Rugby School England – The Birthplace of a New Football Code
At the turn of the 19th century in old Sydney Town there was not a lot of entertainment happening in the city. The pursuit of water, food and keeping the so called “Fellons” in line was foremost in the minds of the Governors and soldiers from the barracks on Macquarie Street. Happily there was some leadership coming from forward thinking men and women from the colony. The infertile soils around the landing sites at Sydney Cove meant that the market gardens and the growing of vegetables and fruit had to be done up-river at places like Parramatta.
This left room to create parks and other areas around Macquarie Street for enjoyment and recreational. Manageable regions on the hill near today’s NSW Parliament and St Mary’s Cathedral were cleared to create Hyde Park, The Domain and the Botanical Gardens. The barracks housed the soldiers who were responsible for the management of the ill-fated prisoners from Ireland and England. The Botanical Gardens were set aside in 1816 for Flora research and propagation. So the sporting areas seemed to be in the Domain and Hyde Park.
What was Football Like in 1829
Using a rough excuse for a ball and turning up to the newly cleared “Domain” was a great pastime for many of the soldiers to display strength and valour in an attempts to advance the ball.
It was only 6 years since William Webb Ellis had succumbed to his frustration and picked up a ball and ran with it. The refinement of any rules that may have happened back in the 6 year period was certainly lost to those attempting to play “Football” in Sydney back then. The Domain precinct was shared with some cricket sides but the budding Rugby Teams were providing some fun for the spectators, in spite of(or because of) the lack of rules. The modern day game of Rugby Union has more rules now but perhaps the simplicity of a lawless game like this was the attraction.
There was an attempt to make a Gilbert Ball as used in England but the local manufacturer was nervous about being sued as he did not have a licence or approval. So everything appeared to be a bit roughshod – venue, players and ball alike. William Gilbert and Richard Lindon were responsible for the development of the Rugby Ball back in The Motherland but as it was originally a leather covered pig’s bladder it seems that patents may not have been applied for in England anyway.
Extracts can be found in the “Sydney Monitor” a newspaper at that time with specific reference to the “Football” games that were being played at the Domain. Up until the 1860’s the sporting space was shared with Sydney cricketers and orators who were hell bent on getting a message across by standing in the park and proffering words of wisdom to anyone who would listen.
The Australian RU Presents the below on Their Website
“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.”
The Formal Beginnings of Rugby Union Clubs
The rough and tumble beginnings of the park football emerging from The Domain and other parks nearby, such as Hyde Park, were becoming more formalised. In 1863 Sydney University created a Rugby Club. It remains as one of the first Rugby clubs anywhere in the world. Although created at the campus of the University, the home ground was to be at Hyde Park in the early years in the mid 19th century. The Wallaroos were very keen to create a standardisation in the game and looked in particular at the Gilbert Rugby Ball. A sort of fluid standardisation of rules and laws followed.
In 1864 one year after the inauguration of the University Club Eldred Harmer MP tried to have the game outlawed and banned. Despite Harmer being a member of the NSW Parliament he was unable to get a seconder for the motion. So Rugby survived its first crisis. The first official game was in mid June 1865 and, crowd control was an issue. Notwithstanding that, the spectators turned up and the 1st official competition known as the Gardiner Challenge Cup was launched with the above clubs participating.
Country Regions and Boarding Schools Were The Real Nursery of Southern Rugby
The playing environment of Rugby in Australia was nurtured and promoted mainly in the county regions and the Boarding Schools. Both NSW and Queensland were getting more organised, but their attention to the formation of standardised rules left a lot to be desired. Possibly the desire to tone down the “rugged and lawless nature of the fledgling code was in the minds of some. The State of Victoria was responsible for formalising some rules to minimise the violent aspects on the game. These became known as The Victorian Rules. The Scrum was in a state of flux as well as different formations were experimented with on a regular basis.
By 1880 the Southern Union was about 100 teams strong. Many Games were played at Moore Park with ever fluctuating rules and formations. Add to that the other teams sharing the park; they being Victoria Rules and Soccer. Ardent supporters of all these sports milling around in what one could imagine as a disorganised gathering of supporters. Meanwhile the Northern Rugby Union was being set up in the State of Queensland in 1882. When you add in the mix of the Private Boarding schools a picture emerges of a emerging love of the sport. The Boarding schools players pool was normally garnered from the very fit well built boys from the farms. Their parents were very keen to keep the “kids” at home on the farms, as labour, and then allow the boarding experience much later than these days. By that time the boys were 16-18 young men. The educative polishing ended in the classroom, but what presented on the field was a far cry from what one would expect from school kids. Many of the Schools fitted very well into the Seniors competition and were very competitive. Tough, fit, strong and young.
