HISTORY OF RUGBY IN TASMANIA
written by Sean Fagan
Until the early 1880s the football fields of Tasmania were graced with Rugby goal posts and cross-bars.
Tasmania’s first Rugby star Henry Braddon (right) – Launceston Grammar School old boy played Rugby for New Zealand and NSW in the 1880s.
The first colony to be established beyond New South Wales’ Sydney settlement, Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land) has many historical links and landmarks connecting it to England.
Outside of the Port Arthur penal colony, the first half of the 1800s saw the establishment of two of Australia’s now oldest cities of Hobart and Launceston, and Tasmania as the most populous region beyond Sydney and its near neighbours.
In Hobart particularly, newspapers report of the playing and watching of common English sports, including cricket (1820s) and wilder “entertainments” such as cock fighting.
Also common place are holiday fairs and celebrations following the traditional calendar of England. Hobart in particular was a lively city, being regularly visited by English navy vessels, American whaling ships, and home to former convicts, free settlers, and soldiers stationed at the local barracks.
As in Sydney, where folk football was played at festivals and amongst the barracked soldiers since (at least) 1829, documented reports of the old English game begin in Tasmania’s major centres and townships from the 1830s to early 1850s.
In Hobart in 1850 a correspondent to the Colonial Times (10 Sept) lamented the “crying evil” of a recent Sunday football match in the town “by a party of at least 70 or 80 players, composed of boys, youths, and children of a larger growth (men of somewhat respectable exterior), who were heart and soul devoting themselves to a game at foot-ball; and what made the matter worse, the language — cursing, swearing, and shouting were such as would be considered infamous at a fair or on a market day.”
Mentions of football in local newspapers in the ensuing decades though offer little information on the development and type of football in Hobart and Launceston, and the path towards club football and adopting codified football laws in Tasmania is unknown.
With a large proportion of the colony’s population migrating from Britain through the middle decades of the 19th century, it is likely that some local debate about the form football should take presumably took place.
In 1846 Christ’s College was opened in Bishopsbourne (in northern Tasmania), with the purpose of preparing young men so they could further their studies at University in Britain.
One of the College’s earliest students [c.1850] was later Tasmanian politician and Chief Justice, Sir William Lambert Dobson, who recalled that their headmaster was from Rugby School and that he had insisted upon the boys playing football [see Hobart’s The Mercury, 21st April 1888]. The College closed its doors in 1856 (re-opening in Hobart in 1879). More: Rugby made its Aussie debut in 1840s Tasmania
Meanwhile, Thomas Arnold (the son of the famed headmaster of Rugby School from 1824-42) left England in 1850 to become the head of the public education system in Tasmania, overseeing the organisation of 75 schools across the colony, and modelling much of his reforms and initiatives upon Rugby School. Arnold continued in the role until 1856, but whether football was part of school activities is still unknown. The south-west wilderness area of Tasmania includes Mount Rugby and Rugby Range overlooking Bathurst Harbour.
The emergence of Melbourne as a major city through this era saw Tasmania forging a closer economic and cultural connection to its rapidly growing neighbour colony, and less from NSW and Sydney.
In 1867 social games of Victorian (Australian) rules football (or a variant thereof) were reportedly being played in Launceston. The first known football club to be formed in Tasmania was the Launceston FC in 1875. The “Tasmanian Football Association” was founded amongst clubs in Hobart in 1879, and Launceston’s “Northern Tasmanian Football Association” in 1882 (re-established in 1886).
While convention records that these Associations and their clubs were playing Australian rules football, this is not entirely accurate.
As in Brisbane and Adelaide, locally devised forms of football (which had elements of rugby) were being played in Tasmania’s major centres before eventually giving way to Victorian rules.
Indeed as early as February 1865 the Launceston Examiner included an advertisement by a local shop offering a selection of imported footballs, “including the new Rugby shape” ball.
A letter to Launceston’s The Cornwall Chronicle of 27 March 1867 confirms that football was played the previous winter under the “XYZ Football Club”, but that it had not adopted any rules of play, and strongly suggested a set based on Eton, Rugby or Harrow games be instituted for the coming season.
Hobart and Launceston newspapers in 1874 include regular advertisements offering for sale “The full-sized Rugby Match Ball” and “Real Rugby football jerseys”.
In reference to the first season of the Launceston FC, The Mercury wrote on 19th August 1875 that since the “football club had been established it has flourished apace” and that its members were “determined to make all their rules perfect” – a process that would not have been undertaken if they were slavishly adopting Victorian rules.
In an 1879 match between New Town (a Hobart suburb) and the city’s Cricket Club, The Mercury (on 26 May) mentioned that New Town’s rules were close to those of Victorian rules, while the Cricket Club’s were those of the Tasmanian Football Association. The reporter went on make it clear that the two sets of rules were so different that “each club will be victorious when playing under its own rules.”
