How 130 years of Waratahs, Reds rivalry kicked-off

Sean Fagan Roar Rookie

By Sean Fagan, Sean Fagan is a Roar Rookie

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    N.S.W Waratahs Benn Robinson scores a try despite pressure from the Queensland Reds Scott Higginbotham and Van Humphries during their Super Rugby match at ANZ Stadium, Sydney, Feb. 26, 2011. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins).

    The opening Waratahs vs Reds Super Rugby match of 2012 stands as a monument to 130 years of inter-state rugby rivalry.

    But if it weren’t for the shrewdness and persistence of two New South Wales rugby officials, 1882 could instead be remembered as the year Victorian rules became our national game as rugby slid away into extinction.

    These men were Monty Arnold – a man that early generations of rugby revered as the “father of rugby in Australia” – and Edmund Barton – a Sydney barrister who two decades later would be elected our nation’s first Prime Minister.

    Both were senior officials with the New South Wales Rugby Union (NSWRU; known then as the Southern Rugby Football Union).

    In Sydney the Victorian-born football code had gained a permanent presence with a number of clubs established in the early 1880s, but rugby had successfully kept itself as the dominant game. In Brisbane there were no rugby clubs at all.

    The Queensland Football Association (now AFLQ) oversaw football in south-east Queensland and, to placate a coterie of rugby supporters, allocated every fourth Saturday for the clubs in Brisbane and Ipswich to play rugby instead of Australian rules.

    Not all footballers were willing to risk playing the more dangerous rugby game, and there was no doubt as to which code was most popular in the northern colony.

    Through 1881 and into 1882 the Brisbane Football Club exchanged letters with the Wallaroo Rugby Club in Sydney, hoping to arrange a football tour to the NSW capital. The matter was handed to the NSWRU who appointed Arnold and Barton to pursue the project.

    Suggestions were made in both cities that both the NSW Rugby Union and Football Association should share the costs and profits of the visit, and that the teams should play matches under both codes. The QFA set up a committee to handle the negotiations. The NSWFA readily agreed with the proposal, bringing together the first meeting between NSW and Queensland in a game of “football”. It seemed as though this would be a mere formality.

    Arnold and Barton, however, were determined the visitors would not play Australian rules in Sydney, and would return to Brisbane as activists for rugby.

    On behalf of the NSWRU Arnold put a letter to the QFA committee, proposing that the NSWRU would pay the team’s entire tour expenses. Meanwhile Barton had made it clear to the Queenslanders that if they came to Sydney the city’s rugby clubs and supporters would show them such a good time they would never again think of playing Australian rules. One newspaper said “Nothing could be more liberal than the Rugby Union’s propositions.”

    The committee, with almost unseemly haste and without reference to the QFA, agreed. Australian rules had been gazumped.

    The decision caused an outrage amongst Australian rules supporters in both cities, igniting a war of words in newspapers, as well as at NSWFA, QFA and club meetings. It was insinuated by the QFA’s negotiating committee, which clandestinely comprised of men of “strong rugby tendencies”. That the deal had been done so quickly practically confirmed this suspicion.

    So a team of practically novice rugby players took the three-day steamship voyage from Brisbane to Sydney. In between the harbour cruises, beach picnics, smoke concerts, theatre outings and railway excursions, the Queensland team played matches against Sydney University, Wallaroo and Cumberland – the latter contest was held at Parramatta’s Elizabeth Farm, on a playing field “about as uneven a piece of ground as one could wish to fracture a collar-bone upon.”

    The two games against NSW were at the far more luxurious Sydney Cricket Ground, where, as one of the Queensland party wrote, “nothing is wanted in the way of comfort for either competitors in sports or spectators.”

    The match reports reveal a world of difference from rugby today. New South Welshmen were “Cornstalks”, Queenslanders “Bananalanders”. The home team wore dark blue jerseys, the visitors adorned in the red and black of the Brisbane FC. The teams had lunched “punctually” at noon, “no delicacies being allowed, and upon well prepared steak did we diet.”

    The players travelled from the city centre to Moore Park in four-horse carriages, with enough time to leisurely don their uniforms, then intermingle in front of the SCG pavilion with opponents in conversation and in “eyeing each other as it were.”

