written by Sean Fagan

Begun just before WW1 as a compromise location for Australia’s parliament and government offices (to placate Sydney and Melbourne political and social rivalries), Canberra through the 1920s was more construction workers and building site than urban living (Parliament House, for example, wasn’t opened until 1927).

The history of Rugby in the southern tablelands region of NSW (including the area that would become the Australian Capital Territory and the home of the Brumbies), stretches back deep into the late 1800s.

The combined Central Southern RFU team of 1900
The Central Southern RFU team that beat Sydney premiers Glebe in 1900

Despite distance and travelling by horse drawn rigs or steam trains through icy cold winters, Rugby teams from many towns met in ‘friendly battle’ including from Hall, Braidwood, Bugendore, Ginninderra, Sutton, Gundaroo, Michelago, Bywong, Goulburn, Yass, Queanbeyan and Cooma (the latter three clubs first playing each other in 1877-78).

The first attempt at starting a football club in Goulburn had come as early as 1865, but it wasn’t until the arrival in 1872 of former Sydney University FC captain Valentine Blomfield Riley that the sport took a permanent hold.

In 1899 the first game of the Matthew Mullineux led British Lions met the ‘Central Southern RFU’ upon the Goulburn Showground. Not normally used for football games, before kick-off large rocks were pulled from the field, and the asphalt cricket pitch covered with bark shavings to soften the footballer’s fall. A crowd over 4,000 strong watched the tourists open their campaign with a 11-3 victory over a team The Referee described as “The Goulburn men as a body are fast, hard as nails, and good tacklers”.

In the final week of the 1900 season Glebe, who had just won the Sydney club premiership, travelled to Goulburn and were toppled over by the combined Central Southern representatives 20 to 6. Two days later the visitors regained some lost laurels by defeating Combined Goulburn 6-3. 

A decade on the CSRFU team met another international opponent, the New Zealand Maori, but the home side were overrun 40-3 on a rain-soaked Goulburn Showground.

With the ACT formally separated from NSW on 1 January 1911, the first recorded football game within its boundaries was a Rugby match between Glenlee (Bungendore) and Federal City “played on the old polo ground at Duntroon” (Queanbeyan Age, 18 July 1911).

This area today, including Duntroon Military College and Yarralumla House, is the Canberra suburb of Campbell, and sits within land once held by Robert Campbell, a noted colonial NSW politician and merchant. Campbell’s grandson Fred, who owned the land at the time Canberra was first planned for, was one of the founders of the famous Wallaroo FC (Rugby) in 1870 in Sydney.

The opening of the Military College at Duntroon in the middle of 1911 meant there were three teams from within the ACT playing Rugby that winter – the cadets, along with sides formed by construction workers and public servants (the Federal City Club at Duntroon, and ‘Survey Camp’ team in Canberra itself). The proximity to nearby Queanbeyan, where Rugby had been played since the mid 1880s, provided through the Warrigals club the necessary support and rival team to encourage competition.

The Military College soon had enough players for their own in-house Rugby games, and also established the regular playing of matches against teams from/at Sydney’s private schools and colleges. The cadets also played soccer and Australian rules, but Rugby became the institution’s preferred code for ‘outside’ contests.

While Rugby continued to be played, it appears the first code to firmly establish an organised club competition in the ACT, as well as to regularly play in Canberra itself, was soccer football under the “Canberra British Football Association” in 1914. 

By the early 1920s when Canberra and the ACT had grown to the point that the local communities began to organise sporting clubs and competitions, Rugby was no longer being played in most southern NSW towns (the ‘Southern Monaro’ clubs around Bombala a rare exception). The introduction of knock-out cup football competitions to rugby league saw it become very popular. Both Australian rules and rugby league established permanent club competitions in Canberra/ACT in the mid-1920s, and soccer too continued to be well supported.

The sole organisation flying the flag for Rugby in the ACT was the Duntroon Military College, who were still playing regularly with teams from Sydney, and (since 1916) the Royal Naval College at Jervis Bay.

In early 1927, with the national revival of Rugby now well under way, the NSWRU made a determined push into the ACT, leading to the founding of the ‘Federal Capital Territory’ branch. Games were played by Canberra, Hall and the Military College, with most held on the latter’s oval. The chief organiser for the NSWRU, H. Grose, wrote in The Federal Capital Pioneer Magazine [20.5.1927]: 

“Pretty Canberra with its beautiful environs without a Rugby Union branch would be like a ship without a rudder, for although we respect and pay homage to all other codes of football we never forget that after all ours is the pioneer code. Rugby, because of its virile and scientific nature of play commends itself to Australians, and one feels certain that the amateur brand of Rugby will be preferred in the Territory.”

In May 1927 an exhibition match to showcase the code for Canberra’s sports-goers was played at Manuka Oval between Duntroon MC and Hawkesbury Agricultural College (Richmond). After the Oval’s management committee ‘bumped’ an Australian rules club game to make way for the College’s Rugby contest, the rival codes became entangled in a kerfuffle. The battle became moot when the fledgling Rugby body and its teams failed to appear at all in 1928.

