written by Sean Fagan

Perth's 'Swan Rugby Football Club' team in 1897
Perth’s ‘Swan Rugby Football Club’ team in 1897

Outside of the rugby heartland colonies of NSW, New Zealand and Queensland, the code found its greatest support in Western Australia. Ultimately though, with Perth and Fremantle forming economic and cultural connections with the closer Adelaide and Melbourne, Victorian rules gained the ascendancy.

Informal rugby contests are known to have been played in the late 1860s between British military regiments and civilians in Perth and Fremantle.

In late 1868 a team from “Her Majesty’s 14th Regiment” (a West Yorkshire regiment [link] on their way home from New Zealand’s ‘Maori Wars’) played locally raised sides in Perth on the grounds of the Bishop’s Collegiate School (today Hale School) and in Fremantle.

The rules followed for these contests aren’t known, however, in May 1867 the “14th Regiment” had caused a mild shock in Adelaide football due to their insisting upon playing a rough rugby style of game and outright refusal to accept any local rules that prevented “holding, tripping, or hugging.” Their “vigorous football” caused similar disquiet during their stays in Melbourne and Hobart.

On 30 September 1876, under the freshly formed “Mechanics Foot-Ball and Cricketing Club”, a group of Perth “mechanics and apprentices who have been permitted a half holiday” used the afternoon to indulge in a football game witnessed “by a large concourse of the citizens.” The reporter though for The Western Australian Times (the Times) lamented the entire lack of a suitable public sports ground for use of the community.

Earlier that year (15 February 1876) the Times‘ editor had delivered a stern tirade against the Perth Council over the non-existence of sporting facilities and thus the holding back of organised sport, stating that it “is tolerably evident that a peculiar social restraint exists here [the colony], which curtails a great deal of healthy enjoyment,” and asked “Do we have our regattas, our football matches, or any of the other manly sports that turn young men from the billiard room, and the drinking saloon?” Plainly, the colony didn’t.

A paragraph in the Times on 24 April 1877 suggested there was a desire to form a football club: “Football. We hear there is a movement on foot amongst the young men of Perth to form a football club. As ‘ye lyttle cyttie’ can boast of some fast-travelling pedestrians, little difficulty ought to be experienced in getting a fair team together.”

The first significant step towards organised football was the arrival in Perth in November 1877 of Sir Harry Ord, the colony’s new Governor General. Ord’s officially appointed private secretary and aide-de-camp was his son, (the verbosely titled) Lieutenant St John St George Ord.

It is not known where in England the younger Ord was educated, however he was an enthusiast for rugby, and it wasn’t long before he arranged (purportedly at his own expense) for oval footballs to be imported to the colony, with the express intention of having the game played at the Bishop’s Collegiate School (Hale School) by the boys and others interested.

Ord’s efforts came to fruition in the winter of 1878 (reported in the Times, 2 August 1878): “Football. We are glad to see this popular pastime revived. Two very interesting games were played at the College grounds last Saturday and Tuesday, between several gentlemen, the respective sides being led by Mr. Ord and Mr. H. B. Lefroy. The work appeared, however, to be very heavy, owing to the weakness of the two sides. The games were played according to the rugby rules, and it was very apparent that many of the players were not used to them, particularly in regard to the scrimmages and tripping,-the latter not being allowed in the Rugby game.”

A witness to the match wrote to the Times (6 August 1878), opening with “I am very pleased to find so ancient and excellent a game as football being revived by the young men of Perth, and I hope other towns will follow their example.” However, with apparently strong knowledge of all three football codes, he then proceeded to mount a case for the adoption of the “dribbling” game (soccer).

The archives of Hale School (once known as Perth High School) record that 1878 was the year that saw the formation of in-school football teams for the first time, however no details of the matches remain. In conjunction with Ord, the instigator was another “rugbyite”, the School’s Headmaster, 24 years old Richard Davies.

The School’s magazine, The Cygnet, included details of a rugby match in 1879: “The first match of the season was played on Saturday, May 24 [1879], between the Boarders and the Day-boys. Mr Davies, Mr Hart, Mr Parry, and Mr Parker took part in the game, which resulted in a victory for the Boarders by two goals and three touch downs.”

