Forum Sevens: The Origins Of The
New South Wales Rugby League

A majority of Rugby League fans would probably identify the sport's Australian origins as 1908. Yet, 1907 is arguably an equally important date in Australian RL history. It was the year when the New South Wales Rugby League was formed, presided over its first games and began to plan the Premiership competition which was to evolve into today's NRL. This post outlines the story of those events.

By early 1900s, although a majority of players were unpaid, payments to leading players was a well established principle in Sydney rugby. As an unnamed club official told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1907, "..we've had professionalism in Sydney football for years. All the club officials know it. The [NSW Rugby] Union knows it, but they can't prove it, and to save trouble they don't try too much." However, discontent was stirring amongst the unpaid players; and the "professionals" were disgruntled over the perceived inadequacy of their payments. Stars such as Newtown's Harry Hamill might command 30 shillings for an international game, covering the match and training sessions, but the majority of paid players - even most junior clubs had at least one - received much less. With the general wage in Sydney at that time being about 50 shillings per week, the players thought they deserved more consideration, especially those who suffered financially through lost wages or through serious injury for which they had to pay their own medical bills, as happened to Alec Burdon, more than once; in 1904 he broke a shoulder playing against England and the NSW Ruby Union denied him any compensation.

Player dissatisfaction seems to have intensified after the 1905 All Blacks tour of Great Britain. Despite a profit of nearly ?10,000, the Kiwis had difficulty raising ?10 between them for their fare home. According to tradition George Smith, the All Blacks' winger, stopped off on the way home in 1906 and discussed with some leading figures in Sydney rugby the relatively generous wages paid by some Northern Union clubs. Certainly the All Blacks' tour emphasised the commercial possibilities of rugby and seems to have acted as a catalyst for change in both NZ and Australia. In March 1907, Albert Baskerville announced a professional All Black tour of England. About that time also, reports were circulating that some Sydney entrepreneurs were considering establishing three or four professional teams to play games between major Australian cities; and there were constant rumours of a NU style breakaway by Sydney's senior clubs.

Out if this murmur of dissent, the first significant step towards establishing a professional alternative to the NSWRU emerged in July when the famous cricketer Victor Trumper, James Giltinan, a commercial traveller, Harry Hoyle, the Labour politician and others, including Alec Burden, met to discuss the possibilities of professional rugby in Sydney. They held a further meeting on 8 August, at Bateman's Crystal Hotel, attended by about 50 Sydney-based advocates of professional rugby, when they agreed to form a NSW Rugby League, with Hoyle as president, Trumper as treasurer and Giltinan as secretary. The NSWRL agreed that it would: play three matches against Baskerville?s professional All Blacks; explore the possibilities of an Australian tour to England to play Northern Union sides in 1908; and consider establishing a domestic competition in 1908. The fledgling organisation immediately started successfully recruiting top players for the NSWRL-Baskerville series, the main capture being Dally Messenger, RU's biggest star.

By 1907 NU football had evolved into a game recognisable as today's Rugby League, but the NU rule books from England did not arrive in time so NSWRL played the Professional All Blacks under union rules. (Incidentally, Messenger so impressed that Baskerville took him on the GB tour, where Messenger played for NZ thus becoming Australian RL?s first RL export.) The matches were sufficiently successful to encourage the NSWRL to press ahead throughout the summer of 1907-08 with recruiting the top Sydney players for a professional tournament for the 1908 season, to be played under NU rules, the first known game under which in Australia was played on 21st March 1908:a trial between Souths Possibles and Souths Probables. By 20 April, 8 new clubs were in place to launch the season: Glebe; Newtown; South Sydney; Balmain; Eastern Suburbs; Western Suburbs; North Sydney and Newcastle. The first steps had been taken on a journey which was eventually to arrive at today?s NRL.

Sources Fagan, S., Pro Rugby Arrives In Sydney. Collins, T. Rugby's Great Split, Cass, London, 1998.

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