The match that day was played under New Town’s rules (i.e. Victorian rules), meaning “that dribbling, the most telling feature of the (Tasmanian Football) Association game was almost out of the question in the absence of any rules as to off-side” – dribbling of the football by forwards being a prominent feature of the rugby game at that time, while the reference to “the absence of any rules as to off-side” confirms the Tasmanian Football Association’s laws included off-side rules.
The Cornwall Chronicle (7 May 1879) recorded a meeting of The Cricketers’ Club where an extensive debate over its football playing rules had taken place. The club chairman stated that his preference was for the Rugby game that he had played under in England, “but as it comprised some 60 rules it would be too elaborate to introduce here”, and advocated “the easily learned” Association (soccer) instead.
The Mercury reported numerous times through May-July of the 1879 season that The Cricketers’ Club had adopted and was playing football under the English Association (soccer) rules [this would appear to be Australia’s first soccer football club, pre-dating Sydney’s ‘Wanderers’ by over a year.]
While acknowledging that some other clubs in the city had at times played games of sorts under Victorian rules, The Cricketers’ Club official claimed it had brought about too many on-field disputes between players, “was not football but more the handball played by girls at school” and “was merely a succession of long drop kicks and runs with the ball”.
Reports in The Mercury through the late 1870s of matches between the various local clubs refer to the two goal posts having a cross-bar, goals not counting unless clearing over the cross-bar, unrestricted running with the ball, on-side rules, “scrimmages (that) ensued for some time,” kick-offs from half-way, and place kick “tries at goal,” amidst other matches that included mentions of the awarding of a mark from a team mate’s kick, bouncing of the ball while running, no off-side laws, and “a drawback to the early matches in town has been the variety of rules” between the clubs.
Meanwhile club meetings refer to lengthy debates about existing and proposed rules, discarding their local club rules in favour of the adoption of Victorian rules in part or in whole, and of clubs playing matches where their “rules were not closely adhered to.”
Quoted in Hobart’s The Mercury (15 September 1936), W.T. Conder, President of the Australian Amateur Football Council, recalled that “In the ’70′s, the Australian game was not played in Tasmania. The football played consisted of soccer, rugby and a cross between the two games known as the Tasmanian game.”
In the same newspaper on 1 October 1936 WH Cundy claimed credit for bringing Australian rules to Tasmania in 1878-79. Cundy wrote that upon arriving in Hobart in early 1878 he found “a mongrel sort of game, composed chiefly of soccer and rugby, with some local additions.”
At a meeting of the city’s Tasmanian Football Association at the end of 1878 season it was resolved to start the winter of 1879 by playing games under each of the rules. “We played alternately under rugby, soccer, Victorian, the local rules, and a new set of rules which was a mixture of all the games,” wrote Cundy. He recalled that at the time there were many English and Anglo-Indian residents in Hobart, who fought hard for soccer or rugby.”
News of a proposed visit of an English team in 1879 appeared likely to provide Rugby with a distinct advantage. Amidst great enthusiasm. The Mercury published news in March 1879 that the Tasmanian FA was in negotiations with the NSWRU for the Englishmen to play two games in Hobart and another in Launceston.
One of the members “was of opinion that if the English men would come to Tasmania it would revive football in Tasmania.”
Unfortunately for rugby in Tasmania the tour proposal collapsed when the NSWRU couldn’t raise the necessary financial guarantees, and the Englishmen never came.
According to Cundy, after the try out of matches under each of the codes, mid-way through 1879 a ballot was held by the Hobart clubs, and Victorian rules won by a single vote. However, it wasn’t without controversy, as it was also resolved that the new rules be altered to include the rugby cross-bar and only counting goals that went over. With a slight indignation, The Mercury (16 June 1879) was of the view that the cross-bar would “make the so-called adoption of the Victorian code a mockery and a delusion, the innovation being of so glaring a character as to entirely change the form of the play, and to rob it of its principal points of interest”.
The Sydney Mail reported on 19 May 1883 that a meeting of the Tasmanian Football Association had replaced its former playing rules after it “decided that the new laws, particularly the abolition of the cross-bar and the assimilation of the laws to those of Victoria”.
How strong an influence rugby had been in football in Tasmania in the 1870s and early 1880s remains questionable. While its sports fields were, at least for a time, graced with rugby posts with a cross-bar, once the firm decision to adopt Victorian rules was made, it had immediate and permanent effect, with The Sydney Mail (9 June 1883) recording the changeover as complete: “It may be stated the Victorian game is played everywhere in the ‘tight little island’.”
When the first British rugby team finally sailed from Plymouth in 1888, their initial stop-over in Australia was at Hobart. Arriving in the early evening, the tourists were entertained at a lavish dinner put on by the (Southern) Tasmanian Football Association. Relations between the two codes were more than cordial, but there was never any prospect of a Rugby match being arranged. For Rugby’s hopes in Tasmania, the tour had come a decade too late.