The opening in 1929 of Canberra Grammar School (who opted to play both Rugby codes) meant the Military College could again enjoy frequent matches with a local opponent – though it was not to last, as a Federal government decision in late 1930 saw the Military College relocate to Victoria Barracks in Sydney.

The College returned to Duntroon in 1936, and with it came the first stirrings of Rugby making progress, with not only the cadets back in the local football field, but also the Grammar School, and the newly opened Canberra University College.

At the same time there was a rising discontent, in the ACT at least, against the influence of rugby league ‘Cup fever’ upon the community – primarily loathing how spectators conducted themselves (drinking, gambling and effects on family, church and business), the win-at-all costs attitude of coaches and players, and suspicions that match results were sometimes ‘fixed’ by bookies aided by willing assistants from within the game.

The visit of the Springboks to Canberra in 1937 saw renewed enthusiasm to finally place Rugby on a permanent footing in the Territory. After touring about the city, the South Africans gave a mid-afternoon exhibition training run on Manuka Oval. In the evening a civic dinner to honour the team’s was held at the Hotel Canberra.

With the function over a small group retired to the hotel’s card room – among them federal politicians, senior public servants, the Duntroon MC’s commandant, representatives of the Grammar School and the University College, NSWRU officials, and local men interested in Rugby.

By the end of the evening they had devised a plan to revive Rugby, founded the ‘Federal Capital Territory Rugby Union,’ and elected its first officials.

That same year “Adelong young man” David Campbell, a descendant of the Campbell family mentioned earlier, and a future noted Australian poet, was starring in Rugby matches for Cambridge University and in two internationals for England (he eventually returned to southern NSW, settling back into rural life on a bush property near Queanbeyan).

The 1938 season opened with four teams competing for the donated ‘Dent Cup’ in the inaugural club premiership – RMC Duntroon, University College, Eastern Suburbs and Northern Suburbs – the first round was held at Manuka Oval, launched by a short speech given by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. The year also saw the Victorian state team play Duntroon, and the New Zealand All Blacks defeated a combined Canberra representative side 57-5 at Manuka Oval.

The following season opened with the addition of another XV from the Military College, as well as a new club from the “Third Battalion Militia” volunteers. The fervour for cup football finally entered Rugby when William George Woodger, the RU’s President, donated the ‘Canberra Cup’ for competition between the first grade clubs (apart from the Military College teams) and a side representing Southern Monaro.

During and immediately after WW2 the club competition in Canberra was centred upon military-based teams. In 1945, along with the ‘Canberra’ civilian team were sides from the  Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force, RAAF School of Technical Training (2 teams), and Royal Military College (2 cadet teams, 1 staff team). The 1944 premiership also included a United States Navy team.

Local clubs had, understandably, been reduced to junior levels during the war. However, when the Norths and Easts clubs reached the 1947 grand final (the latter club winning), it signaled that the suburban game in Canberra was reasserting itself, and the military sides all soon faded into history (the  Military College remained in first grade until the 1980s, but won its last premiership in 1962).

Norths were joint premiers in 1948 (the final being a drawn result with the Military College), and won the Canberra Cup (beating Navy 23-8). So strong was the club’s depth that at the start of 1949 the Norths’ U20s and U17s separated from the seniors, and established a new club called the Canberra Royals. The club adopted royal blue jerseys with a white chevron – the ‘Royals’ club name seemingly a nod to the military teams, which all had ‘Royal’ in their title.

The Royals entered two teams in the reserve grade competition for their debut season, but had their sight set on first grade. Their cause was aided by a 10-6 victory at Northbourne Oval over Randwick, in a game billed as the “State Junior Championship”. Royals were permitted to play in the Canberra Cup for 1950, where they not only made it all the way to the final in their first campaign, but defeated Norths to take the trophy, and subsequently gained entry for the 1951 first grade competition.

By the end of the 1950s the first grade competition sides (1958) were Norths, Royals, Easts, Military College, RAAF and Queanbeyan, while for the Canberra Cup it was expanded to include Goulburn, Monaro, Navy and Commonwealth Forestry School (RMC not taking part).

The white-jerseyed Queanbeyan club had been founded in late 1954 for the purpose of having a team from the neighbouring NSW city in the ACT competition.

The present day ACT Premier Division for the Dent Cup still includes Queanbeyan Whites, Canberra Royals, Easts and Norths (merged as Norths-Uni Owls in 2001), alongside Gungahlin Eagles, Tuggeranong Vikings and Western District Lions.  

At the Super Rugby level the ACT Brumbies were a founding team in 1996. The ACT RU was expanded in 2004 to incorporate large areas of nearby NSW, and is today known as ‘ACT and Southern NSW RU’, its  territory including ACT, Monaro, far south coast of NSW and southern inland NSW.

© Sean Fagan