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Australian Rugby - Its Origins and Evolution
The Beginning

The first football matches played in Australia were reported on 25 July 1829 in the Sydney Monitor. 'The soldiers of the Sydney barracks amused themselves with a game called football.' The paper made no attempt to describe the game or the rules, but a commentator in Old Times wrote later that because soldiers in those days were far from gentle mortals, it could be assumed that the game was 'a very willing go'. Football of a kind continued to be played in the Sydney Domain before a public starved of entertainment.

'What were termed football matches occasionally took place during the 1860s between scratch teams got together almost 9, anyhow, and the play consisted in the main s of kicking a large and unwieldy ball with energy and determination about the field, s; the players all the time evincing a lofty disdain of the rules, and a corresponding indifference to what might be termed the 2 technique of the game', said the Old Times writer. 'These rival bouts were nevertheless much appreciated by the public, who, whenever there was a football match to be played, rolled up in considerable numbers to witness the sport.' 

The Birth of Club Rugby

The first Australian rugby club was formed by the University of Sydney in 1864, with the original members playing among themselves or against the crews of visiting British warships. The club adhered to its own rules, which were based roughly on what they believed was the practice in England, where a 16-year-old schoolboy named William Webb Ellis originated rugby in 1823. Ellis became bored during a game of soccer, and with 'a fine disregard for the rules, took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of rugby football'.

In 1864, Eldred Harmer, a member of the NSW parliament, introduced a Bill to ban rugby. Harmer told the House that rugby matches were merely 'vicious displays of brutish fist-fighting'. Other MPs disagreed, and after they defended players' conduct as 'youthful exuberance' Harmer's motion lapsed for lack of a seconder.

The Sydney Morning Herald on 19 June 1865, recorded that the first meeting of the Sydney Football Club had been held two days before, with about 30 players joining in a match at Hyde Park. The Herald said: 'Some half dozen of the players showed themselves 'au fait' at the game, most of them, however, were extremely awkward, but a vigorous and excited contest was enjoyed by both sides, under Mr R. Hewitt and Mr N. Brown as captains. To play with the full opportunity for exhibiting tactics of the game it will be necessary to choose a ground where the contending parties are less liable to the intrusion of strangers between the bounds and among the players.' The problem of crowd control had arrived.

The Sydney University Club encountered its first real competition with the formation in 1870 of the Wallaroo Club. Montagu Arnold, son of a well-known Hunter River pastoralist, placed an advertisement in newspapers inviting those interested in forming a football club to a meeting. Only five enthusiasts, Septimus Stephen, George Deas-Thomson, Tom Brown, and the brothers R.A. and W.M. ('Monty') Arnold, showed up. Unperturbed by the discouraging response, the Wallaroos soon attracted scores of members, with Monty Arnold the driving force in formulating the club's aims and recruitment. Among the first to join the original five were Fred Campbell, whose family business centred on its wharf at Circular Quay, the brothers Lindeman, the Ruthven brothers, and W.E. Wilson.

The Wallaroos realised immediately that if matches were to be played in their inaugural winter, they would need standard footballs. The true rugby ball, known in England as the Gilbert No. 2, was unobtainable in the colony, but a local saddler was persuaded to make what passed for a reasonable copy. At first the saddler was reluctant to undertake the job, fearing the work of Gilbert could be patented, and he might face a court action. Finally, he made a ball of such grotesque proportions that it lost shape when it had been kicked several times. Despite its weight and shape the ball was hurled enthusiastically about the field by big men of muscle and vim. The Wallaroo colours were a narrow red, white and blue hooped jersey, worn with knee-length, English-style shorts, and long stockings.

The Wallaroos' first opponents were teams from the University of Sydney and the 12th Regiment, who chose to play forwards from the ranks and officers as backs. The games were originally played 20-a-side and were much rougher than later refinements allowed. Players who turned up late joined in the game without notifying anyone. There were so many forwards able to fall on the ball that it frequently disappeared completely, and play appeared to have stopped. Only the grunts of the players told the spectators there was something going on under the mass of writhing bodies. Inter-service rivalry was keen. Colonel MacKenzie supported the sport for the Navy and Captain Phillips and Lieutenant Daubeney, dashing figures for the military, soon became favourites with the crowds, who delighted in the sign of Monty Arnold's red head bobbing about in what passed for mauls.

Club Rugby Expansion and First Body

New clubs were formed at Burwood, St Leonards, The King's School, Newington College, and Calder House, and one called the Waratahs appeared. When Hyde Park was not available teams moved out to Moore Park, where the pitches were flatter and the crowds readier to stand back and let teams battle it out without interference. Mittens were usually worn on wet and cold days, most players wore caps, and applications of resin and eucalyptus oil to the hands were allowed. A common method of stopping a player running the ball was to push an open hand into his face, and d hacking with boots was permitted.

