Which Are Australia’s Oldest Rugby Clubs?

Story written & researched by Sean Fagan for SaintsAndHeathens;  Dec 29, 2013

Which are Australia’s oldest Rugby clubs that are still going today, and why are there so few from the 19th century?

Sydney University rugby team in 1895.
Sydney University rugby team in 1895.

The Maitland Rugby Club (1877), claim they are the second oldest Rugby club in Australia, following behind Sydney University (1863). Yet the Goulburn club’s website sets out on its history page that it was founded in 1872.

The Parramatta club wears a badge with “1879” prominently displayed, both Mudgee and Bathurst record 1874 as their year of birth, Yass in 1878, and Randwick say their club began in 1882, Petersham and Gunnedah in 1883.

The NSWRU (“Southern RFU”) came into existence via a series of meetings between the clubs in 1874. Not all clubs were represented at each gathering, but those in attendance at least once were: Wallaroo, King’s School, Newington College, Goulburn, Waratah, Balmain, North Shore (St Leonards), Sydney University, Camden College (Redfern), Mudgee, and Victoria (South Sydney). Other Rugby-playing clubs that season (per the Town and Country Journal) included Bathurst and Maitland ‘Albions’.

At its 1880 annual meeting the NSWRU comprised: Albions (Maitland), All Saints’ College (Bathurst), Carlton, Balmain, Bathurst, Burwood, Glen Head, Goulburn, Grammar School, King’s School, Maitland, Newcastle, Newtown, Newington College, New School, Oaklands, Old King’s, Parramatta, Queanbeyan, Redfern, St Leonards, Tamworth, Toxteth, Sydney University, Wallaroo, Wallsend, Waratah, and Woollahra. Other towns known to have football clubs in the late 1870s included Dubbo, Murrurundi, Cooma, Singleton, Yass, and Tenterfield.

All of the Rugby clubs outside of the schools and University were membership-based clubs – you could join and play for any club you liked, so long as they would have you.

Each club had their own selection criteria for membership, and while some took on the name of a suburb, it didn’t automatically follow that just because you were a local that you would be accepted. Switching of talented players between clubs each year in Sydney was increasingly common by the mid 1890s. The first grade teams in 1899 were Buccaneer, Marrickville, Parramatta, Pirates, Randwick, Sydney, University and Wallaroo.

In 1900 the NSWRU (via the Metropolitan RU) did away with all the Sydney clubs, apart from the University, and established a “district scheme” that divided the city and suburbs following electoral boundaries.

This gave us the district clubs and three grades: Balmain, Norths, Wests, Easts, Souths, Newtown and Glebe; following boundary changes new first grade districts were created to provide entry for Sydney (1905), Manly and St. George (both 1906), and Randwick (1914).

Dissatisfied that they could no longer play with friends but were being forced to play for the team where they lived and be separated across the different grades, in 1901 a number of newly formed (or perhaps re-formed) clubs attached to a very localised area or one suburb, established a rebel competition that remained unaffiliated to the NSWRU, and later became the City and Suburban Competition (‘Subbies’).

In time, and to counter the rival Suburban competition, the Sydney second and third grade levels of the district scheme became larger and different to that used in first grade, with additional/altered districts, multiple “borough” teams from the various suburbs within the same district, and teams that were not district based at all. The third grade had so many it was broken into two divisions, and was more commonly known as “the borough competition”. For example:

All the old districts (1907) have entered. The new districts are, in the second grade, Ryde, Gordon, Randwick, and Annandale; and in the third grade, so far, Sydney Training College, Randwick, and Mosman…The newly formed Randwick District Football Club, second and third grade MRU, will hold trial matches on Randwick Oval this afternoon. [The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 1908]

Sydney’s Petersham club, one of the handful who had successfully navigated through the 1900 cull, were one of those disbanded by this latest rationalistion. After the war a Petersham club began again in the lower grades.

There is no doubt with Rugby in Sydney the disconnect caused in 1900 by disbanding all the member-based clubs had its benefits to the growth of the code. It did though come at the price of losing tradition.

In comparison in London, where such a restructuring never took place, playing and supporting a club today could mean any of the now long-famous names in Rugby history of Blackheath, Richmond, Wasps, Harlequins and Saracens, as well as London Scottish and London Welsh, and dozens of other clubs from colleges, hospitals, military, and those founded in local pubs and associations.

1884 Rugby in the Australian colonies cartoon
1884 Rugby in the Australian colonies cartoon

Determining the order in which clubs were first established really depends upon what criteria one chooses to apply, or not apply.