“Football seems now to be fairly established among us, and if due attention is paid to the rules which make Rugby Union the game it is, especially with regard to playing offside, backing up, and a well-maintained scrimmage, there seems no reason to doubt, judging by the earnest way in which nearly all take part in the game, that Football will soon become as much an institution here as it is at Home.”

“Old Boy” (the Times, 13 May 1879) said: “I hope our young men will devote their attention to that ancient and excellent game – football, which I regret to say seems never to have been much in favor by our Western Australian youth. In itself, it is a fine manly game.”

Davies was replaced as the School’s Headmaster in 1880 by Thomas Breama Beuttler, who had attended Rugby School and Cambridge University. On the 18th June 1881, Beuttler organised and played in a rugby game between the School and a “Town XV”.

The West Australian (the West) observed in its report (24 June 1881) that the defeated Town side did well “considering that scarcely any of the players had played that game (rugby union) before, everything passed off very well.” Though Beuttler was in the School side, along with a teacher, the boys elected as their captain Alfred Parry, son of the city’s Bishop. The teams met again twice more before the close of the season.

Organised club football finally emerged in Perth and Fremantle in 1882, with rugby the dominant code – but it was immediately under threat of being usurped by Victorian rules.

The case for Victorian rules was presented with distinct clarity by a letter writer to the West in its 9 May 1882 edition. He wrote “Perth can boast of three football clubs, besides that of the High School…It seems a pity however that the Perth players do not all play the same game; while three of the clubs are governed by the rules known as those of the Rugby Union, the fourth (which goes by the name of the Union Club) plays the Victorian game…The Victorian or ‘Bouncing’ rules are those which are universially adopted in the other Australian colonies; why then should West Australia be the exception? It is needless here to enter into an argument as to which is the better of the two games, but supposing West Australia were to receive a challenge at football from one of the sister colonies, what must be our reply?”

The writer went on to point out that Victoria was taking on South Australia in annual football contests, “and why should she not one of these days feel inclined to challenge West Australians?…The mere fact of our having several rugby men out here, who know how to play the rugby game, is no excuse for our clubs adhering to the rules which govern that game. Cannot we also find others amongst us acquainted with the rules adopted by all the other Australian colonies, and capable of teaching us the rudiments of the Victorian game?”

Inevitably the “rugbyites” returned serve (the West, 16 May 1882) pointing out rugby was the game played in NSW and New Zealand, so inter-colonial contests were indeed to be found. The same writer also challenged the assertion that the Union club were playing “his pet Victorian or ‘bouncing’ rules’ as “for the game they play – beyond the fact of their occasionally bouncing the ball – is as unlike the Victorian game as it is the rugby union.”

Most matches were played on the recently completed “Recreation Ground” [now The Esplanade]. In addition to the clubs (Perth, Fremantle, Rovers) and the School, to add variety the club men and other occasional footballers organised other rugby contests, including “Outsiders v Government Officers” and “a fifteen of West Australian born, and a fifteen chosen from those born in other parts of the world.” Perth and Fremantle exchanged home and away matches on Wednesday afternoons on 14 June and 19 July.

The 1883 season began with news that in Fremantle a club had been formed to play Victorian rules (in reality it was the Fremantle rugby club swapping codes). The West (20 April 1883) endeavoured to influence the ongoing debate about football in the colony by stating “it would be advisable if the other clubs followed its example, as, from what I hear, the rugby rules are being superseded by those of the Victorian, in the other colonies.” Such statement ignored or was unaware that 1882 had seen the first inter-colonial rugby contests between NSW, Queensland and New Zealand.

In early May 1883 the city’s rugby players got into fitness via a game at the Recreation Ground between the club footballers divided into A-L and M-Z teams. However, ominously for rugby, it was also announced that it was “the intention of the clubs to play a series of matches under the much vaunted Victorian rules and thus Perth people will have an opportunity of judging of the respective merits of the rival codes” (the West, 4 May 1883).

Through 1883-84 clubs and players dabbled in both codes, while others stood firmly to their favoured game. In 1884 the Western Mail voiced a growing belief that football in the colony was being “kept back by the practice of two distinct games being played by the same players.”