    The coin toss was made at 3pm, and it was agreed full-time would be called at 5pm. Halftime was five minutes, lemons provided for those that sought refreshment.

    There was not yet in rugby the penalty goal, no advantage rule, nor the idea of a whistle for the referee; the man in the middle instead raised a flag and used a stentorian voice as his law enforcement tools. Teams were 15 a-side, Queensland opted to reinforce their forwards by playing with nine in the pack in opposition to NSW’s eight. What we know as three-quarters they called half-backs, today’s half-backs were their quarter-backs.

    The match was to be won by the team that landed the most goals, whether drop-goals in play or place-kicked conversions. Tries were recorded in the result, but counted for nothing unless the teams tallied the same number of goals.

    Unsurprisingly NSW was troubled little in winning both games. They won the first by “four goals and four tries” to Queensland’s “one goal”. The Queenslanders had played with plenty of spirit though, and despite the lopsided result won much admiration.

    A large crowd had attended the first game, and in its match report the Australian Town and Country Journal surmised “there can be little doubt about the preference of the people of this colony. It is decidedly rugby.”

    As Barton had hoped, the well-banqueted Queenslanders had become enthusiastic missionaries for the rugby game. In 1883 Queensland not only hosted NSW in Brisbane, but produced a team that defeated the visitors.

    In its wake the “Northern Rugby Football Union” (QRU) was soon founded, and all agreed the exchange of visits should be an annual occurrence.

    Victories by the Queenslanders over NSW in 1885-87, and just one defeat between 1890 to 1893, boosted the prestige of the cross-border series and rugby’s popularity with players and spectators alike in both colonies.

    By the middle of the 1890s, apart from the towns in the southern reaches of NSW (being in closer proximity and influence with Melbourne than Sydney), Australian rules was no longer being played in the northern colonies.

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    The Crowd Says (29)

    • February 23rd 2012 @ 6:42am
      p.Tah said | February 23rd 2012 @ 6:42am | ! Report

      Very interesting Sean. It’s interesting that 130 years later the shoe is on the other foot for the ‘Victorian born football code’ as they move back into Queensland and NSW. They’re certainly persistent 🙂

      Out of interest, the games are vastly different these days. Were they distinctly different in the 1880s?

      • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:42am
        Sean Fagan said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:42am | ! Report

        @ p.Tah – reports of Aust football in 1880s still refer to presence of heavy scrimmages, on-side kick-offs, drop/place kicks far more the norm than the punt, not much hand-passing – in RU at that time the hand to hand passing and three-quarter lines were not yet innovations/common til the late 1880s, nor heeling the ball backwards in the scrum. In both codes only the goal counted (‘behinds’ and ‘tries’ recorded, but no value). Many players in Sydney, and we see above in Brisbane each 4th Saturday, swapped codes with little difficulty. In the early 1930s VFL & NSWRL were contemplating a merger, so you’d have to think in the 1880s they were not so different as games – on the other hand, there was aspects of each code that their opponents couldn’t stomach. Also see

        • February 23rd 2012 @ 3:41pm
          Chris of Vic said | February 23rd 2012 @ 3:41pm | ! Report


          My grandfather (now 92) played bush footy in the ’30s in NW Vic. He taught my brothers and me how to place kick and drop kick, the former still quite common for shots at goal in his playing days. Of course no mounds were built back then, you simply banged a hole in the ground with the heel of your boot to stand the ball in, stepped back a bit, ran in and kicked.

          I recently watched some footage of Aust. Rules on YouTube (where else do you find things now!!) from around that time and the player kicked both place and drop.

          I have also often argued with other family members and football supporters (any code) that the Aust Rules ‘behind’ and the Rugby ‘try’ were and are basically the same thing and were developed for the same purpose. But who cares about all this now, bring on the Ruby season!!!

          • February 23rd 2012 @ 4:17pm
            stabpass said | February 23rd 2012 @ 4:17pm | ! Report

            One of my first senior coaches was the great Syd Jackson, of Carlton fame, and a pioneer indigenous footballer in the VFL, although originally from WA, his drop kicks, and dare i say it stabpasses were legendary and absolutely fantastic, he could thread a drop kick 50 meters onto a leading players chest.

            We are talking about the early to mid 1980’s here.

