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The rugby league club graveyard: The first casualties (Part 1)

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Roar Guru
6th December, 2021
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When the (Redcliffe) Dolphins join the competition in 2023, they will become the 34th club since 1908 to play in the various iterations of what we now know as the NRL.

So with 17 clubs competing in 2023, that means that the other 17 have come and gone, and that seems like a pretty high mortality rate.

What happened to these now departed clubs that were once integral to the competition, won premierships, had hosts of fanatical supporters, produced many great players, and had visions of rugby league glory?

In this series of articles, we’ll have a brief look at the clubs that have come and gone in the last 113 years. Who were they, what happened to them, who were their best players, what legacy did they leave behind, and what did they achieve?

With so many defunct teams to get through, we’ll work through them in the chronological order in which they departed the competition. Today, Central Cumberland and Newcastle.

Central Cumberland
Central Cumberland entered the competition in 1908 and departed in the same year.

By way of background, the fledgling rugby league competition of 1908 looked nothing like the multi-million dollar corporate beast that we see today, being largely managed on the run, with the sole aim of establishing a viable alternative to rugby union, in which players could earn some money from the game. Gate receipts were the primary source of revenue.

For those of you not familiar with where Cumberland was in 1908, think Parramatta, although it actually covered a pretty broad area in the western suburbs of Sydney. It was essentially a rural based area rather than the densely populated suburban sprawl we see today.

In reality, Cumberland was the first expansion club, and curiously didn’t join the inaugural competition until after the 1908 season’s first competition round had been completed. Round 1 was completed on Monday 20 April 1908, and the meeting to form the club was held the next day at the Horse and Jockey Hotel on Parramatta Road at Homebush.

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They were also almost part of the first merger, resisting pressure to join in with the Western Suburbs club rather than strike out on their own.

The Cumberland team was largely comprising disaffected players from the Western Suburbs Rugby Union Club, who were keen to make the switch to rugby league, but had earlier rejected an offer to join the fledgling Western Suburbs Rugby League Club.

Before Cumberland could join the competition however, they were first required to prove their mettle in a trial match against Eastern Suburbs. Only then were they accepted, playing their first ever game in the Round 2 clash against South Sydney on Saturday ninth of May at the Sydney Showground, a game won by Souths 23-8.

This game was also the curtain raiser to an international match between Australia and NZ, and was accordingly played in front of a 20,000-plus crowd. What a way to start!

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The 1908 competition only consisted of 10 rounds, with each team receiving a bye, and Cumberland ended up playing just eight games after their delayed start, with their only victory coming against Western Suburbs in Round 8 when they won 14-6.

By the end of the year though, the early season’s enthusiasm had waned significantly, and they struggled to field a team, even having to borrow two players from opponents North Sydney in their last ever game which they lost 45-0. What a way to finish! The club subsequently disbanded and were gone.

There were few statistical highlights in Cumberland’s brief history. They played eight games, losing seven; they were the inaugural holders of the wooden spoon; their top point scorer was captain and fullback Harry Bloomfield with 19 points; while front rower Edward Bellamy was top try scorer with two tries, which also accounted for half of the total tries scored by the team.

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Some Cumberland fun facts
• They were known as the “fruit pickers”, a reference to the rural nature of the Cumberland area at the time.
• The club played in blue and gold hoops, colours also adopted by Parramatta when they joined the competition in 1947.

Newcastle Rebels
Newcastle entered the competition in 1908 and departed at the end of 1909.

After the formation of Sydney teams including Glebe, South Sydney and Balmain in January 1908, impetus for the formation of the NSWRFL competition was growing rapidly. On the back of this early success, meetings were then held in Newcastle to encourage their participation, and despite strong opposition from the local rugby union fraternity, players were recruited and the club was formed on 10 April 1908, less than two weeks before the competition commenced.

A very brief pre-season preparation indeed!

Newcastle ended up just out of the semi-finals in fifth place in 1908, finishing ahead of Balmain, Newtown, Western Suburbs and Cumberland, but performed much better the following season, finishing in third place before being knocked out in the semi-finals, losing 20-0 to South Sydney.

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Interestingly, Souths went on to win the premiership that year when Balmain were deemed to have forfeited in controversial circumstances.

The Newcastle Rebels demise came at the end of the 1909 season when the Hunter region formed its own rugby league competition to commence in 1910, resulting in many of the Rebels’ players departing to play with the four local foundation clubs. A brief foray into the big time, but a creditable one.

Some Newcastle fun facts
• They were sometimes referred to as the “Rebels”.
• They didn’t play any games in Newcastle in the 1908 season, and had just three home games in 1909.
• The club played in red and white hoops.
• Representative forward Stanley Carpenter was the club’s first captain, and also finished as the Rebels’ highest point scorer with 83 points.
• Representative winger Bill Bailey finished as the club’s highest try scorer with 17 tries from 15 matches, including three treble and a double.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at the teams who disappeared between the wars.

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