written by Sean Fagan

Rugby in Darwin in 1916
‘Repairing goal’ – Rugby in Darwin in 1916

Football of any kind was a long time coming to Darwin and the ‘Top End’.

While the low population numbers in the Northern Territory capital from which to draw teams was an obvious problem, so too was the lack of any sporting ground suitable for football codes, and the tropical heat.

Many held the view that the Territory was not a place for greater exertion when it came to pastimes than retiring to a pub bar, and “that the climate unfits men for anything in the shape of strenuous exercise”.

When during World War One football finally came it was in the summer months, which in the north of Australia is the ‘wet season’ – the hard ground of Darwin Town Oval was somewhat softened by the rain and the thickening of grass.

Though Rugby found a home on the hard dry grounds of South Africa, the gold field towns of Western Australia, and much of Queensland’s Rugby ‘fields’ were no feather-bed, in Darwin the small playing stocks of ‘footballers’ meant only one code could survive.

Given the nature of Rugby games, with below the hips tackling that unforgivably brought players down to Mother Earth, and that soccer had no advocate, it was Australian rules that became ‘football’ in Darwin. Through the 1920s the city’s competition was primarily between three teams – Waratahs, Buffaloes (Vesteys) and Wanderers.

Northern Territory Times wrote in November 1916:

Followers of the Rugby game who do not know the Oval will wonder, perhaps, why that game is not played here, but let them get “taken low” once on the ironstone and they will wonder no more.

Ironically the first football game played in the Territory was under Rugby rules.

The Rugby match was originally set down for New Year’s Day in 1916, with a meeting between Darwin and Vestey’s (workers building the Vestey Brothers’ Meatworks). However, it had to be postponed “owing to non-arrival of the necessary football gear”. The extra time was put to good use as “the oval is not what may be called an ideal spot for football, and players are preparing knee-pads etc.”.

The arrival in port of HMS Cornwall of the Royal Navy led to Vestey’s being dropped as Darwin’s opponents in favour of a sailors XV from the warship. 

On match day though the ‘boys in blue’ were denied shore leave, with the battle cruiser needing ‘to coal’ in preparation to leaving. The Vestey’s men then stepped into fill the void, and ended the day as 9-3 winners. Northern Territory Times reported:

Several [of the Vestey’s team] slashed their trousers off at the knees with a pocket knife so as to play in shorts. The play was clean right through and not rough. One man carried home a black eye as a memento, and a few left some skin on the ground, but it was a good game.

Rather than spur on the dawn of a Rugby competition, the game triggered the immediate formation of the Northern Territory Football Association to organise the playing of Australian rules. A correspondent to Winner in Melbourne recorded:

… needless to say, one game [of Rugby] in this climate was quite sufficient for the followers of the strenuous old English game. But the fact that there was a football in town, and that others could play Rugby, set the devotees of our own game [Australian] thinking, and a scratch match was held … And there is no doubt that our game has secured a firm footing here, and has so advanced another thousand miles on its journey round the earth.

Through the 1920s and ’30s the regular influx of workers (‘Rugby blow ins’) from NSW and Queensland saw the Aussie rules games sometimes stray into a half-bred fusion with Rugby tackling and running with the ball. 

Towards the close of the 1934-35 football season a Northern Territory Rugby Association (NTRA) was formed, with many of the Australian rules footballers (temporarily) switching codes. Before any on-field action got underway debate grew over which Rugby code should be played, and a close vote decided to proceed under league’s 13 a-side rules.

It wasn’t until 1975 and the rebuilding of Darwin after the Cyclone Tracy disaster that Rugby finally gained a presence. With many tradesmen coming from the Rugby states and New Zealand, games and eventually clubs came to be formed. In October 1976 a six-team competition commenced and the Northern Territory Rugby Union founded. 

© Sean Fagan