A History of Rugby in Victoria

researched & written by Ron Grainger

RUGBY UNION IN VICTORIA BETWEEN THE WARS (1919-39)

Within six short years the small but enthusiastic Union of 1908 was to become yet another casualty of the First World War, an event which ushered in twelve years of hibernation for the code in Victoria. The founding members of the present Union, which in 1926 arose from the ashes of a short lived post-war Rugby League, could hardly have been aware that they were soon to enter what has been called the Golden Age of Victorian Rugby, still less that within fifteen years yet another global conflict was to extinguish competition.

G.S.Sturtridge (capt) & C.McNeilage (v/capt) – Victorian Rugby team’s tour of NSW 1929.

G.S.Sturtridge (capt) & C.McNeilage (v/capt) – Victorian Rugby team’s tour of NSW 1929.

The Post War Scene

Given the enthusiasm which marked the rugby scene in Melbourne before the war, the seeming absence of any immediate post-war revival is difficult to account for [though, as in the early 1920s the code was extinct in Queensland and almost all of NSW outside of Sydney, perhaps it isn’t surprising]. No doubt a number of pre-war players arranged the odd friendly game but, except for a short-lived Union competition in 1921, comprised mainly of RAN personnel, there was little published reference to rugby being played in Melbourne.

One exceptional event in 1921 though was a ‘Victorian’ XV (again mostly Navy men) taking on the South Africans [1] at the MCG. It has been claimed that the Victorian team also included one player from each of the Kiwi and Melbourne clubs, but in the absence of any other reference to those clubs in existence I must presume that the two players were pre-war members and, as Mr Holden spoke in welcome ‘…on behalf of New South Wales players’, that a couple from that State were the two other team members, and not Navy personnel.

After the Victorian team was trounced by the Springboks 51-0, another five years were to pass with little mention of the Union game in Melbourne

The path to the game’s revival though came in an unexpected way. After two years a Rugby League (i.e. 13-a-side) body was formed in Melbourne and this, as indicated in the preamble, ultimately provided the basis for re-establishment of Union three years later.

The six clubs in that first year of League competition were St.Kilda, Kiwis, Melbourne University, RAAF, Melbourne and East Melbourne, the latter being replaced by Navy in the two following seasons. Playing club matches mainly at Middle Park they also embarked on some ambitious ventures at representative level but suffice it to say that not all these were rewarded with the success or support anticipated and this might well have been a contributing factor in the subsequent decision to adopt the Union code.

Return of the Union

At the Annual General Meeting, held early in February 1926 at the Middle Park Chalet, the League debated the question of switching codes. A number of factors must have influenced that debate; one, as stated in The Early Years, was the University’s inability to compete at inter-‘varsity level, another was that all players remained amateur. But by far the most important would have been the offer of the New Zealand Union to include Melbourne in the next All Blacks tour of Australia and the strong probability that conversion to Union would bring administrative and financial support from both the New Zealand and New South Wales Unions. In the event the decision to switch and to wind up the Victorian Rugby League was passed by a large majority.

Barely one month later Tom Fletcher [2] left Wellington for Melbourne, where he would assist in the organisation of the new competition and prepare for the All Blacks visit and, additionally, for matches against the NZ Maoris en route to Europe. Even before he arrived on 26 March the news of the newly formed Union had attracted a number of influential supporters, not least the Hon. Agar Wynne [3] as patron. A general meeting had been arranged for Tuesday, 30 March, again at the Chalet, where Fletcher would be introduced to members and outline his plans for establishing the competition and arranging for the impending visits.

As will be discussed later, one of the main concerns of the new Union was to secure an enclosed ground for their games and although the All Black and Maori matches (and most future representative games) were to be held within hired stadia, the inability to secure permanent rights to enclosed grounds for club competition remained an issue for many years. But for 1926 the All Blacks game was held at the Carlton Oval on 24 July and the Maoris at the MotorDrome on 31 July and 2 August.

Leading up to those representative games a number of practice matches were held in April and the first fixtures saw all six clubs compete on 1 May either at Princes Park or Middle Park and then, on Saturday 8 May, while Kiwis played Air Force at Middle Park ‘… a representative fifteen would journey to Wonthaggi’. The coal miners there had evidently ‘seen the light’ and had three teams playing. The answer to the question as to whether or not the expedition from Melbourne encouraged the locals to continue, and for how long, seems lost in the mists of time.

Back then to the Club competition which would finish with Navy winning the Dewar Shield after finishing just one point ahead of Kiwis. That local competition was not long underway before it was necessary to prepare for the arrival of the illustrious New Zealand visitors. A discreet veil is drawn over the purported ‘apathetic attitude’ to training by those selected for the State but in the end all clubs had one or more representatives in the team, with R.Lane of St Kilda as captain.

According to plan the All Blacks interrupted their tour of NSW on Wednesday 21 July to travel by train from Sydney to Melbourne where they were to remain for one week. After being suitably welcomed and entertained they were greeted by 14,000 spectators at the Carlton Oval on 24 July (Reserve; 4s, Grandstand; 2s Open area 1s.[$3.50]) where their 58-15 win was not unexpected, the visitors frequently winning the ball and spinning it out to either wing, notably to Billy Elvy, ‘a strong runner with a splendid side step and fend’ who scored five tries (then worth three points). Even so, the Victorian players had ‘…no cause to be ashamed of themselves‘.

On 31 July, three days after the All Blacks departed Melbourne the Maoris, en route to Great Britain and France, arrived on SS Narkunda and the next day, 31 July, fronted up at the MotorDrome against the same Victorian team (but a Melbourne XV according to Howell) before a crowd of well over 6,000. In heavy rain and on a muddy pitch the Maoris dominated the play, leaving Victoria scoreless (30-0) while scoring ten tries, but converting none.

Before reboarding the Narkunda to resume their journey on Tuesday 3 August the Maoris returned to the MotorDrome on the Monday where, in front of a much smaller crowd and against a Victorian team including a number of unnamed substitutes, they won 57-0. The home side, though hopelessly outclassed in most facets of the game took some small comfort from winning most of the set scrums.

A few weeks later Melbourne University travelled north to meet Sydney University in their first inter-‘varsity match for fifteen years. The teams (including VRU identities Yoffa and Blakemore) met at Sydney University Oval on Wednesday, 25 August and although the visitors were only a point down early in the second half they finished up losing 24-8. The result was not really unexpected as Sydney University had been outstanding in that year’s club competition and were probably saving themselves for their Premiership Final against Randwick only three days away at the Sydney Sports Ground. In fact that match, which they duly won, was preceded by a curtain raiser between Melbourne University and King’s School, that year’s GPS Premiers. who had won every game played. They maintained that record by defeating Melbourne University 36-0.

It was nevertheless a satisfactory first year; rudimentary as it was, two grades of club competition had been completed, two overseas teams had been hosted, a Referees’ Association had been formed, the University had resumed inter-‘varsity rugby matches and granted rugby a Full Blue, [4] affiliation with the Rugby Football Union (RFU) had been confirmed and, in addition, the Union was to start the following year with ₤244 [>$12,000] in the Bank.

Running In

During the next triennial the foundations were laid for the memorable years which followed. It saw an increase in clubs and teams which gave the depth necessary for re-establishment of an inter-state competition which in turn served as a proving ground for those aspiring to representation at national level. Those three years also gave the Union practical experience in administration and management and all in all served as a springboard for the progress achieved in the ‘Golden Years’ of Rugby.

1927

For this season only the A Grade competition was expanded by addition of Warship Melbourne and Old Boys [5] although the RAAF was not represented and not every team fronted for all thirteen rounds. Meanwhile, B Grade, comprised of three teams, University, St.Kilda and Melbourne, all competed over five rounds. Kiwis finished as A Grade premiers and University as B Grade premiers.  On 23 April a team from HMS Renown [6] met a Flinders Naval Depot team at the Amateur Sports Ground following a Seven-a-side knock out for all A Grade clubs – events of which I can find no further report. However, two weeks later, on Saturday 7 May, on the same ground, Victoria, fittingly with three players from the Navy club, beat the visiting ship’s team 29-0. Three months later, on Saturday 23 July, with only a third of that earlier team, but again with R.Lane as captain, met the New South Wales ‘Waratahs’ at the MotorDrome.

This was shortly before the Waratah’s left on their tour of Ceylon, Great Britain, France and Canada, later to contribute to some interesting rugby history [7]. But that was all in the future; at the time of their Melbourne match, played after they had ‘…just come off the Sydney train on to a ground that was a quagmire…’ ‘We received a great shock…’ said the NSW Manager, F.G.Shaw, after his team had trailed behind at half time. He added that he was ‘…delighted with the progress Rugby has made in Victoria…’ and although his team finally won 19-9 the crowd of some 2,000 might well have agreed with him.

On Monday 1 August, on Sydney University Oval, a Victorian team went down 19-13 to NSW. Two days later, on 3 August, with Lane again captain of substantially the same team Victoria played a Sydney Metropolitan team and lost 14-23. The only match which the NSWRU accorded State team status was that of 1 August and its real significance was that it marked a resumption of inter-state competition after a break of thirty-two years and, although arranged at some cost to the NSWRU, it demonstrated their faith in the future of Victorian rugby.

The final game for the Victorians was on Saturday 13 August at the St.Kilda Ground when, with only a few changes, the team played a visiting Japanese team from Waseda University. Smaller and slower than the locals the visiting students lost 57-19 but with congratulations on their sportsmanship. Waseda returned to the same ground on Tuesday 16 August where, despite better scrummaging against a combined Australian Universities team, they went down 35-14. [‘Representing Victoria‘]

The Combined Universities team which played Waseda University was made up of players who had been attending the inter-‘varsity match between Sydney and Melbourne Universities played the day before and in which the honours went to Sydney University. 21-15.

1928

In this year the club competition shrank slightly as A grade was without Old Boys and Warship Melbourne (which team had only played seven rounds in the previous year). Kiwis were again winners after playing all fourteen rounds, as had Navy, but with other teams missing one or two scheduled fixtures. All clubs entered in A Grade also competed in Reserve grade in which Navy finished as premiers.

