HISTORY OF RUGBY IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA
written by Sean Fagan
South Australia was the continent’s first “free colony”, proclaimed at the end of 1836. The earliest known playing of folk football in Adelaide was in 1843 when the South Australian Register (the Register) noted the game was played by Irish immigrants at Thebarton as part of St Patricks Day celebrations.
The tradition of playing football at festivals and holiday celebrations continued until well into the 1860s, particularly in rural areas.
In 1859 the South Australian Advertiser (the Advertiser) of 17 March carried a review of village festivities at Aganston (in the Barossa Valley) where “the sports of the day were resumed when several of our staid and more mature citizens distinguished themselves by the proficiency they exhibited in that fine old game, football.”
The first organised club football began Adelaide in 1860, with only football in neighbouring Victoria thus being older. The movement was initiated by 30 year old John Acraman, who had migrated from Bristol in England with his parents in 1848. He had reputedly played football as a schoolboy in the 1840s at Bath and Clifton. Acraman placed an advertisement in the Advertiser of 26 April inviting those interested to attend the Globe Inn that evening to form a club.
A letter-writer to The Register (1 July 1907) claimed Acraman started football in 1854, “had five round balls sent out from England”, and the games were played using Harrow rules (from the school in London). The happenings and locations laid out in the letter though correspond with those documented in the Adelaide press from 1860 onwards, not 1854, and both the 1907 correspondent and the 1860 Adelaide newspapers describe a game that does not accord with Harrow rules, goal posts or ball.
Reports in the Advertiser through April 1860 (and the 1907 one above) refer to the club erecting goal posts on the North Park Lands. The club conducted its “first meeting for play” on Saturday afternoon of 28 April, where “there were some very rough tumbles, and some awkward kicks on the shins.”
In 1862 the city’s second club was formed – the Modbury FC. The Register (15 September 1862) reported a match having been played between Adelaide and Modbury two days earlier, and referenced that it was the second contest between the clubs. The Advertiser in 1863 referred to the club as “the Modbury and Teatree Gully Club”. Both “Modbury” and “Tea Tree Gully” are today separate Australian rules football clubs, each claiming to have been founded in 1862, and having played the Adelaide FC that year.
The first match played “outside Adelaide” was in the winter of 1868 at Woodville, where the Adelaide FC met the “Port and Suburban Club”.
Though newspaper reports of football contests in Adelaide and neighbouring areas are frequent through the 1860s, they are brief, and the writers never ventured beyond merely noting that a goal had been kicked or missed. There are no extended passages detailing the to and fro of the play or of rules.
The Advertiser (28 May 1860) described the players as “engaged in this ancient game,” who were sometimes “mixed together in the hot conflict for possession of the ball” and “there were some very ugly tumbles throughout the afternoon.” The Register of 23 January 1864 invited “The lovers of this old English sport” to watch a game of the Adelaide FC.
All that is certain is that the game was played with a round-ball, had no (or very limited) off-side rules, commenced (and after each goal) via a kick-off from mid field, and that a goal only counted if it was kicked from the foot and went below a cross-bar (usually just a rope). A close “scramble” or “scrimmage” between the teams seemed to only occur when the contest drew “hot” near the goal.
The extent of running with the ball and the permitted severity of tackling is not known. No mention is made in match reports of Melbourne style bouncing or hand-passing the ball, nor of rugby’s tries at goal. News of the formation in London of the Football Association (1863) was reported, but not its rules. The Advertiser in 1871 (9 January) reproduced an extensive English article detailing the laws of rugby football, but added no local comment.
The wide condemnation in 1867 of heavy-handed tackling tactics used by a team from “Her Majesty’s 14th Regiment” (West Yorkshire regiment [link] on their way home from New Zealand’s ‘Maori Wars’) in two matches against the Adelaide FC, suggests that the locals had developed their own unique football code that was loosely equivalent to a ball-handling form of English soccer.