Apart from the Sydney University club and numerous schools, and even putting aside the disruptions caused by wars, there is no Rugby club in Australia founded in the 19th century that has had a continuous existence ever since.*

In 1902 Australian Town and Country Journal declared the Bathurst Football Club “is the oldest in New South Wales, having been established since 1871; previous to the inauguration of District Clubs in the Sydney District, the Wallaroo Club was the oldest, but is now defunct.” In 1935 National Advocate reporting on a Bathurst vs Orange contest called the teams “The State’s oldest rivals, with possibly some of the GPS excepted” and wondered “Just how many years it is since Orange-Bathurst first met in a Rugby Union match, and how many games have been played down the years would be interesting to know; it must be 65 years [1870] or more since they first played is an approximate guess”. The earliest found newspaper mention is in 1878 where Australian Town and Country Journal reports a club had been formed in Orange and it ventured to Bathurst to play St Stanislaus College. By the 1890s though it was a representative fixture between chosen sides of the WRFU (Bathurst) and CWRFU (Orange) committees. Rugby was not played in the central west towns from the early 1920s until a revival swept through the region in 1928. Today Bathurst and Orange teams come up against each other in the Central West RU club competition.

Most of country NSW and Queensland stopped playing Rugby during or just after WW1 – some areas started again in the 1930s, but many were not operating until the 1950s and ’60s.

The history of Rugby in Goulburn (1872) and in Queanbeyan (1877) is very similar – both became very powerful regions for the code in the late 1800s and early 1900s, at times had more than one local club, selected representative teams for games against other cities/towns, were practically non-existent between the World Wars, and were begun again in the 1950s. While Goulburn RUFC (‘Goulburn Reds’) proudly claims “Est 1872 : The Home of Country Rugby”, Queanbeyan RFC (‘Queanbeyan Whites’) are content with “Est ’54”.

The Maitland RC (‘Maitland Blacks’) has “Rugby since 1877”, yet there are years where there was no ‘Maitland’ club or any local Rugby at all. The ‘Bowral Blacks‘ RC state they were founded in 1972, while the first Bowral club began in 1883, switching to league at the start of 1914.

Two ‘Red Devils’ clubs have very similar pasts from the 1880s to today, broken by a 30 year gap through the 1920s-1950s, but the Gunnedah RC (‘Gunnedah Red Devils’) are “established 1883” while the Cooma RUC (‘Cooma Red Devils’) are “1963-2013 Celebrating 50 Years”. The Dubbo RC (‘Dubbo Kangaroos’) marks “est 1899”, though the city had its first club in 1876, affiliated to the NSWRU in 1883, played most years from 1889 to WW1, but then very few until permanency was found in 1963.**

statelibqld_1_69947_past_grammar_school_rugby_union_club_1905_season
‘Past Grammars’ team of 1905

In Brisbane the ‘Greater Public Schools Old Boys RUC’ (‘GPS Rugby’ Club) came into existence in 1931 when ‘The Past Grammar RUFC’ changed its name and rules to allow all former GPS students to join. ‘GPS Rugby‘ says it is “is one of the oldest clubs in Queensland rugby, tracing its heritage back to the Past Grammar club formed in 1887”. However, the ‘Past Grammars’ club that became ‘GPS Rugby’ had only been operating since 1929, when it took part in Brisbane’s first club competition since 1919. The original ‘Past Grammars’ club had switched codes after the 1919 season to become ‘Past Grammars RLFC’ (now ‘Norths Devils‘).

Meanwhile Brisbane’s ‘Brothers Old Boys RC‘ (est 1905) and University of Queensland RFC (est 1910) were rugby league clubs from 1920-29.

Outside the Queensland capital the ‘Toowoomba Rangers‘ state that “The history of Rangers goes back to an era long ago, back to 1887 to be exact, making Rangers one of, if not, the oldest Rugby Clubs going around”. However when Rangers were founded in 1963, they were the city’s first Rugby club since 1912 (when the bulk of its players and officials left to start-up rugby league). Conversely, the ‘Maryborough Wallaroos‘ have played in the 13-man game since 1910, but claim they are older than the code they play, being founded as a Rugby club in 1893.

The Melbourne University RFC quotes a founding year of 1909 and “100 Years of Black and Blue Rugby”, while an inter-varsity game vs Sydney was played in 1908, and the students did not play the game after 1914 (when WW1 broke out) until 1926 when the University’s rugby league club resolved to swap codes. [An interesting case study is Sydney University ANFC (AFL) which has “Est.1887 Celebrating 125 Years” given it didn’t play after 1889 until 1948.] 