A couple of brief extracts from match reports in the Age of 16 July 1928 are indicative of many others throughout the period; ‘Navy played a very sterling game, being much under strength and one man short .The play of the Varsity men, however, was the best that I have seen. Their men are only just finding form when it is too late for consideration for State honours.’
And;
‘On resuming St.Kilda pressed very solidly, and were rewarded with a penalty kick, which Lane took full advantage of to open their score. Kiwis 6 St.Kilda 3.’ At the final whistle Kiwis were victorious by 3 tries 9 points to 1 goal 1 try 6 points.’

The first inter-state game was played against NSW (whose squad included seven Waratahs) at Carlton on 21 July and while a final score of 23-19 in favour of the visitors is recorded in the Third Annual Report of the VRU the NSWRU and Press reports record it as 22-19 and a ‘…narrow victory’. (It is therefore that more favourable version which I show on page 3 of the Notes and is one example of the discrepancies which can occur in apparently authoritative documents). I could find no description of the match other than ‘exciting’.

Lane remained captain of this and all 1928 State teams but would be lost to Victoria from the next season along with three or four others. However, one that remained was the inspirational and elusive five-eighth Gordon Sturtridge, next year to succeed Lane as captain and the first player from Victoria to be selected to represent Australia.

With few changes and with Secretary Penwill as Manager the Victorian team left for NSW and a return match on Monday 6 August. The Sydney University Oval was evidently deep in mud and with heavy showers became muddier to the point that the referee had difficulty distinguishing the ‘blues’ from the ‘blacks’ sending at least one player off to rinse his face in a pool of water which had formed conveniently close to the touchline. Although the hosts included nine Waratahs Victoria were several times close to scoring and did well in defence with superb tackling which limited the home side to two tries and a final score of 14-0. Two days later the Victorians fronted a Metropolitan XV on a soggy pitch at Manly Oval and although down 13-10 at half time revived sufficiently to dominate the game with dribbling rushes by the forwards and pacy running by the backs, finishing as victors on 27-16.

The inter-‘varsity match was held on 15 August at the Weigall Memorial Ground in Rushcutters Bay but the Melbourne University team, led by Sturtridge, were restricted to scoring only two tries in their 34 – 6 defeat, reportedly failing to pass and ‘…time and time again were tackled in possession when their comrades were in a much better position…’

The final matches for both grades of the club competitions were played at Middle Park on Saturday 8 September and the Dewar Shield and various cups were presented at a Cinderella Ball held at Anzac House that same evening. Only one major event now remained before the end of the year and strangely it has only received moderate publicity. It was the match Victoria versus the All Blacks, held in Melbourne on Saturday, 29 September.

Getting the New Zealanders there had been expensive for the VRU as a shipping strike meant they had to meet the costs of the party travelling by train from Adelaide. The match was held at the Exhibition Oval where, on a fine day some 2,300 spectators had assembled to see the locals take on the New Zealanders who were on their way home from their long tour of South Africa (and for that reason included no Maoris). Five months before they had been entertained in Melbourne on their way out and now, on the return trip, were anxious to get home after playing this, the only match to be held in Australia. They soon dominated the play, scoring eleven tries to Victoria’s three and finished with a score line either 39 or 49 points clear of their hosts, depending which version one reads. On Monday 1 October the All Blacks, along with New Zealand and VRU officials, were entertained at lunch by General Motors and on the Friday left by train for Sydney from where they were able to catch the first available ship home.

1929

One response to the return to the Union by Victoria, and now by Queensland, was that the biennial tour of New Zealand by Sydney University was opened to others and three were selected from Melbourne University, although in the event only Nairn was available to join the team which departed on 17 May for what was now an Australian Universities tour

This was on the eve of the third round of home and away Senior or A Grade club competition games and shortly before many of the fixtures were to be played at the Exhibition Oval. Kiwis and Navy played all sixteen rounds, University and Melbourne fifteen and St. Kilda and newcomers Harlequins only thirteen. With the exception of Harlequins but the addition of Geelong the same clubs fielded teams in the Reserve or B Grade, Navy, Kiwis and St. Kilda playing all fourteen rounds, University thirteen, Geelong eight and Melbourne only two.

Kiwis lost no matches but drew two and were again the winners of the Dewar Shield while Navy, losing only one match in B Grade, were awarded the Cowan Cup. As might be expected, Kiwis had seven members selected for inter-state matches and seven in the team or as reserves for the Australian XV which played New Zealand in Melbourne in July.

Victoria played NSW three times in 1929 in fairly quick succession although the second game was against a NSW XV and not recognised as an inter-state match. The series kicked off in Sydney on 15 June and for the first time the Victorian’s included Denis (‘Dave’) Cowper of Melbourne and C. Moses and D. Bolten (reserve) from new club Harlequins. Their loss by 12 points in the first match was reduced to one of seven points in the second, played on 18 June and two days later they played Duntroon Military College and lost 12-6, playing one man short in the last ten minutes after Cowper, who had scored the first try, went off with a fractured collarbone. [‘Donning the State Jersey‘]

They had hardly set foot again in Victoria before a team from Hawkesbury Agricultural College arrived to play Kiwis at the Exhibition Ground on Saturday 22 June and University on Melbourne Grammar School ground on Monday 24 June. In an ‘attractive’ first game the visitors beat Kiwis 16-3 and in the second, ‘a robust, bustling game’ against University, before 600 spectators, a win of 25-13. Hawkesbury College was then in fact one of the strongest teams in NSW, being that year’s winner of the first Country Week title, and it would have been no disgrace to have gone down by such relatively small margins.

Early in August the NSW State team travelled down by a circuitous route and in a manner no longer possible to play the return inter-state match. Mid week they played the South Monaro Union at Bombala and from there travelled by car to board the Melbourne train at Orbost. After all that their hosts won 15-9 (or 16-9 according to NSW records) on 10 August.

On Saturday 13 July, and for the first time, an Australia XV played the All Blacks in Melbourne. Some 3,000 spectators gathered at the Exhibition Oval to see an Australian team with only six New South Welshmen, the captain Sturtridge and the remainder of the team all being Victorian players. Unfortunately the better handling and positional play by the All Blacks contrasted with a poor display in those departments by the Australians, who lost 25- 4.

Only one week later the second Test of the All Black’s tour was to be held at Brisbane and it is ironic that as Victorian born Cyril Towers, the renowned Waratah centre was unavailable, having had his nose broken in the first Test, his replacement was twenty-three year old Queensland born Victorian player Gordon Sturtridge. This was the first time a Victorian player had been selected to represent Australia and would herald the first of many appearances by Victorian players over the next decade (see page 3 of the Notes). The match was also memorable as the second win for Australia and was followed by the same result in the third for a clean sweep of the series.

On 26 August the inter-‘varsity match was held in Melbourne, Sydney University winning 26-14 while on some unspecified date the St Kilda and Melbourne clubs visited Ballarat to play an exhibition game, the only report of which was that a happy time was had by all but that the ‘…very inclement weather prevented good football.’

It had been an extremely busy year which had stretched Union finances and seen a greater reliance on gifts and donations and profits from social events such as dances at St. Kilda. At the same time, Victoria had proved its ability to participate in inter-state and international events and one indication of the recognition accorded the VRU was the appointment of Secretary Penwill as the first Victorian representative on the Australian Selection Committee.

It was a year which served as a good precursor of the glorious ‘thirties but before embarking on an account of that decade it is perhaps appropriate to briefly review the general rugby scene, after recalling that 1929 was the year of the ‘Wall Street Crash’ and the start of a global depression which by 1931 saw an unemployment rate of 20 per cent in Australia before the commencement of a slow recovery, barely complete before the outbreak of WWII.

 Off the Field

The Union had been fortunate in attracting a number of competent and dedicated officers and committee members and in retaining former League members, such as E.M. Cowan, who served as inaugural VRU President and held that office for eleven years, H.G.(Bert) Penwill, then President of Melbourne, who was Secretary for the first three, R.V.Blakemore of University and H.H.(Harry) Yoffa of University (later of Kiwis). These and others, by serving on the new Board, helped provide a smooth transition and were active in promoting expansion of the code. Penwill, then of the Melbourne club, in order to help foster the growth of the code, not only attended Harlequins first meeting in 1928 but joined them as a foundation member. R.Fraser Dodds, who succeeded Penwill for five years, went on to serve as Assistant Secretary and Selector and was ARFU Deputy Chairman when it was formed in 1949. Of other VRU officers, Lane, Blakemore and Yoffa were still playing for their clubs as well as at State and/or inter-‘varsity level in 1926 and 1927 and in Yoffa’s case until 1930, and this must have helped maintain closer links between players and administration.

Despite all their influence and skill the VRU found it extremely difficult to obtain the use of suitable grounds for Rugby. In a city dominated by ovals for ‘Rules’ football and cricket, purpose built rectangular pitches, enclosed or not, would have been as scarce as hen’s teeth. It was not until 1932 that Scotch College Headmaster Dr.W.S.Littlejohn ordered a ground to be prepared for the playing of Rugby, Soccer and Lacrosse and another thirty years before the VRU would obtain their long lease of the enclosed ground at Olympic Park 2, albeit within an oval greyhound race track, as the venue for the premier grade ‘match of the day’ and representative matches. That, let alone the present day stadium on the same site, would have seemed an impossible dream for the VRU officers who through most of the ‘thirties had to bargain with the Lands Department and Councils’ for short term tenure of assorted pitches.

The grounds for most club matches during the early part of this period were much the same as described in the Early Years; Middle Park, Flinders Naval Depot and University Oval, and for representative matches, enclosed grounds such as Carlton, the MCG and the MotorDrome (demolished late 1933 when it became Olympic Park Speedway – long before any thought of the 1956 Olympics) and adjoining Amateur Park. One ground no longer used for post-war rugby was the East Melbourne Cricket Ground at Jolimont but an additional venue for both club and representative matches which became available in 1928 was the Exhibition Oval. [‘Exhibition Oval Matches‘]

For the first few years the VRU agonised annually over securing two pitches at Middle Park and in 1928 was successful in securing another at Glen Iris, obtaining others elsewhere in time It was 1931 before six pitches were secured at Middle Park, where the VRU obtained change room facilities and installed ‘much appreciated’ hot showers’ and where in 1934 they acquired a building in what had by then become a centre for the code and a virtual home ground for several of the clubs. Gradually, as the number and size of clubs grew, they managed to obtain the use of grounds in their own localities. It was of course important for representative matches to be played on enclosed grounds where controlled entry facilitated the collection of money – the only other significant sources of revenue being affiliation and registration fees and donations. In 1928 some of the money raised was spent on new State jerseys, which it had been decided should be of Navy Blue with a sprig of Wattle blossom in gold on the left breast, guarded by a White V.[8] [‘Victorian Colours & Emblem 1929‘]

One outstanding difference from today was that coaching and coaches didn’t feature greatly in the rugby sporting news although a recognised functionary in rowing and cricket circles and in the form of school sports masters. From the late C19th fitness trainers were sometimes engaged but only on a short term basis. The first ‘official’ VRU mention was of D.Campbell (also on the 1929 Selection Committee) as responsible for training the State team ‘during the latter part of the season’. It was more usually the Team Manager who shared the ‘coaching’ honours with a ‘captain coach’ who in any case had the principal mentoring role; the captain traditionally being the sole arbiter of play once a match had commenced. An example from that time is Evan Jessep, captain coach of Kiwis in 1933 and of that year’s successful State team but who decided to concentrate on his own game in 1934 rather than coach again. A sign of changing attitudes closer to our own times was perhaps in 1934 when University coach F.H.Russell was congratulated on achieving the first Premiership for their First XV.