The first body to control rugby in the colony, the Southern Rugby Union, was formed in 1874, only two years after the formation of the English Rugby Union and before the establishment of rugby bodies in Ireland, Wales and New Zealand. W.R. Burkitt, of The King's School, took the chair at the meeting which formed the SRU, but when delegates adopted a code of rules which bound all clubs, R.A. Arnold became foundation chairman. W.H. Fletcher, of Newington College Rugby Club, was the first secretary. The involvement of Greater Public Schools thus started with the formation of Australian rugby's first controlling body. Delegates from the country clubs Goulburn and Camden were also present at the foundation meeting, and their strength later helped rugby withstand challenges by other codes.

The brutality of rugby, even after new rules were adopted in 1874, caused a strong movement to change all football in NSW and Victorian (later Australian) rules, a code which had been established in 1864 in what was to become Canberra. Some rugby clubs switched to Victorian rules and others mixed rugby with matches against Victorian rules teams. Rugby withstood the challenge because of the strong hold it had in country centres and Queensland. This strength stemmed from boarding schools, which played rugby exclusively in the autumn and winter terms. Ex-students kept rugby alive by continuing to play the game when they returned to the bush.

Despite the efforts of the Southern Union, many of the rules of rugby remained vague and some were almost an incitement to violence. Mauls occurred when two opponents disputed possession of the ball behind the goal line, and wrestling matches followed while other players looked on. The wrestles continued until a player touched down. Up to 1871, kicking was more important than running for a try, and as late as 1874-75 the Rugby Union laid down that captains should be the sole arbiters of all disputes. Tries did not become significant until a meeting of the Southern Union decided in November 1876 that when no goals were kicked, matches could be decided by a majority of tries.

Schoolboy Rugby Gains Momentum

Popularity of rugby grew rapidly among Greater Public Schools whose pupils relished its physical contact. The Wallaroos met the threat to their superiority by introducing 15-player teams and concentrated on swerve and fend to force opponents into tackling low to stop them. In 1877, the Wallaroos lost so many members to 'Old King's' that the club was compelled to resort to practice sessions. It paid off when they won all 13 matches that season.

Several Irish international players added their experience and energies to the Wallaroos at various times and helped stiffen the club against growing opposition. Maurice Barlow, from the Wanderers Club in Dublin, who had played against England in 1875 and later became district surveyor at Maitland, joined the Wallaroos, as did H.G. Walsh, who played against England in 1875 and 1876. Billy Murdoch, a famous Test cricketer, was another Wallaroo stalwart, an expert at drop-kicking goals from all parts of the field.

School team players were eligible to play against seniors because of their great physiques. 'What schoolboys they were,' wrote a contemporary writer. 'Most of them proved such a popular adjunct to the management of a station their parents never dreamed of parting with them until they were 16 or 18.' The boys were almost fully developed when they went to boarding school for two or three years to have their ignorance removed and their manners polished. On a trip to Bathurst in 1876, the Wallaroos were shocked to discover that instead of playing a team of boyish innocents they were subjected to heavy punishment by grown men.

Monty Arnold described a match between the Wallaroos and The King's School on the Domain at Parramatta, in which the Wallaroos' Tom Brown broke his leg. 'This untoward incident caused a break in play, during which the colleagues of the injured man repaired to the old Government House, where they procured a door on which they carried their disabled man to a doctor's surgery in the town.' Arnold told the Old Times: 'The mishap did not result in the game being abandoned, as the Wallaroos, when they had taken their companion to have his broken limb set, returned to the field and renewed the contest with such vigour that, though a man short, they succeeded in beating their opponents. That was a victory we were all very elated over at the time, and none was more pleased than Tom Brown himself.'

Southern Rugby Expands, as Tempers Flare

By 1880, the Southern Union controlled 100 clubs in Sydney and the country. One of the most active clubs was the Pirates, named because its players came from the north side of Sydney and had to travel across the harbour to play most of their matches. Sydney University Club included in its teams of the 1870s Sir Edmund Barton (the first Prime Minister of Australia), Judge Backhouse, Judge Fitzhardinge, Richard Teece (later a prominent lawyer), and the club's captain, V.B. 'Val' Riley.

The 1870s saw a 2-3-2 scrum, with two wing forwards, two quarterbacks, three halfbacks and one fullback. This formation continued until the arrival of the first overseas teams.

Soccer gained favour in the 1880s, particularly among parents concerned about the apparent brutality inflicted on their sons by rugby. On Saturday afternoons, it was common for three codes, rugby, Victorian rules, and soccer, to be played on Sydney's Moore Park, with crowds surging over the touchlines of rival matches. In one of these games, a novice Wallaroo, later a prominent member of the NSW Legislative Council, distinguished himself by carrying the ball in a spirited burst towards his own line. The crowd broke into loud cheers, which spurred him to greater effort, but his wrong way flight ended when a team-mate downed him close to his own line. 'I thought I had scored a brilliant success right at the outset of my football career,' he said when informed he should have run the other way.

Welsby’s Influence and Representative Rugby

Rugby resisted the challenge from other codes, not only because of its strength in NSW country areas and in Queensland, but mainly because of visits by overseas teams. When rugby started in Queensland in 1876, some players preferred Victorian rules. T.H. Welsby, later called the ‘patron saint of rugby in Queensland', supported Victorian rules, but agreed to play rugby when a majority of players preferred it, and he spent much of his life promoting the cause of Queensland rugby.