The 1885 season kicked-off in April with the members of Fremantle’s Union FC playing an in-house match under rugby rules. Across town the Fremantle FC met and another debate about playing rules took place, ultimately ending in a vote in favour of playing Victorian rules.

The West announced on 5 May 1885 that the Rovers FC had switched to Victorian rules, and that a new Perth club had been formed, calling itself the Victorian FC – a name taken to signify its allegiance to the Victorian rules code, and because the majority of its members hailed from that colony. The newspaper also reported that day: “The football season was formally opened on Saturday last by a scratch match played on the Recreation Ground under the Victorian rules, which have been adopted by the majority of the clubs here.”

A meeting of officials from Rovers, Fremantle and Victorian clubs was held on 8 May 1885 where it was resolved to form the “West Australian Football Association.” Thomas Beuttler, on behalf of the School, issued a letter to the committee advising that the High School “would be happy to join the Association.” The representative of the Fremantle FC indicated that he believed the Union FC would join too.

The West (13 May 1885) commented that “We are glad to see that the representatives of the majority of the Football Clubs of Perth and Fremantle have agreed to adopt a common set of rules and a uniform game. It is quite apparent that the popularity, interest and success of the game in the colony depended upon some such arrangement being come to.”

“The Victorian game may be described in general terms as the rugby union game divested of its ‘off sides’ and ‘scrimmages,’ and with a rule added that the ball if carried in the hands, must be bounced on the ground every few yards. We congratulate our footballers on the course they have taken and trust their Association may be destined to an honourable and prosperous existence.”

Contrary to Beuttler’s undertaking, the High School continued for a time to play rugby as well as Victorian rules. On 13 June 1885 the School played a rugby team from the Perth Church of England Young Men’s Society, and a week later took on the Victorian FC under their rules. The Unions club appear to have also changed to Victorian rules about this time, but did not join the WAFA until the following year.

The next rugby match was not until the winter of 1887. The West (4 August) reporting: “A match between scratch teams selected and captained by Mr. E.C. Shenton and Mr. Harvey, was played under rugby union rules yesterday afternoon on the New Recreation Ground, Perth. It is about three years since the rugby game gave way to the Victorian game, and a revival of the old rules even for a single match was looked forward to with much interest. Most of the members of the team were men who ceased to play football when the Rugby game went out.”

The 1887 football season closed with a rugby match held on Fremantle Park between ‘Perth’ and ‘Fremantle’. The West Australian (20 September) reported “the play was witnessed by a large number of spectators,” though neither team was able to register a point.

The touring British rugby team visiting New Zealand and the eastern side of Australia, journeyed across to Adelaide in July 1888 to play matches under Victorian rules and rugby, but there was never any contemplation of playing in Western Australia. Such a visit would have provided rugby in Perth and Fremantle with a much needed new enthusiasm.

The code though was not a lost cause, given a considerable boost following the discovery of rich seams of gold in the colony in the early 1890s. Amidst the westward rush of miners and others looking for work opportunities from the other colonies (primarily from Victoria and South Australia, but a good many too from NSW and New Zealand) rugby clubs were formed in the major gold-mining towns of Kalgoorlie, Boulder and Coolgardie.

The influx also led to rugby clubs again being founded in Fremantle and Perth, and in 1893 the Western Australian Rugby Union (WARU) was created.

In the mid-1890s five rugby clubs formed a club competition in Fremantle (Pirates, Zingari, Swans, Fremantle & Midland), and at least two other clubs were known to be playing in Perth (including the Perth Rugby Club). The Western Mail (25 May 1895) noting “A strong and promising effort is being made to establish the rugby game in popular favour. But this attempt will have much to fight against. The attractions of the ‘Australian’ form of the pastime appear to be too great.”

In Kalgoorlie the Western Argus wrote (21 April 1898): “The rugby game of football is likely to gain a strong footing this season, and the new Goldfields Union is using its utmost endeavors to give the old English game a fitting introduction. On the (gold) fields there are many people opposed to rugby – people who have not seen a game played by good teams – but as there are likely to be four clubs in the field, and a goodly number of New South Wales, New Zealand, and Queensland people are making their way here, Secretary Mason and his energetic band of delegates may get the game going this season.”