As might be expected newspaper references are spasmodic and no doubt depended as much on VRU volunteers willing to supply copy as on sports editors. Considering that rugby had only just returned to Melbourne it often received as much (comparative) coverage in the Herald, Age, Argus and (from 1930) the Sporting Globe as the other winter team sports; soccer, hockey, lacrosse, baseball, etc., all of course regarded as ‘minor’ in relation to the dominant Rules. There were even occasionally half-time scores in the Saturday evening editions of the 1926 Herald – anticipating the same day match reports in the pink pages of the Sporting Globe.

The Golden Years: 1930-1938

The ‘thirties have been described as the Golden Age of Victorian Rugby and certainly the next nine years deserve that accolade in terms of the growth in the number of clubs and teams, of Victorians selected as Wallabies and, with a few exceptions, the number of wins or narrow losses in representative matches.[9]

1930

The number of clubs competing in the A Grade competition which commenced on 3 May had increased from six to eight, Geelong having been promoted and RAAF rejoining after a four year break (an unfortunate reintroductory date for the airmen, nine of the team having to be on duty at the Point Cook aerial display). Melbourne and Navy were the only teams to complete the full sixteen rounds, the others missing out on one or two games. The Melbourne team took this year’s honours, only just ahead of University.

B Grade, which only played eleven rounds, increased from six to to seven teams, namely St.Kilda 1 and 2, Kiwis, Melbourne, University, Footscray [10] and Harlequins, with St.Kilda 1 finishing as premiers. A Seven-a-Side competition was also held on 5 June and the Final on 9 August and was won by University. To help promote the game more widely St Kilda and Kiwis travelled to Bendigo on Saturday 7 June to play an exhibition match as a curtain raiser to a local Rules match and on the following Monday, the King’s Birthday Holiday, a Metropolitan side played Navy at Frankston.

The inter-state match was set for 26 June at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) and the NSW selectors were reported to have chosen a team with no reserves so that the players would become accustomed to the conditions which would apply to matches against Great Britain, whose home Unions did not allow replacements. As Sturtridge was unavailable he was replaced as Victorian captain by half-back E Millwood of Navy. The team included outstanding State players such as Cowper and Nairn and, for the first time as full back, Berry Bick (then of St.Kilda) but they lost rather heavily in that match, partly making amends four days later when, after some hard defensive tackling and a more aggressive second half, they drew 24-24 with the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

The inter-‘varsity carnival was held in Sydney in early August with Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland Universities competing and finishing with honours equal, Sydney defeating Melbourne 19-6 but Melbourne defeating Queensland 16-11. They then combined on Wednesday August 13 to play the departing New Zealanders but lost 12-18.

The outstanding match of that year, Victoria v Great Britain, was to be held at season’s end, on Saturday 13 September at the MCG. It had been thirty-one years since Great Britain had played Victoria and in 1904 they had paused here only for a reception and dinner on their Australian and New Zealand tour. This time they were heading home after a three month tour of New Zealand, Queensland and New South Wales, and were now known as The Lions after being so dubbed on their previous tour of South Africa, six years earlier. [‘Rugby at the MCG‘]

The Argus reported that one of those playing, Lieut.A.Beyer, was an officer of the 32nd Battalion, and while he may well have been he was listed by the VRU as a member of the Navy club. The Lieutenant got a special mention because his Battalion formed the guard of honour for the Governor-General, Lord Stonehaven, before he and over 7,000 others settled down to watch the curtain raiser – a Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) team defeating a Metropolitan XV (by an unrecorded margin). It was then the turn of the main protagonists to be greeted by the Governor-General and then prepare for the kick off.[11]

The British Lions included players such as the (by then) eight times capped England back and top tour scorer Carl Aarvold as captain and fourteen times capped Welsh flanker Ivor Jones. Although, as the Sydney Morning Herald commented ‘…some of the visitors were obviously stale after their strenuous tour …’ ‘No one expected to see such a dashing display by a team drawn from six small clubs in Victoria, least of all was it thought that Victoria could score 36 points against the British international team which (had) defeated the famous All Blacks.’ – but only went on to win 41-36. All the Victorians played well and Cowper, who scored twice (both converted by the aforementioned Lieut. A. Beyer) was outstanding.

1931

Allowing for a change of name for Kiwis to Eastern Suburbs (until 1935) the only difference in First Grade was the addition of an elevated Footscray. And that despite the name change Eastern Suburbs became First Grade Premiers Similarly, except that Geelong replaced one of the St.Kilda teams, the same clubs fronted in the six team Second Grade competition while for the first time a Third Grade now appeared which included newcomers 37/52 Infantry Battalion [12] mentioned above, and teams from St Kilda, Geelong and Eastern Suburbs. Without comprehensive records it is impossible to be precise about competing teams, for instance an Essendon team appeared in Third Grade for this year only and some teams were involved for shorter periods, presumably depending on numbers available. To some extent this situation applied over several successive seasons On the grounds that the proposed date for the inter-state match, 5 September, was too late in the season, the VRU decided to cancel their projected visit to Sydney and thus the only rugby event of note held in Victoria outside the club competition, was the inter-‘varsity Carnival. Queensland University arrived first to play Melbourne on Wednesday 19 August and were beaten narrowly by the hosts 23-21 in a ‘fast and exciting game’. Then, on Friday 21 August Melbourne also beat Sydney 11-3. The carnival ended on Saturday 22 August deep in the churned up mud of the Albert Park ground where the combined universities played Victoria to an 11 all draw. (Note: New Zealand Universities had visited Australia in May for the biennial exchange tour but of Australian Universities played only Sydney).

Meanwhile, back in mid July the VRU had nominated four Victorian players for the trial match Australia v The Rest to be played at the SCG on 3 August; Dave Cowper (three-quarter) J.Taylor (half-back) A.Burns (lock) and O. Bridle (breakaway). Sturtridge was not available. All played in the trial match but only English born, twenty year old, 6’3” Bridle (Footscray) and Sydney born twenty-two year old Cowper (Melbourne) travelled to New Zealand where, after playing in all the preliminary matches , they earned their first caps, Bridle against the Maoris who were beaten 14-3 in Palmerston North on 9 September and Cowper against the All Blacks (who won 13-20) in Auckland three days later, Cowper distinguishing himself by scoring a try in his first Test. This Test was also notable as the first played for the Bledisloe Cup, donated by the Governor-General of New Zealand, and for the controversy over the NZ practice of using a ‘rover’ forward; this resulted in a change of the Laws by the IRB and thus the last occasion on which the All Blacks used a 2-3-2 scrum with the two man front row including ‘Ted’ Jessep, later to play for Victoria and Australia.

1932

In three short years Footscray had jumped from Second Grade to First and on Saturday 1 October were to take the Premiership from Minor Premiers Melbourne, also ahead of University, Eastern Suburbs, Navy, Geelong, St Kilda and Harlequins. This was the first year in which the VRU had adopted (at least for First Grade) the peculiarly Australian custom of a Finals Series. On the way there, Footscray and Melbourne had had to play a greatly increased number of twenty-four games, two or three more than any of the other teams. [13]

It should also be mentioned that there was another historical first; at least it can only be presumed from the acknowledgements and thanks conveyed by the VRU to 3KZ and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) that this was for the broadcast of Grand Final scores and/or comments. It was perhaps fortuitous that this was the year in which the ABC began public radio broadcasts and that Charles (later Sir Charles) Moses, English migrant and a founder member of Harlequins had joined the ABC several years earlier. (He had also of course been a State representative and was later General Manager of the Commission).

Except for Navy the same clubs were represented in Second Grade, but with the addition of a second University team and one from the 37/52 Battalion. Melbourne took the honours in that Grade as they did in Third Grade by finishing ahead of eight other teams from the same clubs (including another two from University) except that Power House [14] and Northern Suburbs were represented instead of Geelong and Harlequins. The two lower Grades also played an increased number of rounds (maximum eighteen) – about a third more than in previous years.

The greater number of teams and games requiring the VRU to lease a hall in Canterbury Place for changing rooms and to install a floodlight at Middle Park to assist with night training.

As the Notes show, the Northern Suburbs club (originally named Northcote)), along with 37/52 Battalion were, for whatever reason, only to last a few years. But they were an indication of the increasing attractions of the code throughout Melbourne and no doubt introduced a number of newcomers to the Union game At their foundation meeting the club had chosen colours of green and gold and by the start of the season had secured a ground on the old Fitzroy racecourse in Thornbury, racing having been finally banned there in 1931.

The Victorian team which played the inter-state match against NSW at the SCG on Saturday 21 May included Victoria’s three Wallabies; Sturtridge (captain), Cowper and Bridle and a soon to be one, E.E. (Weary) Dunlop, as well as seasoned representatives such as A. Beyer of Footscray, Charles Moses of Harlequins and W.Green of Geelong. Their narrow seven point loss would at least have been less if a wrong call had not been made by the referee, who allowed a try when a NSW player touched down beyond the dead ball line. The bitterly disappointed Victorians, adopting the sporting attitude customary in those times, refrained from making public comment.

Only four days later, at the inter-‘varsity carnival in Brisbane, Cowper, Sturtridge and Dunlop lined up with the Melbourne University team which was to be beaten 17-6 by Queensland University, and again by Sydney University 17-12 two days later. As Sydney was to also beat Queensland they finished overall winners.

