For a time ‘football’ at some of Sydney’s now most famous Rugby schools was Australian rules. At Saint Ignatius’ College its founder Father Joseph Dalton is purported to have openly declared his distaste “for that horrid Rugby Rule” and the Australian game of football was the only code played.

Both Saint Ignatius (at Riverview) and St Joseph’s College (Hunters Hill) were founded in the early 1880s. By the end of the decade newspapers record both schools playing the Victorian-born sport for their ‘outside’ matches against other ‘seats of learning’ and clubs.

Saint Ignatius College first xxii in 1889 (Australian rules football team)
Saint Ignatius College first xxii in 1889 (Australian rules football team)

A writer summarising the 1889 season of Aussie rules was elated that a second school had emerged to join Saint Ignatius, and optimistic more would follow (The Referee):

The pupils of one of the largest colleges in SydneySt. Joseph‘s College— played this game this season, and have taken do it splendidly; and two other large schools have promised to play it next season. There will, therefore, next winter be four large schools playing the Australasian game.

St Joseph’s introduction that winter was not without difficulty, as shown by what eventuated at its only encounter with the short-lived Sydney University club [1887-89], which turned out to be the latter’s final game:

Last Saturday a team representing this club [University] journeyed to St. Joseph‘s College to play a match with the boys, and before play had been started ten minutes the ball hit on a sharp-pointed stone and burst, and another ball not being procurable the match had to be abandoned.

The ‘Sydney University Australian Association Club’ had made its debut in July 1887 in a Wednesday afternoon game at Riverview against Saint Ignatius’ College. The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

The Sydney University A. A. Club played its opening match yesterday with the Riverview College team. The college team played a very fast game, and during the first half the game seemed greatly in their favour, but the ‘Varsity team pulled themselves together, and showed decidedly the best form during the latter part of the game, eventually winning the match with three goals nine behind to their credit, against two goals four behinds scored by the college team … The grandstand was filled with collegians and visiting friends of both teams, who took a lively interest in the proceedings. It is needless to add that the usual hospitality was extended to the visiting team.

Despite the obvious age and weight advantage they were invariably giving away, the school teams were not daunted at the prospect of facing the full first grade teams of the city’s clubs. However, everyone involved wanted a fair contest, and the boys were often allowed to include extra players beyond the normal ‘twenty’ used in the code at that time, or be bolstered by some of the masters or former students playing with the team,  just ‘to even up the odds’.

Saint Ignatius leaders wouldn’t allow the boys to undertake away games. A visit to either college was a pleasant sojourn from Sydney Harbour up the Lane Cove (Saint Ignatius) or Parramatta (St Joseph’s) Rivers. In 1887 The Sydney Morning Herald wrote:

On Saturday last the Sydneys [the Sydney football club] journeyed to Riverview to fulfil their annual engagement with 25 of the students of St. Ignatius’ College. A pleasant half-hour’s journey by steamer brought the seniors to the grounds of the St. Ignatius’ College, prettily situated on the banks of the Lane Cove River. On arrival at the wharf the local boys were in attendance, and a start was at once made for the playing space … After the match the visiting players were courteously entertained by the Rev. Principal, Father Dalton, and returned to town delighted with their pleasant trip.

Of the contest The Australian Town and Country Journal observed:

The Sydney Club having arranged a match with the scholars of St. Ignatius College for last Saturday, visited them on their own ground, After some fine play the seniors [Sydney] won by 7 goals 6 behinds, to 0 goal 4 behinds. I have been told that the play of the members of the defeated team was infinitely superior to that of last year’s team. Some of the boys showed great judgment and cleverness in running and dodging with the ball; marking to each other being their only weak point, With practice this will soon be overcome, and then we may hope for much closer matches with all clubs which propose to visit pretty Riverview on the Lane Cove River.

The river trip was a treat, but the playing ground [now ‘Fourth Field’] wasn’t ideal. The surface was a predominantly shingle and gravel (which may have contributed to why Rugby was not adopted). A reporter for Globe in 1886 wrote:

The College grounds are situated at Riverview, and are reached after a very pleasant journey of half-an-hour by steamer. The playing ground itself, is, however, rather elevated, and is consequently exposed to the action of the wind. This was the case yesterday, the play being almost all on the northern wing.

That season Saint Ignatius is recorded to have been playing first grade teams including Waratah, Sydney, West Sydney and Newcastle City. The Australian Town and Country Journal noted at the start of the winter:

Several matches have been arranged with the school club at St. Ignatius‘s College, all the metropolitan clubs having fixtures with them.

The same newspaper revealed it was the efforts of the members of the Waratah club (who were originally in the late 1870s a major Rugby club) that got the Saint Ignatius boys involved in the code:

This energetic club was the means of starting the St. Ignatius‘s College Club at Riverview, where it initiated the novices into the mysteries of the Victorian rules.

A few weeks later Globe gave the credit for igniting interest at Riverview to the Sydney club, and revealed the game was being played there almost from the School’s opening.

SYDNEY V. ST. IGNATIUS COLLEGE (25). The first match of the season under Australian rules was played yesterday at Riverview by the above teams. These clubs, for some reason or other, have not met since the season ’83, when that very desirable object, “introduction of the game into the schools,” was for the first time brought about through the energetic action of the late hon. secretary of the Sydney Club, Mr. L. A. Ballhausen [‘a native of Ballarat, Victoria’]. Since that date considerable alteration has been made in both teams. The play of the scholars, albeit being too much on the ball, was otherwise very fair.

