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The Decline of Brisbane Community Culture - An Oral History Perspective

Paper presented to Oral History Association Of Queensland, November 2002
by Dr Greg Mallory
Tom Brock Scholar 2001

Introduction In 2001 I was awarded the Tom Brock Scholarship awarded as part of the Tom Brock Bequest given to the Australian Society of Sports Historians (ASSH) and administered through the Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of New South Wales. The scholarship has enabled me to continue on my work on a social history of the Brisbane Rugby League, a project that I began a few years earlier, I proceeded to interview former leading identities of this competition, including players, referees, and commentators.

Interviewees:
George Lovejoy - 4BH Rugby League caller
Henry Albert - flamboyant referee
Norm Pope - Valleys fullback
Marty Scanlan - Valleys 5/8
Peter Gallagher - Brothers front row
Brian Davies - Brothers front row
Barry Muir - Wests ½ back
Mick Crocker - Souths forward
Lionel Morgan - Wynnum-Manly winger
Fonda Metassa - Norths winger
Kevin Brasch - Brisbane Rugby League administrator
Edmund Scott - former Valleys & West player, grandson of one of the founders of the Brisbane Rugby League and author of a thesis on the formation of the BRL

Proposition: I am in the process of developing a proposition that the decline in the traditional Rugby League teams in Brisbane 'mirrored' the decline in community culture associated with these geographical areas that the clubs represented.

At the State Conference of the Oral History Association of Queensland I presented this position with certain evidence from oral testimony. I would briefly like to summarise my paper by way of reference to oral testimony, consider some theoretical aspects and briefly outline issues that need to be developed in order to write a social history of the Brisbane Rugby League.

A Brief History of the Brisbane Rugby League
The first club season of Rugby League began in Brisbane on 8 May 1909 with the founding clubs being North Brisbane, Toombul, Valley, South Brisbane and later on Milton. The matches were player at the Brisbane Cricket Ground and were under the control the Queensland Rugby Football League (QRFL and later QRL).1 In 1918 the Western suburbs club was stripped of its premiership points by the QRL for playing an unregistered Sydney player, Rickety Johnson. In response, Wests withdrew from the competition. This event was known as the 'Rickety Johnson ring-in' case and set in motion events that would bring about the formation of the Brisbane Rugby League (BRFL and later BRL) in 1922.

The issues that drove the 'breakaway' were the dictatorial attitude of the QRL and the lack of compensation for the players.2 The BRL grew in strength combating a QRL attempt to win back control in 1923-24.3 The original teams were Brothers, Carltons, University, Valley and the Grammars club was added the next season. District football was an issue that confronted the new administration and meant that the players had to reside in the club's district.

Two positive arguments were made for district football, one that firstly it provided a community base and secondly it made a more equitable competition.4 Brisbane was to be divided into Eastern Suburbs, South Brisbane, Western Suburbs, North Brisbane and Fortitude Valley. The Past Brothers club, by its very nature defied the district concept, however, proof was needed to show that the players had attended a Christian Brothers College.5

In 1933 district football became a reality when Carltons became Southern Suburbs, Coorparoo and Wynnum (formerly Wynnum Rugby Union) became Eastern Suburbs and Grammars became Northern Suburbs. According to Ryan the 'district scheme' introduced strict residential provisions for players and the BRFL hoped to ensure the true identity of the club teams by enforcing a 'local only' team makeup.6 Wynnum-Manly joined in 1952 and Redcliffe in 1960.7

Scott has argued that the ending of district football brought about the steady decline and loss of community support for the Brisbane clubs.8

References:

1 Max and Reet Howell, The Greatest Game Under the Sun: The History of Rugby League in Queensland, Brisbane: Leon Beddington for the Queensland Rugby League, 198? Pp. 19-20 and Ronald James Ryan "The History of Rugby League Football in America", A thesis presented to the Department of Physical Education, California State University, Long Beach, in partial fulfilment for the Degree of Master of Arts, December, 1978, p.69.

2 Edmund Scott, "Rugby League in Brisbane: From the Genesis to the Formation of the Brisbane Rugby League", Masters of Human Movement Studies (Qualifying); University of Queensland, 1990, pp. 47-51, and Howell, pp. 41-42.

3 Ryan, p.71. - 4 Scott, p.60. - 5 Ibid. - 6 Ryan, p. 73. - 7 Ibid. - 8 Scott, p.65.

Oral Testimony - Brisbane local communities:

Mick Crocker discusses the rivalry associated with different suburbs in Brisbane: "West End had the razor gangs, you come over here and you took a sheila out from West End you could expect to get slashed with a razor, don't worry about that. If you went over to Toowong, or up to Paddo, it was the same thing especially if you took a sheila out from up there. You had to be a good runner. Easts was the same. Thompson's Estate." (Mick Crocker, Brisbane, 2001)

Edmund Scott recalls an encounter associated with community culture when he was playing for Valleys in the 1960s. "I can remember being tackled by some bloke at Crosby Park and this 'clown' coming over the top of me and giving me one for my trouble and (this bloke) being attacked by a couple of women because they had hit one of their boys * so there was a strong (feeling), the Diehard, the Fortitude Valley boys, and the Paddington boys and the Stones Corner boys, they were part of a big community * and the local community came and saw them play football and supported them and barracked for them." (Edmund Scott, Brisbane, 1992)

