Australian Rugby History -



Rugby in the Colony of New South Wales

Sean Fagan

Jas 'Bunty' McMahon
Jas 'Bunty' McMahon - played for New South Wales and Randwick during the late 1880s and 1890s.
: The Rugby Rebellion

Conducting its inaugural meeting in 1865, the Sydney Football Club holds the honour of being Australia's first rugby club.

The first 'inter-club' match took place between Sydney F.C. and a team placed in the field by the Australian Cricket Club. Held in Sydney's Hyde Park on June 17, 1865, Sydney F.C. were victors by one goal to nil.

Two months later, students at the University of Sydney are recorded playing matches against each other, seemingly in preparation for a match against Sydney F.C. held on August 19.

It has been thought that University formed a football club in 1863 or '64, however, it is now clear there is no evidence to support this. Newspaper reports record no matches amongst the University students or inter-club matches until after the arrival of Sydney F.C. in the winter of 1865. This appears to be supported by comments made by Richard Teece in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1907, where he recalls taking part in the formation of Sydney's first rugby club '42 years ago'. He was referring to the Sydney F.C. team.

In any event, none of the matches were held entirely under the rules of Rugby School. In the 1860s the laws of 'football' were in a state of flux, with local variations in existence throughout the British Empire and the USA. Many clubs and players simply relied upon the interpretations of others as to what the rules were. It was not until the formation of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) in 1871 that clubs began to align themselves with a defined set of rules.

In Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, a set of local rules had been adopted in 1858 (based on a mix of rugby, soccer and other English and local variations). In 1866 a move to introduce 'Victorian rules' (later called Australian rules) to Sydney appears to have caused a rift between the clubs. It ultimately only left the University club, and a team placed in the field by the Military and Civil Cricket Club, playing any football at all (which was primarily rugby).

All the matches at this time were played on the University Oval and were umpired by John Jackson Calvert. Calvert was well versed in the various forms of football in England, particularly the rules of the Rugby school. He had attended Oxford University and his father was a professor at Cambridge University. Calvert was a well known man in Sydney, he was a member of the NSW parliament and one of the colony's cricket selectors for matches against Victoria.

Inter-club football practically disappeared over the late 1860s, with only a handful matches played between the University, a new Sydney F.C. and teams from visiting English naval ships, some of which were played on the city's Domain grounds.

The largest obstacles to growth in the sport were a lack of grounds on which football could be played, and a lack of common agreement on what form of football rules ought to be observed. The Wallaroo F.C. was formed in 1870 to play "according to the rugby rules" by William 'Monty' Arnold with his older brother Richard, who (apparently) had been a student at Rugby school in England.

New gentlemen's clubs and private schools followed including the King's School, playing on the Parramatta Domain, along with St. Leonards, Lyndhurst College, Camden College, Sydney Grammar School, Waratah F.C., Newington College and a handful of others. The increase in interest in rugby was primarily in the rapidly growing private schools, under the guidance of schoolmasters who had come from England. It coincided with the population of Sydney increasing by almost half through the 1860s, from 96,000 to just under 138,000 (in 1871).

Having football played under the patronage of the schools also provided a solution to the problem of the lack of playing fields in Sydney. Credit must also be given to the leaders of the Wallaroos, who negotiated with the City Council and gained agreement for the use of Moore Park fields, within which the Sydney Cricket Ground now stands.

Along with the private schools, the Wallaroo club was also instrumental in ensuring the amateur ideals of refined English society were followed in Sydney sport. Concepts in rugby such as a club competition structure, defined player positions, team training sessions (other than for fitness), the use of a coach, compensating for lost travelling expenses and attracting paying crowds were directly foreign to the amateur ideal.

Arguments over the differences in the playing rules followed by each club or school reached a head by 1874. The Wallaroo club proposed a football conference of all teams to decide on a codified set of on-field rules - unsurprisingly the Wallaroo members pushed for the adoption of rugby rules, without any alteration. Ultimately, this led to the formation of the Southern Rugby Football Union (later renamed as the New South Wales Rugby Union / NSWRU).

By 1877 the SRFU had thirteen member clubs from the twenty-three known to be playing rugby football in colony of New South Wales. To tighten its grip on the rugby game, the Union adopted a rule that its clubs could only play other member clubs - proposed matches against 'non-subscribing' clubs had to receive prior approval.

The NSW team (later called Waratahs) played its first inter-colonial game in 1882, against Queensland (later called 'The Reds'). A British team toured Australia and New Zealand in 1888. The exchange of visits led to the continued growth of rugby, and by the 1890s the code had taken hold in the colony, thwarting attempts by Victorian rules and soccer to gain the ascendancy.

Sean Fagan,
The Rugby Rebellion
Thomas Hickie, They Ran With The Ball
The Sydney Morning Herald

NSWRU / ARU archives
Keyword related: NSW Waratahs Rugby

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