written by Sean Fagan

Rugby in Melbourne. A 1910 game at the St Kilda ground (Junction Oval) between Victoria and NZ Maori.
Rugby in Melbourne. A 1910 game at the St Kilda ground (Junction Oval) between Victoria and NZ Maori. Aussie rules goal/behind posts in the background.

Melbourne town was founded in 1835, and the colony of Victoria established in 1851 via its separation from NSW.

Traditional folk football was first played in (what would become) Victoria in the late 1840s and into the 1850s. By 1857 Rugby games were held in Melbourne. However, dissatisfaction with how the game was played led to the Melbourne FC in May 1859 adopting its own revised laws of English football.

It was not until the 1870s that suggestions to start the playing of Rugby games first appeared in the Melbourne newspapers. 

In 1874 The Record and Emerald Hill and Sandridge Advertiser [South Melbourne] reported that the “Albert Park Club are anxious to introduce the Rugby game of football, and by doing so supercede a very objectionable mode of playing hitherto practiced in this colony … We trust that the Albert Park Club will gain for itself the worthy distinction of having, to say the least of it, made the game of football in this colony respectable.” The  initiative to adopt Rugby  failed to gain momentum, and Albert Park went on to become a founding member of the Victoria Football Association (1877) and then merge with South Melbourne (1880). 

A plaintive cry was heard from a Rugby supporter in The Australasian in April 1875, appealing for local football clubs to switch to the “Rugby game, as played by the rules of the Rugby Football Union, [that] is now very popular in England and her colonies (including New South Wales and New Zealand), and I believe that Victoria is the only colony that does not play the Rugby game.” The writer went to suggest that the change would allow inter-colonial games with neighbouring colonies.

The 1876 publication, The Footballer: An Annual Record of Football in Victoria, included a full copy of all 59 rules of Rugby as adopted by the NSWRU in Sydney, but offered on another page that “To a new chum, the Rugby game is decidedly a funny one; the rules are not learnt in a hurry, being a rather difficult task.”

The Footballer also suggested that perhaps two clubs from Sydney and Melbourne could meet under the other’s rules, and after witnessing each, could then bring about a football fusion between the colonies. It was following this notion that  Sydney’s Waratah Rugby club and Melbourne’s Carlton FC exchanged visits in 1877-78, bringing about the first Rugby game in the Victorian capital (played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1878).

In an intriguing reference back to the earlier history of football in the Victorian capital and its Rugby origins, The Argus observed (29 June 1878) in its preview of the inter-code match that “it will be played under the Rugby Union rules, which are never used here now.” The Carlton-Waratah plan failed to ignite either a merger of the codes, nor any support for a permanent place for Rugby in Melbourne (though the latter was not an objective of the project).

Victoria made an obscure connection to Rugby history when Melbourne lads Alec Pearson and James Bevan became the first Australian-born Rugby internationals, gaining selection for England (1875-78) and Wales (1881) respectively [link].  

Pearson’s older brother James, who had returned home to Melbourne after finishing his education and a stint as Blackheath’s first XV captain, wrote to The Argus (16 January 1879) calling on other former Rugby players to come together and start a club for Victoria. It appears nothing came of Pearson’s solitary call.
[Alec Pearson biography by Ron Grainger]

Melbourne was however the end-point of sea journeys between Britain and Australasia, and this proved to ensure some life was regularly breathed into the Rugby code in Victoria during the following decades.

A Rugby team, including Alec Pearson, was raised by the Melbourne Cricket Club from among the city’s residents in June 1881. Styled as the “Wanderers” and wearing dark blue jerseys, the MCC’s rugby side played against officers of the British Navy’s “Detached Squadron” (white jerseys with a crown insignia over the breast) at the MCG.

A dour match, enjoyed by the players but offering little in the way of thrills to the inquisitive spectators, was won by the “Squadron” (HMS Bacchante & HMS Inconstant) scoring a try and a goal to the home team’s nil. The Australasian (2 July 1881) suggested after the exhibition, “To the initiated the Rugby game may be ‘a well of delight’, but to a Victorian crowd it is apparently ‘stale, fiat, and unprofitable’.”

