Okay, who's been cutting onions?
A few weeks ago AMD wrote a great article about the early history of determining the Sydney competition premiers, titled A forfeit, challengers and Bears premierships: How the rugby league grand final came to be.
With a few exceptions, most of the Sydney premierships in the first two decades were decided by a first-past-the-post system, with a final only required if the top two sides finished level on points.
However, that’s not to say that there still wasn’t plenty of sudden death footy played at the time, in the form of a post-season knockout tournament called the City Cup.
With the premiers often determined weeks before the end of the season and representative duties often claiming a number of top-line players from the final rounds, interest would tend to wane towards the back end of each season.
So in 1912, the City Cup was introduced, which initially ran from 1912 until 1925 and was held on various occasions up until 1959. The idea was that cup proceeds would be donated to charities and retired pioneers of the game.
Souths enjoyed the most success with four cup wins (1912, 1921, 1924 and 1925), Easts managed a three-peat from 1914-1916, while Wests (1918), Norths (1920) hoisted their first piece of silverware via the City Cup.
Here’s why we shouldn’t forget the role this tournament played in those formative years of the Sydney competition.
1. It was a pretty big deal
The Daily Telegraph, in its preview of the 1916 City Cup final between Easts and Glebe, described it as “a competition to which some attach more importance than the premiership”.
Around 20,000 were on hand to see Easts edge Glebe that day 18-15, almost three times as many as the 7,000 who were there to see that year’s hastily-convened midweek premiership final between Balmain and Souths.
The cup was by and large well-supported in its first decade and attendance figures for the finale would consistently range between 15,000 to 20,000, often eclipsing premiership final attendances in the years they were played.
The City Cup also produced some gripping contests, perhaps none more so than Glebe’s 10-8 defeat of Norths in the 1913 decider.
Five minutes into the second half Glebe winger Roy Norman regathered a bomb to touch down under the posts, the try awarded despite a hint of a knock on. Glebe supporters’ hearts would have skipped a beat, as Fritz Theiring mis-hit his conversion attempt from straight in front, the ball hitting the crossbar before tipping over for the extras.
The final quarter was hard-fought as the Dirty Reds, with Chris McKivatt leading from the front, fought off wave after wave of attacking raids from Norths; Claude Corbitt wrote in The Sun that “Men were mowed down like cornstalks in a cyclone.”
There were, however, some exceptions; the report of the 1919 final in The Referee read, “Western Suburbs Win City Cup: Very Drab Game.” This was perhaps down to the staggering number of penalties blown – 44 in total with 27 in the second half alone.
The City Cup was evidently a big deal to the fans too. The Sydney Sportsman reported that a Norths fans by the name of Charlie ‘Belubera,’ who, on seeing his team eliminated by Souths in the 1912 edition, “went straight home, kicked the family cat into the fireplace, and a youth who came to the door with a red and green jersey selling rabbits a little later never stopped running until he got home ‘The Count’ bounced him off the doorstep.”
That’s one unhappy fan.
2. Another asterisk year? The year of the two competitions
The term ‘asterisk year’ was bandied about a lot in 2020 when it was announced that the season would be shortened by six rounds due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that level of disruption pales in comparison to 1921, the year of Norths’ first premiership.
The season was reduced by nine rounds due to the Kangaroo tour. The second round of the competition became the City Cup, with competition points accrued for wins and no knock out fixtures until the semi-finals, which were contested by the top four sides.
With five players selected on the tour, Norths failed to win half of their City Cup outings and could only muster a draw with a University side that hadn’t won a match throughout the premiership. When Souths defeated Easts to claim the City Cup final 21-10, their now largely-forgotten success required them to play ten fixtures, two more than by Norths for their breakthrough premiership title that year.
Now I wouldn’t be so cruel as to begrudge long-suffering Norths fans of one of their titles, but should this Souths team (and 1937 Newtown for that matter, who also played more games for their City Cup title than Easts did for their premiership) perhaps deserve a little more recognition than they receive?
At least to the Shoremen’s credit they set the record straight a year later, winning both a full-length premiership and the City Cup.
3. Curious competition formats
Advocates of the ‘wildcard’ finals entry proposal could take some inspiration from the City Cup. Rugby league power brokers were hell-bent on maintaining interest in fixtures throughout the back end of the season, and got a tad creative in 1922.
Points accrued in the return round of fixtures counted for both the premiership and the City Cup, so that each team had something to play for even if they were slow out of the blocks.
The permutations were that although Norths and Glebe finished equal first on premiership points, Souths had the best of the second half of the season and as such were the highest qualifying side in the City Cup – not that this was much help, as they were no match in the semi-final for an in-form Norths outfit which had qualified third.