Despite the lingering public criticism of the brutality of rugby, a game The Bulletin labelled 'the undertaker's friend', the Queensland Rugby Union was founded in 1882 by a group of five enthusiasts, who called it the Northern Rugby Union. Foundation clubs were Brisbane, Wallaroo, Excelsior and Ipswich, and the first members were F.C. Lea, A.J. Hickson, H.St Paul, P. Roberts and G.E. Markell. They busied themselves immediately with the task of sending a team to play NSW in Sydney and did not worry about the formal constitution of their union until 1883. The first Queensland team of 17 players played six games in 10 days, including two against NSW, to refute The Bulletin's suggestion that such games inevitably led to a 'small lot in the nearest bone yard'.

Big Jim Brodie led the NSW team onto the field through a little picket gate fronting the modest, very modest, little pavilion on the Sydney Cricket Ground for the historic first inter-colonial match. A.J. Hickson, 'with his ample side levers', led Queensland on, followed by full-bearded Pring Roberts and Tom Welsby, also sporting side-levers, before a crowd of 3000-4000. NSW won by four goals and four tries to one goal, but there is disagreement whether this totals 28-4, the usually published score. NSW won again 10 days later by two goals and four tries to nil — given as 18-0 before only 500 spectators at the Association Ground. The Queenslanders wore below-the-knee knickerbocker trousers. Fred Lea, their sole selector, watched the match and must have learnt from it. The next year, when a NSW team visited Brisbane for a fortnight, Lea picked a side which won the first match 12-11, after being down 7-2 at halftime and 11-2 midway through the second half. The match was played at Eagle Farm, and for the equivalent of today's 15 cents spectators got a ride in a special train and their admission to the ground. The train proved inadequate and fans were left stranded in central Brisbane. About 3500 people watched the game, which was refereed by Monty Arnold. The turning point in the match came when W. Shiels ran fast from his goal line and touched the ball when NSW attempted to convert a try. The kick went over the bar, but by touching it, Shiels saved three points under the prevailing rules.

Touring and the Visiting Brits

NSW made its first tour of New Zealand in 1882, and two years later a New Zealand team toured NSW for the first time. In 1888, the first British team arrived in Australia and brought with it the 4-3-2 scrum formation, using two halfbacks, three centres and a fullback. Several opposing teams complained bitterly when the British team held the ball between the front and second row and moved down-field with it — the first demonstration of the controlled shove.

The British team's tour was arranged by English Test cricketers Alfred Shaw and Arthur Shrewsbury in an attempt to recover losses sustained by an Australian cricket tour. There is now no doubt that the majority of British players were paid to tour. They gave the Rugby Union in London statutory declarations declaring they were unpaid, but their tour fuelled disputes which led to north England clubs leaving the Union and forming the league code. The northern clubs were relentlessly pursued by the Reverend Frank Marshall, a Cambridge University graduate noted for his habit of smoking cigars while refereeing. Marshall, headmaster of Almondbury Grammar School in Huddersfield, was an outspoken advocate of strict amateurism. He hounded clubs in poorer areas for compensating with cash, rolls of cloth, job promotion, or even pub licences for time lost playing rugby. Though the 1888 British team’s tour was a catalyst in formation of the league, it did not help Shrewsbury’s financial problems.

J.P Clowers, one of the players recruited in the north of England to reinforce the nucleus of cricketers, was disqualified for professionalism before he left England. Clowes admitted accepting 15 pounds from Shrewsbury’s Nottingham agent which he spent on clothing needed for the tour. Clowes was allowed to accompany his colleagues to Australia while his appeal was considered in London. He completed an entire tour without once taking the field because Shrewsbury’s did not want to have the entire venture declared a professional, sham.

Initially, R.L. Seddon captained that 1888 British team, but when he drowned in a boating accident on the Hunter River, NSW, A.E. Stoddart took over the captaincy. No international matches were played in the team's tour, which included matches against The King's School and Sydney Grammar School. King's held the tourists to a 10-all draw and Grammar to a 3-all draw. Both schools fielded past and present students, and their play was commendable. Of the 16 matches played, the British team won 14 and drew two. The visitors also played 19 games of Australian rules, winning 9 and losing 10. Scoring rules differed in NSW and Queensland. In NSW, a try was worth two points, a goal three and a drop goal four. In Queensland, a try scored one point, a goal two, and a drop goal three.

Australian rugby learned a lot from the British team, particularly from Stoddart who played rugby regularly for England between 1885 and 1893, but unfortunately administrators missed the chance of buying cheap playing fields and did not follow the British rugby club policy of acquiring its own grounds.

Several strange laws disappeared towards the end of the 19th century. Before then a mark could be kicked by any player, and a player forced into touch could bounce the ball into the field of play and retrieve it. Scrum formations varied almost year by year until 1899, when the eight-man pack, with a centre-forward or hooker, and two props, was introduced. This meant the end of wing forwards who stood out on either side of the pack and engaged in private wrestling matches, oblivious to the rest of the game. In between wrestling bouts, the wing forwards threw the ball into lineouts.