The Beginnings of Inter-Colonial State Matches
The rugby loving colonials were now ready. The time was right to set up representative games between NSW and Queensland. Games were played in 1882, about 1 year before the Queenslanders had formalised their state rugby union.
The Bulletin Magazine was very critical of the game and despite calling rugby a short cut to the grave, the Queenslanders played 6 games in 10 days. The NSW team was victorious in the inaugural match although there was some confusion about what the score was. The game was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of a good crowd of around 3000 to 4000 spectators. The 2nd match 10 days later drew a crowd of about 500 spectators to the Association Ground. It could be said that the official 24-4 scoreline in the 1st game was quite a drubbing on the scoreboard, as this was NSW 4 tries and 4 goals to Queensland’s 1 goal. The following year NSW travelled to Queensland to play a return match. A keen crowd of Queenslanders were given a very cheap train ride to Eagle Farm to bolster the spectator crowd to about 3,500. Unfortunately many spectators were stranded in central Brisbane. The Queenslanders were rewarded with a 12-11 win in a nail biting game of rugby. The NSW team was deprived of a victory when Queenslander W. Shiels sprinted from the NSW try-line after the visitors had scored a try to touch the ball on the attempted conversion. This resulted in a “no goal” under the rules at the time, even though the ball was over the bar and between the uprights.
The 1st International Rugby Match in Australia
This picture was taken in 1881 of some of the best players at the time in British Rugby. English Rugby was building a large body of players. The potential pool of players was formidable and the Colonial teams would have to be at their best to make victory possible.
In 1882 NSW organised a tour to New Zealand, but it was not until 1988 the Rugby governing bodies in the colony hosted a team from Britain. The British team were formidable. The matches were not tests as we know it now but rather a series of 18 games against colonial sides. The visitors did not lose any games in a 16 win, 2 draw result for the tour. Not surprisingly the draws were against school teams. Both The Kings School and Sydney Grammar did have some old boys playing for them however.
The Shaw and Shrewsbury touring party had players that were paid money or other products that could be sold off for cash. A previous touring British Cricket team had been caught out by paying players to participate and with this particular Rugby tour it was essential that there were no professionals playing. Shaw and Shrewsbury needed to re-coup their losses from the previous Cricket debacle. So the tour went ahead and the British team arrived.
Perhaps if Rugby had gone professional back in 1988, in England, the football landscape would be different. In England the Rev Frank Marshall, an ardent promoter of amateurism, hounded players and clubs to the extent that many talented rugby players left the union to play in a Rugby League where payments were ok. The body of talented players left for the Union was diminished with the exodus of the talented and cash strapped players that could have remained in the game of Rugby.
In spite of nagging anti professional exponents and the friction of distance the British arrived into a divided Rugby Colony. They brought with them an abundance of talent and new ways of playing the game. The “Kick – Chase – Wrestle” the ball over the line was still used with lots of scrimmaging but new scrum formations of 4 front row, 3 second row and 2 at the back meant that, with sound practice, the ball could be securely held between the front and second row. All that was needed was to march the ball to the try line and fall on it. The shove was invented. Wing forwards and wrestling of previous years were now a thing of the past, thankfully.
The British Tour Captain R L Seddon died from a boating accident in the Hunter while touring. A E Stoddart was given the captaincy and Australia leaned much from him about Rugby ethos. Land was available for Rugby to take on the ownership of their own grounds and structures, but it appears, they did not grab the opportunity. In the face of challenges for the football space this was an oversight. Alternate codes of Rugby League and Victorian Football picked up the ball in William Web Ellis fashion and ran with it.
Ten Years to Garner Strength and Skill
It would take another ten years to the first truly international game in 1899. There was a great learning curve for Australia after the not gaining one victory from the British and Irish Lions who toured in 1988. The Australian playing pool was greatly affected by its perceived amateur status. If the Union had its own grounds its coffers would have been better served to look after the code and injured players, just to mention 2 areas. A tour in 1888 from the NZ Maoris lead by the legendary Joseph Warbrick was a complete white wash of a non international tour.