In little over a month the three University representatives, together with Bridle, were engaged in the Test series against the All Blacks. Cowper, Sturtridge and Bridle were to play in all three; in Sydney on 2 July, in Brisbane on 16 July and in Sydney again, on 23 July. Although Australia only won the first Test it was the third which saw all four Victorian players involved, with Dunlop gaining his first cap at number eight alongside Bridle at breakaway. It was also the match in which Bridle and Cowper both scored a try and Cowper converted one. Ironically the All Black squad included one E. Jessep who had played in the first Test as the first man to hook on his own since New Zealand had adopted the three man front row. And it was on the return of the team to Wellington in early August that he announced he was soon to settle permanently in Melbourne.

Participation at national level resulted in Victoria receiving a moderate share of profits from international events. This in turn contributed to the eventual achievement of other VRU objectives, not least the establishment of a schoolboy rugby competition. To some extent this was anticipated in the latter part of the year when Scotch College and the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) played a curtain raiser to one of the matches at Middle Park and they, together with a number of other schools, namely Melbourne Grammar, Geelong Grammar, Melbourne University High, Geelong High and Geelong Technical School, organised matches between each other. It was notable that in this year University fielded five rugby teams but only two Rules teams and as the intended destination of many public school boys this greatly influenced the introduction of Union at their schools.

There is little doubt that one of the leading promoters of the schools rugby initiative was Dr. W. Littlejohn, Headmaster of Scotch College since 1904. Born in Scotland, where he played schoolboy rugby, he qualified and taught there before joining the staff of Nelson College, NZ where he became Principal in 1898 and remained until his appointment in 1904 as head of Scotch College. He oversaw many improvements at Scotch, including pre-war relocation from East Melbourne to Hawthorn and it was there in 1932 that he ordered the preparation of a rectangular pitch for the playing of rugby, soccer and lacrosse. Littlejohn was to be elected a VRU patron in 1933 but his untimely death in October of that year sadly prevented him from seeing all his plans for rugby reach fruition. Fortunately, his successor (1934-1953) was New Zealand born Dr.C.M. Gilray, an Oxford Blue and Scotland cap, reputed to have put the school chaplain to bed for a few days after using him to demonstrate the rugby tackle.

It is perhaps appropriate to conclude this summary of 1932 with extracts from two items in the Argus of that year, the first dated 18 June and the second 20 June. However much they reveal exaggerated sentiments about the sport, negative or positive, they give some indication of reactions to the growth of the game in Victoria at that time.

‘Fears that the introduction of Rugby Union football into public schools might seriously affect Australian football were expressed by delegates at a meeting of the League last night.’

‘Nine years ago a small group of Rugby football enthusiasts living in Melbourne decided to establish a competition….Today the game has gained ground to such an extent that nearly 30 teams participate in three separate grades…The players are now nearly all Victorian born and bred…’

1933

In order to complete arrangements for the Wallabies departure for South Africa activities got under way early in the year, a combined team playing HMAS Canberra on 2 April and, following a trial match on Saturday 22 April, selections were made for the Australia v Victoria match to be held at the MotorDrome on 2 May.

With both Victorian and Queensland Unions now firmly back on board, each had players selected for the 1933 tour of South Africa and the match which they played before leaving Melbourne resulted in a notable 12 -12 draw. While regarded by some as only an exhibition match the Sydney Morning Herald conceded that the Australian team was ‘…not in perfect condition.’ and that the first half was marred by‘…too much kicking and too little open play’. But all that changed in the second half and the 2,000 spectators ‘…were shown some very brilliant football’. Interestingly the three Victorians, Cowper, Sturtridge and Bridle played for the State in this match, as did a future Victorian Wallaby, E.M. Jessep and, although he didn’t make the printed programme, E.‘Weary’ Dunlop, who got a complimentary mention.

This tour was memorable, not only because it included three Victorians, but because Cowper was to become the first Victorian player to captain an Australian side and in fact to lead them to a record 21-6 win in the second Test in Durban. He and Sturtridge played in all five Tests and Bridle in the last three. And nothing more clearly distinguishes those times from the present than the fact that the Wallabies did not return to Melbourne and a Lord Mayor’s reception until 9 October – 159 days later – and with the local competition well and truly over.

Due to the demands of the representative programme the club competition, which commenced on 6 May, was only of fourteen rounds (fifteen for the two final contenders Navy and Melbourne), the two other grades playing only one or two rounds more, Thirteen of the fourteen affiliated clubs (Camberwell [15] playing friendly matches only) participated, fielding a total of twenty-eight teams. New clubs with teams in Second Grade were Northern Suburbs and Power House while University fielded two and new clubs with teams in Third Grade were Dandenong and Southern Suburbs while Melbourne fielded two. There was a break in these Pennant matches on Saturday 19 June when, two teams, City and Suburbs, competed at the MotorDrome as part of the Amateur Sports Carnival. The Finals for each Grade were held on successive Saturdays, 9, 16 and 23 September, a knock out seven a side also being held on the last of these. On the first Saturday Navy won the First Grade Premiership and thus finished ahead of Melbourne, Footscray, Eastern Suburbs, University, St.Kilda, Geelong and Harlequins.

The first inter-state match against New South Wales was held at the North Sydney Oval on 3 June where Victoria, captained by L.C.Gee, the five-eighth from Eastern Suburbs, went down by the narrow margin of three points in what was termed ‘…a thrilling match.’ Unfortunately it resulted in a number of injuries and two replacements were rushed up from Melbourne for the second, held at Manly Oval on the King’s Birthday Monday, 5 June. In this match the Victorians made rugby history by defeating NSW for the first time in forty years.

The South Australian Union had only been formed the previous year and had rapidly gained in strength and were anxious for involvement at inter-state level. The Victorian team, again captained by Gee, travelled at their own expense to arrive in Adelaide the day before the match, held at the Jubilee Oval on Saturday 22 July, and returned directly after the match. This was the first inter-state contest for their hosts, who performed well in trailing by only 3 points at half time and finally going down by only 2 points to a side which, according to the Adelaide Mail, showed ‘…more finish and a better knowledge of the finer points of the game.’

University had a busy year, first contributing seven players to the Australian Universities team which left Sydney for New Zealand on 12 May. Then in August they played four matches in the inter-‘varsity Carnival in Sydney (where Adelaide made its first appearance and there was also a Combined Universities v Metropolis match) and finished off the year with inter-collegiate matches in October. A brief footnote; the selectors for the Australian Universities side which left on 30 December to tour Japan originally included players from the five different mainland States, including Dunlop and Pearson from Melbourne University, both were unavailable and T.R.B. Courteney was the only representative from that institution.

A new sub-committee was convened in March to advance the introduction of rugby to State schools and by June the Age was able to report that for the first time in Victoria Rugby Union football was being played between two State schools (Oakleigh and Footscray). Those schools also had games with a Flemington Boy Scouts team and the VRU was so encouraged by this achievement that they planned for the future expansion of the programme throughout the metropolitan area with the assistance of the senior clubs. Along the way one humorous situation arose from the idea of giving the juniors a better idea of how the game was played by lining them up against a team of invited seniors at Middle Park in late September. It soon became apparent that the speed of the juniors was more than a match for the experience of the seniors and by half time they were leading 29-0 and managed to stay ahead at the end 32-13.

Meanwhile, due the enthusiasm of Dr Littlejohn, there was another first in public school rugby history when the Scots’ College (Sydney) accepted the invitation to play Scotch College in Melbourne in August and although the visitors won it was, surprisingly, a closely contested game. Also in 1933 Major General Brand headed the Rugby Supporters Association which was formed in order to provide financial and other aid to the Union; over several years they held a number of successful functions which resulted in significant contributions to VRU activities.

It was certainly a time for enthusiastic promotion of the code, there are several reports of the ‘first Rugby match ever played in the district’ when Navy met Footscray at the Essendon Cricket Ground on 9 September; this was the Final which gave Navy the Premiership.

1934

At the start of the competition VRU Secretary Dodds proudly claimed that, when the Juniors commenced later in the season there would be over fifty teams playing rugby. On 21 August the eight First Grade teams of 1933 were joined by one from Old Boys while in Second Grade the only change was a replacement of Northern Suburbs by Old Boys and in Third Grade St.Ignatius replaced Northern Suburbs. Although Melbourne kept two teams in Third Grade one was linked with Old Boys, a harbinger of the 1939 merger [15].

University took First Grade honours with Melbourne, the Minor Premiers, also Premiers in Second Grade. Dandenong in only its second year was Third Grade Premier. While the average number of rounds played in the three grades were respectively sixteen, twelve and nine there were other events in the annual programme such as a Seven-a-side competition – won by Footscray – and a Knock-Out competition, won by Power House.

The King’s Birthday Weekend was awash with inter-state rugby; on Saturday 2 June, while a NSW team was playing Queensland in Brisbane another was playing Victoria at the North Sydney Oval and on the holiday Monday 4 June, while Victoria played a NSW XV at Manly Oval another Victorian team was at the St Kilda Cricket Ground playing South Australia.

Led by J.L. Taylor, the Victorian team which played NSW were of an average age of twenty-four and included a number who had previously been selected for the State and/or Australia or were soon to become more prominent; for instance A.E Beyers, B. Bick, R.W. Dorr, E.E. Dunlop, O.L. Bridle, and E.E Jessep. Victoria led up till half-time but then their opponents gained the lead and, although A.L. Ward scored the last try of the match, bringing Victoria to within three points of NSW, the latter retained their narrow lead. On the Monday, against the NSW XV at Manly, Victoria helped salve wounded pride with a 14-6 win. [‘Weary Dunlop in Action‘]

On 4 June captain N. Wilson (Old Boys) led a slightly less illustrious State side on to the St. Kilda Cricket Ground where they faced South Australia, who early in the second half scored two tries to temporarily even the scores. The eventual 26-18 win to Victoria finished what had been a competitive game which had included some spectacular football.

While all this was going on University was in Tasmania to play several games over the weekend, having postponed until later in the month their scheduled fixture with Navy.

The State team for the return match against South Australia turned on some brilliant rugby at the Wayville Oval in Adelaide on 11 August despite only including two players from the first encounter and one (A.Beyer) from the team which had recently played NSW. Their captain of later fame was R.(Ron) Bolton, who scored one of the team’s nine tries.

