Rugby history: Maroon-hearted Waratah refused to play Reds
The Reds-Waratahs meet in rugby battle on Saturday for the 294th time – the most played match-up of any top level football in Australia. Is the rivalry between NSW and Queensland in rugby still flourishing in the professional era?
Making comparisons with league’s Origin is unavoidable, but it is a long forgotten fact that the “Blues vs Maroons” annual series first became part of our winter sporting nomenclature in 1890s rugby.
After dabbling in various jersey colours through the 1880s (the first series was in 1882), by 1895 the two state rugby teams settled on their now traditional colours – in the popular press and amongst the sports-minded public the Queenslanders were styled “the Maroons” and NSW “the Blues”.
When league began in 1908 its state teams mirrored these colours and established its own annual series, which eventually gave rise to State of Origin.
It’s no revelation to anyone that the NSW and Queensland sides in Super Rugby are essentially now clubs, no longer representative teams – players can and are sourced and contracted from far beyond their state borders.
A prominent example of one of the early imported players to wear the Waratahs jersey, without ever having first played for a NSW club, was Jason Little in 1999. The following season he became NSW captain.
Of course, Queenslanders moving south and later being selected for NSW to play against their home state is no rare occurrence, extending back to the 1880s. Many young rugby players came to Sydney as a consequence of Queensland not having a University to complete studies and gain qualifications.
The story of one young man is worth recounting – Harry Abbott – a name that went unrivalled as the best outside back ever seen in Australian rugby, until the arrival of Dally Messenger. ‘The Referee’ wrote in 1907 of Messenger: “No New South Wales player since the days of Henry Abbott has ever shown such form in the centre three-quarter position.”
Abbott had moved down from Brisbane in 1891 to study law at Sydney University. He was already well-known as a schoolboy rugby star with Brisbane Grammar, playing against NSW (at the age of 14) in 1887. Two years later he played for Queensland against the New Zealand Maori and NSW. He was still a student when he came to Sydney in 1890 as a key member of the Queensland side for the annual series against NSW.
In 1891 Abbott arrived at Sydney University and naturally joined the rugby club. From then until retiring in 1897 he forged a career that was long revered by those that recalled him in action.
‘The Sydney Mail’ wrote towards the end of this playing days, Abbott “is admitted on all sides to be the finest rugby footballer in New South Wales. His superior has probably never been seen in Australia, not even excepting the best of the powerful 1888 English [British] team or the famous [1888/89]Maori combination.”
“He is a powerfully built well-proportioned man, standing over 6ft, remarkably quick on his legs, cool as a cucumber, and best of all he is thoroughly acquainted with the finer points of the game.”
“lt usually takes three opponents, or two at least, to stop Abbott when once fairly started, for his dodging and feinting tactics are superb. He has a habit too of kicking goals from the field with astonishing precision.”
A look at Abbott’s c.v. shows he was regularly selected for NSW against New Zealand and Victoria through the 1890s, including as captain. What is intriguingly noticeable though is his name only appears once for NSW against Queensland – in Brisbane in 1891.
At the end of his rookie season (1891) in Sydney the young Abbott opted to break his studies and return home for a short visit. At the same time, NSW were to sail to Brisbane to play the series against Queensland. Abbott taunted the NSW players that he would meet them on the rugby field, determined to take his place for Brisbane Grammars against NSW during the tour.
In the opening game though the Queenslanders held NSW to a surprise 9-all draw. Fearing an embarrassing lost series, the NSW manager and senior players called upon Abbott to play for his adopted state [colony] in the return match. Abbott agreed to join the NSW team, but refused to play against or for Grammars in the intervening mid-week game.
Though Abbott played well for NSW in the match against Queensland, the home side routed the visitors 11-0. Far from a pleasant experience of playing against friends, Abbott found the whole experience difficult to stomach. He vowed to never play for NSW against Queensland again.
‘The Sydney Mail’ explaining that “A native of Queensland, Abbott’s patriotism prevents him from taking the field against his colony in representative matches, “ and that “as each subsequent winter brought with it the inter-colonial contests he religiously held aloof.”
Abbott retired after injuring his ankle against New Zealand in 1897. He had stuck true to his word, forsaking five series worth of opportunities to wear the sky blue of NSW against Queensland.
The only player that threatened to displace Abbott atop the rugby popularity totem before the arrival of Messenger, was Stephen ‘Lonnie’ Spragg, a side-stepping centre/winger who starred for Australia in the 1899 Test series against the British Lions. Like Messenger, he was also a prodigious goal kicker.
In the summer of 1899/1900 Spragg moved to Rockhampton in Queensland. Sydney’s ‘The Referee’ sports newspaper wrote: “It will be a great pity if such a fine player as Spragg be unavailable for [NSW] this year’s inter-colonial matches. Even though residing in Rockhampton I am of the opinion he should play for NSW. The time has arrived, I think, for the observance of [such] a qualification for players in inter-colonial matches.”
While the journalist and many in NSW rugby were genuinely pining for Spragg to appear in the light-blue jersey, they were equally fearful of seeing him in maroon colours – concerns that were well-founded, for Spragg amassed 70 points for Queensland between 1900 and 1902, as he led his new state to a strong period of success against NSW. Despite the hammering from Spragg, the state’s continued to select teams based on residency.
Today, held within the tos and fros of the Super Rugby draw and operating as club teams, the Reds-Waratahs contests perhaps don’t exude the same love-hate relationship they once did.
NSW and Queensland continue to provide the bulk of Australia’s rugby players, but whether the opportunity and desire for a one-off Origin-style Reds vs Waratahs game exists seems unlikely.
Still, the concept of calling players back is not untested, indeed the Home Nations teams have always operated in that manner when choosing players, and aside from the the Wallabies and All Blacks, most national teams now do too.
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- Rugby Union