New Zealanders Arrive, Some Settle

Rugby boomed in Queensland between 1890 and 1900, when Queensland beat NSW 11 times and played three draws. In 1892, Queensland won both matches in Sydney for the first time by 12-0 and 19-9, using a set of forwards which aver- aged only 80kg. Queensland's captain that season was William Warbrick, a New Zealander. Warbrick was the star of the Maori team which, between August 1880 and July 1890, played 107 games in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He settled in Brisbane and played for Queensland in 1891-93.

On this, the forerunner of all international rugby tours, the Maoris played and won 16 games in Australia. After beating Queensland 11-7 four Maori players were suspended for allegedly taking bribes from gamblers to throw the match.

The first white New Zealand team toured Australia in 1884 and won all its eight matches, without playing an international fixture. They scored 167 points and had only 17 scored against them. The only game in which they were extended was against a combined Wallaroos and Sydney University team in Sydney, which they won 23-10. The second New Zealand team toured in 1893, won nine of its 10 matches, and lost only to NSW in Sydney, 3-25. NSW was the only side to beat the third New Zealand team on its 10-match tour in 1897, winning 22-8.

The First True International

International matches were first played in Australia in 1899 when the Reverend Matthew Mullineux's British Isles team lost only three of its 21 matches. Australia won the first international on Australian soil, in Sydney, by 13-3, scoring three tries to one, but the Great Britain side won the next three internationals on its tour, 11-0 in Bris- bane, 11-10 in Sydney and 13-0 in the final Sydney match. The visit by the Great Britain team excited public interest and gave rugby a clear advantage over its rival codes. For almost a decade, public support for international and interstate games made rugby the pre-eminent winter game in NSW and Queensland. Rugby was so strong in Queensland at the time that Mullineux's team had very tough matches in Toowoomba, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mt Morgan and Maryborough.

From the turn of the century, the influence of GPS schools spread to catholic colleges, associated schools and public high schools. Thousands of young men started playing the game, at first with no thought of playing for their state or for Australia. A lot of them played the game for fun after they left school, believing in the concepts of amateurism and sportsmanlike behaviour they had learnt at school.

The dramatic progress rugby made in its first half-century in Queensland and NSW was not duplicated in the southern states, where Australian rules became the most popular winter sport, Inter-club rugby began in Victoria with a match between Melbourne and North Melbourne in 1888, and the first match between NSW and Victoria was played in 1889. Rugby's main strength in South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania was at universities, where lecturers and professors who had gone to British schools encouraged the code.

NSW Rugby Union Formed, as Land Becomes Power

In 1892, the names Northern Rugby Union and Southern Rugby Union were changed to the Queensland Rugby Union and the NSW Rugby Union. The Metropolitan Rugby Union was formed in Sydney in 1896 to control club football, and in 1900, Glebe won the first district competition. Sydney clubs conducted a variety of competitions from 1874, but the 1900 premiership was the first organised under the electoral system, which restricted players to the districts in which they lived. In Queensland, club rugby began in 1887, and Ipswich won the first premiership.

The first New Zealand team to play international rugby in Australia was the fourth touring side, which won all its 10 matches in 1903. This was a magnificent team, which ran up big scores in almost every game to score 267 points. The New Zealanders defeated Australia 22-3 in Sydney and were pressed only in the match against NSW in Sydney, which they won 3-0.

The main reason rugby failed to achieve great prosperity in this period was the constant drain on funds for ground hire. The trustees of various fields skimmed the cream from the gate receipts, and in 1907, the NSW Rugby Union decided to buy, for 15,000 pounds ($30,000), Epping Racecourse at Forest Lodge, below Glebe Point, now Harold Park racetrack. An agreement for purchase of the land from Sydney business- man James Joynton Smith, later proprietor of Smith's Weekly, was signed on 12 September that year, with a deposit of 2,500 pounds ($5,000) and annual payments of1,000 pounds ($2,000). Interest on the balance of the purchase price was four per cent for the first seven years and five per cent thereafter.

The NSW Rugby Union's acumen in securing ownership of a natural amphitheatre within easy reach of its supporters brought a savage backlash from players, who believed they drew the crowds and made the profits. Players were already unhappy about the slavish manner in which Australian rugby copied the English code and refused to agree to changes in the laws of the game which would have made their matches more attractive. They were discontented, too, because players hurt in matches had to meet their own loss of wages and medical expenses. Over-burdened with affluent officials from conservative back- grounds, the Union refused stubbornly to consider any insurance or compensation schemes.

The Original Rebel Union

Then came news that Albert Henry Baskiville, a rugby footballer and civil servant from Wellington, New Zealand, planned to organise a professional team to visit England and play against clubs that had broken away from the English Union. These north of England clubs, known initially as the Northern Rugby Union, paid players six shillings a match to cover the loss of Saturday wages. The Northern Union also made important rule changes, such as the elimination of lineouts and 'charges' at free kicks, and, most importantly, the reduction of teams from 15 to 13 players.

