A History of Rugby in Victoria

researched & written by Ron Grainger


Football rules emerge

Few if any football matches played in Victoria before the 1860’s, including the drawn game played in Yarra Park over three Saturdays in August and September 1858 between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College, sometimes claimed as the first of Australian Football, would have followed prescribed rules. That game was probably played under some form of modified English Rugby School rules. [1] Certainly they were not playing Victorian (later Australian) Rules as these were only adopted in May 1859 after T.W.Wills, Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) Secretary 1857-8, proposed that a football club be formed to keep cricketers fit during winter, and the MCC Committee directed him, together with H.C.A. Harrison and W.J.Hammersley, to formulate appropriate rules.[2]

Football in Melbourne c1866 at Richmond Paddock (Yarra Park).

Football in Melbourne c1866 at Richmond Paddock (Yarra Park).

Wills, who had been captain of cricket and football at Rugby School, was said to have insisted that the ground was too hard in Melbourne to allow the rugby tackle and that was one feature of the game not included in the rules which formed the basis of what became known as Melbourne or Victorian Football and a number of the new clubs observing those ‘Rules’ formed the Victorian Football Association in 1877, eight breaking away in 1897 to found the Victorian Football League.

The situation in Sydney was somewhat similar; the first Rugby football rules not being published there until 1860 and the first Rugby club, Sydney Football Club, [3] not founded until 1865. In 1874 ten of the then seventeen Sydney Rugby clubs formed the Southern Rugby Football Union, (NSWRU from 1892) subscribing to the RFU Laws first adopted in 1871.

Rivalry between codes

While ‘Rules’ soon spread to most other Australian colonies, the first inter-colonial matches being organised in 1879, fortunes of individual clubs continued to fluctuate and attempts to establish a uniform Australian Rules code failed, mainly because Rugby was well established in New South Wales and New Zealand, although the Unions in those two colonies were themselves to be subject to internal and external threats, not least from the formation in England in 1895 of the Northern Rugby Football Union (‘League’ in Australia from 1908 but in England only from 1922) together with the increasing acceptance of Association Football (Soccer). [4]

The mainly friendly but nevertheless serious rivalry between the two principal football codes during this period was epitomised by the matches arranged between Carlton and the Sydney Waratah Club, playing both codes in Sydney in 1877 and then in Melbourne in 1878 and in 1888 by the touring English team, who played ‘Rules’ against Carlton and Fitzroy, and were then entertained by the latter club at a convivial banquet held in the new Fitzroy Town Hall. On the same day as that banquet, the first of several Probables v Possibles games (complete with two umpires and a referee) had been held at the Carlton cricket ground as a prelude to selection of the Victorian team to meet the English on 1 August 1888.

Rugby (only just) established in Victoria

Before that visit, although not all Victorian residents were unfamiliar with Rugby, I have been unable to find reports of any matches played under prescribed rules (laws) either in the public (independent) schools of the day or in the armed forces, (although after the departure of the British Army in 1870, these were composed mainly of part time colonial militia plus a small navy). The Melbourne Handbook of Recreation for 1873 makes not a single reference to Rugby and the 1878 game between the Carlton and Waratah clubs remains as the first game of Rugby in Victoria on record. A few years later, in 1881, there was a match at the MCG between the Wanderers (a team sponsored by the MCC) and the Detached RN Squadron, (a team comprised of officers of HMS Bacchante and HMS Inconstant) the visitors winning by a goal and a try. [5]

The English party of twenty-two which toured New Zealand and Australia in 1888 included five internationals, with at least one from each of the Unions of Scotland and Wales and the Northern Football Union of Ireland [6] but most were ordinary club players, although some went on to receive international caps later in their careers. The tour was not accredited by the RFU and the players (except for Jack Clowes) were fortunate that they did not suffer harsher penalties for failing to comply with the strictly amateur conditions of the time. For the last part of the tour they were led by Andrew Stoddart who took over after the tragic drowning of captain R.A.Seddon while sculling in Maitland.

Although Rugby was not to draw crowds of a size to compare with those at ‘Rules’ matches, the 1888 tour by the English team, regardless of its provenance, greatly increased the interest in Rugby in Melbourne. While the English were still in New Zealand there were moves to form a Union club and a Melbourne RUFC was the result. While I have been unable to find any authoritative record of the formation of a conventional Union [7], that club seems to have undertaken that role and then taken the lead in organising the visit to Victoria, their Secretary, J.C.Cunningham, contacting the English team in New Zealand to arrange for the Melbourne match and helping arrange practice matches ‘…playing alphabetically..’ (selecting teams by initial letter of surnames) and Probables v Possibles games. The Melbourne RUFC Committee was also responsible for selecting the team to represent Victoria, choosing from some twenty players, of whom eight had gained their main Rugby experience in Great Britain, eight in New Zealand, and the remaining four in NSW and Queensland.