The Sydney Mail (2 July 1881) reported that the inaugural NSW “Victorian rules” team during its Melbourne visit played two matches under rugby rules also against the “Squadron” side.

The next year a football match “according to the rugby rules” was played at Williamstown (8km s/w of Melbourne) between “midshipmen” of the English shipping companies “the Blackwall Line” and “the White Star Line” – the Blackwall Line side winning by one goal to nil (The Argus, 28 September 1882).

Perhaps indicating just how unknown rugby was in Victoria at this time, is a paragraph in the Camperdown Chronicle (19 July 1882) in which it was stated: “The English players, however, it seems, insist upon playing the strict rugby game, the main condition of which is that the ball must not be touched by the hand at all, but always kicked.” [sic!]

Rugby (and its perceived dangers) was so out of public favour, and so poorly understood, that in March 1884 reports in The Argus and The Leader saw soccer players described as men who “play the English Association game (not Rugby)”.

On 9 October 1886 The Argus detailed that a meeting had been held at “Young and Jackson’s Hotel” to form a Rugby football club for the following year’s winter. To date no record of the club coming to the field in 1887 has yet been found.

The impending arrival of the British rugby team in 1888 was sufficient to again ignite interest, leading to the founding of the Melbourne RFC. Organised by former Cambridge University rugby player CE Chapman, a young teacher at Melbourne Grammar School (South Yarra), within weeks the city’s first rugby club boasted it had (though perhaps unlikely) over 100 members, with most being former rugby footballers “who have long been debarred from indulging in their favourite game.” Yorkshire County rep Tom Scarborough was another leading figure in the movement.

After playing internal trial matches (‘Colonials v World’ , ‘East v West’), a team was selected to take on the British. The Victorians put in a respectable performance in front of a crowd of 6,000 at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground, losing 15-5 to the tourists.

A fortnight later, the Melbourne side took on the ‘New Zealand Native Football Team’. Comprised mostly of Maori, the New Zealanders were on their way to England. Before more than 5,000 spectators, the Natives won 3 tries to nil. The home team surprised all by holding the visitors to a draw in the second match.

At the Melbourne club’s first annual meeting in April 1889, it was resolved to again adopt the full laws of rugby union, and to seek direct affiliation with the English RFU (as the NSWRU and QRU had already done).

It was also agreed that the size of the club warranted a division of the playing strength via the formation of new clubs – Pakeha (New Zealanders) and North Melbourne were subsequently created (though the latter club at least may have already been in existence in some form, given The Age of 11 June 1888 records a rugby match between ‘the recently formed North Melbourne Club and Melbourne Club’ at the Carlton Cricket Club ground on 9 June 1888).

In May 1889 the New Zealand Natives returned, playing (and winning) three further matches – against the Melbourne club, a British Navy side (comprised of officers from two visiting warships), and combined Victoria.

Later in the season, the Victorian team travelled to Sydney to take on NSW. As expected, the Victorians were beaten, though the scores of 13-6 and 17-14 were more than respectable.

Feeling that it’s readers needed an explanation as to the surprising competiveness of the Victorians, The Sydney Mail revealed that the entire team was “young Englishmen and New Zealanders who learnt rugby elsewhere and brought it to the colony.” The team’s captain, F.L. Scarborough (brother of Tom, mentioned earlier), speaking at Sydney reception for his side, said: “I regret to say there is not a single native-born Victorian in the team.”

Club football for the 1890 season commenced with Melbourne and Pakeha meeting in a match, but that was the final report of any rugby in Melbourne – all interest in the code suddenly collapsed. At a NSWRU meeting in April 1891 it was suggested “a team should be invited from Victoria during the season, as a means of fostering the game in that colony” – nothing eventuated though.

Rugby did not re-emerge until early 1893 when The Sydney Mail reported “a Rugby Union [body] has again been formed in Melbourne, and four clubs – the Pioneers, Rovers, Crusaders and Pirates – have joined. There was a Rugby Union [body] in Melbourne three or four years ago.”

Most of the games were held on the “Friendly Societies Ground” (which today is the site of Olympic Park) and the East Melbourne Cricket Ground.