The Sydney Bulletin reported Baskiville's plans to tour Britain and added: 'The idea of professional football proves very alluring to a number of people in Sydney, and some NSW capitalists are considering organising three or four professional teams to play around big Australian cities.' The most important of those attracted by professional football were Victor Trumper, the famous Test cricketer, and James Joseph Giltinan, a commercial traveller, born in 1866, the son of a coach-builder. Giltinan and Trumper held meetings in Trumper's sports shop in Market Street, Sydney, attended by the Labor politician Harry Hoyle, Peter Moir and Alec Burdon, a great forward who had paid his own medical bills when he broke an arm playing NSW against Queensland. The meetings discussed the so-called injustice of buying Epping Racecourse, while players who attracted the crowds received no compensation for time lost at work. They agreed to a meeting at Bateman's Crystal Hotel on 8 August 1908, to call for the establishment of a professional code.

More than 50 people attended the hotel meeting, at which Giltinan announced he had invited Baskiville's professional team to play three matches in Sydney on its way to England. The meeting resolved to form an organisation called the NSW Rugby League, and elected Hoyle president, Trumper treasurer, and Giltinan secretary. One of Giltinan's first tasks was to write to the English Northern Union, by then known as the English Rugby League, proposing an Australian tour of Britain in 1908.

Newspapers dubbed Baskiville's team the 'All Golds'. It played three matches in Sydney against former rugby players who wore kangaroo emblems on their blue jerseys. The only rules available were rugby laws, because copies of the English Rugby League's rule book had not reached Australia. All three matches were played under rugby laws. All players who took part were promptly expelled by the NSW Rugby Union. One of the stars of the Sydney matches was 'Dally' Messenger, and his acceptance of an invitation to tour Britain as a guest with the New Zealanders ensured Australia-wide coverage of the All Golds' tour.

The First Wallaby Tour and Evolving Code

The league code made little progress initially, and their first tour of England in 1908 was a financial failure. The first Wallaby tour of Britain covered expenses, although international matches were not played against Scotland and Ireland. The Scots had lost money unwisely by guaranteeing the 1905 All Blacks too much gate money for the Scotland—New Zealand match and they did not want to be caught again, and they were also suspicious of the amateur status of Australian rugby players.

Joynton Smith realised the enormous public interest which would be created in Sydney by a match between the two teams on their return from Britain and applied to the Rugby Union for a match. His request had to be refused, under the constitution of the union, but he persuaded enough of the Wallaby team to change codes and staged three matches. Rugby triumphed in these matches by two matches to one but suffered the grievous loss of the 14 Wallabies who played. The Kangaroos won the first match at the Sydney Showground by 29-6 before 18,000 spectators. The Wallabies won the second match, played midweek, by 34-21, in front of 2,500 fans. The deciding match, watched by 16,000, went to the Wallabies, 15-6.

All through the previous summer, Giltinan, Trumper and Houle had been busy organising district clubs in the working-class suburbs like Newtown. The only area in which they failed to set up a club was St George, which had been admitted to the Metropolitan Rugby Union only two years earlier and embraced relatively middle-class Victor Trumper suburbs. More rugby players switched to league, and the first season in 1908, which was reasonably successful, saw the foundation of the Queensland Amateur Rugby League.

To offset its decline in popularity, the Rugby Union staged a series of international matches in 1910, involving a New Zealand team, a Maori team, and a combined side from Stanford University and the University of California. By then, most of the big names were missing from the Australian team, and the Americans were far below standard. Sydney University defeated the Americans in three matches, and the Americans lost twice to the Maoris. Crowds fell far below expectation.

Meanwhile, the league had replaced Newcastle with the Annandale Club in the Sydney competition, negotiated better grounds with councils, and despite the losses of the first Kangaroos tour of Britain, had brought the first British league team to Australia. Asked to choose between watching lacklustre rugby games and the British league side, the public opted for league. On the day 9000 saw NSW play the Maoris at rugby, 30,000 fans watched Australia play England at league. The league won these early competitions to attract followers because it had enticed star players, developed in the rugby teams, to defect.

The NSW Rugby Union and the Metropolitan Rugby Union lost so heavily on the visits of the Maoris, American universities, and New Zealanders in 1909, they had to dig deep into their reserve funds. The Metropolitan Union announced in 1911 that it could no longer subsidise clubs to pay for insurance or jerseys. The union could not pay the money due for the rental of the Sydney Cricket Ground and lost the venue to the league, and the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust refused to renew its agreement with the Rugby Union. In 1912, the worst setback came when the Metropolitan Union disclosed it had sold Epping Racecourse.

The Impact of World War I

When World War I started, the NSW Rugby Union gave league another opportunity to gain support when it suspended operations for the duration of the war. League continued to function throughout the war, and by the time peace was declared, a fresh crop of stars had been developed. At no stage in the league's dynamic first 10 years could it be claimed that players had been bribed to join the code, and most of them received only a few shillings a match, 'Dinny' Campbell, a big crowd-pleaser who played three rugby internationals for Australia before he switched codes, wrote that in his best season in league he made only 4 pounds a match. The main reason young footballers were attracted to the new code was poor administration of the rugby code.

