Of all the golden moments in the history of the Sydney Cricket Ground, there is one that is rarely mentioned: the winter Saturday in 1907 that the NSW Waratahs met the All Blacks, drawing a crowd of 52,000.
‘The Referee’ sports newspaper on 17 July 1907:
The official figures in connection with the big match on Saturday, as supplied by Mr. S. H. Fairland [SCG Secretary], are: Attendance; 52,000; takings £2583. In all 29 turnstiles were used. The ground management is to be most sincerely complimented on the success with which all the arrangements for the admission and accommodation of the huge crowd were carried out.
For more than a century that 52,000 milestone stood as a record for a NSW home match (Waratahs vs Crusaders attracted 61,823 to 2014 Super Rugby final).
The gathered crowd for the meeting of the “waratah against the silver fern” was the largest ever at a football match, of any code, anywhere in Australasia. It also easily surpassed the best single day attendance for a Test cricket match in Australia (42,500 at the SCG in 1897, v England).
By world standards it was equally remarkable – only the biggest English FA Cup soccer matches drew larger crowds. The All Blacks in the team who had toured Britain in 1905 recalled that a similar number attended their Test matches against England at London’s Crystal Palace football ground (45,000) and Wales at Cardiff Arms Park (47,000).
American baseball didn’t draw such numbers, and professional ice hockey was only just taking its first tentative steps in Canada. American (NFL) football was not anything like a major spectator sport until the 1920s.
Two visiting American university officials (on an exploratory mission to learn about rugby and adopt it on the USA west coast), claimed that they “never saw anything like such a scene,” and only the 45,000 at the Yale–Harvard College football match rivaled it.
The excitement for the game was understandable. Not only was Dally Messenger in the NSW team, but it was the first outing for the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ in Australia since their stellar tour of the Home Nations in 1905-06. The NZrs were undefeated apart from one controversial loss to Wales at Arms Park in Cardiff.
With ‘Australia’ only six years old, more enthusiasm still existed for the state side than the ‘combined NSW and Queensland’ team – even though NSW had only three times beaten New Zealand since their first battle in 1882.
We should recall here too that the NSW XV – in sky blue jerseys with a waratah badge – were still called ‘the Blues’, talk of a rebel rugby league was dismissed as unfounded rumour, and the famous ‘Waratahs’ appellation was still 20 years in the future (coming to the fore when A.C. ‘Johnnie’ Wallace’s state side toured Britain and France in 1927-28).
On the Thursday evening before the match, the NSWRU held a public reception for the teams at the Sydney Town Hall. Decorated in sky blue and black colours, the hall was at its 3,500 capacity for the evening function. The two teams were presented on the stage to the resounding applause of all.
The New Zealand captain, Jimmy Hunter, after initially declining to speak, said forthrightly, “We will do our best to give you the biggest licking you have ever had in your life!” and roars of laughter from the audience echoed through the hall.
Anticipation continued to build across the city on the Friday. The New Zealanders ‘walked’ the SCG, while the Trust’s officials pondered how to cater for the expected 40,000 record crowd.
Match day dawned as a perfectly clear blue sky with a slight nip in the air – a pristine mid-winter Sydney day. It was a good day for fast and open football, and it turned out that most of Sydney wanted to be there. People walked, rode whatever they could, or caught a tram to the SCG. The ground was packed to suffocation.
Don’t forget, this was when the SCG had an asphalt bike track around the perimeter of the oval, and the picket fence was much further back than it is today. Astoundingly, they managed to shoe-horn 52,000 fans into the SCG that afternoon.
The spectators were so densely packed inside the SCG that the custom of keeping your hat on in public was done away with, just to make everyone’s view of the contest a touch easier.
Just on 3pm the cinematograph operators began cranking the handles of their cameras as the Blues walked through the Members’ gate and onto the field. The crowd rose as one and cheered. [Where the heck is that film reel now??!!]
Then came the New Zealanders – watching from ‘The Hill’ they looked like ominous spots of black against green carpet. The All Blacks performed their haka, the crowd responded with an almighty “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” in answer to the challenge.
Arthur ‘Bolla’ Francis kicked off for New Zealand and the crowd let out a deafening roar – the game was on!
Dally Messenger had an early attempt at a goal from a penalty but missed. Immediately afterwards, play stopped as the NSW Governor-General had arrived – the two teams stood and cheered him. Play resumed and the crowd brought their long repetitive chant of ‘Blues! Blues! Blues!’ to a crescendo.
The Blues came to the All Blacks goal line with a great forward rush, headed by Charles Murnin and Peter Burge, that included short passes and clever footwork. The ball was handed to Blues centre three-quarter Bede Smith, who made a final short burst and scored a try. The crowd erupted wildly, with excited cheering and applause.
Nearing half-time William ‘Massa’ Johnston, one of the All Black forwards showed his soccer skills, toeing the ball over the NSW line. But Messenger came with a great sprint, and saved by kicking the ball dead to the fence.
The crush in the front rows of the crowd forced people to stand. When they did, roars of “Down, down!” were thrown at them, along with orange-peel, grass and earth. The yell soon turned to “Up, up!” and everyone stood for the rest of the match, including many in the stands.
Meanwhile a sifting blue smoke cloud [tobacco] steadily rose from the crowd all afternoon. In the bright sun it produced a thick haze and glare, reducing the ability of many to be able to recognise the players and follow the game.
Any hope of a Blues win over the invincible All Blacks was lost in the second half. The New Zealanders’ superior weight in the forwards told the longer the match went on, breaking the Blues defence open for three tries and an 11–3 lead. Not even Messenger though could save this day. The full-time whistle sounded, it was over.
The teams left the field and the public streamed from the gates. A few turned their heads back to have one last lingering look at the scene of history, and laughed when they saw a large futile policeman chasing some evasive small boys who had dared to invade the sacred oval.
© Sean Fagan
Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
New Zealand: G. Spencer, F.C. Fryer, W.J. Wallace, F.E. Mitchinson, J. Hunter (c), H.J. Mynott, F. Roberts, G.A. Gillett, W. Johnston, C.E. Seeling, J.M. O’Sullivan, W. Cunningham, A.R.H. Francis, A. McDonald, S.T. Casey.
Referee: N.B. Martin (NSW)
Result: New Zealand 11 (F. Roberts, C. ‘Bronco’ Seeling, W. Wallace tries; W. Wallace goal) def. NSW 3 (B. Smith try).
Saturday 13 July 1907 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Attendance: 52,000.The NSWRU’s lease of the Sydney Cricket Ground ended after the 1912 season when the SCG Trust agreed to terms with the NSWRL. In 1914 after a NSWRL game at the SCG (England vs Metropolis) drew 50,257 the Trust reported a few days later that it had ‘discovered’ the 1907 NSW vs All Blacks match attendance was actually 49,327. The explanation given was that a number of patrons had been double counted when they moved through a turnstile providing access to the lawn area near the Sheridan Stand. The Saturday Referee (13 June 1914) seemed doubtful when it wrote, “If this is so, the League created a record last Saturday”. Why it had taken seven years to realise the error was not explained.