The following year Glebe placed a lowly sixth in the premiership, but owing to a more successful second half of the season qualified for the City Cup in fourth place, and managed to win through to that year’s final. Such was the league’s penchant for tinkering with the City Cup that from 1920 onward the tournament format changed almost every year.
4. Ahead of its (extra) time
We probably tend to think of a drawn decider determined by extra time as a more recent innovation, but the 1920 City Cup provides the first instance of this occurring in the Sydney comp. An earlier drawn grand final in 1910 between Newtown and Souths had used the countback method to award Newtown the premiership.
The 1920 finale saw Norths and Wests locked at 7-all when the referee called “no-side” (what we’d call ‘full-time’ today) and ordered an extra 10 minutes each way.
A full-strength Norths side, starring Duncan Thompson, Cec Blinkhorn and Harold Horder, found something extra in the tank. Blinkhorn threw the final pass for a try to break the deadlock for Norths in extra time, eventually winning 14-7.
Extra time was also used in the 1923 City Cup final between Balmain and that plucky Glebe side which had snuck through from sixth position.
Owing to the warm September weather, the final was scheduled for a later start time of 1545, but the earlier fixtures ran over schedule meaning the final had to be shortened to 60 minutes. Balmain and Glebe were locked at 5-5 at full-time and extra time ensued.
Balmain then ran riot over their opponents. Spurred on by a brilliant try to Charles ‘Chook’ Fraser which involved him leaping high to rein in his own bomb, Balmain notched a quick-fire 20 points in extra time to run out 25-5 winners.
5. The arrival of a champion
It was in the inaugural City Cup in 1912 that one of the greats of the game, Harold Horder, shot to stardom. An 18-year-old Horder had already set tongues wagging after scoring a stunning 90-metre solo try on debut for Souths in the final round of the premiership where he beat one after another of Glebe’s defenders en route to the line.
A week later Souths came up against the Dally Messenger-led Easts, who had only lost one game all season in claiming the premiership. Horder was instrumental in Souths’ 21-10 upset, scoring a try and kicking six goals in a 15-point haul.
The following week he managed another spectacular solo effort at the death to help a tiring South Sydney side overcome a three-point deficit to eliminate Norths.
Such was Horder’s standing that by the final against premiership runners-up Glebe, he was able to persuade the Souths selection panel to pick his brother, Clarrie, to partner him in the centres.
This was an audacious move to say the least, as Clarrie had never even played first grade up until that point.
With the focus on Harold, Clarrie found plenty of space to show his prowess, demonstrating his strength to touch down for the opening score.
The pair would prove a handful throughout a contest which would see Souths turn a slight 3-2 halftime advantage into a 30-5 rout to lift the first City Cup. Harold Horder would go on to claim four City Cup titles with Souths and Norths, more than any other player.
6. Feel a bit better about your own team’s misfortunes
Spare a thought for the misery Glebe supporters had to endure. In 14 City Cup finals, the Dirty Reds qualified for seven of them, finishing runners-up no less than on six occasions, to go with four runners-up placings in the premiership.
After losing the City Cup final in 1915 and 1916, Glebe supporters must have thought they were due for some luck. But things were about to go horribly pearshaped: the entire first grade squad was suspended on the eve of the first round of the cup.
The NSWRFL had handed Glebe’s Dan Davies a life ban deeming him to have taken the field as an ineligible player during a match earlier in the season. Glebe’s first grade side had gone on strike in protest, resulting in all players involved receiving a ban (but later repealed) until 1919. Glebe cobbled together a severely weakened side for the cup but were bundled out in the first round.
Glebe also had the misfortune of being both the first and the last cup runners-up before it was decided that a top-four finals series would be used to determine the Sydney Premiership, with the City Cup subsequently axed at the end of the 1925 season.
The City Cup would eventually re-emerge in midweek and pre-season formats such as the Amco Cup and the Panasonic Cup in later years, but it would never again quite hold the significant position it once had on the rugby league calendar.
Some City Cup facts
• The premiership and City Cup double proved decidedly difficult, with only Balmain (1917), Norths (1922) and Souths (1925) managing the feat.
• Of those three sides, Balmain probably did it the toughest. They lost star halfback Arthur Holloway to a dislocated shoulder in their first-round victory over Easts. His replacement was George Robinson, who measured a mere five foot and had one game of first grade experience. He managed to guide Balmain to a 14-9 win over Souths in the final
• After finishing the 1924 season with the wooden spoon, University surprised everyone in the City Cup by reaching the final against Souths, eventually going down 23-2. In a six-round City Cup, the students also managed a convincing win over premiers Balmain, 26-7
• Newtown recorded the biggest winning margin for any Sydney rugby league final in 1937, defeating premiers Easts, who were missing a number of regulars, 57-5