When the 45th annual meeting of the NSW Rugby Union was due to be held in Sydney on 14 April 1919, charged with the responsibility of reviving rugby, pneumonic influenza had broken out in plague proportions. Emergency government edicts prohibited the assembly of people in public halls. To revitalise their code, a handful of rugby enthusiasts avoided prosecution by hiring a launch and holding a meeting on Sydney Harbour. The Union had no tenure of grounds and could raise only six teams in Sydney that year. Most matches had to be played on Sydney Grammar School's Weigall Oval between sides containing a curious mixture of pre-World War I veterans and boys who had just left school, the return of players from some of Australia's famous services teams boosted playing strength, but it was not until the mid-1920s that rugby again began to develop its stars.

The Queensland rugby competition had ceased in 1915 when Brothers won the Brisbane premiership. Queensland fielded a side against the AIF XV in 1919 when some club football was played in Brisbane but from then until 1928 the Queensland Rugby Union disbanded, the man responsible for its revival was Alec Hinds, who argued that Queensland could emulate Victoria, which had succeeded in reviving the game in 1923. Hinds got the support of Tom Welsby, who had been an administrator back in the 1880s, and Tommy Lawton, one of the stars of the Waratahs' 1927-28 tours of Britain and France. The first team to call itself Queensland after World War I was drawn almost entirely from Brisbane Grammar Old Boys and the YMCA. Players had no jerseys and had to borrow a club set. They were defeated easily by a team of Sydney University players labelled 'New South Wales'. Officially, the Queensland Rugby Union resumed business when it was reconstituted in 1929 but the continued weak financial position delayed the formation of a national body.

Help From a Rival Sees a Rugby Revival

New Zealand gave Australian rugby invaluable assistance in the dark years of the 1920s, helping to keep the game alive with five visits in the decade, during which they played 32 internationals against teams organised by New South Wales officials, but always including Queenslanders and widely regarded as representative of the best Australian talent. The Australian teams won seven and drew one of those matches. In the same period four teams were sent from Sydney on New Zealand tours and these included South Africans as well as Queenslanders. New Zealand won 25 of the 41 matches played by the visiting Australian teams and from these encounters came the motivation to select the Waratahs and send them to England.

The Waratahs' tour of Britain was a major landmark in Australian rugby, for it kindled new interest in the code, which had almost died of muddle headedness, The Waratahs, restricted by necessity to players from Sydney, reinforced by the rich talents of Syd Malcolm from Newcastle, and Queensland's Rhodes Scholar Tommy Lawton, injected excitement into Australian rugby. They ran the ball from deep inside their own half, confident in their ability to keep backing up whoever had the ball and scored 90 tries in 39 games. Tales of their exploits inspired a whole generation of schoolboys and brought crowds back to Australian rugby when the Waratahs returned home.

With the Waratahs playing crowd-pleasers like Lawton, Cyril Towers, Syd Malcolm, Sid King, Alec Ross and big Jack Ford, major revivals occurred in Queens land and Victoria, and interstate matches became highly competitive. No longer could a Victorian side, which included men of the calibre of Gordon Sturtridge, Dave Cowper, Owen Bridle, Bill Hammon, 'Weary' Dunlop, Max Carpenter and Eric David, be regarded as a pushover.

From the thrilling interstate games of the 1930s, some magnificent national teams were built. Australia went to South Africa under Alec Ross's captaincy in 1933, and twice beat the best teams the Springboks could field. There were three Victorians and 10 Queenslanders in the touring team, and the Australian side had a truly national look for the first time. The following year, Australia beat New Zealand 25 11, and had the best of a draw in the second match.

Lessons Learnt From War

The day World War Il started, one of the most talented sides Australia ever produced arrived in Britain for a tour which had to be abandoned. This time, the mistake of suspending all competition in Australia was not repeated. Club strengths were depleted, but rugby emerged in 1945 with a wealth of talent. The first Wallabies to tour Europe after World War Il did not have their line crossed in any international match in Britain.

Some losses of players to league continued, but new rugby nations appeared for Australia to play and the number of overseas tours increased. The Fijians thrilled Australian crowds in 1952 with their running and unorthodox play, and in 1973 Australia met Tonga for the first time in a Test. In 1979, Australia toured Argentina for the first time. Indeed, the emergence of so many new powers in world rugby enabled Australia's administrators to offer young players a diversity of tours league could never hope to match. This development snowballed with overseas schoolboy tours.

One of the most significant developments in Australian rugby occurred in the 1950s when licensed sports clubs were established. Profits from them gave rugby clubs new financial independence, because they ended the need for handouts from the unions for jerseys, ground rent, medical expenses and promotion of junior competitions. Many district rugby clubs were even able to finance overseas tours by their players. Unlike league clubs, licensed rugby clubs have not had to find enormous sums to finance their local teams, and their more modest aims had them in better shape than some of their league counterparts at the time.