The Globe also noted the Sydney vs Saint Ignatius contest was the first Australian rules game played in Sydney under the ‘new rules’ which divided the game into four quarters. ‘Australian’ in the Newcastle Morning Herald in May 1886 carried an extensive report of the Newcastle City club’s visit to Riverview:

The Australian game is played by command of the Superiors of St Ignatius‘ College. All other football is tabooed at Riverview.

I accompanied the Newcastle City team on their visit to the magnificent college of St. Ignatius on Monday. The trip up Lane Cove River was very enjoyable. The college and grounds are very extensive, and occupy a commanding position on the romantic banks of the Parramatta’s tributary [Lane Cove River]. The visitors conceded a handicap of three [players] to the collegians, playing 19 to 22. This, as events proved was a slight mistake, as after a hard tussle the boys won by one goal to nil.

The collegians are no mean exponents of the Australian game, and are particularly good at the ‘little marking’. Like the Newcastle Cities, they ignore altogether one of the chief features of the play, viz., ‘shepherding’ …

At the conclusion of the game the Newcastle men were invited to take refreshments with Fathers Dalton and Gartlan,  who expressed Ithemselves as well pleased with the day’s play. They also thanked their visitors for coming from such a distance to meet the schoolboys, and complimented the team generally on the way they had accepted their defeat, and for their gentlemanly behaviour, jocularly attributing the success of their boys to ‘the merciful’ treatment they had received from their more powerful ‘opponents. The reverend gentlemen were lustily cheered at the close of their speeches, and after three times three [cheers] had been given for the college boys, the Newcastle team made a rush for the steamer…

In the early 1890s Australian rules began to slide out of the Sydney and Newcastle football scene, and by the middle of the decade it was extinct. With the clubs heavily reliant upon a regular influx of ex-pats from Victoria and the other colonies devoted to its footy code, a supply of local young men from the schools was key to the NSW capital taking a serious interest.  

While the St Joseph’s students had continued to play the occasional low-key Rugby match during their time under the Australian rules banner, Saint Ignatius’ allegiance had remained resolute, and in 1891 went so far as to write letters to the city’s newspapers to refute claims at a NSWRU meeting it had swapped codes and agreed to start by hosting the University XV in a Rugby game at Riverview.

The Referee wrote at the close of the 1891 Australian rules season that “With the aid of the two colleges, the game is bound to go ahead”. 

However, by late April 1892 news emerged that the boys at Saint Ignatius had commenced training under Rugby rules. At the end of May the powerful Newington College XV came to Riverview to play Saint Ignatius. The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

It was the first time that St Ignatius College met any of the schools in the [Rugby] football field, as in previous years they had always played the Australian rules. Owing to the late decision of their superiors, the boys have only been practising the Rugby rules for the last three weeks, and accordingly there was great curiosity to see if they would show to as good advantage in Rugby as in the Australian game. Newington are confessedly a very strong team, and are expected to make a close finish of it for the premiership this season. On account of being so late in arranging their matches the St Ignatius team are not entered for the premiership. 

The game ended as a nil-all draw, which was a great first-up result for the Saint Ignatius XV. The Referee stated mid-season:

I notice that the St. Ignatius College boys are doing well at Rugby. Their kicking, in which the Australian game has taught them to excel, has surprised the teams they have met.

At the same time The Sydney Mail saw it as a stunning blow:

St. Ignatius College has at length deserted the Australian game and thrown in its lot with Rugby. The New South Wales Football Association [Australian rules] has gone off into a long sleep from which it will never waken.

St Joseph’s (‘Joeys’) made a permanent move to Rugby in 1894 and entered The Public Schools Association competition in 1895 and in time they established a rivalry with King’s School, Newington, Sydney Grammar School, The Scots College and Sydney Church of England Grammar School (‘SCEGS’).

Saint Ignatius College first xv in 1901
Saint Ignatius College first xv in 1901

Though through the late 1890s and into the early 1900s Saint Ignatius played annual matches many of the GPS teams, they did not enter the competition as they were not willing to play St Joseph’s. The Arrow in 1901 sought to explain why:

the standlng out of St. Ignatius College from Schools‘ Competition Is “one of those things no fellah can understand”. Tho reason, we believe, had its existence many years ago In a difference between the boys of tho schools at Huntor’s Hill and Riverview. There was a rivalry between the boys that became too keen. But all that had died away, and even present day students have but a hazy idea of what it was. The competing of St. Ignatius College for tho Schools’ Premiership could have no other than good influence on tho boys.

On that basis the ‘bad blood’ must have been triggered back in their Australian rules days, or some other sport (not Rugby) or activity. It was not until 1907 that Saint Ignatius joined the GPS competition and met St. Joseph’s for the first time under Rugby rules.

In 1931, after watching Saint Ignatius and St Joseph’s College battle out the deciding game for the season’s GPS crown, former Sydney University FC player Garnet ‘Jerry’ Portus, who played for England in 1908 while studying at Oxford University, wrote a stirring piece in The Sydney Mail, including:

The Great Public Schools are its [Rugby’s] nurseries. Without them we should never have been able to build up the game after the war [WW1]. And to this day there are thousands of Sydneysiders who will cheerfully pass an interstate fixture in order to see a G.P.S. game.

It is not necessary to use the adjective ‘Rugby Union’ when one speaks of football in connection with the Great Public Schools of N.S.W. The League code may flourish in other places; here and there may exist devotees of the ancient game of Soccer; and it is true that the Australian game — that strange exotic from Victoria — finds supporters in the mother State [NSW].

But when G.P.S. boys speak of football they mean only one thing, and that is Rugby Union.

© Sean Fagan

Sources: newspapers as quoted / 1889 team photo & additional information from Ignation April 2008