That Saturday was also the day of the first Test against New Zealand in Sydney and the Australian team included Bridle, Dunlop and Jessep. Born in NSW, Evan Jessep the former All Black had, as already noted, decided to settle back in Australia in 1932 and now, at twenty-nine years of age, was to be capped as a Wallaby. The game at the SCG was to produce a magnificent 25-11 win for Australia including a Bridle try. And after the 3-3 draw in the second Test at the SCG on 25 August Australia now had its hands on the Bledisloe Cup.

In between the two Test matches Melbourne University had hosted the inter-‘varsity Rugby Carnival which for the first time included an Adelaide University team. Melbourne only lost by four points to Sydney and by a point to Queensland and Sydney finished overall winners. Dunlop, having captained the hosts wearing protection over a boxing damaged nose, decided not to further endanger it by fronting for the final game, on Saturday 18 August, in which a Combined Universities’ team defeated a Victorian XV 22-17 at Olympic Park; a loss in part compensated for by the profit the VRU made from the dance organised for the visitors.

It so happened that a curtain raiser to the Universities’ match at Olympic Park, ‘North of the Yarra’ v ‘South of the Yarra’ was one of several ‘exhibition’ games presented by Junior players (and so evenly matched that it was a nil all draw). It served to emphasise one of the most important achievements of the year, the formation in early June of the Victorian Junior Rugby Union with F.H. Cowper as President. It had then been expected that two teams of boys sixteen years and under from St. Ignatius, Footscray and Southern Suburbs would compete but by the time they were actually in competition it was for Under Fourteens and the Southern Suburbs had transmogrified into St. Kilda and Oakleigh and a Melbourne Juniors team had joined to make up the five. In the Junior Grand Final, played prior to that of the seniors on 29 September, St. Ignatius defeated St. Kilda 5-0, the same score to be registered later by University defeating Easts. Meanwhile, the Scots’ College (Sydney) had again been invited to play their Melbourne namesakes; this time they evidently overwhelmed the hosts to the extent that I could find no mention of a score but only a comment that the visitors ‘won comfortably.’

1935

This year Navy dropped out of First & Second Grade and Eastern Suburbs resumed its Kiwis name, otherwise there was no change in First Grade, now consisting of eight teams with Melbourne finishing as Premiers and Footscray as Minor Premiers.

A Reserve Grade had been introduced, also of eight teams; Power House (Premiers), Melbourne, Footscray, University, Geelong, Old Boys, St. Kilda and Kiwis while in Second Grade were Navy (Premiers), University Harlequins, Dandenong and Oakleigh (formerly Southern Suburbs) and in Third Grade Footscray (Premiers), Power House [two teams], Melbourne, St. Ignatius and University. The season opened on 4 May with the majority of the twenty-seven teams playing sixteen or seventeen rounds. A few weeks later it became apparent that the competitive spirit was exceeding acceptable bounds and severe warnings were sent to clubs concerning late and dangerous tackles, obstruction and illegal holding in the line out.

This was the year in which the Australian dispensation for kicking to touch was introduced, requiring the ball to bounce before crossing the touch line if kicked from outside the 25. After much experiment and discussion in the eastern States the NSWRU had been the first to adopt the change on 20 March and when the Victorian State team later arrived for the inter-state match they finally agreed to play according to the amended law.

That State team had retained around half of last year’s players but was this year captained by R.E.Westfield of Kiwis, previously NSW and Australia full back and captain of the 1933 Combined Universities team which had toured Japan. Their 17-14 winning score at the North Sydney Oval on 1 June came only in the last few minutes and after the points had been level three times. Bridle scored three tries and Westfield, after coming to grips with the new touch line kicks, was unfortunate enough to suffer a broken collar bone in the second half. Their win seemed a good prelude to the second match against a NSW Combined Country team at Manly Oval on Monday 3 June but the rugged countrymen were more than a match in the pack and in a high scoring game, despite three tries by T.C. West, they were defeated 23 – 17.

Meanwhile, back in Melbourne the South Australians had arrived to play a Victorian XV on the same King’s Birthday Monday at the Amateur Sports Ground. A. Sneddon of St. Kilda was the Victorian captain and while at half time the score was 8 all the Victorian forwards from then on kept the ball tight, preventing the visitors from scoring again while Victoria added to theirs to win 29-8, eleven of those points coming from the kicking of E. Laurie, the back from Old Boys. On the same weekend Melbourne University repeated last year’s Tasmanian tour after which barely a month remained before the next inter-‘varsity rugby carnival, this year for the first time in Adelaide. But before then was the Maoris visit to Melbourne.

The NZRFU had already reached agreement that they would play under international laws on the Maoris Australian visit so that there would be no concern about kicking out to touch on the full during the 3 August match at the Carlton Oval. The State team selected was probably the strongest yet seen, with Dr. (as he now was) E.E. Dunlop and six other current or soon to be Wallabies, again led by Westfield and (in deference to the visitors) turning out in white jerseys and shorts. Their formidable opponents were led by the legendary full back George Nepia who unfortunately was hampered by a wrenched leg muscle following an early tackle and had to retire late in the second half. Due largely to the Victorian forwards, who held their own in scrums and line-outs, the visitors were only ahead by four points at half time but their backs took over in the second half to register a 28-16 win. It had been a thrilling match, nothing like the drubbing handed out nine years earlier, and was watched by more than 15,000 people and (in between calling the Caulfield races) reported direct over Radio 3AR.

Just over two weeks later the Melbourne University team was in Adelaide, losing to Sydney University 35-18 on Tuesday 20 August but two days later defeating Adelaide University 27-17. The following weekend saw something different on the home front, all First Grade teams except Footscray competing in a Seven-a-side tournament at Middle Park on 24 August. This arrangement was in response to the absence of University players in Adelaide and the Footscray team in Sydney to play Drummoyne (with whom they drew).

At the same time Scotch College was also in Sydney to play their counterparts (the first time a ‘public’ school team from Melbourne had done so) while back at Middle Park the Junior Union held a trial game of Possibles v Probables in preparation for a match against Sydney High School, on 7 September. In the event the visitors won that game handsomely 49-3 and it was followed by a post match presentation of Junior trophies, Kiwis taking most of the honours for the Under 16 and Under 14 competitions with St. Ignatius close behind.

The venue for the 7 September Junior match is worth a mention; it was was played at Xavier College as a curtain raiser to the Seniors Finals (from which Footscray was eliminated by Melbourne) while the Second Semi Final the next Saturday (in which Kiwis defeated Old Boys) was held at Toorak Park. And just to complete these references to venues and the Senior Finals Series, the Final, played at the Amateur Sports Ground on 21 September, proved a thriller, with extra time required for the try which saw Melbourne defeat Kiwis 6-3.

1936

There were no less than twenty meetings of the Management Committee during this season, usually held at the Amateur Sports Club at 343 Little Collins Street. They had plenty on their agenda, with an increase of nine Senior teams in competition requiring the addition of a second storey on change room accommodation at Middle Park which increased floor space by two thirds but which in turn required an appeal to members for loans to meet the building cost of ₤260 [$21,500]. The Committee also obtained use of an unenclosed ground at Elsternwick Park in order to augment playing facilities. Fortunately revenue remained healthy, by virtue of donations and fund raising (not least from the Union’s first Annual Ball in October) and, having obtained use of the enclosed Amateur Sports Ground [16], were able to charge entry fees and have income almost match expenditure for the sixteen games played there.

There were now ten teams in First Grade, Navy and Power House being additions to last season’s complement. The number in Reserve Grade had also grown from eight to ten with Dandenong and Harlequins providing the additional teams while what had previously been called Second Grade was now called Third and comprised ten teams instead of five, the only teams remaining from the previous season being Oakleigh and University, now joined by a second team from University and by St. Ignatius, Footscray, Melbourne, Kiwis, St. Kilda and two teams from Power House.

The majority played eighteen rounds, the finalists being required to play an additional two games. (A third Saturday, 10 October, had been set aside for a Grand Final, ‘if necessary’, which in this case it wasn’t). The competition commenced on 2 May and continued each Saturday until 13 June when a Trial match was held to select the State team. Except for postponement of most sporting events, including rugby, on 4 July, due to incessant rain and flooding, normal fixtures continued until 5 September and on the following Saturday, 12 September, when what was to be the last Seven-a-Side tournament [17] for some time was held. The First Grade Finals series then commenced on 19 September and three weeks later Footscray (who had also won the Seven-a-Side) were Premiers while Power House took the honours in Reserve Grade and St Ignatius in the Third.

While no international teams visited Victoria during the year there was a busy inter-state and representative programme which included yet another ‘first’, an inter-state carnival, much along the lines of the inter-‘varsity carnival, which included matches between the three eastern states and was held in Sydney in early July. The opportunity would be taken to observe potential members of the Australian team to tour New Zealand and the Victorian team, under captain Dave Cowper was well supplied with suitably talented players. However, in their first match at the SCG on 4 July, playing one of the two NSW teams, they were extremely disappointing, being outplayed in all departments and losing 29-13 (or if the VRU record is preferred 29-16). On Wednesday 8 July the Victorians lined up at the North Sydney Oval to face Queensland – for the first time – and here a much closer tussle ensued, Queensland only scoring the winning try ten seconds before full time with the score at 18-17. On the final Saturday, 11 July, both NSW teams again won, the one at Paramatta Oval almost obliterating Victoria with a score of 42-3.

For the Victorians it was an extremely disappointing departure from recent form, only partially relieved by a State XV, led by B. Talbot and with none of the more illustrious State team players, defeating South Australia 11-9 at Norwood Oval in Adelaide on 18 July. One month later came yet another ‘first”. On Tuesday 18 August the first night match for the Union was held under lights at Olympic Park where the visiting NSW Fire Brigade, which included a few State players, took on a Victorian XV. Not to be outdone, the hosts included seven interstate men with G.Pearson as captain and Dr.E.E.Dunlop vice-captain. Nevertheless they went down 28-20.

The inter-‘varsity carnival was held in Brisbane in 1936 and in their match against a second string Sydney University side on Monday 24 August Melbourne University won 18-8 but when facing Queensland University on Friday 28 came off worst by 39-3. As Queensland University also beat Sydney they finished outright winners.