In 1905 ‘The Fleet Rugby Football Club’ was formed in Hobart. Composed of officers of visiting British Royal Navy warships ‘Euryalus’ and ‘Psyche’, matches were held on New Town sports ground, offering passing interest to curious onlookers.
The code was so much a mystery that in 1913 The Mercury wrote, “In Tasmania rugby football is not known. It is as foreign to the sports of Hobart and Launceston as tobogganing is to Sydney.”
Ironically the era had seen two Tasmanians gain international caps in the Home Nations while studying in the UK (Allan Stewart for Scotland 1913-14 & Lyndhurst Giblin for England 1896-97) [read profiles]. In the 1880s former Latrobe bank clerk Harry Braddon, son of Tasmania’s Premier (Edward Braddon), had played for New Zealand and NSW, and in the 1920s he became President of the NSWRU [ADB entry].
Organised Rugby finally emerged in Tasmania in May 1933 with the formation of the Launceston Rugby Club. Initial informal games were held at the Showground, and the first official match between the club’s members was played at the Cornwall Ground on 27 May. The chief driver of the movement, and the club’s inaugural president, was J.B. White, who was variously reported to be “a former Scottish international player”, though records place some doubt on what level of the game this honour was achieved.
Upon learning of happenings in Launceston, interest grew in Hobart, and in July a group of Rugby enthusiasts played a game at the Christ College Ground (now called Parliament Street Reserve) in Sandy Bay. The majority of the players were from the College, leading to the founding of the Tasmanian University RUFC. The Harlequins club was established before the season ended, as was the Southern Tasmanian Rugby Union.
Hobart’s The Mercury writing in July 1933 suggested that, “As Rugby football is played in most parts of the British Empire, it is pleasing to see Tasmanians take to it,” while Launceston’s Examiner added soon after, “Rugby is a universal game, not confined to one country, but spread throughout the world.”
In August 1933 the first annual North-South representative game was held, with the Launceston-men taking a 12-3 victory at the South Hobart Recreation Ground. The following season included a short tour by the Melbourne University team, with games against ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ XVs, as well as a 41-0 win over the Tasmanian University team. The two rep teams also played against visiting Naval units from Melbourne and New Zealand.
The 1934 season also saw the first club premierships held. The Hobart competition was played between the University, Harlequins and a team called ‘Huon’, based at Huonville, some 40km south of the city. In the north the Launceston club divided playing stocks, forming the Alhambra and Waratah clubs, who held a “best of three” series over consecutive Saturdays to decide the city’s first premiers.
On the representative scene the first Tasmanian XV was chosen for games against visiting Sydney clubs Gordon (1936) and Western Suburbs (1937).
In Hobart particularly the code found securing a ground close to the city centre very difficult. Early in 1936 the City Council announced that Rugby had been granted the lease for the coming season of the New Town ground, situated within 2 miles of downtown Hobart. However, as reported in the Examiner, “the action of the Council met with strong disapproval from followers of the Australian code as well as residents of New Town”, and the decision was rescinded. The Rugby authorities were instead left with the then more remote Queensborough Oval in Sandy Bay.
By 1938 a “State Premiership” game between the winners of the two club competitions had been introduced – in 1939 Launceston had three clubs (Wellington, Alhambra & Launceston Technical College ‘Old Boys’) and Hobart four (Glenorchy, ‘Army’, Harlequins & Huon).
After WW2 the club competitions resumed, first in Hobart (in 1946) where ‘Army’ were replaced by University (fielding their first team since 1937), and then in Launceston (in 1949) with Glen Dhu club instead of the ‘Technical Old Boys’ team.
The Tasmanian team made its first appearance at the inter-state level in June 1951 when it took part in a four-state tournament hosted by the South Australian RU in Adelaide. The first carnival of its kind, the traditional Rugby states of NSW and Queensland, as well as the ACT, took no part. Tasmania found the going hard, losing the opening game 29-3 to South Australia on the Adelaide Oval, then were swamped by the Victorians 53-3, but at 11-0 down against Western Australia, rallied back to finish 14-9 behind.
A milestone day was reached in 1968 when the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ made their first visit, playing the Tasmanian state team at Hobart’s Queensborough Oval. Understandably the result was no surprise, with the visitors notching 18 tries in a 74-0 hiding. At the same venue in 1980 against the All Blacks the result was 73-0. The locals at least got some points against other touring teams, France 45-12 in 1972 and Fiji 48-8 in 1976.
Senior club Rugby in Tasmania today is conducted under a state-wide competition that in 2014 has 10-teams. Six of the teams come from the greater Hobart area, with 1930s-40s established clubs Harlequins, Glenorchy ‘Stags’, University, and Taroona ‘Blues’, alongside Easts ‘Roosters’ and Hobart ‘Lions’. The remaining clubs are from the North of the state, including Launceston ‘Tigers’, Burnie ‘Emus’, Devonport ‘Bulls’, and Australian Maritime College RUFC (based at Launceston).
© Sean Fagan
Contemporary newspapers as mentioned.