Lions on the field, gentlemen off it

Sean Fagan Columnist

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    Lions fans celebrate a try. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

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    Full time footballers aren’t a new phenomenon; the first were those in touring teams of the 1880s. Did they unleash on the public scandals and controversies?

    As told in The First Lions of Rugby book, the opportunity to take part in the 1888 British Lions 10-month long tour to Australia and New Zealand was highly prized.

    This was especially so for younger footballers who were still single and didn’t have to concern themselves with whether the financial terms (banned by the RFU) were enough to feed their family or offset the possibility of losing their job.

    For those that did come on the 1888 Lions tour, it was truly life’s great adventure.

    Far from home’s glaring eyes and daily realities, life included lavishly entertained banquets, smoke-concerts, theatre outings, kangaroo and rabbit shooting and picnic drives, as well as visits to places and attractions that your social standing would otherwise never have given you access to, all while playing football with and against top players.

    The Bulletin wrote colourfully in awe of the stoic capabilities of the 1888 Lions, as “its drunks and disorderlies used to be stirred up by the policemen in the morning from door steps, bridges, footpaths, etc. to have a bath, a rub down and feed – and then file out to the battle and win.”

    After the Lions tour, the regular exchange of visits between the rugby-playing colonies in the 1890s built much good will, further aiding the growth of the game.

    But tours also sometimes had a downside for the game; some of it was reported, most of it not. There is no doubt there was a conspiracy of silence covering the public reporting of footballers’ rowdiness and bad behaviour.

    “Footballers are allowed to behave like a pack of hoodlums, and yet never a word of notice or reproof gets into the daily papers,” stated one frustrated writer to a newspaper in the early 1890s.

    Suffice to say, if alleged misdemeanours by footballers in the 1890s made the newspapers, they must have been on the disreputable side of the “football hi-jinks” ledger.

    In 1894 the NSW Waratahs returned from New Zealand with the team’s manager boasting that “the conduct of the NSW footballers was everything that could be desired.” He knew otherwise, but relying on the custom that it was ‘bad form’ for anyone to speak ill of guests, he had little fear of any damaging revelations getting out. He was mistaken.

    After the tour the ‘Otago Witness’, among many, wrote of NSW players being so drunk on the trip across to New Zealand that the ship’s captain was forced to intervene, that after an evening function in Napier players swore at passers-by in the town’s streets, and that one of the most prominent players “grossly insulted” a referee “using language so foul that it is perfectly unprintable.” Some reports hinted at more incidents.

    The most infamous event came as the team left Auckland. Newspapers told of how Auckland RU officials, together with their wives, had gathered at the harbour wharf in readiness to officially send-off the visiting team.

    The party was mortified at the sight of the NSW players coming into view on a horse-drawn carriage accompanied by “a bevy of notorious nymphs de pave, who were more than affectionately farewelled by certain of the departing guests.”

    Another reported of the “disgraceful scene on the wharf” where “the visitors made drunken and noisy adieus to some notorious women of the town.”

    Taranaki’s newspaper editor wrote that “One visit in a hundred years from such as they would be quite enough,” while the Hawke’s Bay Herald likened the NSW team to one of Sydney’s notorious ‘push gangs’. Even editors in towns at which the team didn’t play went so far as to state in print that they were thankful for the mercy.

    Three years later, New Zealand toured NSW and Queensland. The visitors easily accounted for NSW at the SCG, then headed off into country NSW for a week – on their return they were to face the Waratahs in a re-match, but few doubted the black-jerseyed Kiwis would win again.

    The New Zealand Times correspondent who accompanied the team wrote: “They were a tattered lot of wrecks as they hobbled into the hotel on their return to Sydney from Bathurst and Orange.”

    The Bulletin added that the “Maorilanders” had, in addition to playing football, “eaten, drunk, and knocked about considerably during the week.” In a complete form reversal NSW flogged the New Zealanders 22-8.

    The public’s mood though soon began to change. Some was due to a growing social conservatism and rise of temperance groups (particularly against alcohol), but the public were also sensing that the irregular habits of players was causing “wretched form” in some teams, leading to questionable match results.

    “Strange to say conduct ‘off’ usually reacts on conduct ‘on’ and vice-versa,” wrote one rugby columnist. “A team that plays a good sportsmanlike game will usually behave like sportsmen when not on the field, and a rowdy mob will seldom do much good in their matches.”

    The change in sentiment was also driven from within the code itself in the years after the birth of professional rugby league, as the 15-man game reinforced the principles of amateurism and the ideals of playing and behaving in a “gentlemanly spirit.”

    It was an ethos that served the code through the 20th century, and while there are plenty of examples to demonstrate the ‘paid amateur’ was commonplace, there is merit and underlying values in its message about being a gentleman.

    All football codes in Australia are now truly professional; club footballers are full-time and living a life that equates to being permanently ‘on tour’.

    Adding to the lethal cocktail, the 21st century has brought with it a veracious media willing to seize upon misdemeanors (proven or unproven) of professional footballers.

    Ironically, while at times the words and messages of rugby’s gentlemanly culture has often been lampooned, misunderstood, and even at times been followed superficially or little better than a convenient charade, it still nevertheless serves the 15-man code well in the professional era, providing core values that continue to underpin the game.

    When the second Lions tourists came to Australia in 1899, they were organised and captained by a Protestant church minister, Reverend Matthew Mullineux. The majority of the players were University men.

    During the tour Mullineux captained the rugby team on the Saturdays, and delivered a sermon from the pulpit at the town or city church on Sundays.

    No doubt Mullineux would have seen the folly of a society prepared to deign each generation of its footballers, cricketers and other sports stars the ‘role models’ for the public behaviour of its youth, while ignoring the actions and influences of film, music and other popular icons, and standing by in silence as the power and influence of school teachers, parents, churches, police and courts is eroded and devolved.

    Such a society is doomed to be disappointed… repeatedly.

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