While the ‘State of Origin’ tag was devised by AFL (well, more accurately, by the WAFL), and was followed by rugby league, the concept of non-residential based representative teams was not original to either code.

'Sammy' Spragg played for NSW, Queensland and Australia
‘Sammy’ Spragg played for NSW, Queensland and Australia (pictured).

Rugby’s Home Nations international teams have been since the tournaments inception in the early 1880s, used what is known to Australians as the ‘Origin concept’.

It may therefore then not be so surprising to learn that the first call for NSW and Queensland football teams to ‘call back’ talent from across borders was way back in 1900.

The suggestion came about because a star NSW Rugby footballer moved to Queensland.

Writing in The Referee in the winter of 1900, ‘The Cynic’ lamented the absence of ‘the brilliant young footballer’ Stephen Spragg from the NSW rugby team for the upcoming matches against Queensland.

Spragg was a side-stepping centre/winger who had starred for Australia in the Test series against a visiting British team the year before.

Only 20 years old, Spragg played in all four Test matches. He was also a prodigious goal-kicker, rated as perhaps the greatest, until he was surpassed a few seasons later by Dally Messenger.

In the summer of 1899/1900 ‘Sammy’ Spragg moved to Rockhampton in Queensland.

“It will be a great pity if such a fine player as Spragg be unavailable for this year’s inter-colonial matches,” The Cynic wrote. “Even though residing in Rockhampton I am of the opinion he should play for NSW. The time has arrived, I think, for the observance of [such] a qualification for players in inter-colonial matches.”

Spragg in Queensland and NSW team photos.
Spragg in Queensland and NSW team photos.

While The Cynic was genuinely pining for Spragg to appear in a light-blue jersey, he was equally fearful of seeing him in maroon colours – his concerns were well-founded.

Spragg amassed 70 points for Queensland between 1900 and 1902, as he led his new home colony/state to a strong period of success against NSW.

In 1901 the football columnist for Sydney’s The Arrow chimed in with his criticism of Spragg swapping allegiance from NSW light blue to Queensland maroon:

S. A. Spragg is leaving Rockhampton for Brisbane, where he is to play with the City Club. If Spragg should represent Queensland against New South Wales it will, in our opinion, tend to make farcical the term ‘Intercolonial’. Born and bred In New South Wales, Spragg learnt his football here, and played for the colony against Queensland and England. No amount of argument can make him a Queensland footballer.

Sadly, Spragg died in Brisbane in early 1904 after a brief fight against appendicitis and peritonitis. He was only 24.

An earlier debate about how NSW and Queensland teams should be chosen had arisen with Harry Abbott. A Queenslander who had come south to study at Sydney University, he was a regular in the NSW team against New Zealand and Victoria in the early 1890s, but refused outright to play against his home colony [Read more]. The Sydney Mail explaining:

A native of Queensland, Abbott’s patriotism prevents him from taking the field against his colony in representative matches…as each subsequent winter brought with it the inter-colonial contests he religiously held aloof.

Harry Abbott – refused to play for NSW against Queensland
Harry Abbott – refused to play for NSW against Queensland

The Cynic’s idea was not really that remarkable – Rugby players in Britain at the time could only play for the Home nation of their birth (Wales, Scotland, Ireland or England) rather than where they were resident. Ireland and Scotland often called on players from England’s ‘London Irish’ and ‘London Scottish’ clubs.

Later colonials from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were chosen for a Home Nation based upon where their forebears had been born.

While James Marsh had played three times for Scotland in 1889, after he moved home to Manchester he won selection for England in 1892, he remains the sole example of footballer gaining a cap for different Home Nations teams. In 1898 a rule was imposed that players could not represent more than one Home Nation.

The Cynic’s full column stated: 

It will be a great pity if. such a fine player as Spragg be unavailable’ tor this year’s Intercolonial matches. Personally, even though residing in Rockhampton, l am of opinion that he should play for New South Wales. The time has arrived, I think, for the observance of a less elastic qualification for players in Intercolonial matches.

This is, of course, a delicate problem, yet I am quite in accord with the British custom, by which an Irishman or a Scotchman or Welshman resident in London, can play only for the county [country] of his birth. Members of the London Irish and London Scottish represent Ireland and Scotland respectively, especially against England.

I see a good deal In this to admire; it preserves the national character of the contest, and were something similar adopted in Australian football [Rugby] it would help to preserve the true colony feeling. It is a matter which ought to be tackled by our football legislators.

Sadly, the NSWRU and QRU never pursued the idea, even though as The Cynic had pointed out, it was hardly an innovative concept in Rugby.

© Sean Fagan