Amongst the ex-pats from the east taking a leading role in rugby in the gold fields was 18 year old Charles McMurtrie, who a decade later would be a member of the 1908 Wallabies and 1911 Kangaroos.

In Kalgoorlie and other mining towns Sunday matches were the norm (including morning kick-offs), and the clubs known to have existed in the mid-1890s to the early 1900s included Kalgoorlie, Wallaroos, Centennials, Boulder Pirates, Bulong, Kanowa, Warriors, Mines, Sydney (Boulder), Hannans, Leonora, Kookynie and Coolgardie.

A combined Perth-Fremantle team was also regularly selected during the decade to meet visiting teams from the goldfields, with the final known representative game of the period taking place in 1899 (Goldfields winning 5-0).

The driving force behind rugby in the colony appears to have been former Sydneysider and occasional gold-mining prospector, Lionel Gouly (born in Woolloomooloo in 1873). Gouly was a very prominent and popular cricketer in Perth and Fremantle, in the winter months he not only played for and captained the Swans rugby club, but was also an enthusiastic Secretary of the WARU.

In June 1899 the British (Lions) rugby team arrived in Fremantle from England. Gouly became the first Australian rugby official to meet Matthew Mullineux (the team’s captain), boarding the ship when it arrived in port.

Gouly and Mullineux agreed to playing a match against Perth or a combined Western Australian team (Perth, Fremantle and the goldfields) on the return voyage home. However, the tourists eventually went their separate ways when the tour ended in Sydney, with most of the team opting to travel back to England via the Pacific and North America route.

The loss of the opportunity of playing a prestigious and publicity-drawing game against Mullineux’s team proved a major disappointment. The code was further downcast following Gouly’s enlistment in early 1900 with the “Western Australian Bushmen” – a military contingent who travelled to South Africa and served in the Boer War. In 1901 the WARU disbanded and, apart from in the gold fields, seemingly all of the state’s rugby clubs went into oblivion with it.

Gouly returned to Perth, going on to represent Western Australia in cricket matches in 1905/06 (v. South Australia) and in 1907-08 (v England). Meanwhile a rugby revival began in 1905 with the formation of five clubs: Fremantle Pioneers, Sydney, Swan District, Pirates and Perth. In that same winter the “Eastern Goldfields Rugby Union” comprised three clubs: Boulder, Kalgoorlie and Piccadilly.

Action from NSW v ‘Goldfields’ (maroon jerseys) in August 1907.
The game attracted a crowd of some 2500 people to the Kalgoorlie Recreation Reserve
– photo from The Western Argus (Kalgoorlie)

Encouraged by the new developments, the NSWRU announced that a NSW team would be undertaking a four-match tour of Western Australia in early August 1907.

The tour coincided with the visit of the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ to NSW and Queensland, resulting in a ‘second-string’ NSW team sailing to Perth (though two of its members, Arthur McCabe and Bede Daly, were selected in the first Wallabies team a year later). The NSW team won all four matches, defeating ‘Metropolitan’ (17-0 at Fremantle), ‘Gold Fields’ (16-7 at Kalgoorlie), and Western Australia (16-3 & 3-0 in Perth). The WA team wore olive coloured jerseys with a gold swan badge over the left breast.

West Australian ‘Goldfields’ team that played NSW in August 1907
The Western Argus (Kalgoorlie)

In preparation of the 1908 Wallabies team for its British tour, the NSWRU offered to fully cover the costs of any Western Australian players prepared to venture to Sydney for selection trials – but only if the player made it into the Australian squad. Given those terms, it was no surprise that no player from the West pursued the opportunity.

Contact with the NSWRU was kept up though, principally to arrange for the Wallabies to play matches in the West, including a week long visit to the Goldfields towns. Just as the Australian team sailed from Sydney, the NSWRU cabled the news that only a game against Western Australia in Fremantle could be accommodated.

There was great disappointment in the Goldfields, and the Perth “Metropolitan Rugby Union” hastily stepped in to replace the Wallabies, sending a representative team to Boulder. The visitors (black and gold jerseys) played a three match series against a combined Goldfields side (white jersey, blue badge with a white swan).

