Super Rugby’s Cheetahs from South Africa play the Brumbies in Canberra this Saturday. It’s a long-forgotten fact, though, that 75 years ago a visit by South Africans to our federal capital was the catalyst for the re-birth of rugby in the Australian Capital Territory.
The 1937 Springboks, captained by Philip Nel, are revered in South African and international rugby history.
They defeated the Wallabies in two Tests at the Sydney Cricket Ground, before travelling across the Tasman Sea to confront the All Blacks.
The tourists recovered from a first Test loss to win the next two games and thus become the first – and still the only – Springboks side to achieve a Test series victory on New Zealand soil.
In their time in Australia the Springboks have done much to invigorate the ongoing revival of rugby across the country. In addition to the games against the Wallabies, they have played (and defeated) Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Newcastle, Orange, Toowoomba, Queensland Reds and an Australian XV (in Brisbane).
The South Africans’ only loss came via the New South Wales Waratahs in a dramatic 17-6 upset result. Played under torrential rain in Sydney the afternoon of the ‘Downing of the Boks’ came to be regarded by generations of NSW rugby fans as the state team’s greatest ever victory (an event that will be paid tribute to when the 2012 Waratahs host Super Rugby’s Bulls at the Sydney Football Stadium in Rd 12).
That this Waratah triumph remained venerated for so long is a measure of the high standing of the South African team at this time. A newspaper columnist wrote of the tour that the “Springboks provided a dazzling exhibition of penetrative power of match-winning backs, combined with the irresistible force of a pack of giant forwards who are finished footballers to their finger-tips”. The writer added that it was “an amazing display of co-ordination, faultless handling, and generally superlative rugby football.”
These Springboks impressed not merely because of their rugby superiority, but the manner in which they conducted themselves on and off the field. After the second Test win over the Wallabies, the Australian parliament issued an invitation to the Springboks management to have the team visit Canberra to attend a dinner to be given in their honour. The South Africans accepted.
Canberra in 1937 was finally emerging as a city and community in its own right. Formed just before World War One as a compromise location for Australia’s parliament and government offices (to placate Sydney and Melbourne political and social rivalries), Canberra was more construction workers and building sites in the 1920s than urban living (Parliament House, for example, wasn’t opened until 1927).
The Springboks were to play in Canberra against the Duntroon Military College’s XV, but the match fell through due to an outbreak of German measles amongst the cadets. The ‘College’ had taken up rugby in 1911, meeting teams from neighbouring NSW towns (including Queanbeyan) as well as sides formed by construction workers and public servants (the Federal City Club at Duntroon and ‘Survey Camp’ team in Canberra itself).
The history of rugby in the southern tablelands region of New South Wales (including the area that would become the ACT) stretches back into the 19th century. Despite the distance and having to travel by horse-drawn rigs or steam train through icy cold winters rugby teams from Hall, Braidwood, Bugendore, Queanbeyan, Goulburn and Cooma regularly met in battle.
After WW1 the military college was moved from Duntroon to Sydney and, as it was in most country areas, rugby was no longer played in the ACT. Both Australian rules and rugby league established permanent club competitions in Canberra in the mid-1920s, and soccer too was popular. In rugby league the greater attraction throughout regional cities and bush towns were knockout “cup matches” – in the ACT it was the Massy Cup, while the neighbouring Maher Cup gained fame far and wide.
The military college returned to Duntroon in 1936, and with it came the first stirrings of a revival of playing rugby under the amateur ideal. The Duntroon team were soon joined by sides from the Canberra Grammar School and the Canberra University College.
At the same time there was a rising disgruntled group, in the ACT at least, who publicly detested the influence of “cup fever” upon the community and rugby league as a purely sporting pursuit. They primarily loathed how spectators conducted themselves and the effect of drinking and gambling on family, church and business. The win-at-all costs attitude of coaches and players hinted to suspicions that match results were sometimes “fixed” by bookies, aided by willing assistants from within the game.
To those aspiring for a higher sporting and social ideal the Springboks, as they journeyed across Australia’s cities, were the exemplars of what sport – particularly rugby football – was all about. The news that they were to come to Canberra was suddenly a beacon of light and hope to the malcontents, weary of the example (real or imagined) provided by cup-driven rugby league.
After touring about the city the South Africans gave a mid-afternoon exhibition training run on Manuka Oval. In the evening the civic dinner to honour the team’s was held at the Hotel Canberra.
With the function over a small group retired to the hotel’s card room, among them federal politicians, senior public servants, the Duntroon MC’s commandant, representatives of the Grammar School and the University College, NSWRU officials and local men interested in rugby.
By the end of the evening they had devised a plan to revive rugby, founded the Federal Capital Territory Rugby Union and elected its first officials.
The 1938 season opened with four teams competing for the donated “Dent Cup” in the inaugural club premiership – RMC Duntroon, University College, Eastern Suburbs and Northern Suburbs.
The opening round was held at Manuka Oval, launched by a short speech given by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.
The year also saw the Victorian state team play Duntroon and the New Zealand All Blacks defeat a combined Canberra representative side 57-5 at Manuka Oval.
Aptly perhaps for our nation’s capital, its football loyalties are divided amongst all four codes.