The Advertiser (13 May 1867) reported that Adelaide scored the only goal of the first match, however, “the pleasure of watching it was marred to a considerable extent by the rough play which was shown by the military” who played a rugby style game by refusing to accept “any conditions as to holding, tripping, or hugging”, and the contest saw many “wrestling matches, and rough-and tumble exercises.” The Register (same date) adding “there were some very nasty tumbles and scrimmages. A pile of men three or four deep — soldiers and Adelaides alternately — was by no means a rare spectacle.”
The teams met again a few weeks later, with the Advertiser (7 June 1867) calming local readers with “We are assured that the tripping, holding, and throwing, which were features in the first match, have been forbidden.” This second match ended barely after it began (the Register, 17 June 1867) when “owing to several disputes arising from the rough play, especially of one of the soldiers, the game was brought to a standstill by the club team refusing to play upon the soldiers’ terms. The latter thereupon left the ground.”
A visit from the “50th Regiment of Foot” (primarily of West Kent, south-east England) later that year produced a friendly football game that passed without any incident at all (the Register, 15 September 1862).
The three major clubs in the early 1870s – Adelaide, Port Adelaide and Kensington – all continued to have their own playing rules. As games against other clubs came to be more of the norm, and in-house contests increasingly less prevalent, the need for common rules became more pressing.
In 1873 the Kensington club initiated “a conference of delegates from the various clubs to draw up a standard code of rules for play.” The Adelaide FC had already triggered a change amongst all the clubs after it resolved that “in future the ball be kicked over instead of under the cross-bar of the goal” (the Observer, 10 April 1869), was reported (South Australian Chronicle, 21 May 1870) in a match to be using a cross-bar and Rugby ball, and was proposing for the 1873 conference “to play under revised rules, and to adopt what is known in England as ‘off’ and ‘on’ [side] game” (the Advertiser, 7 May 1873).
The same newspaper reported on 10 May 1873 that the club delegates had met, and “After discussing the various rules seriatim, a code was drawn up somewhat similar to the rules of the English Football Association.”
Match reports became more detailed as the decade progressed, giving a clearer picture of the game. In 1874 there are mentions of the ball being run with in hand, the use of drop-kicks and place kicks at goal, as well as “marks” (from which the catcher could assign the kick to a team mate), and descriptions of general play that varied from where “a good scrimmage took place, the players being then well massed together” to “by a series of free kicks and good catches, sent the ball right between the Whites’ goal-posts, but the ball passing under the bar scored no goal,” and “made a fine run with the ball, but eventually came to grief in front of the goal.”
One of the more distinctive features that existed in football in Adelaide in the early 1870s was a goal “square”, created by the use of a standard rugby cross-bar at the normal eight foot height, matched by a second higher cross-bar (rope) at 16 feet. Most likely adopted to avoid arguments about “posters” (where the ball travelled over the top of either post), the ball had to go through the “square” to count e.g.”J. Martin, with a capital ‘drop-kick,’ sent it through the Kensingtons’ square, thus scoring one for the Gawlers” (the Register, 24 June 1874).
Clearly, the game that evolved in Adelaide from 1860 to 1874 wasn’t Victorian rules football, nor was it Rugby or soccer, but was instead a unique football code in itself. Largely free of danger and injury, it was popular with the local spectators.
The clubs though failed to hold uniformity over these rules, with the Register observing (23 August 1875) that Adelaide met Port Adelaide under the latter club’s rules, which meant Adelaide “played under a disadvantage, being unaccustomed to the rules of the Port Club, under which the match was played.”
At this same time the Kensington club put a halt to players haring off with the ball on long rugby style runs by adopting the Victorians’ bouncing the ball rule, yet conversely, showed a decided rugby leaning by its allowing of much more freedom to throw opponents to the ground in and after the tackle, and to sustain longer ‘scrimmages’ (mauls) amongst massing players by the held ball-carrier continuing to keep hold of the ball.
Like rugby, it also suffered criticisms about the number of rules and its appeal as a spectator sport compared to others. The Advertiser wrote: “Football as at present played under the Kensington regime is so clogged with conditions that a player is occupied half his time in considering whether he is playing the game or whether he is violating some one or other of the numerous rules.”
The Kensington game found favour with many players and began to exert a strong influence over the rules of the other clubs. However, the Kensington mode was finding less support amongst spectators, and crowds began to fall away from attending football at all.