The Melbourne RUFC today marks 1909 as its foundation year. However a Melbourne Rugby Club has existed in 1888-91, 1895, 1909-14, 1926-38 and 1939-present. The 1926 instance was the Melbourne rugby league club (est. 1923) resolving to swap to the 15-man game under the newly formed VRU. In 1939 the club merged with ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s former club ‘Old Boys’ to create a new Melbourne club [The Argus 29.3.1939].*** 

Sydney’s Southern Districts RUC is a “new club” formed in 1989 by the amalgamation of St George (1906) and Port Hacking (1957). The Manly RFC started when “The Federals and Manly clubs informally merged in 1906 to form Manly DRUFC” in the Sydney first grade competition, though Manly had its first club in 1883, and were admitted to third grade in 1902 and second grade in 1903.

The Balmain RC (“re-established in 2005”) and Drummoyne DRFC (a WW1 merger of 1900’s Balmain and Glebe districts that became permanent), both lay claim to the Balmain club formed in 1873, though it ceased playing in 1888, and another Balmain FC incarnation arose briefly in the mid 1890s. The latter club was founded in 1894, along with other new clubs at Glebe and Paddington, in an attempt (together with the existing Parramatta club) to have district clubs (i.e. residential-based teams) take over the Sydney competition. The initiative failed to take hold that year, but the “Paddington Electorate” club remained in first grade until 1900 when Eastern Suburbs District RUFC was formed at a meeting at the Paddington Town Hall,” chaired by the Mayor of Paddington, and adopted the Paddington club’s red, white and blue.

West Harbour RFC “Legends since 1900” emanates from when the club was established under the NSWRU district scheme as Western Suburbs in 1900, with some sources suggesting it was a rebranding of the once powerful Burwood FC founded in 1876 as “a local football club” [SMH 18.5.1876]. In 1952 the NSWRU dumped Wests out of the grade competitions, giving its area over to neighbouring clubs Parramatta, Drummoyne and Eastwood [SMH 7.2.1952]. Western Suburbs were back again in 1966.

The Parramatta and Randwick clubs of the Sydney first grade competition of the 1890s were made extinct by the 1900 district scheme of local clubs. The boundaries map was re-drawn to create a Randwick first grade district in 1914 (one season) and again in 1923 (permanently), while Parramatta district was added in 1934. In 1973 “the Galloping Greens” of Randwick toured the UK to “commemorate the 50th anniversary of its foundation”. Today the club says “The Randwick District Rugby Union Football Club (RDRUFC) was established in 1882.” The current Parramatta RC has 1879 on its badge and states “Parramatta Two Blues Rugby Club has enjoyed 130 years of top grade rugby in Sydney’s premier competition…Founded in 1879 as Cumberland…” (though 1879 newspapers all give the club’s name as Parramatta, and there was no senior Rugby in the town from 1900-1933).

What each of the above illustrates, whether they invoke a namesake club’s founding date and history or not, whether there are gaping holes in season chronologies or not, is that it is the very existence and legacy of the predecessor club, laid down in their community over decades, that has bred a later generation of people wanting to be part of bringing local Rugby back and choosing to celebrate its past. As ‘Amateur’ in The Cumberland Argus (26.10.1933) wrote in first suggesting Parramatta ought have a district club:

“Parramatta once occupied a proud position in the field of Rugby Union football, and its name is still linked with that code by the glory of the stars it once produced. Let us therefore…bestir ourselves and do something to regain that position by forming a club worthy of the highest traditions of Parramatta and Rugby Union football.”

Club histories, unless very recent, are not situations where forensic accounting and incorporation laws can or ought to be applied. In sport sentiment, enjoyment, celebration, comradery, remembering, and even boasting, matter just as much as historical accuracy.

Which is the only explanation one can offer for the NSW Waratahs “established 1874” branding and merchandise range. The NSWRU was founded that year to organise club football, and while the QRU has a formation date of 1883 and the NZRU in 1892, the first NSW, Queensland and New Zealand teams to play all share 1882 as their birth-date with the kick-off to representative Rugby.    

© Sean Fagan

* Hunters Hill RUFC (est. 1892) may be a contender, though even it has a break in continuity as a senior club as it only fielded junior teams (1957-65). [link]
** Dubbo Rugby Club website has an extensive and well-researched series of history articles [link].
*** The ‘Old Boys’ club was founded in 1933 (as Camberwell), then in 1934 became a club for former scholars of the Associated Public Schools of Victoria and the University (Scotch College vs Melbourne Grammar match first played in 1932).  Edward  ‘Weary’ Dunlop played Rugby for the Melbourne University club until 1934 / after completing his studies and obtaining his medical degree he moved to the ‘Old Boys’ club playing the 1935-37 seasons, then in early May 1938 sailed to England for further studies/work; he was there when WW2 commenced and after military service finally returned to Melbourne in 1946. [link]

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