It is thought that Rev. John Hoatson, who had moved from New Zealand to Melbourne in 1892, was the prime mover behind the code’s resurgence in Melbourne. Hoatson had been a senior official with the Canterbury RU and a highly regarded referee.

Support held up well enough through 1893 that four clubs again took to the field the following year. A Victorian Rugby Union had been formed, and it took the positive step of writing to the NSWRU seeking inter-colonial matches. Agreement was readily found and a NSW representative team travelled to Melbourne in mid 1894.

In a major shock, Victoria defeated NSW 3-0 in the first match. However, the Victorians could not repeat the dose in the second match, losing 9-5. (NSW also defeated a “Victorian second team” of 17 players by 20 points to nil.)

As with the Victorian teams of the late 1880s, The Sydney Mail found the competitiveness was not so unlikely given “the Victorian ranks have been recruited from New Zealand, England, and NSW.”

In 1895, the local competition still comprised the clubs formed in 1893, apart from a new Melbourne RFC replacing the Crusaders.

A Victorian team played NSW in Sydney in 1895. Held at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the tourists were defeated 25-6 and 19-5.

Intriguingly, there is an absence of any reports in Melbourne newspapers of rugby in the city through 1896-98. While that initially suggested the code had again ceased to exist, reports in the New Zealand press reveal otherwise. The Observer (Auckland) mentioned on 30 May 1896 the existence of the VRU, while The Poverty Bay Herald of 14 May 1896 stated: “Rugby football is advancing in Melbourne. The number of players this season shows a considerable advance on last year’s record, and one of the finest football trophies ever offered locally is to be played for by the clubs.”

Despite an apparent disinterest from the Melbourne papers, the game went on, and enjoyed a significant surge in numbers and enthusiasm in early 1899 when confirmation was received that the Great Britain (now Lions) touring team would be visiting Australia.

Hoatson again rallied the players and supporters, calling and chairing a meeting from which the “Victorian Wanderers RFC” was formed. The British agreed to play the Victorians, and the NSWRU also offered to open discussions on a NSW side visiting Melbourne later on.

A representation of Rugby football in 'Melbourne Punch', 1899.
A representation of Rugby football in ‘Melbourne Punch’, 1899.

In the weeks leading up to the match against Britain, trial matches were played each Saturday at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground (home of the VFL’s Essendon FC). Hoatson took on the triple role of referee, on-field advisor and selector of the Victorian team.

Reports during July 1899 in The Referee from its Melbourne correspondent stated that the club had grown to “about 100 strong” and that “the club open their club rooms at 114 Elizabeth Street to-day.”

Despite the energetic efforts to produce a competitive team, the British crushed the Victorian selection 30-0 (the home team wore red and white hooped jerseys) at the MCG.

Interestingly, the Victorian team’s arrangements and the match were organised by the Victorian Football League. An Australian rules game was played as the early game, and a crowd of over 10,000 attended the afternoon’s entertainment.

Barely weeks later, Hoatson accepted a position in England and left Melbourne. On the surface it appeared he had done more than enough to finally place rugby on a permanent basis in the Victorian capital.

However, after the “Victorian Rugby Club” played a “practice match” in May of 1900 at the Middle Park Ground (Albert Park), no further games were held and the movement collapsed.

A visit of another British team in 1904 wasn’t enough to revive the game, and it took the news in mid 1908 that the Australian Wallabies would be sailing from Melbourne for their UK tour to awaken interest in the code. The “Victorian Rugby Union” was hastily formed in an effort to convince the NSWRU that a legimate organisation existed and to allow a Wallabies v Victoria match to be played.

The NSWRU agreed and the MCG was secured as the venue. Unsurprisingly, almost all the Victorian team were again men who had learnt to play rugby elsewhere. A crowd of 1,500 attended, watching on as the Wallabies won 26-6 over the Victorian team (blue and gold jerseys).

Victorian Rugby XV
The Victorian team that played the Wallabies at the MCG in 1908.

This renewed push for rugby though was not the ‘false dawn’ of earlier attempts. Rugby finally placed itself on a more assured footing with the establishment of the Melbourne club competition in 1909. The founding clubs were Melbourne, East Melbourne, South Melbourne, St Kilda and University.