An Era That Will Forever Be Golden

The development of crowd-pleasing players like Ken Catchpole, John Thornett, Tony Miller, Mark Loane, Roger Gould, Tommy Lawton, the Ella brothers and more recently Nick Farr-Jones, Phil Kearns, Michael Lynagh and the incomparable David Campese turned Australian teams into consistent drawcards. International matches could be relied on to attract large sums of money as well as impressing on schoolboys and their headmasters the prestige of being a Wallaby.

Queensland, fully recovered from its nine-year absence from the game in the 1920s, played a major role in this rebuilding by supplying a constant stream of outstanding footballers, and it all culminated in 1991 when Australia won the World Cup. As world champions, Australian rugby's future looked very rosy indeed. The major worry was the continued decline of playing standards in Victoria. The days when Victoria provided up to five players in our national team or when three players from one Victorian club were chosen for a Wallaby tour look far away indeed.)

The Australian Rugby Football Union (ARU)

For most of its early existence, the ARFU never needed much money and it has never been in real financial trouble. Affiliation fees from member unions have met the bulk of its financial needs. Delegates travelled to ARFU meetings from other states at their own expense, and states which invited teams to play in their territory had to give guarantees. But some of the ARFU member unions got into financial difficulty, and the NSWRU was virtually penniless when the 1952 Fijian tour rescued it. When the NSWRU attempted to levy 10 first grade clubs to cover the Fijians’ NSW expenses only six paid he levy.

The states have tried a system of guaranteeing all costs when overseas teams play in their territory and taking all the profits. The states have also tried to allow the ARFU to run entire tours, and to distribute any profits on the basis of how many clubs and players would benefit from the distribution. Whatever the system used, however, rugby continued to pay high ground rental fees for matches by overseas teams. This was why the success of Ballymore and Waratah Park have made such an important contribution to current prosperity.

Faced with a membership of unions which wanted the profits, but none of the problems, the ARFU called for a levy of all member unions in 1976. Each union paid the $3,000 required, which, with a bank overdraft of $50,000, provided working capital of $86,000 and gave a new administration time to reorganise. By disbanding the costly Wallaby Trophy competition, opening up the code to sponsors, and watching costs carefully, the ARFU has been converted from an outfit with precious little money into a prosperous control body with millions in assets. The World Cup success of the national team, and the increased revenue it has generated, played a major part in this dramatic turnaround.

The most remarkable feature of the ARFU is its youth. Australia includes some of the world's oldest unions and clubs, and it was the first country in the southern hemisphere to play rugby. The Sydney University Club, formed in 1864, the Wallaroos in 1869, and the Southern Rugby Union (the forerunner to the NSWRU), formed in 1874, were all ahead of the control bodies in Ireland, Wales and New Zealand. Yet Australia remained an isolated rugby nation until after World War Il, by which time only one tour had been made to South Africa, as well as scattered tours of New Zealand, scarcely noticed by the public, and two tours to Britain, one of them by the brilliant NSW team known as the Waratahs. For the rest, Australian players were content with their grade and sub-district competitions, matches between schools, annual interstate matches among players who often struggled to get leave, and an occasional match with New Zealand.

Amazingly, there was no groundswell in these blissful years for the formation of a national authority. Nobody worried too much about who should organise overseas tours or whether they were needed. The missed opportunities to buy grounds and develop coaching schemes are mind-boggling. Most players simply accepted the game as it was.

The impetus for the formation of the ARFU came from England. The International Rugby Board, founded in 1890 by England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, had given Australia token representation in 1926. This took the form of nominating delegates to the (English) Rugby Football Union in London, which reported to IRB meetings on the game in distant parts. One of the men who reported on Australian rugby in those times was the former Queensland and England flanker L.C. ('Bruno') Brown, who in 1947-48 was elected president of the (English) Rugby Football Union. His appointment coincided with an offer of full IRB membership to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

ARFU Joins the IRB

The London-based IRB was formed in 1890 when it comprised the four home unions of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. In 1926, Australia was given representation on the Board without a vote. To secure full IRB membership — and there are many rugby followers in Australia who believe it is an impractical, wasteful body — Australia needed a national union. Brown argued strongly that all states should be represented on this national body, however weak their playing strength may have been. He was looking to the future, dreaming of rugby as a national sport in Australia, apparently unaware of the hold Australian rules had in southern states.

The ARFU constitution, which was accepted in 1949, was still unrealistic in 1993 with NSW having five votes against Queensland's three. To increase its voting strength, the QRU must muster 75 per cent of the member unions' votes. Queensland did have its powers increased from two to three votes in 1989 when the Northern Territory was given a vote, but for the state that provides so many of our best players the allocation of ARFU votes is questionable.

Queensland, frustrated by those who would not alter the constitution to give it the one extra vote it sought, took the issue to the IRB in 1983. The IRB ruled that Queensland's voting strength was a purely domestic issue.

How NSW uses its five votes provided the key to where power lies in Australian rugby. Under the constitution of the NSW Rugby Union, the Country Rugby Union has 10 votes, Sydney Rugby Union 10, and the juniors, schools, referees, services, life members, immediate past-presidents, and presidents have one vote each in a 30-vote total. This is why Queensland rugby officials argue that NSW Country remains the power in ARFU voting, when NSW delegates to the ARFU all vote to instruction.