Meanwhile, both the Advertiser and the Register reported on 13 April 1876 of a new South Adelaide FC having been formed and that “the playing rules in force in Melbourne were adopted. It was thought desirable that one uniform set of playing rules should be adopted generally, and with this view the Captain…to confer with the representatives from other Football Clubs.”
The South Adelaide FC’s hopes didn’t progress far, but the club’s arrival at the very least marks the first planting of the Victorian code in South Australian soil.
A pivotal moment came when the South Adelaide club agreed to meet Adelaide under “the rules of the Old Adelaide Football Club, which were in force two years ago…substituted for the Kensington rules now in general use” (the Advertiser, 10 July 1876). In its report of the match the Register (10 July) said it was “played under the old Adelaide or modified Rugby Union rules” and that amongst “some of the clubs there seemed an inclination to revert to the game as originally played.”
News of the old rules returning brought the biggest crowd of the season, and a clear suggestion that “this match should be a hint to the members of our leading Football Clubs to return to the old and popular rules.”
Later that month a meeting of club delegates was convened, though Port Adelaide and Kensington were notable absentees. Amidst a debate about Melbourne football rules and the old Adelaide FC rules, common ground was found by resolving to immediately adopt Victorian rules, with the significant exclusion of Rule 7 (bouncing the ball when running, and dropping it when tackled). The round ball was replaced by a rugby ball, while the two cross-bars were removed from the posts (the Observer, 22 July 1876).
The initial matches saw a lot of players running with the ball, with one of the most prominent Adelaide FC’s English-born captain Richard Twopeny [aka Nowell Twopeny or Richard Twopenny], who had played rugby at Marlborough College and elsewhere, and according to his own words, this was “several hundred times.”
Confusion over the new rules abounded, on and off the field. An advertisement in the Register (14 August 1876) for a game between Adelaide and ‘Victorians’ misguidedly stated it would be played under “the recently adopted Rugby Rules.” Meanwhile “the players also seemed to have found out that carrying the ball, after a crowd had assembled around them, would not do much good for their side, so the practice was partly discontinued, but still it was done to some extent” (the Advertiser, 28 August 1876).
The 1876 season ended with a general consensus that the new rules “have given an entirely new stimulus to football in this colony.” All wasn’t entirely settled though, with Port ending their season off with an in-house game under Kensington rules, while the Woodville FC divided into two sides to play the colony’s first game under rugby union rules.
On 19 April 1877 Twopeny chaired a large meeting of footballers and club officials for the purpose of forming a South Australian Football Association to bind the clubs to uniform rules and representation, thus enabling the commencement of negotiations for inter-colonial matches with the Victorians.
At a further meeting on 30 April 1877 the major debate centred over the full adoption of the Victorian rules or whether to again exclude rule 7 (the need to bounce the ball): “Mr Twopeny spoke very warmly in favour of running with the ball, urging that it was a sine qua non of genuine football, and that, from English experience, he could vouch for there being no disputes when this rule was played; whereas bouncing the ball [Kensington rules] had led to endless rows here, and left a great deal too much to the umpire. Mr Kingston, on the other hand, said that experienced Victorian players bore witness to there being no disputes with the bouncing rules, and he opposed Mr Twopeny’s view. He thought that the Melbourne rules should as far as possible be adopted, and this rule was an essential to an intercolonial match. The meeting finally adopted the Victorian rule as it stood, which allows of bouncing” (the Register, 1 May 1877).
The news was received by the Melbourne publication The Footballer with unabashed joy, writing “As if by the touch of a magician’s wand football in South Australia has undergone a complete transformation, and from a drowsy state of quietude, almost indifference, it has sprang into a busy scene of life and activity … The spirit of active enterprise has been at work, and with the prospect of vieing in conquest with the sister colony of Victoria at no distant period, the rules of the Home of Football in Australia were at the beginning of the season adopted with a few modifications”.