The Melbourne RUFC arranged matches such as ‘Colonials’ v ‘World’ and ‘North of Yarra’ v ‘South of Yarra’ at the Carlton Cricket Club and as they soon had some 200 members it was proposed that a second club be formed, presumably the North Melbourne Rugby Club. In any event it was against that club that the Melbourne RUFC played in the first (rugby) club match to be held in Victoria, at the Carlton Cricket Club on Saturday 9 June 1888 (and won 8-2).

Before that time any Rugby in Victoria seems to have been played on a very informal basis; a contributor to The Sporting Wire stating that a few who understood the game used to play on a piece of vacant ground in Carlton in 1887 each Saturday. But he added that, after the visit of the English team, it had ‘…taken a better spirit and this year…’ (1889) about 150 had attended a meeting at a Lonsdale Street venue, then adjourned to the Palace Hotel on the following Tuesday, ‘…where a club was formed called the Pakeha, composed mostly of New Zealanders,…’. [8]

Not unlike the English tour, that of the NZ Maoris was not officially sanctioned and actually had its name changed to New Zealand Natives after five pakehas were included before the team departed. [9] After two matches in Melbourne (during the second of which came news of Seddon’s death in NSW) they left on their British tour and on returning via Australia in the following year won two Rugby matches, one against a Melbourne Club team and the other against a Navy XVIII (drawn mainly from two RN ships then on the Australian station, HMS Orlando and HMS Calliope). And on that return visit, as the English side had done, they played Rules against local sides in Victoria; winning five and losing five.

Reports of games from 1889 on are sparse, although there are references to matches between the Melbourne and Pakeha clubs in that year and the next and of New South Wales defeating Victoria at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) twice in July 1889, with representatives from the three clubs, Melbourne, North Melbourne and Pakeha, included in the Victorian team. A report of the match on 13 July mentions that ‘…attendance was not very large, the weather being raw and cold. Play was good and fast though…’ After scoring ‘a remarkably easy win’ on Monday over Sixteen local Juniors [10] the return match on 20 July finished with a much closer result. The visit was marked by a banquet given in honour of the Victorian Rugby Football team at which the Victorian captain, T.L. Scarborough, regretted that there was not one Victorian in his team and Monty Arnold, a doyen of NSW rugby, made a few comments about Victorian Rules and professionalism, adding the oft quoted comment that if a young man in Melbourne took to Rugby football he was told by his employers that he need not come back to work again. All this gave rise to some public reaction, at least in Melbourne Punch and the Sporting Wire, the latter calling on a response from the Secretary of the Victorian Rugby Union.

Club Rugby in Victoria certainly led a tenuous existence in the 1890’s, as exemplified by the story in the North Melbourne Advertiser of 26 June 1891 which, while waxing euphoric over the competition in 1888, first against the English and then against the Maoris, reported attempts to revive the North Melbourne Rugby Club which had been so active only three years earlier.

However, while Pollard states that the Melbourne Rugby Union ceased to exist after 1890 and the Victorian Rugby Union (Club) was formed in 1899 to help arrange the Great Britain match in Melbourne, this overlooked the necessity, during the intervening eight years, for a body responsible for the inter-colonial matches of 1894 and 1895. More recent research has revealed that a Union was in fact formed in April 1893 and that they leased the Friendly Societies’ ground (on the same site as the present day AAMI Park) for a local competition which started on 20 May, the four teams playing for the ‘Howard Cup’. One additional event the Union arranged in July that year was a charity match in aid of the Children’s Hospital and this was held at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground. [‘Some Early Rugby Venues‘]

The 1894 season opened in fine style with Mr A.E.Lewis inviting all connected with the game to celebrate with luncheon at his Caulfield residence after which the assorted guests gathered on ‘…one of the host’s paddocks…’ for a game between teams chosen by Diamond and Beck. The season which followed was somewhat extended, the Sportsman of 11 September reporting that the Pirates and Rovers, having previously played drawn games on two successive Saturdays, would now meet for the third time, on Saturday 15th, to decide that year’s premiership. However, the eventual winner is unknown. The same article reported that the Union had recorded thanks to J.C.Cunningham (previously mentioned in connection with the England visit in 1888) and Mr Beck, for arranging the 1894 inter-colonial games; Cunningham being identified as a Vice-President.