The NSW Country Rugby Union is well organised and efficient, but whether its influences the 10 swinging votes on the NSWTRU is debatable. In any case, the Country Union is entitled to a big say, because history shows that when challenges came from other codes which could have easily snuffed out rugby in Australia, the game's strength in the country areas of NSW helped withstand them.

Despite Queensland's discontent, the national team has a glamorous image, despite occasional defeats, and can be relied upon to give any nation in the world a hard match. The code was prospering in NSW and Queensland in terms of numbers playing the game, and making strong advances in Western Australia, which operates its own grounds. South Australia had won the Australian Southern Schoolboys Carnival for the first time and the Northern Territory was Australia's fastest growing union. Only in Victoria and Tasmania have coaching schemes failed to attract schools and junior organisations in sufficient numbers to promote bigger competitions.

Rugby Reviews for a Golden Future

The bright national outlook for the ARFU in 1994 was in marked contrast to the scene in October 1972, when a special committee was established to investigate the declining standards of Australian rugby. Its report took six months to compile by three members John Howard, Bob Templeton and Bill McLaughlin — but most of the improvements which have boosted Australian rugby's prestige began when its report was adopted. The report examined Australia's failings at club and international level and made a long list of recommendations, most of which have been implemented. Some of the improvements did not need a committee's investigation, but the exercise proved invaluable. For example, the committee suggested the appointment of team managers and coaches several months before overseas tours began, to give officials time to study players and conditions in the country to be visited.

The committee looked at the successful All Black and Springbok teams and the common factors in these teams were their attention to technique, discipline under pressure, and overall physical fitness. The committee also had a close look at rugby's failure to maintain the interest of outstanding young footballers after they left school. They agreed that it was the responsibility of the code to provide young men, ready to make a commitment to rugby, with competitions and tours to improve their skills. Overseas tours by Australian schoolboy teams with greater official support, introduction of national coaching schemes, mini rugby for small boys, and backing for the Australian Schools Rugby Championship, all stemmed from that report.

Testing Times for Test Matches

The first was the abandonment in 1976-77 of the Wallaby Trophy competition, a hopeful move to establish a national rugby competition which started in 1968-1969, never gained the support of public or players, and involved the movement of teams around the states at tremendous cost to the ARFU. The planned tours remained doubtful until the Adidas company offered to sponsor Australia on a 10-match tour to France. Overseas tours by all IRB nations were organised on a standard format. The host country payed all fares, meals and accommodation, plus a maximum daily allowance for each player, which in 1994 was fixed at $80. The host country keeps all gate takings and accepts all profits or losses. These days it costs at least $370,000 to send a team on an overseas tour. The costs of outfitting teams was so high that the ARFU needed every cent of the $600,000 it received in government grants. ARFU sponsors in 1994 include Ford, Castlemaine-Perkins and XXXX, Mastercard, Qantas, Network Ten, Canterbury International (clothing outfitters) and Asics footwear. The ARFU learned from its mistakes many of them costly. After three years is ceased trying to run tours for every club wanting to play interstate or overseas. Experience proved this venture tied up to too many people for too little return. But no rugby club can tour overseas without ARFU approval, a safeguard it believes necessary to protect it from over-enthusiastic and sometimes naïve club officials. Financial recovery brought stability to the ARFU, but one or two bad tours or unsound investments could of caused major financial problems. Success remains heavily dependent on the crowd pulling ability of national teams. Hosting visits by overseas teams is expensive, and big crowds are essential if Australis is to remain a country other IRB nations are keen to visit. The American tour in 1983 delighted spectators with much of the football it produced, but it lost $26,500. The tour by Argentina which followed immediately made only a small profit, despite a big crowd at the second international. The Welsh tour (one Test) in 1991 cost the ARFU $110,000. For those that count the dollars and cents on behalf of Australian rugby, it is a very tough financial game. For the ARFU, any profit from tours by overseas teams is hard-earned, even with an exciting side. Waratah Park returns have languished but the ARFU can count on $800,000 profit from an international at the Sydney Football Stadium and $500,000 from Ballymore. Ballymore has been one of Australia’s big successes since its second grandstand was opened. In 1994 the ARFU was in a sound financial position for the 1995 World Cup where the Wallabies will defend the championship in South Africa. 

The Wallabies

Australia played its first Rugby international in 1899 but it was some nine years later the team we now know as the Wallabies was born. The first team to leave our shores to represent the country in Rugby converged on the British Isles in 1908. Branded “the Rabbits” by a cheeky English press, the players decided their new nickname would not stick, and defiantly declared themselves “the Wallabies” before going on to win 33 of a possible 39 tour matches. The headline victory, a 9-3 triumph over England gave birth to a legend. In the century that followed the Wallabies rose to become a world power in Rugby, forged by successes across the globe and built by the characteristics of the men who wore the iconic gold jersey. Twice they have soared to the game’s greatest heights, raising the William Webb Ellis Cup on two occasions in 1991 and 1999, feats that echo in the minds of the men who wear the jersey today as they carry our greatest hopes to Japan on a mission to scale those almighty heights again.