NSW team in Sydney, 1884
NSW team in Sydney, 1884

written by Sean Fagan

The notion of NSW and Queensland forming Rugby teams to play each other was a hurried affair that took less than two months to transfer from a proposal letter to the sides entering the SCG and kicking-off.

With virtually all football jerseys being imported from Britain, the decision of the Southern RFU (now NSWRU) to adopt a dark blue jersey for their debut matches in 1882 is likely to have simply been a matter of using what was available, rather than the colour having some particular symbolism.

The NSW team that left soon after for a short of tour of New Zealand also wore what Auckland’s Herald described as “sombre navy blue uniforms”.

In time for the 1883 season a specific jersey design was ordered from Britain, as reported at the 1884 meeting of the NSWRU: “During this tour [1883 to Brisbane] the Southern Rugby Football Union colours were worn for the first time, viz., heather green, with the Southern Cross embroidered on the breast, with a cap of green velvet, and NSW in silver monogram.”

In 1886 the green NSW jersey was changed, with The Sydney Morning Herald commenting that “The uniform of the New South Wales team consisted of a bashful scarlet tinted jersey and hose [socks], with white pants, and the contrast between the two uniforms [Queensland in dark blue] was very distinct.”

1886 NSW team (scarlet jersey) - click for larger...
1886 NSW team (scarlet jersey)

Retained for 1887, the choice of a red scarlet (also described in reports as cardinal or crimson) may be based upon following the colour of the Wales jersey – some sources have suggested this possibility as the NSW cap decoration shown in the team photograph (see below) was said to be a Welsh dragon in white, but a close examination reveals it is almost certainly a badge with the Southern Cross stars in white.

At first glance the 1888 jersey was a slighty different hue of the 1886-87 scarlet, however, newspapers through the season consistently referred to the colour as “maroon” and none as scarlet. In what was a big season for the code, NSW wore maroon against Queensland (Oxford blue), New Zealand Maori (who changed from black to navy blue for the day), and the first British Lions (red, white & blue).

A report from the game with the Lions stated the NSW team “wore dark maroon jerseys, and had upon their breasts a blue shield with the five stars of Australia’s cross” [Southern Cross], white pants and blue socks. A black and white photo of the team published in July 1888 in The Bulletin shows the jersey to be much darker than the 1886 scarlet, the socks as dark blue, and the badge as very pale blue, suggesting it was the same light blue also being used that year in flags flying all through Sydney city as part of the NSW (and Australia) centenary celebrations.

In 1889 NSW continued with maroon in Brisbane against Queensland, and again at home in a contest with the Victorian XV. Sydney’s Evening News wrote of the visitors outfit, “They looked very pretty in the field, Victorians wearing light blue jerseys, navy blue stockings, and white knickers.” Doubt remains over the 1890 NSW jersey as newspapers simply referred to the team as “the reds”.

In April 1891 at a NSWRU meeting it was suggested that the Victorian team be invited to again come to Sydney. However, the code in Melbourne failed to materialise that season, and intriguingly, the NSW team entered the SCG for a match at the end of June against “Central Queensland” (Rockhampton) wearing the “pretty” light blue of the 1889 Victorians.

NSW team in 1894 at SCG
NSW team in 1894 at SCG

The new sky blue design was retained for a tour at the end of the season to Brisbane (including against Queensland) and a short 3-match stay in Rockhampton to return the latter’s visit. The local Morning Bulletin recording “the visiting team, wearing very pale blue jerseys” received a warm welcome.

The NSWRU minute books record the ordering of “Cambridge blue” coloured jerseys from England. By 1897 the playing strip was specified as: “navy-blue pants, light-blue jersey” and this mix of the blue colours of Oxford and Cambridge Universities has remained in place ever since.

The Southern Cross on the jersey badge had by 1893 been replaced by inter-twined ‘N S W’ lettering. However, in 1895 at the suggestion of Wallaroo FC’s official Richard Arnold the badge was changed to a waratah (red flower, green leaves) emblem, which became permanent.

The NSW side were referred to as “the Blues” until the early 1990s, apart from the 1927-28 “NSW Waratahs” who toured the UK, Ireland (see clip below), France and Canada who gave the name an international reputation and local legacy.

In 1977 the QRU and NSWRU placed advertisements in the lead-up to inter-state games, using tag-lines “Reds on the Run”, “Boo a Blue at Ballymore” and “Turn Back the Red Tide”. 

With distinctive branding a key component of marketing heading towards the Super Rugby era (following on from the South Pacific Championship of the late 1980s), and Auckland also being the “Blues”, in the early 1990s the NSW “Blues” began to fade away in favour of the “Waratahs” (and Queensland from “Maroons” to “Reds”). 

In the Super Rugby era the Waratahs have at times added embellishments to the team’s main jersey such as dark blue piping and collar treatments, however the primary use of traditional light blue has continued unchanged.

© Sean Fagan

Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
Sean Fagan, The First Lions of Rugby
Ian Diehm, Red! Red! Red! The Story of Queensland Rugby
NSWRU / ARU archives

NSW rugby team in Brisbane 1883
NSW rugby team in Brisbane 1883
NSW team in 1899 (light blue jerseys, waratah badge)
NSW team in 1899 (light blue jerseys, waratah badge)
NSW vs QLD at the SCG in 1899 (detail showing NSW jersey numbers white panel)
NSW vs QLD at the SCG in 1899 (detail showing NSW jersey numbers white panel)