            Connect the ball right, and you can get a extroadinary anount of distance with either a place kick or drop kick, usually much more than a ordinary drop punt or torpie.

          • February 23rd 2012 @ 4:54pm
            Sean Fagan said | February 23rd 2012 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

            @ Chris of Vic – reading some early 1900 reports is plain that the punt was the rarer of the three, and that older generations of players regarded the player who opted for the punt as “a novice”. As stabpass says if you know what you’re doing, a true drop kick can get you a lot accuracy with a long kick if you know what you’re doing. The place kick is still i nAFL rules isn’t it? Though I presume you migt called for time wasting if you tried it.

            • February 23rd 2012 @ 8:15pm
              Chris of Vic said | February 23rd 2012 @ 8:15pm | ! Report

              I agree fellas, a stabpass perfectly struck is definitely a lost skill & Aust Rules is the poorer for it. Watching games from the ’60’s & early ’70’s, the speed and accuracy with which those men could drop kick a ball is great to watch.

              As for the place kick Sean, I know more about Rugby rules and changes (or lack of) to them than I do about AFL rule changes these days, though I would expect, like the droppie, it has been outlawed at some stage. Mum ( the mad supporter that she is still can’t believe I’ve changed allegiances)

              • February 24th 2012 @ 3:17pm
                stabpass said | February 24th 2012 @ 3:17pm | ! Report

                Dropkicks are not outlawed, they just became a kick that is not used in the AFL due to the speed of the game, i have no doubt that it is used in bush comps etc, it is definetly used in super rules (over 35 comps), and much like a basketball 3 pointer, you receive 9 points for a drop kick goal in super rules ( or you used to ).

                Having said that a drop kick looks great when performed properly, even the best exponents of drop kicks make mistakes, and when they do, they are absolutely finger breaking mongrols to mark, or if they fly off the side of the boot they are extremely ugly kicks.

                % wise drop punts are the way to go, every coach will tell you that, Australian football is poorer for the loss of the drop kick, but coaches are their to win, and the infrequent use of the drop kick filtered back down to the grass roots.

        • Roar Guru

          February 23rd 2012 @ 11:47pm
          The Cattery said | February 23rd 2012 @ 11:47pm | ! Report

          The last person recorded to have done a place kick in an actual VFL game was Tony Ongarello of Fitzroy. He played as a forward from 1952 to 1962, and I recall reading that he is known to have last done a place kick during a game in 1957 (going off memory here). The Encyclopedia of AFL footballers merely says that he “wasn’t a reliable kick and even sought relief in the form of using place kicks in an attempt to improve his accuracy.”

          But in truth, the place kick had started dieing out by around the 1930s, certainly I have never seen an aussie rules footballer ever attempt one in my life, even in a muck around kick to kick.

          The drop kick started dieing out from around the late 1960s, early 1970s, and it’s demise was relatively swift considering great exponents of both the stab pass and drop kick flourished through most of the 1960s.

          By the time I started watching live footy, in 1973, aged 11, it was completely gone.

          I do have a memory of seeing Bernie “superboot” Quinland do a drop kick in a reserves game in that same year. He had been dropped to the reserves, and clearly took out his frustrations by bombing a few drop kicks – such was the rarity of it that it sticks in my memory to this day.

          In those days, Melbourne’s World of Sport used to run a kicking competition during the season, and Bernie Quinlan was a regular finalist, regularly doing torps and drop kicks to around the 85 metre mark.

          Even though the drop kick had disappeared by the time I started playing footy, I at least knew about the drop kick, we all did, and regularly practised it playing kick to kick, and I can still do a decent drop kick to this day, about to turn 50.

          The aussie rules drop kick is very different to the rugby drop kick, although in recent times, I’ve noticed that some players use an action that approximates the aussie rules action.

          The rugby drop kick is designed primarily for height (to clear the bar), and the swing of the leg is not too disimilar from a golf club swing.

          The aussie rules drop kick is the typical straight ahead motion, where you are attempting to put the laces straight through the meat of the ball. If you time it correctly, and connect sweetly, it feels like you haven’t touched anything, and the ball will go on a trajectory where it starts low, and rises quite slowly, but keeps going, and going, and absolutely punches its way through the air.