The Maoris won all 16 games in Australia. Warbrick, educated at St Steven’s Native School and played his initial first class rugby game in New Zealand at the age of 15, added much to Queensland Rugby. He emigrated to Australia and played for Queensland in 1891-93. These games from across the ditch would have done much to awaken in the administration a truly representative game as a combined Australian team would be a challenge. The skill levels of Teone Wiwi Taiaroa, from the undefeated Maori side, demonstrated that brute force alone would not be enough to win upcoming internationals. Fending, speed to the breakdown, and being able to kick goals and drop-kick from either foot was daunting. The 1982 NSW Representatives (pre Waratahs) in New Zealand, returned from their tour with tales of the Great Maori who had mastered the game of Rugby.
In the photo above, Joseph Warbrick(C) is in the centre with the ball. He was accompanied by four of his brothers together with the three of the Wynyard brothers. Taiaroa is in the front row left hand end.
The British Lions Return to Cement Rugby as Australia’s Top Winter Game
The first truly International Rugby game was against The Australian combined states XV in 1899. Reverend Matthew Mullineux’s British Lions were victorious in the Series of 4 games. Australia won the first International at the SCG on 24th June 1899 and went very close again in the 3rd match. In other games on the tour the visitors struggled against tough opposition in the Northern Rugby regions. Rockhampton, Mt Morgan, Maryborough, Toowoomba and Bundaberg. The Australians were competitive, on the scoreboard at least. The Australian Rugby regions were strengthened with the passionate involvement of the Private, Associated and Public Schools around the cities of Sydney and Brisbane and the country boarding schools.
The First Wallabies Tour as League Establishes a Sydney Stronghold.
Leading up to the first Australian international tour was a watershed year for the running football codes. Victor Trumper and James Joseph Giltinan, in particular, were very actively advancing the Rugby League in the working suburbs around Sydney. The Sydney region was further enhanced by the inclusion of Annandale Rugby League Club in the competition at the expense of the Newcastle Rugby Club side. By 1908 The League was gaining impetus and winning over fans at the gate. The Union code was vulnerable to the incursions of the emerging rival code as there was continuing dissatisfaction with financial support given to players. The Union was losing its grip and the League gained in popularity in the working class Suburbs. Most regions in Sydney were covered in the emerging code but at this stage the large area included in the St George region remained with the NSW Union. The St George area in early League history took in a huge swathe of territory from around Tempe through Hurstville and down to Wollongong.
The Wallabies Arrive in England
The First Wallabies docked in Plymouth 8 September 1908 on the SS Omrah to tour Britain and America. Getting the business principles right was paramount to make the tour a success. As “amateur” players moved over to Rugby League the spectators were voting at the turnstiles with their money back in Australia and Northern England. By 1911 The NSW Union was unable to guarantee participating players reimbursement for injury, time lost from work and even jerseys.
Shortly after their arrival a vote was taken and the name for the team was changed to “The Wallabies”. By 1910 the Rugby Union code was cash strapped in Australia and could not pay for its rental at the SCG, which they subsequently lost to the League. The Metropolitan SRU then had to sell the Epping Racecourse venue. The defection to Rugby League is covered by some excellent Sporting Historians mentioned below in the acknowledgements.
Rugby was added to the Olympic Games in London and won the match against the British side. During the tour The Wallabies play 31 matches, and won 25, drew one and lost five. The Wallabies received three shillings a day for expenses. Scotland would not play the team as they were considered professional.
The mass defection to Rugby League
On arriving back in Australia eleven players became professional and joined the Rugby League code, championed by James Joynton Smith. In all about half the Wallabies touring team were given life bans by the NSWRU after accepting payment for Kangaroos v Wallabies games. The games were played under Rugby League Rules. Eight of these defectors had rewarding careers in Rugby League. Dally Messenger, as an “Immortal” and International Hall of Fame recipient was enormously instrumental in the early exodus to Rugby League.
It was obvious, even back in the early formative days in Rugby Union history that to maintain a game in the amateur realms was going to be a big ask. The game was very popular with spectators in both the amateur and paid ranks in League but it would prove to be very difficult for a player to maintain a family life under the threat of injury and loss of income. Perhaps if the Rugby Unions in Britain firstly, and Colonial Australia could have looked into the future different decisions may have been made.
1888 Maori – Native Touring Side https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/39617/1888-89-new-zealand-native-rugby-football-team
The 1st Lions of Rugby: https://saintsandheathens.wordpress.com/
1899 Australian Rugby Side Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia_national_rugby_union_team#Early_years
Famous English Rugby Football Players 1881 Sydney Awards & Trophies Rights purchased – Alamy.
The First Wallabies https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Australia_squad_1908.jpg.
General Information Overview by Rugby AU:https://australia.rugby/about/about%20us/history
General advice with timeline content was supplied by P E Sharpham Rugby Historian and Author of the First Wallabies