Meanwhile the Australian team which had left for New Zealand included two Victorians, Bridle and Dorr. Bridle was selected for all three Tests (two against the All Blacks and the third and final against the Maoris) while Dorr had to wait for his first cap against the Maoris. Victorian born, ‘Roo’ Dorr played for St. Kilda, and as a champion amateur sprinter was an exceptionally speedy wing even though, at twenty-six he was the oldest back in the touring party. The tourists lost the two All Blacks Tests on 5 and 12 September but Bridle scored a try in the second to contribute to the 13-38 score. Australia belatedly came good against the Maoris at Palmerston North on 23 September with a win of 31-6.

The Junior Union competition was this year augmented by two teams from Melbourne Technical College (RMIT from 1960) and the two grades, A and B, continued to play most competition matches at Middle Park as well as exhibition and trial matches. One of these was played on the King’s Birthday Holiday Monday, 29 June, (the new date following the death of King George V in January) when as a curtain raiser to Victoria v The Rest, Scotch College played a combined Junior Union team. Another match was played on 1 August, the Under 17’s against a combined Scotch College and RANC team and Under 15’s against a RANC team. These had been arranged to enable selections for a tour of NSW by two teams and it was a great disappointment to the boys and officials when the NSW PSAAA, who had organised the visit of the Sydney team to play a Junior Victorian side at Xavier the previous year, cancelled the tour at short notice. Scotch College fielded no less than six teams and also hosted King‘s School (Sydney) en route to England, King’s winning 11-8 on 24 August.

1937

While there is no record of the number of players registered with the VRU this was the year for the greatest number of teams which, despite the loss of two from Geelong, now totalled thirty. The Geelong club had been entered in the original draw but, on the eve of the competition starting on 17 April it became obvious that transportation difficulties, always a handicap, especially for their members not based near that city and for those having to travel between Melbourne and Geelong, had become an insurmountable problem and the club disaffiliated.

Air Force filled the vacancy left by Geelong in First Grade, there being no other change. In Reserve Grade the previous year’s teams were now joined by one each from Oakleigh, Air Force and St. Ignateus so that, despite the departure of Geelong, the Grade now comprised twelve teams and was divided into two sections, A and B, of six teams each. In Third Grade, without last year’s Melbourne team and the No.2 University team, the teams competing reduced from ten to eight. On average, the Reserve Grade teams played fifteen rounds in the season and the First and Third eighteen.

Fourteen of the major matches were played at the Amateur Sports Ground; and given that this central location was drawing increasing attendances (and gate money) the VRU arranged to retain it for alternate Saturdays and the finals in the following year. While Middle Park remained the most used, with no less than seven pitches leased for the season, club competition games were also played at Gardiner, Footscray, Royal Park, Oakleigh, Laverton and Dandenong.

A break in club fixtures in early June allowed for the matches Victoria v Combined Australian Universities and South Africa respectively. The first, on 5 June was the concluding event of the inter-‘varsity carnival in which hosts Melbourne had beaten Sydney and Adelaide and with Queensland and Sydney finished as joint winners of the Ashai Trophy [18] . For this match, held at the Amateur Sports Ground, Melbourne University players Cuming and Pearson were allowed to play for Victoria, who won by 17-6.

Two thirds of the Victorians selected for the Australian Universities match were also included in the team which fronted up at the Carlton Oval on the following Saturday, 12 June, to face the South Africans. They included Cuming and Pearson as well as six present or future Wallabies; Dorr, Hammon, Carpenter, Dunlop, Bisset and Barr as well as Blundell, soon to play for an Australian XV against the tourists. The remainder of the team were all seasoned players, four; Bick, Lancaster, Baker and Lang, all from Footscray, Wilson from Old Boys and Quinn from Air Force. But despite their experience and spirit they were overpowered by a strong side, including outstanding Springboks Daniel ‘Danie’ Craven at half-back, second row captain P.J.Nel and full-back Gerhart ‘Gerry’ Brand. It was a match with no replacements permitted and the Victorians, although well beaten at 45-11 pleased the 12,000 crowd with a determined effort, holding the visitors scoreless for 30 minutes in the second half while scoring a converted try. In the curtain raiser RANC beat Scotch College 5-0.

The first Test against South Africa was to be held in Sydney on 26 June and Dorr, Hammon and Lang were the three Victorian’s originally selected, although, for whatever reason Lang was not included in the final call. Hammon had to wait until the second Test for his one and only cap. Born in Invercargill, the twenty-three year old had played for Auckland before coming to Australia in 1934, playing centre for St. Kilda and Victoria before joining the Australian team. Dorr was only to pull on the white jersey [19] for the first Test, a grim struggle on a muddy SCG where, although the Wallabies made a creditable showing in the quagmire conditions, they went down 5-9.

As an intermediate fixture an Australian XV including two Victorians, Stan Bissett and Merve ‘Mo’ Blundell of Power House were selected to play the Springboks in Brisbane on 3 July. In the drier conditions the visitors opened up to deliver a 36-3 thrashing to a side which included five test players among whom captain Towers, after scoring all Australia’s points in the First Test, had an unusually ‘off’day. The second and last Test in which Hammon played was on 17 July again at the SCG; it was marred by some punching and barging and Victorian born Towers, recalled as captain for the series had the misfortune to have to retire early from his last Test after getting a severe cut on the forehead. Although his team was to rally sufficiently to score three tries they still went down by 26-17. Nevertheless, the tour had drawn big crowds and the VRU took a ₤750 share of tour profits.

Back at home the club competitions continued into early October with State team visits from Western Australia and South Australia sandwiched in between the club fixtures. The first of these was the first inter-state match to be held between Western Australia and Victoria and was held at the Amateur Sports Ground on Saturday 21 August. The visitors had planned a mid week practice match against a metropolitan team at Middle Park but had to cancel that due to training injuries to three of their nineteen player squad, including their captain McGann. They nevertheless led Victoria by 4 points to 3 at half time and, although going down 37-15 following the second term attacks of Victoria’s backs, it would have been by a larger margin had their hosts not failed to convert seven of their nine tries.

The opportunity was taken to rest some of the seasoned players who had represented the State against South Africa and to give previously untried individuals a run in the two inter-state matches, only seven of the former playing against Western Australia and three against South Australia, five of the Victorian team getting their first State cap against the latter on 18 September, again at the Amateur Sports Ground. On that day wind and rain conspired to make conditions difficult but the Victorians were better at handling the ball and, as the visitors tired in the second half, ran in seven of the their ten tries in 20 minutes.

While there had been no State match against New South Wales that year it was intended to play them again in 1938 and also to take on the new Federal Capital Territory Rugby Union (later ACTRU) which had been formed on 13 July. Consideration was also given to arranging triangular contests with Western Australia and South Australia, a precursor of the post-war Southern State’s Carnivals, an idea taken a step closer in 1939 by including Tasmanian representatives in trial matches, the Union in that State having been formed in 1933.

The next Saturday, 25 September, saw a resumption of the club competition with First Grade Semi-Finals held at the Amateur Sports ground where University and Kiwis were the winners, meeting on 2 October to decide who would face Footscray the following week. In the event it was University who returned to the same ground on 9 October but only to allow Footscray, which had already secured the Reserve and Third Grade Premierships, to make a clean sweep in all three Grades.

It was unfortunate that, in this otherwise productive year, the erstwhile burgeoning Junior Union had to abandon most activities due to an outbreak of Infantile Paralysis. Reports of new cases began around mid-year and within three months had increased to over three hundred, causing numerous schools to close and many junior sporting events to be cancelled. The epidemic did not begin to moderate until the second half of 1938 by which time several thousand cases had been reported. Structured junior rugby competitions were consequently deferred and in the end there was insufficient time left to restore them before the onset of war.

 1938

There was a great deal of pre-season news about players arriving or leaving or switching between clubs and some of that is worth recounting, even if only to reveal that it was of a scene not unfamiliar in more recent times. Perhaps most newsworthy was the report that Owen Bridle had played Australian Rules in 1937 with a junior team after training with the Footscray League club and having been disqualified by the VRU on that account successfully appealed for reinstatement as an amateur rugby player, after which he transferred to St.Kilda. The decision to reinstate him caused the Chairman of the Management Committee, A.Michaelis, to tender his resignation which he later withdrew after receiving a unanimous vote of confidence. More conventional were the reports of various arrivals from interstate and approvals of transfers for such State players as Trevor West (Old Boys) and ‘Max’ Carpenter and Lang (both Footscray ) all to Power House. And Footscray players who stated their intention to retire included captain Berry Bick along with fellow State player Lancaster. (Bick later decided to play on but Footscray and University had to replace a significant number of departed key players). On a brighter note St. Kilda was reported to have had sixty new recruits from all parts of Victoria and interstate at pre-season training, these included two schoolboy Rules players from Melbourne High and Geelong College.

Over these pre-season months the VRU was engaged in much disputation over the composition of the various Grades, reductions in the number of last years First Grade and proposals for sections being hotly debated and not finally resolved until a special meeting was held, barely three weeks before the start of the competition on 30 April. In the end the First Grade was to remain unchanged with ten teams while the Reserve Grade, with no Air Force or St.Ignatius, was reduced to ten. Eight teams remained in Third Grade but with the Footscray team out and Oakleigh entering a second. The average number of rounds played was nineteen in Firsts, twenty in Reserves and fifteen in Thirds, again with finalist contenders recorded as playing one or two extra rounds.

After only three weeks of First Grade matches these were suspended in order to consider the selections to be made for the State team to meet NSW in Sydney in June and a trial match was held at Middle Park on 21 May. Soon after that the inter-‘varsity carnival was held in Sydney (from 30 May to 4 June) where the hosts beat teams from Queensland, Adelaide and Melbourne Universities to be outright winners of the Asahi Trophy, the only victory for the Melbourne students being against Adelaide 18-12. The Australian Universities’ team which then played and beat a United Services [20] team 25-14 on Saturday 4 June was composed mostly of Sydney and Queensland University players but two forwards from Melbourne were included, State representative W. Morgan and G. Beckingsale.

On the next Saturday, 11 June, Hammon, now as five-eighth, led the Victorian State team, two thirds of which included State or Australian players, on to the North Sydney Oval. They were to lose there to one of the NSW teams by the narrow margin of two points. On Monday 13 June with only minor changes in the team the Victorians played their second match, this time at the Manly Oval. This was also rated by the NSWRU as a full inter-state match and was won by Victoria 23-14.