The Second Annual General Meeting of the Union was held on Thursday 18 April 1895, re-electing David Mills as President and appointing Sir John Madden, Chief Justice of Victoria, as Patron. The competition commenced on 18 May for cups presented to the Union by Messrs. Howard and Nash; but again I found no details of the winners. Meanwhile the cordial relations with the NSWRU resulted in a generous grant by the latter of ₤10 (well over $1,000 today) to allow the VRU to offer a trophy for competition by Victorian schools playing Rugby, a worthy concept which in the event had to wait nearly forty years before inception.

In 1896 the AGM was once more held in April and the Argus of 1 May heralded the opening of the season the next day while later issues noted that the Nash Cup matches would start on Saturday 30 May. Also in May the VRU requested the NSWRU to visit Melbourne for two inter-colonial matches in August. However, only one month later they asked that that visit be deferred and from that point on the trail grows cold. [‘Rugby Challenge Cup‘]

Now back to the inter-colonial games. The 1894 visitors from NSW, led by the formidable Mr Arnold, were welcomed at a Town Hall reception by the Mayor and were invited to attend shows at the principal theatres. Whether or not this largesse contributed to what was headlined Easy Victory For Victoria cannot be confirmed but in the first match the home side were reported to be superior both in forwards and backs. Although substantially the same teams played the return game Victoria appeared overmatched, remaining scoreless in the first half but scoring in the second in a keenly contested game. Rev.J.Hoatson was both a selector of the Victorian side and referee for both games. The visitors played a third game, on the Monday between the two inter-colonial matches, against ‘…a sixteen representing the clubs not taking part in the intercolonial matches.’ presumably the Crusaders and Pioneers. [11] [‘At Play on the Fields of the Lord‘]

The return visit of Victoria to NSW in 1895, under the same captain, C.Diamond, was not as rewarding as when they had been hosts the previous year. May be there is some justification in blaming this partly on the reluctance of Victorian employers to grant leave (if not threatening an even worse fate) to some of the best Victorian players, although there can be no doubt that the inadequacies of the local competition would have been a major contributing factor. In the first game against NSW Victoria scored only a penalty in the first half and a try in the second, on the next Saturday, only one converted try in the second half. On the Wednesday between the two Sydney games they travelled to Newcastle and were escorted by Northern Branch officials to the Terminus Hotel in order to enjoy ‘…a plenteous spread…’ While this might have been expected to influence their performance the next day, their one and only converted try came immediately after the half time break, unusually extended by about ten minutes to allow for luncheon. They left for home on the following Monday, stopping at Bathurst where, after a night of song with their hosts at the Royal Hotel, they lost the next day to a team representing the Western Rugby Football Union.

Great Britain in Melbourne

The 1899 overseas tour was only the third by a British side, and was the first official visit to Australia and included, again for the first time, players from each of the four Home countries (although it was organised by the RFU the Press persisted in calling it an English team). The twenty-one players were led by the Rev.M.Mullineaux, captain and manager, who before departing from Sydney, aimed a few shots primarily at NSW rugby about practices employed, on and off the field, which he felt to be against the spirit of the game.

While the NSWRU were official hosts for the tour the Victorian team was selected, not by a Union, but by the Victorian Rugby Club [12], a third of the players having previously been selected for the 1894 and 1895 inter-colonial matches, with C.Diamond again captain. It had been agreed that the match would be under the general management of the Victorian Football League with the co-operation of this recently formed Victorian Rugby Club, which then arranged three trial matches, two on the MCG, and these and the main match were included after other sporting bodies, including the League, a Combined Ballarat team and the Melbourne Lacrosse Club, had been good enough to reschedule their various fixtures.

Against the red, white and blue hoops of the visitors the Victorian players turned out in white tops with a black shield bearing the monogram V.R.F.C. and black pants, all supplied by the Melbourne Sports Depot. Superior passing and the speed of their backs evidently contributed to the visitors’ success but the Victorian defence was reckoned to have done well to only allow them to cross the line five times. The Rev.Hoatson was again referee. The League entertained the visitors afterwards at a ‘smoke night’ at the Port Phillip Club Hotel in Flinders Street, an event apparently greatly enjoyed by all, with toasts and laughter all round, Mullineux in good form adding a comment on Rules to the effect that he was worried about so many players ‘…waiting about in the cold.’

