every five yards. Unless these things are altered it is evident that Football will come to a standstill on the Downs.”

The neighbouring townships continued to meet in football battles at least once in most seasons over the decade that followed, establishing a keen rivalry. However, for their 1886 contest, the code chosen was no longer Victorian rules, but Rugby (Warwick Examiner and Times, 7 July 1886):

“Hitherto the game of football in these parts has been played under the Melbourne rules, but lovers of the sport decided at the commencement of the season to give the good old English game of ‘Rugby’ a trial, and judging from the favourable remarks both from players and outsiders, the change is a most popular one.” 

The ‘Reds’ of Warwick scored two goals and one unconverted try for a 12-0 victory over Toowoomba’s ‘Yellows’. The Warwick Argus praised the locals, “Considering this was the first match in which the Warwick Club played under the Rugby rules they shaped remarkably well.”

The Warwick men had been playing Rugby each Saturday at in-house games, which seems to have given them the advantage over the Toowoomba club, who had themselves earlier in the year had a heated debate over which code to adopt, ultimately sticking to Victorian rules. [Toowoomba’s first Rugby club was founded in 1887.]

Rugby in Warwick fully came of age in 1889 with the original club (“the Towns” or “the Warwicks”, navy blue jerseys) joined by the Caxton FC (yellow & black / founded by members of the Caxton cricket club at the Warwick School of Arts building), and the South-Eastern FC (so named as their playing field was at the south-eastern edge of the town off Canning Street [next to Slade Park] / blue and white jerseys).

South-Eastern FC, Warwick [image courtesy of State Library of Queensland]
South-Eastern FC, Warwick [image courtesy of State Library of Queensland]
Caxton FC, Warwick [image courtesy of State Library of Queensland]
Caxton FC, Warwick [image courtesy of State Library of Queensland]
Through the early-mid 1890s the three teams became great rivals, and their contests were not without the embellishments of rough and rustic Rugby in Australia at that time, including verbal stoushes, on-field fisticuffs, crowd disturbances, and difficulties for referees and local authorities.

Despite their differences (or maybe as a means to resolve them) the three clubs founded the Warwick Rugby Football Union in 1890 to set the season draw and select the combined Warwick team for representative matches.

The footballers invariably put their club differences behind them, and could often be seen training with each other in the town’s playing fields in the fading light of winter afternoons. Indeed in May 1892, with a full moon approaching, the Warwick Argus reported:

During the ensuing week The Warwicks, Caxtons, and South-Easterns intend going in for moonlight practice and club runs in real earnest.

The last great (or infamous) battle between “the South-Easterners” and “the Caxtons” was held in August 1895, where the Warwick Examiner and Times reported of a brutal and spiteful match that:

“…was perhaps the roughest ever seen on [the] ground…There was an unfriendly feeling shown…Rugby, when properly played, is not the rough game that is exhibited in Warwick. It is the absence of science in the play that places our boys so far behind neighbouring towns, and while the ‘bullocking’ element obtains the game will always remain rough…”

© Sean Fagan