It was on the return trip from Sydney that the State team visited Canberra where on Wednesday 15 June the fledgling Union was represented by a team from the Royal Military College, playing at Manuka Oval rather than on the College ground. The Victorian team was much the same as that which had played NSW, and included Melbourne’s Lieut.M.F. Brogan, who two years previously had captained the College side. They won a close game 17-12.

The club competition was flexible enough to allow Footscray, on Saturday 16 July, at their home ground at Western Reserve, to take on a visiting team from Parramatta. The visitors dominated in the second half and won 13-8, despite losing two players to injury. A little over a week later the State team set off again, this time for the Union’s first visit to Perth where two matches against Western Australia had been arranged. They would be without Carpenter and Kerr (first caps) and Dorr (reserve) who had been selected for the first All Blacks Test in Sydney, just four days before their first match in Perth and two players from Reserve Grade Oakleigh were included..

In the Sydney Test on 23 July, winger MacQuarie ‘Max’ Carpenter, then twenty-seven, scored all the points (three penalty goals) for Australia but which the All Blacks won 24-9. Carpenter had been born in country NSW, played at Randwick, moved to Perth in 1930, then to Melbourne in 1936 and after two seasons with Footscray had transferred to Power House.

His Power House team mate Frederick Kerr, then twenty, was Melbourne born and according to Pollard was unfairly dropped from the following Tests along with eight others in a savage reaction to the their first Test loss. He added that the ‘… All Blacks considered Kerr the best forward they met on their tour.’

In Perth, Victoria were to be overwhelmed on Wednesday, 27 July at the Western Australia Cricket Ground (WACA) not making their first score until 30 minutes from the end and only holding an advantage in what is nowadays the forgotten art of dribbling. Only two changes were made for their second match, again at the WACA on Saturday, 30 July when the hosts still dominated but marginally less than in the first match, Hammon scoring most of Victoria’s fourteen points. [‘The Long Haul‘]

Brisbane was the location for the second All Blacks Test, held on Saturday 6 August at the Exhibition Ground where Carpenter not only scored two tries but converted one goal and kicked a penalty goal in a slightly narrower loss to Australia of 14-20. In that match his fellow Victorian was C.W.P. Lang, at thirty-nine surely one of the oldest first cap Wallabies ever. ‘Haggis’ Lang was born in Karachi, (then India), moved to Scotland as a child and later played for Bedford (England). After migrating to Australia he played for Footscray in 1936 and 1937 but transferred to Power House along with Carpenter in 1938. As a tough prop forward he evidently merited a second cap in the third and final Test held back in Sydney on Saturday 13 August. According to the VRU Dunstan had been selected as a reserve but doesn’t otherwise rate a mention.

There were a number of late changes to the Australian team for this last Test at the SCG and while Carpenter had been selected he could not take the field due to an attack, of influenza. This left Lang as the only Victorian representative to play in what was described as an unspectacular and rough game which ended with the All Blacks winning 14-6.

The spin doctors must have been active to achieve so many Press references to the match held in Adelaide on the following Saturday, 20 August, as an inter-state contest between State teams of South Australia and Victoria. The VRU Annual Report refers to it merely as a visit by a Power House team and a photograph of the game which appears in the Adelaide Advertiser of 22 August clearly shows players in that club’s colours. The South Australian XV, whatever their status, won by the narrow margin of 19-18.

The First Grade Final was played on 24 September, Power House defeating Footscray, which had fielded the strongest team over the last several years. It was not until 10 October that Harlequins were able to finally claim the Reserve Grade Premiership, the Third Grade having gone to Power House A (who defeated Power House B) back on 27 August. It is perhaps appropriate to here quote the ‘Quins Down Under’ reference to the ranking and draws for 1938 and 1939. The V.R.U. competition was rather confusing then (just as it is now) because our second team continued to play in the Reserve Grade of First Division, despite winning the Reserve Grade minor and major Premierships! Meanwhile our first team played in the First Grade of Second Division’.

Looking back on an eventful season the VRU noted that, although Junior Union activities had been curtailed, schoolboy rugby still got a few mentions, notably involving Scotch College; who had played curtain raisers against RANC, entertained a visiting Canberra Grammar School rugby team and played against a number of Third Grade teams.

Looking forward, the Union had contributed towards a fund to meet the expenses of the planned Australian tour of the ‘Home Countries’ in 1939/40 a venture which, in common with general attitudes of the time, discounted predictions of armed conflict in Europe after a year of political and military alarms and excursions. Along with the majority of the community they no doubt preferred to take comfort in the words of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who, six days after the VRU First Grade Final, had returned to London from negotiations with German Chancellor Hitler in Munich, declaring ‘…peace for our time.’

In the Shadow of War;1939

With the withdrawal of Dandenong and the merger of Old Boys and Melbourne, the number of affiliated clubs had been reduced from twelve to ten. In this less than perfect year the number of First Grade teams was reduced to eight. This recognised the amalgamation of Old Boys with Melbourne and the decision to relegate Harlequins (to which their previously quoted history refers). For the record, this left teams from Footscray, Navy, Kiwis, Air Force, St. Kilda, University, Power House and Melbourne.

In Reserve and Third Grades, while not all fronted all of the time, there were a maximum of twelve and eight teams respectively. In Reserve Grade were; Oakleigh, St. Kilda, Kiwis, University, Power House a & B, Melbourne, Air Force, Navy, Harlequins A & B, Footscray and in Third Grade; Kiwis, Power House A & B, St. Kilda, University A & B, Footscray and Melbourne. The competition commenced on 29 April and while official records of the rounds and results are not available Kiwis won the First Grade Premiership, Harlequins the Reserve and St.Kilda the Third.

Following the recent reversal to earlier inter-‘varsity carnivals Adelaide University hosted the event from 29 May to 3 June but had to rapidly redraw the match schedule when learning of Sydney’s withdrawal on the eve of the event. Melbourne went down narrowly to Adelaide and were scoreless against Queensland, the ultimate winners. On the Saturday at Unley Oval a team composed of players from the three universities beat a South Australian team 13-6.

And although the Junior Union had been unable to revive their competition Footscray and Essendon Technical Schools, Scotch College and the RANC arranged games between themselves during the winter term, an inter-school contest which was in fact to continue through the wartime years . [21]

Back on the Monday after the competition commenced a special VRU meeting had been called to agree the revised dates of 20 and 27 May for trial games to allow selection of a team from the Southern States to play in the national carnival in Sydney. Any Western Australian, South Australian or Tasmanian players included in that team were to train with Victoria and leave for Sydney on 5 June where the national selectors would choose the Australian team to tour Great Britain

The Australian team was scheduled to leave Sydney on 21 July so that there was a lot to be organised in the lead up to that departure date. In mid May E.J.I. Bremner was appointed manager of the Victorian (Southern States) team, the first of the trial games for which included three West Australians and two Tasmanians. The second trial match was held on a sodden Olympic Park and afterwards the team to go to Sydney was announced: Backs; G Baker, R. Dorr, D. Cowper, M. Carpenter, W. Hammon, M. Braeter and S. Doxey, Forwards; O. Bridle, S. Bissett, W.K. Gordon, S. Lang, J. Redhead, N. Wilson and A. Barr. Western Australians, A. Robertson, W. Geise and J. Green were included with the team while G. Pearson and W. Redhead were later added. Reserves were M. Brogan and E. Davis while B. Bick was later sent as a replacement.

The need for that replacement and for calling on W.Rogers (not listed elsewhere) as well as Western Australians Geise and Robertson, was to allow Victoria to field a full team on the third of their matches on Monday 12 June at the North Sydney Oval. The first, against Queensland on 7 June at the Sports Ground and the second, against NSW on 10 June at the North Sydney Oval had resulted in an appalling list of casualties. It was ironical that Berry Bick, sent as replacement for those earlier injuries, was to be possibly the worst injured of all, though not without scoring Victoria’s first try in that game. Others injured during the carnival included Barr, Doxey, Lang, Carpenter, Cowper, Dorr, Brogan, Baker and Wilson, some badly enough to be out of further contention. Luckily Carpenter, Barr and Bissett were fit enough for the final trial on 17 June and along with Pearson, also of Power House, were chosen for the touring team. Barr, chosen as a hooker, was then twenty-four, and although born in Wellington, NZ, had attended school in Melbourne while Bisset, twenty-seven, had been born in St. Kilda and was a Rules player who had enthusiastically adopted the Union code and graduated from the backs to play second row and breakaway.

According to team manager Bremner, there were times when every member of the Victorian team was suffering from some form of injury and the absence of several key players affected performance in the club competition for a number of weeks afterwards. And then, as the close of the season drew near, war was declared and Power House had to request a week’s postponement of the final, until 16 September, to allow leave from military service to be arranged for a dozen members of their team. According to reports they would have won a strenuously contested match had a penalty signalled by the touch judges not been disallowed by the referee and so Kiwi gained the last but one Premiership [22] to be awarded until 1946.

In these days of fast air travel it is hard to comprehend that it took six weeks for the journey to England and meant that by then war was almost certain and the tour well in doubt before the Wallabies were to arrive in Plymouth; it was in fact declared on 3 September, the day after they landed from RMS Mooltan. Thus there were to be no more Test caps for Carpenter and none for Barr, Bissett or Pearson who then had to make the long journey home. The only minor consolation for the VRU was in the form of a part refund of the contribution made to touring team expenses and this helped them finish the year with credit balance of ₤40.8s. [>$3,000].

As with the four returned tourists many who had played in the Union competitions since 1926 were to join the services. Some, like Wallabies Lang and Kerr were to be killed on active service others, like Hammon, Crouch and Barr, to endure captivity as Prisoners of War.

There were however sufficient players and administrators able to return to the reasonable normality of civilian life and with their help the VRU was able to resume soon after the war and, with Doc’ Ward as President, reintroduce a club competition in 1946, its twenty-first year. I was personally grateful that they had done so, and had the privilege of getting to know some of them, on and off the field, after arriving in Melbourne in the early ‘fifties.

Research & content Ron Grainger – first published 2011 (revised 2014)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND SOURCES

I am again grateful for the generous assistance of many historians, librarians and archivists, especially Bronwyn Wood, ARU Archivist, and am indebted to the late John Harrison for obtaining and to Bill Gillies for retaining copies of what once remained of last century’s VRU Annual Reports. I add thanks to the State Library of Victoria and to the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand for their valuable collections of past newspapers. Those searched included The Age, The Argus, The Herald, The Sun, The Sporting Globe, The Referee, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Brisbane Courier, The Advertiser (Adelaide), The Mail (Adelaide), The West Australian, The Sunday Times  (Perth), The Canberra Times and The Evening Post (Wellington NZ).

