Forum Sevens:
The 1909 Rugby League "Wallabies"

At the start of the 1909 season, the New South Wales Rugby League was losing the battle with the NSW Rugby Union for footballing supremacy in Sydney; yet by the end of 1910 RL was firmly established as the dominant code. This post recounts how a Wallabies v Kangaroos series played a crucial role in tipping the balance decisively in favour of the 13-a-side game.

With the exception of international matches, crowds were disappointingly low for the inaugural NSWRL Premiership competition in 1908. Although 20,000 watched Souths v Cumberland, played as a curtain raiser to Australia v New Zealand Maoris, typical gates for the premiership were only about 3,000. [1] In fact, the play-offs were introduced as an attempt to generate interest and much needed revenue. [2]

During 1909 the position worsened. Many of the 1908-09 Kangaroos signed for Northern Union clubs and the NSWRL did not have sufficient finance to attract any replacement talent from Rugby Union. Typical gates fell to about 1850 and by mid-season the NSWRL's financial position was so bad that the Premiership final was postponed until after two Australia v New Zealand Maori tests and the completion of what can be regarded as either a desperate gamble or a brilliantly conceived plan: a three match series between the Kangaroos and the Wallabies. [3]

Some time in the middle of the 1909 season, the NSWRL persuaded James Joynton Smith, a Sydney entrepreneur, to underwrite the cost of a three match Wallabies v Kangaroos series to be played under Rugby League rules, over seven days. [4] Given the then widespread dissatisfaction amongst Union players with their low match payments from the wealthy NSWRU, with such financial backing NSWRL officials were able to easily recruit the best of union's talent for the venture. Although the RL players involved were played little, some of the RU players earned up to three or four years salary. The highest paid was said to be half-back Chris McKivat, who reportedly received between ?150 and ?200. At that time, ?2 a week was considered good money for a RL player. [4]

The Kangaroos won the first match 23-20 before an 18,000 crowd at the Sydney Showground. Evidently the Wallabies learnt the game quickly: they won the next two, 34-21 and 15-6. However, the second game was played on a Wednesday and drew only 3,000 spectators; consequently, the NSWRL was unable to meet its obligations to Joynton Smith so, to avert financial ruin, a fourth match was hurriedly arranged. In an attempt it increase its attractiveness, the fourth Wallabies v Kangaroos game was made the main attraction of a double-header with the Premiership final between Souths and Balmain, which was downgraded to a supporting fixture. [5]

The gate that afternoon was a disappointing 4,000 but it was enough to enable the NSWRL to meet their financial obligations to Joynton Smith and survive into another, uncertain season. However, the NSWRU unwittingly came to rescue. Defying all common sense or logic, they banned for life all the players who had taken part in the Wallabies v Kangaroos series. At a stroke the NSWRU had excluded from their game the majority of its best players, who either retired or moved to RL, perhaps most notably McKivat, who went to Glebe and captained the outstanding 1911-12 Kangaroos in England. From 1910 dozens of other players followed their example and also switched codes. By 1919 RU in Australia had collapsed almost entirely, a blow from which it was not to recover significantly until the 1990s.

With the increase in quality players and the decrease in competition from RU, the NSWRL began to prosper. Typical premiership gates rose inexorably from the nadir of 1909 to 2, 000 in 1910, 3,000 in 1911 and 4,750 in 1912. This increasing popularity was greatly aided by the 1910 British Lions, who came budgeting to lose ?1,000 but drew massive crowds - over 140,000 for three international games in Sydney and 18,000 for a test at Brisbane - and made a handsome profit for both themselves and their hosts. It is surely one of the great ironies of sporting history that a major reason for the NSWRL's success in becoming the premier football code in Sydney was the vengeful stupidity of the NSWRU.

Sources: [1] the typical gates given in this post are median values derived from rleague's partial match attendance data.




[5] This was the occasion of the infamous forfeited final, for which see:

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