          Against the wind, no other kick can match a well executed drop kick.

          Why did it disappear? It’s strength is also it’s weakness, the fact that it stays low for so long (relatively speaking), means it’s more prone to getting smothered, furthermore, it has a longer drop, and requires a far steadier hand to execute, as the pace of the game quickened, it became a very risky kick.

          These days, players like Judd and Ablett are hitting targets at 50m while getting tackled – they’d never be able to do that if they were trying a drop kick mid-tackle, that extra split second of waiting for the ball to drop another 9 inches is a big difference in the modern game, and the drop kick is less forgiving if you can’t get good purchase.

    • February 23rd 2012 @ 8:47am
      formeropenside said | February 23rd 2012 @ 8:47am | ! Report

      If only AFL would just stay in Victoria and leave the rest of the world alone.

      • Roar Guru

        February 23rd 2012 @ 9:05am
        Redb said | February 23rd 2012 @ 9:05am | ! Report

        I suggest you lobby for the Rebels and Storm to leave Melbourne then.

        It seems both colonies had their preferences and powerful people who ensured their game prevailed.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 23rd 2012 @ 10:50am
      Ben Anderson said | February 23rd 2012 @ 10:50am | ! Report

      It is fascinating to read how the social history of a colony/state could have been completely different but for the actions of a few individuals.
      Rugby Union was the dominant code in WA in the late 19th century until students returning from boarding school in South Australia and Victorian miners in the Goldfields bought the indigenous code across the Nullarbor.

      • February 23rd 2012 @ 12:23pm
        Sean Fagan said | February 23rd 2012 @ 12:23pm | ! Report

        WA favoured rugby in the early 1880s but its economic and cultural connections with Adelaide and Melbourne over time saw a switch in favour of codes – certainly due to returning students, workers & businesses moving west – one of the biggest factors was simply that to stay with rugby meant that the prospect of ever meeting SA or Vic at ‘football’ was unlikely due to rules, and meeting NSW/QLD unlikely due to distance. The gold mining boom, that pulled many man from the eastern colonies & even NZ, led to both codes gaining a lot of support. Plenty on WA in late 1800s >

    • Columnist

      February 23rd 2012 @ 12:37pm
      Brett McKay said | February 23rd 2012 @ 12:37pm | ! Report

      Ha, can you imagine Jonathan Kaplan “raising a flag and using a stentorian voice as his law enforcement tools”, Sean?!?

      He’d be hoarse and have no blood left in one hand by “lemons”!! 😉

      • February 23rd 2012 @ 12:47pm
        Sean Fagan said | February 23rd 2012 @ 12:47pm | ! Report

        Ha! That would be something to see! For starters, you’d need to support of the two teams, or at every least the two captains, otherwise you’d just be ignored. It was easier in 1882 as there were no penalties, just making calls on whether a breach had occured and thus calling the game to stop for a contested scrum. Kaplan or any modern referee trying it out would be fun. Mind you, referees do tend to talk more these days than in recent past – coax players to behave instead of penalising. The yelling of referees in NRL games drives me insane. “Mooooooooooooooooooooove!”. Well, ANZ is built on the site of an abattoir – maybe I’m hearing ghosts not referees.

    • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:27pm
      The Great G Nepia said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:27pm | ! Report

      Fantastic article, thank you.

    • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:32pm
      Rabbi said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:32pm | ! Report

      Fascinating read. @Sean Fagan, do I recall correctly that the first touring English rugby team played a number of games under Australian rules? Also good evidence of the more widespread appeal of the footy codes across state boundaries is the black diamond cup in newcastle. A staunch rugby league area today, the black diamond cup is actually the oldest continuous afl comp in the country (or so I am told). Its very interesting to see how sports that are so divergent, parochial, and in some cases hostile to each other, were in the 1930s close enough to consider merging!

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      • February 23rd 2012 @ 7:36pm
        Sean Fagan said | February 23rd 2012 @ 7:36pm | ! Report

        @Rabbi – thanks for the comments. The Black Diamond is somewhat overstated. Aust rules in Newcastle, as in Sydney, went extinct in 1895. The game didn’t again obtain any permanency there until after WW2. The cup maybe old but there are enormous gaps in continuity.

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