The effect was that South Australia and Victoria were now in (relative) uniformity of playing rules. At the end of the season Melbourne FC and St Kilda FC visited the South Australian capital. Twopeny captained Adelaide FC in a match against St Kilda on Adelaide Oval. By the time the 1878 season commenced, Twopeny had left the colony.
South Australia can lay claim to the first Aussie to play Rugby football for Cambridge University, with Adelaide-born James Allen (1855-1942) taking part in the annual game against Oxford in 1875. Allen was educated in England and after moving to New Zealand became a prominent politician and diplomat.
In June 1885 the Register newspaper in Adelaide carried a lengthy story written by a colonial Australian studying at Rugby School, noting “I do not propose to describe the intricacies of Rugby football here, the rules are so complicated that a sharp boy, playing three times a week, takes three months to master them; suffice it to say that it is a good honest rough game, where a few arms and legs are annually broken, and much superfluous steam safely worked off.”
Perhaps the story bestirred Rugby ‘old boys’ in Adelaide, as a month later the first Rugby club in South Australia was formed. Rather blandly entitled as the “Rugby Union Football Club,” it claimed to have 80 members sign-on at its first meetings at the Metropolitan Hotel. In-house matches were held on the “Old Racecourse” where, according to the Advertiser, “there were a fair number of spectators, who appeared to take great interest in the game.” The club held an annual meeting in May 1885, but then seems to have faded out of existence.
On 4 December 1885 a rugby match was played on a rough ground at the rear of “the Sailors’ Home” in Port Adelaide. The game was between officers and midshipmen of the passenger ships the Hesperus and South Australian, against a side raised from locals at Port Adelaide and Semaphore.
News of the impending arrival of the British rugby union team to Adelaide in July 1888 suddenly gave the game renewed hope. The British team were principally visiting to play four gate-taking matches under Victorian rules against local clubs (South Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Adelaide and Norwood), but agreed to give an exhibition of the rugby game, in the hope it would lead to the permanent formation of a local rugby club.
The first call for players saw 30 “rugbyites” come forward, presumably all of whom had gained their rugby knowledge in the UK. The most prominent Rugby School “old boy” was colonial politician and journalist Allerdale Grainger. A man who possessed a towering figure, it was presumed that he would be the ideal man to lead the team. However, at 40 years of age he thought the game was beyond his physical capabilities and, in a decision that disappointed many, declined to take make himself available. He did though greatly assist in preparing the team.
Played on the Adelaide Oval a local side of 20 players met the British XV in a contest that failed to reach any great heights, nor convince the 2,500 crowd that rugby had any great merits. The Advertiser (17 July 1888) wrote the spectators “watched the game with much curiosity, but it was the almost universal opinion that the style of play was far inferior to the game adopted by South Australians.”
Grainger prowled the touch-line, offering his encouragement, but the British ran in seven tries and kicked seven goals to win 28 to 3 – the home side’s only points were from a smartly kicked drop goal in open play.
The Advertiser (23 July 1888) declared “The game is not likely to gain a footing in this colony, judging from the way in which it was received on Monday.” The Register claimed years later that in the wake of the British team’s visit “a club was started here, but it died young”.
Returning home from their extensive tour of Great Britain, in April 1889 the New Zealand Maoris (aka Natives) arrived in Port Adelaide after a six weeks sea voyage. The Maoris expected to be playing some of the local Australian rules clubs in big crowd-drawing matches, but through confused messages nothing had been organised.
It is not known if any attempt was then made to coerce the Maori footballers into playing a rugby game, but a SAFA official spoke for many by saying he “thought that the team only wished to visit Adelaide with a view of making money” (the Advertiser, 17 April 1889).
That a South Australian rugby side was raised a month later to meet a team of “the officers of HMS Calliope and Orlando” on the Adelaide Oval suggests a contest against the Maoris could have gone ahead with little difficulty. The gate-takings from the game against the Naval officers was donated to the Adelaide Rowing Club.
Forlorn efforts to introduce rugby appear to have continued from time to time, and in 1902 the Advertiser made a passing observation that “attempts to make Rugby football popular in South Australia have failed.” The newspaper though published amendments to rugby’s playing laws in 1903, suggesting some interest existed in the code.
