In 1907 a long forgotten NSW representative side ventured to Australia’s west coast, and though their matches and player ‘caps’ mysteriously don’t appear in the Waratahs record books, their tour was part of NSWRU’s plan to help restore Rugby to its place as Western Australia’s preferred footy game.
Actions by rival codes in Sydney and Perth though would dash the hope.
Organised football in Western Australia began with rugby games at Perth’s Hale School in the late 1870s, followed by establishment of rugby clubs in Perth and Fremantle. Rugby remained the only football played until in 1883 the Fremantle FC switched to Australian rules.
WA’s cities were increasingly forging economic, education, migration and social ties with their sea-trading neighbours of Melbourne and Adelaide, where only Australian rules was played. In 1884 rugby was still in the ascendant, but more Australian rules clubs were formed (or changed from rugby).
By 1885 the ‘football’ community had divided its loyalties into two camps. In a robust but reasoned debate, the relative merits of the games on the field were supplanted in favour of an acceptance that WA did not have the playing stocks to support both games and grow the sport.
Playing two codes meant two uninspiring club competitions, and inevitably producing two inferior WA representative teams. It was acknowledged one code would have to be given away, but which?
The fatal blow to rugby came in the acknowledgement that its adoption meant impossible the prospect of inter-colonial matches at all, let alone annually (Sydney-Fremantle by sea was over 5000kms and two weeks away).
At a meeting by the majority of football clubs of Perth and Fremantle in May 1885 it was agreed to form the West Australian Football Association (later WAFL), and to adopt Australian rules as the colony’s game.
In the space of two winters rugby had gone from being the only code to not being played at all.
The discovery of gold in WA in the early 1890s saw a westward rush of miners and others looking for work opportunities – while many came from Victoria and South Australia, significant numbers also came from the rugby-playing colonies and the UK.
The surge in interest led to the founding of the WARU with seven clubs in Fremantle and Perth, and many others under a flourishing ‘Goldfields Union’ (Kalgoorlie, Wallaroos, Centennials, Boulder Pirates, Bulong, Kanowa, Warriors, Mines, ‘Sydney’, Hannans, Leonora, Kookynie and Coolgardie).
Rugby again though soon struggled and in 1901 the WARU disbanded. The game continued only in the state’s gold fields, until it was again revived in the coastal cities in 1905 with five new clubs.
In early 1907 the support of the NSWRU was sought by the WARU, and it was agreed that a NSW team would undertake a four-match tour of WA in August. The Sydney press wrote: “With a view of helping the game along in West Australia, a fairly strong team was sent away by the NSWRU. All expenses are being paid by the Union named, and all the net proceeds are to be handed over to the W.A. (rugby) authorities.”
The sheer distance meant players had to find five to six weeks unpaid leave from work, curtailing the inclusion of many top NSW footballers. Even so, the side still had Arthur McCabe, Bob Craig, Ward Prentice and Bede Daly, who were all later selected in the Wallabies squad that visited the UK and North America in 1908/09.
Hearing of the proposed NSW team’s tour, the WAFL Secretary, Jack Simons, told the management committees of both the Fremantle Oval and Perth’s WACA ground that WAFL would move all of their gate-taking Australian rules games to elsewhere if bookings for the inter-state rugby contests were accepted. Fearing the consequential loss of income, the Fremantle Oval board buckled, but the WACA custodians agreed to host both of the two scheduled NSW v Western Australia matches.
The Waratahs (at that time still called ‘the Blues’) won all four matches, defeating ‘Metropolitan’ (17-0 at Fremantle), ‘Gold Fields’ (16-7 at Kalgoorlie), and Western Australia (16-3 & 3-0 at the WACA ground in Perth).
At a civic function for the team in Perth, captain N Johnson (Sydney University) told the audience that the NSWRU “looked upon Western Australia as the rugby baby, and they intended to nurse it as much as they possibly could” and “this was not the only visit they would make to Western Australia, for as long as they were in a position to finance these trips they would keep them going.”
With this in mind the NSWRU had promised that in a year’s time the England-bound Wallabies would break their sea journey by stopping in the West for matches against Western Australia and a week long tour through the Goldfields towns.
The NSWRU also offered to fully cover the costs of any Western Australian footballers prepared to venture to Sydney for Wallabies selection trials in July 1908 (though the bill would only be met if the player made it into the Australian squad and, unsurprisingly, no one took up the offer).
Unfortunately for rugby in Western Australia, by the time the Waratahs returned to Sydney, it was late August 1907 – a rebel “NSW Rugby League” had been founded on August 8th, and with its arrival, the financial priorities of the NSWRU changed dramatically. All thoughts of funding future tours to or from WA evaporated.
In a further blow, at the last moment the NSWRU cancelled the Wallabies tour of the WA goldfields towns, permitting the team to play Western Australia in a one-off game while their ship was in port at Fremantle. In a rushed affair, the Wallabies players changed into their playing kit on board the ship, and then hurriedly got to the ground. A disappointing WA state team was thrashed by the Wallabies 58-6.
The scale of the defeat and the late abandoning of the inland tour deflated local enthusiasm for rugby. A general malaise was already pervading the game following an inability to produce junior footballers to replace the generation that had migrated to WA from elsewhere – “the English game” had been successfully kept out of the state’s schools by the activism of the nationalistic Young Australia League youth corps (founded by WAFL’s Jack Simon in a direct response to the rise of rugby and soccer in 1905).
The YAL’s target was really soccer which was already long established as the preferred school sport. While the British-trained school teachers and principals battled on against the YAL and its insistence that Australian rules be played, rugby quietly fell from view, and by 1912 was again extinct in WA.
The success and playing style of the 1927/28 Waratahs through their UK tour led to a revitalised interest in rugby across the eastern states throughout 1928, and in WA as well where the WARU was again re-formed.
Through the remainder of the 1900s the Western Australian team regularly met South Australia (1935 on) and Victoria (1937 on), and took on visiting international sides including the Springboks, All Blacks, British Lions, France, Ireland, England, Wales, Japan, Fiji, USA and even the Wallabies. With the ARU’s founding still a decade in the future, in 1938 the WARU organised and funded an invitational ‘Australian team’ that sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for five games.
For its first century support for the code in WA ebbed and flowed, but as historian Jack Pollard concluded in 1984, if rugby in the West could hold out, its time would finally come when the costs and duration of air flights made the annual inter-change of visits with Australia’s east coast teams viable.
Eighty-eight years after their first contests, in late February 1995 the Waratahs and Western Australia again met on the rugby field. Captained by David Campese, NSW won 65-10 at Perth’s Perry Lakes Stadium.
A few weeks later rugby union recognised professionalism, and soon after the Super Rugby concept devised. Conveniently situated as a stop-over leg for teams flying to/from South Africa and Australasia, the once remote Perth was now seen as logical base for a future Super Rugby franchise. In 2006 the Western Force entered the competition, joining the Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs as Australia’s representatives.
© Sean Fagan