Rabbitohs, Roosters: Electorate football foes

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    South Sydney are favourites to get over the Wests Tigers. (Digital Image by Grant Trouville © nrlphotos.com)

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    ‘Electorate football’ sounds like a euphemism for the humbugging of us by vote-seeking politicians; instead it is the scheme that gave birth to the Roosters-Rabbitohs rivalry over a century ago.

    Through the 1890s in the Sydney rugby scene club supporters and footballers from Redfern (‘Waratahs’ or ‘Norwoods’ clubs) and Paddington FC would each gather outside their favourite local landmark pub early Saturday afternoons, then proceed en masse, walking behind a raised large flag in their team colours bellowing out chants, songs and war cries, to the big match grounds at Moore Park.

    In early 1900 the NSWRU resolved to do away with all of the city’s existing rugby clubs (apart from Sydney University), replacing them with a ‘district club scheme’ that would divide the metropolitan area up into roughly equal parts of rugby-playing resources (i.e. players).

    It wasn’t a salary cap scheme, and players couldn’t be paid, but it was a socialist mechanism aiming to spread out the talent and have an even club competition.

    On the evening of 16 March the Union’s officials gathered at a city pub, armed themselves with a brew or tonic, and spread out before them on the table an electoral boundaries map of Sydney and its suburbs.

    After much debate, they settled on seven districts, using NSW government’s electorate boundaries to mark out each’s territory – depending upon which side of the road you lived, it alone decided your playing allegiance henceforth.

    Flout the rules, forget to remind mum or sister not to dry your football jersey within view of the neighbours or the street, and you could face a lengthy suspension and forced to front up to the right club’s training shed.

    It was here, under this new scheme, that for the first time that the words ‘South Sydney’ and ‘Eastern Suburbs’ entered the lexicon of Sydney football. Within days the new clubs were bestowed their now traditional colours of red and green (cardinal and myrtle), and the red, white and blue (tricolours).

    Eastern Suburbs – The whole of the electoral districts of Paddington, Woollahra, Waverley, and Randwick, King, Fitzroy and Bligh.
    South Sydney – The whole of the electorates of Redfern, Darlington, Waterloo, Newtown-Erskine, Botany, Flinders, Belmore, and Cook.
    [Source: “The Rugby Rebellion” by Sean Fagan]

    Rugby’s version of the Rabbitohs had become extinct by the time of WW1, but in 1905 they won the NSWRU’s first grade premiership.

    There was great excitement for a game early in the 1906 season when as defending premiers Souths were to meet an Easts team chock full of newly-promoted juniors – among them two bright, precocious young backs, Dally Messenger and Albert Rosenfeld.

    The crowd milling outside the newly built Sydney Sports Ground before the game, spilled across Driver Avenue into the Moore Park open fields, unable to get in as the gatekeepers couldn’t keep up.

    All of a sudden men from the back began to push forward, and in the ensuing crush the towering exit gates were burst inwards and open, letting tens of thousands pour into the ground for free.

    With over 25,000 present this Souths versus Easts encounter was the best-attended club rugby union match yet seen in Sydney, and outside of Shute Shield grand finals, seemingly still holds the record 107 years on.

    The Tricolours defeated Souths in a hot, fast and sometimes fierce contest 6–3. Messenger was the hero of the day, landing a booming 40-yard penalty goal to clinch the victory. For most Sydneysiders this was the day he first came to prominence and they read or heard his name.

    When rugby league began two years later, it copied (or ‘borrowed’ or ‘stole’) the NSWRU’s district club scheme of 1900 (without University). Souths and Easts continued in their established names and colours.

    These two neighbouring clubs were the first giants of the Sydney (today NRL) premiership. When the 35-man Kangaroos party was selected in August 1908 to visit England and Wales under manager James J. Giltinan, each supplied a third of the squad – the remaining third came from the other six Sydney clubs, plus Newcastle and Brisbane.

    The Kangaroos had sailed a week before the 1908 premiership decider, robbing the final game of its star power. South Sydney won a close contest over Easts 14-12 and were presented with the Royal Agricultural Society Challenge Shield – the first team to win three premierships in succession would become the permanent owners of the trophy.

    The Rabbitohs won again in 1909, and with three rounds remaining in 1910 seemed certain to complete the three-peat and claim the Shield.

    However, after spending most of the season staying out of club football and instead concentrating on rep games, Dally Messenger unexpectedly returned for Easts, and with two long range goals from halfway, carried his team to an 8-3 victory over Souths.

    The two premiership points not won that day ultimately saw Newtown awarded the 1910 competition title, and Souths had lost their chance to lock up the Agricultural Shield in Redfern.

    The dagger plunged into Souths by ‘Dally M’ continued to be twisted over the ensuing seasons, when he led Easts to three premiership titles in a row (1911-13). In gratitude the Easts club gave the Shield to Messenger, and in recent years his descendants passed it on the National Museum in Canberra.

    The Rabbitohs won the premiership again in 1914 and 1918 to move ahead of the Roosters tally, and have never been behind their east-side rivals again. The closest Easts have come was after their 1945 grand final win over Balmain, which left Souths on 11 titles, Roosters 9.

    While it is well known that Souths have been marooned on 20 since 1971, Easts (Sydney) have only won three premierships in the past 68 years.

    Over the seasons the NSWRL changed and moved the boundaries between the districts, and now at NRL level the lines that once divided Sydney’s clubs don’t count for anything at all really – except when the ‘friendly’ neighbours that are the Rabbitohs and Roosters meet.

    Just as it was long ago in the 1890s, when that happens, you better know what side of the street you’re from.


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