While both the 1899 and 1904 British teams that toured Australia visited Adelaide on their voyage from England, neither played any rugby games during their brief stop-overs.
The Advertiser (14 June 1899) commented that “It is not impossible, but by no means probable, that the South Australian public will have an opportunity of seeing the English rugby football team at play. There are, however, few rugby players here, and as little public interest would be evinced in such a fixture, it is not likely that it will be arranged.”
Annual visits by the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Challenger to Port Adelaide through 1906-08 saw three rugby matches played on the Adelaide Oval between the sailors and a “South Australia” team (3-all in ’06, SA won 9-0 in ’07, Challenger won 20-0 in ’08). The formation of the ‘state’ team though did not lead to any permanent playing of rugby fixtures, and the code fell again into obscurity.
The reality was probably best summed up by the Advertiser (8 July 1893) when it suggested that the relative merits between the codes as games to play and watch weren’t really the determining factor in growth, but that it simply came down to South Australia having insufficient population to indulge in more than one code:
“Established institutions have a great advantage, and the numbers available seem hardly sufficient to support in the colony two different forms of football.”
“It may be said at once that Association [soccer] is the most scientific of the three codes, the Australian is probably on the whole the least dangerous, and rugby is in the opinion of the experienced, and unprejudiced, the most exciting to watch if not to play.”
Rugby in Adelaide was revived and this time given a permanent foundation in 1932. After a number of trial matches and preliminary meetings, the South Australian RU was formed on 28 July 1932, with four clubs in attendance: Adelaide, Waratah, Navy (Birkenhead Naval Station) and University of Adelaide.
The following season opened with the Australian Wallabies during a stop on their sea voyage to South Africa, conducting an open training session on the University’s sports ground for Adelaide’s Rugby enthusiasts. The local competition began a week later, with the addition of the North Adelaide club, and by mid year Port Adelaide had joined as well.
The South Australian representative team made its debut in July 1933 in a match against Victoria at the Jubilee Oval (field is now within grounds of the University). The Advertiser noted the team “is composed mainly of South Australians, and eight of the State XV are Adelaide University men”. A late try saw the Victorians, who were without many of their top players including Weary Dunlop, escape with a 21-19 victory. Meanwhile Adelaide University also took part in a national carnival in the NSW capital with the Universities of Melbourne, Queensland and Sydney.
The local game benefitted greatly from 1935 onwards by the appointment of Garnet Vere Portus (ex Sydney University five-eighth who played for England in 1908 and was an Australian selector early 1930s) as a professor at the University. He immediately commenced an active role with club footballers and training the state team.
Annual inter-state matches were expanded in 1935 to include contests against Western Australia, and in 1937 a game was played against the South African touring team at Hindmarsh Oval (the Springboks won 55-3).
By 1939 the club competition had grown large enough to be broken into two divisions – ‘A Grade’ comprised Adelaide, North Adelaide, Woodville, East Torrens, University, and ‘Prince Alfred Old Collegians’ (now Old Collegians RFC). The ill-fated Wallabies visited Adelaide at the start of their voyage to England, however, at the request of the RFU no matches were played at ports along the way.
Understandably the game virtually came to a standstill during WW2, however, Rugby was still being played by school teams in the early 1940s, as well as by ad hoc RAAF, Navy, Army and ‘South Australian XV’ teams whenever sufficient player numbers and enthusiasm could be roused.
By 1944 club competition was resumed with a six-team senior grade amongst Woodville (A & B), Port Adelaide (A & B), West Torrens, and the RAAF.
The code has continued to enjoy loyal local support in the over half a century that has followed. In 2003 Adelaide Oval hosted two sold-out Rugby World Cup games, including the Wallabies 142-0 win over Namibia. From 2007-11 Adelaide Oval was home to the ‘Australian Sevens’ tournament, a leg of the IRB Sevens World Series.
Though a berth in the Super Rugby competition appears out of reach in the short term, and Adelaide did not feature in 2007’s Australian Rugby Championship, in February 2014 Rugby SA (ex SARU) announced it was lodging an expression of interest in having an Adelaide club in the National Rugby Championship in the future.
© Sean Fagan