The following publications also contained useful information:

Australian Rugby – The Game and the Players;
Pollard, J., Pan MacMillan; 1994

The Encyclopedia of World Rugby;
Quinn, K., ABC Enterprises; 1993

International Rugby Records;
Griffiths, J, J.M.Dent & Sons 1987

They Came to Conquer; international rugby tours to Australia 1884-2002; Howell, M.L. (& others), [Vol. 1], Focus; 2003

50 Years of Rugby; The History of the Power House Rugby Union Football Club, The Power House Rugby Union Football Club; 1983

Quins Down Under 1928-2004, The Harlequin Club, Inc.; 2006

Melbourne Rugby Union Football Club –A Brief History; John Harrison, 1978

From Kiwis to Redbacks – The History and Heritage of the Boroondara Rugby Union Football Club, Melbourne – 1923 – 2008; John Woodhouse, Boroondara RUFC; 2010

IRB Yearbook 2011, Vision Sports Publishing ;2010

A Sense of Union; History of the Sydney University Rugby Union Football Club; Hickie,T.V. Playfair Publishing ;1998 RUFC

References


[1] The Victorian game was one of four won in Australia by the South African team en route to New Zealand for their first tour of that country.

[2] T A Fletcher, was a member of the NZ Rugby Union Management Committee from 1923 to 1937 and a Vice-President of the VRU from 1926 to 1936.

[3] Agar Wynn was an influential lawyer, politician and pastoralist whose chief sporting involvement was with horse racing but who took an interest in various other sports.

[4] Only seventeen years earlier there had been heated debate at the University on whether or not to allow the rugby club to affiliate with the Sports Union and the application was only granted subject to the club receiving no assistance in terms of meeting expenses or provision of grounds. In 1927 rugby not only gained Full Blue status but that honour was awarded to six University players.

[5] As mentioned in the Notes this antecedent club had no formal connection with the 1933 Old Boys.

[6] Detached to convey the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) who opened the new Parliament House in Canberra on 9 May and allowed the meetings of Federal Parliament to be held there instead of in Melbourne.

[7] The New South Wales Waratahs were about to start their tour of Ceylon, Great Britain, France and Canada; they had received the IRB invitation because, as the Queensland Union was not to be restored until 1929, they were the only Union in the country capable of organising such a tour. It was not until 1986 that the Australian Rugby Union decreed that the five full-internationals which they had played were to be regarded as Test matches, one consequence of which was that the team was accorded national “Wallaby’ status.

[8] The V disappeared from State jerseys in 1935, leaving only the sprig of Wattle. When Harlequins were formed in 1928 they adopted their version of the parent club’s coloured quarters and emblems of the four Home countries, adding the wattle to represent Victoria. The Pink Heath eventually replaced the Wattle on State jerseys after it was officially adopted in 1958 as Victoria’s floral emblem.

[9] Of some twenty-four matches played by the State from 1930 to 1938 two-thirds were wins, a draw or losses by less than ten points. By 1937 the number of clubs had risen to thirteen while the number of senior teams competing rose to thirty. Although comparisons may be odorous and subject to endless qualification, it is nevertheless worth noting that by 2010 the number of teams had barely doubled (to forty-six not including women’s, colts and veterans) while the male population of Melbourne aged between 20 and 40 had increased threefold. Over the same period the number of senior clubs exactly doubled and included provincial centres other than Geelong. There was of course a much greater increase in the number of junior teams. As for attendances, while nothing like those at Rules games, the 1937 South Africa match in Melbourne is sometimes credited with the largest rugby crowd thus far but this ignores the claim that 14,000 attended the All Blacks match in 1926 and 15,000 the NZ Maori’s in 1935.

[10] The indefatigable ‘Doc’ W.H. Ward of Footscray was VRU Medical Officer/Adviser of the Union from 1927 and in the following year had gathered together a team from that suburb which now formally entered the competition. It was to go on to First Grade in the next year (in colours of red with blue and white bands) and to subsequent Premiership honours while he progressed as a Member of the Management Committee or VRU Vice-President until elected President in 1938 and 1940.

[11] As was accepted practice, the Victorian hosts ran on in white, having replaced their navy blue jerseys because this was the colour of the Lion’s jerseys. The similarity in colour with the All Blacks jerseys had in fact caused a fair bit of controversy on their just completed tour of New Zealand where the hosts had had to select a contrasting colour and reluctantly turn out as ‘All Whites’. While this might suggest a parallel with the decision of England to choose black (anthracite)as the alternative to their traditional white jerseys for the 2011 World Cup the Lions, although over the years adopting different combinations of the colours of the four ‘home’ countries, had worn navy blue jerseys (for Scotland) since 1910. But they did face an internal critic in 1930 when lock George Beamish expressed concern about the absence of green for Ireland, as a result of which a green flash was added to the socks, on which from 1938 it became a green turnover.

[12] The 37/52 Infantry Battalion was composed of two Citizens Military Forces (CMF) or militia units formed after the first World War and linked together in 1930. Lieut. A. Beyer, mentioned in connection with that year’s match against the Lions may well, as a citizen soldier, have been registered as a Navy player in 1930 and as a Footscray playerin 1932 when he again played for Victoria. He may indeed have been one whoencouraged the unit to affiliate with the VRU; but that is pure conjecture.

[13] Without detailed records for each match of the Finals series it is impossible to understand what the differences were between the competition Rules which applied then and in the ‘final four’ series adopted in post-war years.

[14]Although the Power House RUFC history states that in 1932 their rugby players were not officially affiliated with the VRU and played ‘…scratch games against Scotch College, the Naval College and a team from Geelong …’  the VRU Annual Report of that year has them playing twelve matches in Third Grade. The club History also states that the first AGM of the Power House Rugby Club (the ‘Union’ only added in 1936) was held on 5 April 1933. If so, there must have been some smart footwork within the several administrations as within a few weeks they were playing in Second Grade.

[15] Started by a one time captain of Scotch College and with some fifty former public school boy members the club was founded in July 1933 as Camberwell RUFC but was to change its name to Old Boys in 1934 and to run on in colours of black and white hoops. When merging with Melbourne in 1939 their colours replaced Melbourne’s original choice – of their President (Penwill’s) old club, Newport (Wales) namely black and gold hoops. It wasn’t until after the war that Melbourne ’temporarily’ changed their jerseys to ‘Australian Green’. And while talking colours (if the white of St Kilda and black of Kiwis may be embraced by that term) Power House, who joined in 1936, chose bands in the Olive Green, Black and White of their parent club’s founder, Lord Somers, adding representation of a baron’s coronet on the left breast.

[16] The Amateur Sports Ground ground was adjacent to the former MotorDrome; and often simply described as Olympic Park. Foreshadowing VRU tenure 1965–1987 of Olympic Park 2, the stadium rebuilt after the 1956 Olympic Games, and more recently by the Rebels of the present AAMI stadium, both on the same site, a system of subscription passes was organised for entry to all games in 1936.

[17] For whatever reason Seven-a-Side tournaments were not reintroduced by the VRU until 1953. They then continued for forty-one years only to again disappear a year after the IRB had introduced the present international competition in response to an obvious revival of interest in that version of rugby, culminating in its acceptance as an Olympic sport.

[18] The Ashai Trophy, won by Australian Universities’ on their 1934 tour of Japan, was subsequently presented annually to the winners of inter-‘varsity contests.

[19] It had been initially agreed that the Australian team would retain the light blue of NSW as the green and gold might conflict with the green colours of the visitors. That decision was later reviewed on the grounds that something other than a State colour should be worn by a national team and a white jersey with green and gold hoops and black shorts with green and gold hooped hose was then adopted.

[20] It’s probably worth a mention that this was heralded as the first side since the war to represent the Armed Services. Teams previously using the United Services title had been drawn from military colleges but this one included men of all ranks drawn from all three permanent forces. It was part of a campaign for Union endorsement of a new inter-service competition and it was unfortunate that this particular match was ‘…marked more by ruggedness than by scientific play.’  [SMH 6 June].

[21] The inter-school competition continued until at least 1944, although Essendon Technical College dropped out in that year. For 1941 a YMCA team joined as did a team from Melbourne High who also fronted in 1942. Footscray Technical School were premiers in 1940 but after that it appears that the cadet midshipmen at Flinders, given their advantages in facilities and fitness, usually took the honours although by no means winning all their games. The trip down to Flinders seemed to be the highlight of the season for the city based teams, memorable because of the train trip to Frankston from whence a Navy coach transported them to Flinders where chocolate could be obtained in the canteen and three quarter pint cups of tea were supplied for post matchrefreshment. And made even more memorable when the hosts were defeated.

[22] It was impractical to proceed with a Finals series and the RAAF, as competition leaders, were declared First Grade Premiers for 1940. As there are few other details available of those times I therefore decided to close this account at the end of 1939 a decision reinforced by the strong indication that wartime competition was, to lapse into the colloquial, a horse of a different colour. In other words, while it did continue for a while, conditions were far from normal. To start with, some clubs were suddenly weakened and others (particularly the armed services teams) strengthened due to the relocation of players. Power House for instance had so many leave to join the services that they had forfeited by mid June 1940 and Harlequins, former Reserve Grade Premiers, were elevated in their place. It has already been noted that contests between the several colleges and technical schools continued during the war years but the position with senior rugby is unclear. Pollard states that all competition stopped from 1941 to 1946 but at the AGM on 17 March 1941 the VRU decided to open that season on 3 May with St. Kilda, University, Footscray, Melbourne, Power House, and Air Force and these and other club teams were to appear (and sometimes disappear or forfeit) during the year in no discernable pattern.What actually happened and to what extent the VRU were in effective control is yet to be established. Certainly from 1940 on there were more inter-service matches arranged between the Army, Navy and Air Force and some of these were of a a high standard, benefiting from the inclusion of talented players from interstate including ex Rugby League players who, while with the services, were not disqualified from playing Union.

Research & content  Ron Grainger

Entry page: A History of Rugby in Victoria

Entry page: A History of Rugby in Victoria

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