Following this series of games the Wallabies vs Western Australian contest took place on Fremantle Oval during the national team’s brief stop-over in port. Many of the Wallabies changed into their playing kit on the boat, then walked to the nearby field. After leading 30-0 at half-time, the Wallabies completed the rout with a 58-6 win over the amber and black jerseyed WA team.

The home team included numerous ex-pats from the east (including New Zealand), which was a pointer to the problems rugby was facing in Western Australia.

Without any support in the schools (as a direct result of the formation and activism of the nationalistic Young Australia League) the code had few local players coming through, and no prospects of growth.

The extent of the contribution of Gouly in the post 1905 resurgence is not known, however, there is no doubt that the code felt a deep loss when the 38 y.o. tragically passed away in 1911. It is perhaps more than coincidence that not a single rugby club reformed for the 1912 season, and Rugby once again became extinct in Western Australia.

The success and playing style of the 1927/28 NSW Waratahs through their UK tour led to a revitalised interest in Rugby across the eastern states throughout 1928, and in the west as well. In Fremantle in May 1928 enthusiasts for the code watched the All Blacks train during a brief stopover on their way to South Africa. A meeting was held in June that re-stablished the WARU, and the prospect of a WA team forming  to play the New Zealanders on their homeward journey was mooted (but declined by the All Blacks tour manager). The Daily News revealed “a movement is afoot for the establishment of Rugby Union football (the amateur code) in Perth. The game to be played is that of the famous Waratahs, who had such a successful tour through England [Britain] last season.”

On 23 June 1928, at the eastern end of the Esplanade fields in Perth, the first game took place, with Sunday Times writing: “After picking sides, two teams displayed a considerable amount of vim and pace, although lack of condition was obvious before half-time. The varied colours of the jerseys, many of them from prominent clubs in New South Wales, Queensland, New Zealand and England, were confusing alike to players and onlookers, but as two sets of Rugby jerseys are arriving on Wednesday from Sydney, this difficulty will be overcome.”

Sufficient players enlisted to form four teams for matches over July (‘Perth Nomads’, ‘Perth Wanderers’, ‘Swan Rangers’ and ‘Swan Wallabies’) and by the end of August were joined by a ‘Fremantle’ club. A hastily organised competition to close the season was won by Fremantle. Over the summer the four teams in Perth were replaced by formal clubs named Perth (Rangers), Cottesloe-Claremont (Nomads), Northern Suburbs (Wallabies), Guildford (Wanderers) and joined Fremantle along with the University of Western Australia as the first grade teams for 1929.

Meanwhile, with prospects of representative games on the horizon the WARU resolved that “The State colours were fixed as all gold jersey with black swan on left breast, navy blue knickers [shorts], black hose [socks] with yellow turnover, and black cap with bold tassel.” The NSWRU cancelled a planned end of season visit by the Waratahs, and instead the Western Australian team played and won a 3-game series held in Perth and Fremantle against a team from the visiting Royal Australian Navy cruiser HMAS Canberra.

A milestone was achieved for the code the following season when the Western Australians met the British Lions in Perth in the final game of their 1930 tour. Played on Brennan (now Gloucester) Park in front of 6000 fans, of the fifteen men in gold jerseys eleven were born or raised in the state. The team was captained by Don Sinclair, a former skipper of the West Perth FC (WAFL), he had taken up Rugby while studying law at Oxford University in the early 1920s, then helped to form the Fremantle Rugby club in 1928.

Under the command of Ireland forward James Leo Farrell for the day, the blue-clad Lions put on a ruthless display of running Rugby, winning 71-3. The West Australians though took the loss in good spirit, citing the British game as “a revelation”, and looking ahead to developing their own standard of play. The Mirror suggested “British Rugbyites give us a beating, but a good lesson too.” The home side’s only points came from a place-kicked penalty goal taken from nearly 63 yards out from the posts.

The 1933 season opened with the Western Australian team playing the Alec Ross captained Wallabies at the WACA. The Australians were making a stop in Fremantle before embarking on the long sea voyage to South Africa to play the Springboks. Another thrashing ensued, this time 59 to 3, and again the newspapers suggested “the Wallabies gave the local players some valuable lessons” (The Daily News). Many also pointed out that the Australian team’s winger from Toowoomba, Jack Steggall, “was originally a Geraldton boy”.