Retreat and Revival

The 1899 visit to Melbourne of the Great Britain team seems to be only rugby worthy of mention in Victoria during the decade 1897 to 1907. It would require a social historian to explain why this might have been so – and why there was then a resurgence of interest in the code. Perhaps the combined effects of recovering from the turn of the century depression, a rapidly growing population, vastly improved communications, formation of the Commonwealth, and the introduction of a new industrial labour system, all contributed to greater feelings of security and optimism which in turn encouraged a wider and more general involvement in all forms of sport and recreation. In the realm of winter sports this was manifested in the commencement of the soccer clubs competition (which also started in 1909) and in renewed campaigns to establish the supremacy of different football codes in the capital cities. The growing presence of Rules in Sydney prompted Union, then later on Rugby League, [13] to seize any opportunity to promote their versions of Rugby in Melbourne.

One such was to have the first Wallabies [14] stop in Melbourne on 10 August 1908 en route to Great Britain and to play Victoria at the MCG. Some surprise had been expressed that no Victorians had been included in the Australian team but given that there had been virtually no Rugby in Melbourne for years, except for the social games mentioned below in connection with the Melbourne Training College and University, it would have been more of a surprise if any Victorians had been chosen.

The proposed visit, as had others before, helped to revive interest in the code. And it inspired more than just a passing interest as a Victorian Rugby Union (VRU) was soon formed and it was the VRU Secretary, S.W.Hudson, who formally toasted the (soon to be) Wallabies after the match at a reception in Rubera’s Café in Bourke Street.

The game was first suggested by W.Hill, Secretary of the NSWRU, in a letter to J.Allan, of the University Sports Union, who in turn agreed to the match as he expected to be able to arrange for a ‘…fair team of “ruggers” to be drawn from the University.’ This was in early June and on the 19 th a meeting was held at the Orient Hotel to elect an organising committee. Practice matches were played on Saturdays from early July together with what was presumably a weeknight physical training session at Burn’s Cycle shop in Fitzroy.

The match was held at the MCG (Admission 6d.Ladies free. Grandstand 6d.extra) and considering it was on a Monday, and had had little advance publicity, the crowd of 1,500 which included the Chief Justice, was remarkable. The visitors had been welcomed earlier at the Orient Hotel by the VFL President who, in what must have been the understatement of the year, commented that ‘…the rugby game was not much in vogue in Victoria.’ Maybe this situation had caused the Wallabies to go a bit easy on the home side but the Victorians, resplendent in blue and gold hooped jerseys, were not unduly disgraced. The visitors, who had only arrived on the morning of the match, re-embarked on RMS Omrah which left for England later the next day.

Mens sana in corpore sano

The new Union included University and four clubs representing what are now regarded as inner suburbs. This must have owed something to the steady growth of population in the metropolitan area and not least to the fact that Melbourne University had doubled its enrolments, most of whom would have been male, between 1900 and 1914. But in 1907, two years before the Union competition commenced, the Melbourne Training College (Teachers College from 1913) had organised a Rugby team and Melbourne University, in a move to ‘bring old rugby players together’ arranged for a team to play the College on 29 August in a match which finished in a draw, after what the Argus described as ‘…an amusing scramble.’

The Training College had in fact anticipated University’s involvement with rugby by accepting a challenge from Sydney for annual matches of ‘Rules’ in Sydney and rugby in Melbourne. The College kept up these annual tournaments against their Sydney counterpart until 1914, in which year they evidently re-affiliated with the Victorian Union. That move had been anticipated for several years especially as Dr John Smyth, the College Principal, was a rugby enthusiast and Vice-President of the Union. The students prepared for their annual rugby contest with practice games, sometimes between teams drawn from their own ranks and sometimes against University or other Victorian clubs and it is presumed that some of the more enthusiastic students played club rugby.