Melbourne won the first premiership, securing the ‘Dewar Shield’. A combined Victorian team also played against “Officers of the Navy” from visiting British warships.

In July 1909 the Sydney University team journeyed to Melbourne, playing matches against Melbourne University and Victoria. The Sydney men won the inter-varsity clash 15-3. In 1910 the Melbourne University team came to Sydney, playing against Sydney University and a visiting American [Californian] Universities side.

The Victorian team was brought into the field in July 1910 for a match in Melbourne against the New Zealand Maori side which drew a large crowd to the St Kilda Cricket Ground (Junction Oval). The following two seasons saw the Victorians play matches against Sydney’s City & Suburban representative side.

Despite the promising growth in the code in Melbourne, no more games were played by Victoria before WW1, and The Sydney Mail cautioned about the code in the southern state: “The material on hand for Rugby is limited, and although great enthusiasm prevails amongst those interested in the game, it will be some considerable time before they will produce a side to be reckoned with.”

The outbreak of WW1 resulted in Rugby’s extinction in Melbourne, and apart from a Victorian team raised in 1921 to give the Springboks the chance to run off their ‘sea legs’ at the start of their Australasian tour (the visitors won 51-0), the game was not played again until 1926, when the six clubs of the Victorian Rugby League (formed in 1923) abandoned the professional code and established a new Victorian Rugby Union (St. Kilda, Melbourne University, Kiwis, Melbourne, RAAF and Navy).

victoria-1930In Rugby in Victoria: The Early Years researcher Ron Grainger writes, “These six original clubs were joined by Harlequin and Footscray (founded 1928), Geelong (1929), Old Boys (1934) and Power House (1933). Geelong did not compete after 1936 (until 1958), and Old Boys merged with Melbourne in 1939.”

The state team between its revival in 1926 and the start of WW2, produced a period of competitiveness and success that can only be described as “the golden era of Victorian Rugby”.  Matches were played against the All Blacks, NZ Maori, British Lions, NSW Waratahs, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. The period includes six wins over NSW, five of which were in Sydney.

In this run 10 Victorian-based players gained national honours with the Australian team: Gordon Sturtridge, Owen Bridle, Dave Cowper (captain 1933), Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Evan Jessep, Rudolph Dorr, John Hammon, Frederick Kerr, Clifford Lang, Max Carpenter (who was also a member of the ill-fated 1939 Wallabies, along with Andrew Barr, Stan Bissett and George Pearson).

Rugby continued in the decades that followed to be of a modest but proficient standard, and between WW2 and the start of the 1980s saw another thirteen players gain representative appearances for the Wallabies.

With the arrival of the professional era the ARU held two Wallabies internationals at the MCG, the first in 1997 against the All Blacks set a new crowd record for the code in Australia with 90,119 fans. The next year a further 75,127 watched the teams go into battle again.

Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium was a major venue for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, hosting seven matches during the tournament (total attendance of 284,209), including the Wallabies 17-16 win over Ireland, and two quarter-finals.

Despite the momentum gained for interest in Rugby in the Victorian capital, the following year a Melbourne bid for entry into the Super Rugby competition was passed over in favour of Perth’s Western Force.

In 2007 the Melbourne Rebels took part in the Australian Rugby Championship that was played just for one season, due to the inordinate costs it was draining from ARU resources. The Australian [24.9.2012] suggested “Of the eight clubs, the Melbourne Rebels were mostly blamed for the blow-out mainly because they had no infrastructure and had to import almost all their players and coaches.”

After the ARU gained approval for a 5th Australian-based team in Super Rugby, the Melbourne Rebels were added to the competition for the 2011 season.

© Sean Fagan

Sean Fagan, The Rugby Rebellion
Greg de Moore, Tom Wills
Geoffrey Blainey, A Game Of Our Own: The Origins Of Australian Football
Greg Ryan,  Forerunners of the All Blacks
Jack Pollard,  Australian RU: The Game and the Players
NSWRU / ARU archives
Ron Grainger, Rugby in Victoria website