This weekend, members of the Toowoomba rugby league community gather for a celebratory dinner marking the sport’s 100-year anniversary in the city.
There are countless incredible stories and so many special people who have contributed to the sport’s success in Toowoomba.
But what might your average NRL fan think of when the words “Toowoomba” and “rugby league” are put together?
In terms of players, surely first to mind is Steve Price, the most recent true-blue Toowoomba junior to scale state and international heights, and also the world’s best bloke to ever lace a pair of boots.
Supporters of a certain age might bring up Wayne Bennett’s connections, or mention the long career of John McDonald. Rohan Hancock is always cherished as the last player to represent Australia while playing in the bush.
More than a few casual rugby league observers have probably heard of the character-building years Johnathan Thurston spent in Toowoomba as a skinny teenager, before his career took off in Sydney. In the current NRL playing ranks, Toowoomba juniors Ash Taylor and Brodie Croft are still waiting for their careers to truly get going.
Go back a few years and Queensland-based rugby league fans will remember the Toowoomba Clydesdales, winners of the inaugural Queensland Cup and feeder team to the Broncos during the early 2000s. Further back, legendary tales are still told of the Bulimba Cup clashes between Toowoomba, Brisbane and Ipswich.
I’m afraid I don’t know what the average fan might think of Toowoomba rugby league. My view is subjective – I grew up in Toowoomba in a footy-mad family and have always been interested in the history of the game. Stories of Toowoomba rugby league have always caught my eye.
But there was always one story that piqued my interest more than others, a tale too good to true. It’s one that even your average rugby league fan might have heard of and one that passionate rugby league historians treasure to this day.
It’s the 1924/25 Toowoomba representative team. The first country team to defeat England and the champion Queensland team of the early 1920s, full of Queensland and Australian stars.
Their biggest claim to fame – the reason they rate so highly in the pantheon of rugby league’s great teams – is that for two seasons and 12 outings, they did not lose a game.
They defeated the best competitors of the rugby league world – England, New Zealand, Brisbane, Ipswich, New South Wales, Sydney champions the South Sydney Rabbitohs and even Victoria. They are regarded as one of the best teams ever.
The team from my hometown, once the best in the world. Imagine that.
Of course, it’s impossible to compare teams across eras. The 1920s version of rugby league is a distant ancestor compared to the game today. You can only really compare teams and players to their contemporaries and in that sense, Toowoomba was head and shoulders above the competition.
This Toowoomba team didn’t just win – they played impressive football, revolutionising the game with innovative new tactics and support play.
As well as filling the Queensland and Australian sides in these years, six members of the team – Tom Gorman, Vic Armbruster, Herb Steinohrt, Mick Madsen, Duncan Thompson and Dan Dempsey – were named among the 100 best players to play rugby league in the first century of the game in Australia.
Four players – Steinohrt, Thompson, Madsen and Gorman – were named in the Queensland’s Team of the Century in 2008. No modern salary cap could keep them together.
A champion team came together in the early 1920s Toowoomba, but their great success can be attributed to one of the sport’s true champions, the wily halfback Duncan Thompson. A visionary tactical genius who later coached Toowoomba to great success, Thompson’s remarkable life story was recently told by journalist Joel Gould.
Toowoomba’s world-beating achievements in 1924 and 1925 are even more extraordinary considering the uncertain beginnings of ruby league in the Darling Downs a decade earlier.
There were brawls, life bans, battles with rugby union and a world war to contend with, but like always rugby league prevailed. The full story is told in my recent documentary series Toowoomba on Top of the World on YouTube.
This year the Toowoomba Rugby League celebrates its 100-year anniversary. A century of triumphs, defeats, friendship and footy.
I can’t be sure what your comes to mind for the average NRL fan when thinking about Toowoomba rugby league. But I reckon the triumphant 1924/25 team should be somewhere near the top.