Oral Testimony - Community support for local Rugby League teams

Marty Scanlan remembers the atmosphere in Fortitude Valley before Valleys played in a Grand Final. "Well for instance, grand final days I recall on the Saturday walking through the Valley, we all met at the Shamrock Hotel and marched down the middle of Brunswick Street up to the Valley Hotel which is now Dooleys. The police stopped all traffic. That was a big thrill in itself. The crowds of people, a lot of people used to do their shopping Saturday morning in those times, and this was about 10 / 10:30 in the morning and it was a real buzz to see all that support. They all had their coloured blue and white streamers. I can always recall Sandra (his wife) and, we used to do our shopping in the Valley on Saturday morning. Walking into the Woolworths, the BCC at the time, Brisbane Cash and Carry. You'd see the girls there, they'd have their blue jerseys on and someone would have the Norths jersey on, the opposition to you. It really gave a buzz around the place. They're just memories and you cherish them." (Marty Scanlan, Morayfield, 2001)

In Wynnum and Manly the local community used to support the teams in the street, pubs and at barbecues. Lionel Morgan describes the situation as such: "Yeah well the crowd was great, they supported you wholeheartedly, they came along but it wasn't only down here on the football field it was on the streets up there. People would come up and talk to you, they'd stop you in the street and get your autograph and have a talk to you and wish you all the best and really support you in what you were doing and lifting the Club. There was four or five players here that were top-line footballers and we used to go up on the terrace and sell raffles in front of McCarthy's Jewellers store on the terrace and we'd do an hour there and then pop down to the Manly Hotel and do an hour there and then we'd pop down to Fishers (pub) and do an hour there. The players were prepared to do it because they were getting the support from this area and they would give it back on the playing field and however they could meet the people on the streets. I don't think anyone turned away from you, it was just one big happy family. We used to have like a barbecue after the game and there'd be 100 or 200 people that would turn up for the barbecue, we had it at various areas." (Lionel Morgan, Wynnum, 2001)

However by the 1990s, support for local teams had declined dramatically with Brisbane having a team (Brisbane Broncos) in the national competition. Barry Muir describes this loss of community support as being a tragedy. "Well that is a tragedy, to be honest with you. There's no club identity at all now. If you don't follow the Broncos well who do you follow? That means you've got to follow a New South Wales side. I think I'm sure that's what McAuliffe didn't want to happen. But when they bought in the Queensland side into the NRL that was the end of the BRL, as far as that was concerned. It should never have happened because as it turned out, if we did lose players from Queensland to go to New South Wales we had the State of Origin. We've been winning the State of Origin, and you can imagine if we were keeping out players, the club competition would be just as good as what it was when I was playing. But that is a tragedy as far as I'm concerned is that the people miss that club identity." (Barry Muir, Coolangatta, 2001)

Theoretical concepts

Two sociological concepts need to be examined to give some explanation for the general decline in community involvement in local organisations. Firstly there is the issue of 'branding' which in Rugby League terms means we now support concepts like Broncos, Roosters, Panthers and not real community entities such as Valleys, Brothers, Wests.

Tim Baker makes this point in the Sydney context: "There was a time - yesterday it seems - when Rugby League was truly tribal... A time when your local club side came from Canterbury or Cronulla rather than some place called the Bulldogs or Sharks." (Tim Baker, Inside Sport, "The Lost Tribes", August 2002, p.68)

The other concept is "Bowling Alone", a concept developed by Robert Putman who argues that in the United States of America, in the past 20 years there has been a 10% increase in the number of people bowling but there has been a 40% decline in the number of people bowling in leagues (organised competition). If you enter a bowling alley in America you are likely to see people simply 'bowling alone'.

Putman examined a wide variety of community institutions in American society and discovered similar statistics. For example, union membership since the 1950s has halved and PTA membership has declined from 12 million to 7 million since the 1950s. Tim Baker describes this when he says: The current Bible of social capital theory is Bowling Alone by American sociologist Robert Putman, who makes the point that American society has become so disconnected, people's lives "time poor", they no longer bowl in leagues or clubs.

If you walk into a US bowling alley today, you'll see lots of people "bowling alone" because they don't have the time to take part in organised competitions. The demise of community-based sport represents a huge erosion of our social capital, in which public assets are taken over by private business interests for personal gain, rather than the common good. The result is a less connected society and real social costs. (Tim Baker, Inside Sport)

A Social History of the Brisbane Rugby League

I will list further issues that need to be examined that have arisen from the interviews in order to write a social history of the BRL:

Deskilling or re-skilling? - has Rugby League been deskilled in some of its traditions such as ball distribution or scrums or do we have a situation of re-skilling in the shape of some of the 'new' skills that players such as Andrew Johns possess?

Workload of players - Barry Muir states that in his time he had played 50 games in the season before he went on the Kangaroo tour. All representative players played a representative match for either Brisbane, Queensland or Australia on Saturday and backed up playing for their club on Sunday.

Bob Bax - all interviewees regard Bob Bax as the best coach Brisbane and Queensland has produced.

Shiftworkers League - a competition played at Hamilton and run by bookmakers and had many pub teams as well as the wharfies. Crowds of up to 10,000 people attended Grand Finals and players received more money in this competition (played on Sundays) then they did for their clubs. A piece of Brisbane's social history largely ignored.

Toughness - Rugby League was a brutal game with 'stiff-arms' 'part and parcel' of the game.

Fonda Metassa - one of the great personalities of the BRL. Known as the 'Golden Greek', the story relating to the ambulance is part of Brisbane Rugby League folklore.

Henry Albert - another great character, flamboyant and controversial referee who was never given a Test.

George Lovejoy - the voice of Rugby League in Brisbane. 4BH commentator who used the phrase "Rugby League football, the greatest game of all". Was banned from broadcasting in Ipswich and called the Bulimba Cup game from the roof of a house overlooking the ground.

Bulimba Cup - the competition between Brisbane, Ipswich and Toowoomba. Had passionate support, particularly from Ipswich when playing Brisbane.


Paper presented to Oral History Association of Queensland, November 2002 by Dr. Greg Mallory (Tom Brock Scholar 2001). Copy donated to this archive by the author.

 

 

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