In June 1913 they had the satisfaction of having turned out ‘…one of the best teams College has had.’ when although losing as expected, they played the First XV from the prestigious King’s School, Parramatta. King’s Headmaster had decided to take the team down south to play two matches against teams drawn from Victorian clubs and some idea of the standard of Victorian Rugby might be gleaned from their performance. Kings, while beaten 14-11 in the first by a stronger, bigger side kept them scoreless in the second half and believed that if the game had gone on a few minutes longer they would have reversed the result, ‘…we were all over them.’ In the second match, at University Oval, Kings defeated the Technical College 11-0, despite having one player off injured in the second half and adopting a 2-3-2 scrum. [‘Inter-Varsity Rugby‘]

In 1909 the first Australian Inter-Varsity Championship was held, Sydney University travelling south to defeat Melbourne University 15-3 at home and on the following Monday playing a combined ‘Victorian’ team at the East Melbourne ground in appalling conditions and winning 14-6. In 1910 Melbourne visited Sydney, where the hosts were again the winners 31-0. Melbourne welcomed Sydney again in 1911 (and lost 22-5) and in 1912 had difficulty getting a representative team together with the result that no tournament was held that year, or the next, and in 1914 and 1919 Sydney played Queensland University instead. The Inter-Varsity competition only resumed in 1926 and the fact that Melbourne could not compete while playing League has been cited as one of the reasons which encouraged their decision to adopt the Union code again that year.

Unfortunately, although University was one of the clubs in the 1909 VRU competition, as well as participating in the Inter-Varsity Championship, University archives contain almost nothing of Rugby during this period and the main references are to be found in local and interstate Press reports and in the Melbourne University Magazine, which was produced by the University Sports Union from 1907 but does include, if little else, a good photograph of the two teams which participated in the first Inter-Varsity match in Melbourne in 1909

A State of Union: 1908 – 1914

The previous twenty years had seen a number of bodies temporarily assuming the role of a Victorian Union but that founded in 1908 might well have seemed set for a longer existence; although aspirations of that kind were soon to be dashed by the outbreak of the First World War, then by the vigorous promotion of Rugby League and conversion of players to that code.

But all that was then in the future; the new Union starting in optimistic mode and with an impressive display of urgency. After receiving advice of the proposed visit by the Australian tourists a meeting of supporters was held at the Orient Hotel on 19 June 1908 when a committee was elected with the main purpose of raising a ‘…Victorian Rugby team to try conclusions with that from the NSW Union in August.’ That was soon followed by another meeting at the Hotel on Thursday, 2 July where some eighty-five supporters agreed to the formation of a Victorian Rugby Union and elected office bearers including E.W.Hoyes as Chairman, S.W.Hudson as Secretary and T.B.W.Flegg as Treasurer.

A further meeting was held there on 14 July and a general meeting at the same venue on 25 August, by which time of course the match against the (soon to be) Wallabies had been held and no doubt served as a major topic of discussion.

Apart from the foundation of North Melbourne, as mentioned later, other clubs were formed over the next few months although details on this are hard to come by. For instance, early in 1909 St Kilda was meeting at the Village Belle, long to be favoured as a watering hole by local Rugby clubs, but I have found no report of when they were actually formed. It was inferred that not all new clubs had fully subscribed to Union By-Laws but presumably any improprieties were soon sorted out as the First Annual General Meeting was held early next year, on 19 February 1909, again at the Orient Hotel.

At that first AGM it was announced that the Governor-General, Lord Dudley, then resident in Melbourne, had accepted the invitation to be Patron and at a general meeting two weeks later, on 5 March, Sir John Madden was elected President and Sir Rupert Clarke a Vice-President. It was decided to issue a Union handbook which would include the rules of the game, to set subscriptions at 2s.6d. (approx. $15 today) and to meet at the Orient Hotel every alternate Tuesday evening until further notice.

A report received by the New South Wales Rugby Union and quoted by the Sydney Mail of 28 April 1909, stated that after a lapse of many years a union competition would be ‘…started this May in Victoria’. ‘There were seven clubs in the union, including the University and the Teachers Training College’; (The four known Shield competitors plus St Kilda and the Training College would make six; so presumably the seventh was a reincarnated North Melbourne; the North Suburban Rugby Club having been founded on 27 August 1908).

As far as can be established, Melbourne, South Melbourne and East Melbourne contested the premiership in each of the six years of the Union. St Kilda played various games against other clubs over the next six years but only participated in the premiership competition in 1913, while Carlton only did so in 1912, the year of its formation, and again in 1914. University withdrew part way through the competition in 1912 and did not return to contest the Shield in 1913 or 1914. The Training College apparently left the Union at some stage and although re-affiliating in 1914 and also playing other clubs on occasions did not enter the premiership competition. I have found no reliable evidence that the North Melbourne (North Suburban) club remained in the Union after 1909.

