The Waratahs-Reds match of 2012 stands as a monument to 130 years of inter-state rugby rivalry – but if not for the shrewdness and persistence of two NSW rugby officials, 1882 could instead be remembered in history as the year Australian rules began to become our national game, and rugby slid away into extinction.
The men were Monty Arnold – a man that early generations of rugby revered as the “father of rugby in Australia” – and Edmund Barton – a Sydney barrister who two decades later would be elected our nation’s first Prime Minister. Both were senior officials with the NSWRU (known then as the Southern Rugby Football Union).
In Sydney the Victorian-born code had gained a permanent presence of clubs in the early 1880s, but rugby had successfully kept itself as the dominant game, or as Arnold brashly phrased it at the time, “beaten the Victorian bastard child out of the field.”
In Brisbane there were no rugby clubs at all. The QFA (now AFLQ) oversaw football in south-east Queensland, and to placate a coterie of rugby supporters, allocated each fourth Saturday for the clubs in Brisbane and Ipswich to play rugby instead of Australian rules. Not all footballers were willing to risk playing the more dangerous rugby game, and there can be no doubt which code was the more popular in the northern colony.
Through 1881 and into 1882 the Brisbane FC exchanged letters with the Wallaroo rugby club in Sydney, hoping to arrange a football tour to the NSW capital. The matter was handed to the NSWRU who appointed Arnold and Barton to pursue the project.
Suggestions were made in both cities that the NSWRU and NSWFA should share the costs and profits of the visit, and that the teams play matches under both codes. The QFA set up a committee to handle the negotiations. The NSWFA readily agreed with the proposal, and it seemed this entirely fair way to bring the first meeting of NSW and Queensland at ‘football’ to fruition would be a mere formality.
Arnold and Barton though were determined the visitors would not play Australian rules in Sydney, and would return to Brisbane as activists for rugby.
On behalf of the NSWRU Arnold put to the QFA committee a letter proposing that the NSWRU would pay the team’s entire tour expenses – provided the visitors only played rugby. Meanwhile Barton had made it clear to the Queenslanders that if they came to Sydney the city’s rugby clubs and supporters would show them such a good time they would never again think of playing Australian rules. One newspaper said, “Nothing could be more liberal than the Rugby Union’s propositions.”
The committee, with almost unseemly haste and without reference to the QFA, agreed – Australian rules had been gazumped.
The decision caused an outrage amongst Australian rules supporters in both cities, igniting a war of words in newspapers, as well as at NSWFA, QFA and club meetings. It was insinuated that the QFA’s negotiating committee had been clandestinely comprised of men of “strong rugby tendencies,” and that the deal had been done so quickly practically confirmed the suspicion.
Letter writers from Australian rules advocates to newspapers called for the tour to be scrapped, arguing that rugby was not the Queensland colony’s most popular code, that it was wrong to accept the NSWRU’s all-expenses offer if it meant denying a fair and balanced dual-code tour, and the “representative” team was anything but representative of Queensland football.
The Chairman of the committee hit back, pointing out that the NSWFA would not only be unable to provide a competitive NSW team of Australian rules footballers worth playing, but that the NSWFA had recently provided far more generous terms to Melbourne’s Geelong FC for a Sydney visit, and even that famous club ended up losing £150 for their trouble.
“I leave to the imagination,” he wrote, “what we should have lost had we gone down. If the Sydney public would not go in payable numbers to see the best team in Australia play the Victorian rules, would it not be presumption on our part to suppose they would come and see us play?”
So a team of practically novice rugby players took the three-day steamship voyage from Brisbane to Sydney. In between the harbour cruises, beach picnics, smoke concerts, theatre outings and railway excursions, the Queensland team played matches against Sydney University, Wallaroo and Cumberland – the latter contest was held at Parramatta’s Elizabeth Farm, on a playing field “about as uneven a piece of ground as one could wish to fracture a collar-bone upon.”
The two games against NSW were at the far more luxurious Sydney Cricket Ground, where, as one of the Queensland party wrote, “nothing is wanted in the way of comfort for either competitors in sports or spectators.”
The match reports reveal a world of difference from rugby today. New South Welshmen were ‘Cornstalks,’ Queenslanders ‘Bananalanders.’ The home team wore dark blue jerseys, the visitors adorned in the red and black of the Brisbane FC. The teams had lunched “punctually” at noon, “no delicacies being allowed, and upon well prepared steak did we diet.”
The players travelled from the city centre to Moore Park in four-horse carriages, with enough time to leisurely don their uniforms, then intermingle in front of the SCG pavilion with opponents in conversation and in “eyeing each other as it were.” The coin toss was made at 3pm, and it was agreed fulltime would be called at 5pm. Halftime was five minutes, lemons provided for those that sought refreshment.
There was not yet in rugby the penalty goal, no advantage rule, nor the idea of a whistle for the referee – the man in the middle instead raised a flag and used a stentorian voice as his law enforcement tools. Teams were 15 a-side, Queensland opted to reinforce their forwards by playing with nine in the pack in opposition to NSW’s eight. What we know as three-quarters they called half-backs, today’s half-backs were their quarter-backs.
The match was to be won by the team that landed the most goals, whether drop-goals in play or place-kicked conversions. Tries were recorded in the result, but counted for nothing unless the teams tallied the same number of goals.
Unsurprisingly NSW was troubled little in winning both games. They won the first by “Four goals and four tries” to Queensland’s “one goal.” The Queenslanders had played with plenty of spirit though, and despite the lopsided result won much admiration.
A large crowd had attended the first game, and in its match report the Australian Town and Country Journal surmised, “There can be little doubt about the preference of the people of this colony. It is decidedly rugby.”
As Barton had hoped, the well-banqueted Queenslanders had become enthusiastic missionaries for the rugby game. In 1883 Queensland not only hosted NSW in Brisbane, but produced a team that defeated the visitors. In its wake the “Northern Rugby Football Union” (QRU) was soon founded, and all agreed the exchange of visits should be an annual occurrence.
Victories by the Queenslanders over NSW in 1885-87, and just one defeat between 1890 to 1893, boosted the prestige of the cross-border series and rugby’s popularity with players and spectators alike in both colonies.
By the middle of the 1890s Australian rules was no longer being played in the northern colonies, apart from the towns in the southern reaches of NSW (being in closer proximity and influence with Melbourne than Sydney).
At a cocktail party to welcome the Queenslanders when they arrived in Sydney in 1882, amidst the drinking of champagne from generous bumpers, Arnold had proposed his favourite toast, “Rugby, long may it prosper!”
If Arnold is looking down upon NSW and Queensland today, he may quibble that professionalism has overthrown the amateur rugby ideal – but it would please him well that, 130 years on from the hand he and Barton played in 1882 rugby, in both its forms, has not only prospered well, but continued to keep the southern code at bay.
© Sean Fagan