In 1934 the Rugby sailors of HMAS Canberra combined with the Australia contingent to play Western Australia at the University Oval. The combined Naval XV led 21-11 but were overwhelmed late, losing 32-21. The Western Mail suggested the contest that day “must rank as one of the best exhibitions of Rugby ever seen in this State”. A return match later in the week at Fremantle Oval saw the seafarers come out 22-13 winners.

The first visit outside of the state was made in September 1935 when the Western Australians took the “Great Western Express” train eastwards to Adelaide, where two matches against South Australia were played. The neighboring state had been playing club Rugby in Adelaide for barely three seasons, and were not thought to be the equals of the more experienced team from the west.

Held on Prospect Oval in north Adelaide, the home side surprisingly won the first game 22-14, but the visitors turned the tables in the return match with a decisive 28-3 victory. The opening game had been held the day after the team arrived in Adelaide, and the team management put the defeat down to tiredness from the long uncomfortable train ride. The journey home was broken at Kalgoorlie to allow a contest against the combined Goldfields RFU side, which turned into a one-sided 32-5 win for the state team. 

South Australia made their first visit to Perth the next season, beaten by Western Australia 20-6 at Subiaco Oval and 17-3 at the WACA. A few days later the state team returned to the WACA, defeating King’s School ‘Old Boys’ from Parramatta 32-6, who were on their way to the UK for a Rugby tour.

The representative scene continued to grow for the Western Australians with 1937 seeing a visit from the Springboks (who gave “a masterly exhibition of Rugby” in a 47-8 win at the WACA), a 16-15 win over HMAS Sydney at Cottesloe Oval, and an “Eastern States Tour” that included one-off games against Victoria (a 4-3 half-time lead by WA ended in a 37-15 loss) and South Australia (WA won 21-6). Victoria made their inaugural appearance in Perth in 1938, but lost to “the Wests” 28-11 and 26-14.

With the ARU’s founding still a decade in the future, in August 1938 the WARU organised and funded an invitational ‘Australian team’ that sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Twenty of the 24-man party were West Australians. The ‘Kangaroos’ won their first three games, but the lost the final two, including 15-3 to Ceylon (who were all Europeans).

The WARU was in May 1939 openly expressing great dissatisfaction “with the dilatory methods of the NSWRU” over its method selecting the Australian side for the forthcoming UK tour. The NSWRU had suddenly announced trial games would be held in Melbourne in a week’s time to choose a ‘Southern States’ team to come to Sydney for final trial matches. Even if any Perth or Fremantle player could get to Melbourne to take part, and then progress through all the matches until the Wallabies were chosen in Sydney in mid-June, it would necessitate leave of some six weeks. Three men did go to Melbourne, but none were chosen in the final trial game in Sydney. The NSWRU then announced the Australians would not play in the west on their voyage to England, claiming it was a condition of the agreement with the Home Unions. 

Over the decades that followed support for the code ebbed and flowed. Rugby historian Jack Pollard rightly concluded in 1984 that if Rugby in the West could hold out, its time would eventually come when the costs and duration of air flights made the annual inter-change of visits with Australia’s east coast teams viable.

Eighty-eight years after their first contests, in late February 1995 the Waratahs and Western Australia again met on the Rugby field. Captained by David Campese, NSW won 65-10 at Perth’s Perry Lakes Stadium.

A few weeks later Rugby recognised professionalism, and soon after the Super Rugby concept devised. Conveniently situated as a stop-over leg for teams flying to/from South Africa and Australasia, the once remote Perth was now seen as logical base for a future Super Rugby franchise.

In 2006 the Western Force entered the competition, joining the Reds, Brumbies and Waratahs as Australia’s representatives.

© Sean Fagan

NSWRU / ARU archives
MCC Archive – fact sheet
Peter Sharpham, The First Wallabies
Jack Pollard,  Australian Rugby Union: The Game and Its Players
Additional information from Keith Campbell
History of rugby at Hale School (Perth) kindly provided byRob Barugh on b/h of Hale School