The Union became one of the many sporting bodies affiliated with the Amateur Sports Club of Victoria (itself founded in 1897) and it was sometimes to use that Club as an address and meeting venue. The Union received compliments such as that from the speaker on behalf of the visiting Sydney University team in 1909, who may have been ‘laying it on a bit thick’ when he expressed astonishment at the progress of the game in Victoria, as indicated by the fine display of the Melbourne University team (which they had beaten by five try’s to one in appalling conditions the previous day). Perhaps allowances should be made for the fact that he was responding to a toast at a dinner on the Saturday night hosted by this new and enthusiastic Victorian Union.

Aside from occasional compliments I have found a few accounts of the club competition which we know resulted in premierships for Melbourne in 1909, University in 1910, East Melbourne in 1911, Melbourne in 1912 and 1913 and South Melbourne in 1914, the winner’s names being conveniently inscribed on the trophy donated by whisky distillers John Dewar & Sons of Perth, Scotland.[15] As will be noted later the formal club competition did not appear to take up the entire season, up to a third being given over to ‘trial matches’, practice games and representative matches; even though there were no inter-State games during this period there was one other NZ Maori visit, games against NSW City and Suburban teams in Melbourne and Sydney and games against several warships, as well as the Inter-Varsity and Inter-Training College fixtures. Meanwhile the Union found the usual excuses to fill the social calendar with ‘smoke nights’ and ‘smoke concerts’ at city restaurants and hotels.

The four winning clubs mentioned above were the only ones to compete in the first year’s (1909) Shield competition. The start of the season was postponed until late May in order to allow clubs to sort out the influx of new members and arrange a few practice games, including a nil all draw at Albert Park on 27 March between a representative Victorian side and the Navy. St Kilda was involved in early games but not in the premiership contest which evidently consisted of eleven rounds and concluded on 18 September with Melbourne having won ten. There was then no ‘final four’ series to decide the winner, that peculiarly Australian feature only being introduced in Victoria in 1932.

The big event in 1910 was the NZ Maori visit, in connection with which the Age chose to make some rather disparaging comments about local rugby, holding that Victorians were wedded to the Australian game but, given the standard of the visitors, conceded that the matches could ‘… prove an attraction’. According to one of the rare reports of the first match A.E. Freear [bio] of East Melbourne was the most outstanding Victorian player. The correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald thought the game was played in excellent spirit, although it was no surprise that the Victorians, ‘…drawn from the four teams of the Victorian Union,’ had by the second half. ‘…lost their dash …’ Preparations for the visit had evidently taken priority and the official opening of the 1910 competition was not until the following Saturday, 7 July, with eventual premiership winners University playing Melbourne at Albert Park. [‘The Maoris in Melbourne 1910‘]

The club competition kicked off early in 1911, University beating East Melbourne 29-0 and Melbourne defeating South Melbourne 14-0 at Middle Park on 6 May. Mid way through that year the Herald reported that ‘The Melbourne team has been playing with greater vim and combination than at the beginning of the season and in their last two matches has shown form equal to that of the two leaders…’ while ‘East Melbourne defeated South Melbourne easily.’ This was also the year chosen for the first visit by the NSW City and Suburban Union [16] who, in their match against Victoria at the South Melbourne ground ‘…showed themselves to be nothing but sportsmen…’ Despite only having had one practice match the Victorians, watched by about 800 locals, gave a good account of themselves, captain A.Lee being mentioned as outstanding in the backs. There was a second match two days later which the State team lost by a larger margin.

A feature of the 1912 season was a game on the MCG on 6 July between East Melbourne and Melbourne, ‘One of the finest exhibitions of the Rugby game ever seen in Victoria…’ with the latter winning 9-5. Played before a large crowd as a curtain raiser to an inter-State ‘Rules’ match v South Australia it is probably the one and only time club Rugby has been seen there. In that year University withdrew before the competition was completed while Melbourne won all but one of their twelve matches, East Melbourne eight, South Melbourne four and newcomers Carlton, none. The NSW City and Suburban team again visited Melbourne and played Victoria at the EMCG on 24 and 27 August, finishing with two very narrow wins. Two weeks later the Victorians were in Sydney for two return matches but this time were soundly beaten. I have seen no references to that interstate contest in the following years.

The 1913 season opened on Saturday 5 April with a match at Middle Park between Melbourne and a team from HMS New Zealand [17], the visitors winning 20-3. In the club competition which followed Melbourne retained the premiership ‘…thanks to their heavy forwards, who again dominated the East’s ruck.’ and despite having been well beaten by a ‘…resuscitated South Melbourne team.’ two weeks earlier. On the Saturday following that premiership match an ‘Australia’ v ‘New Zealand’ game was arranged (one supposes a sort of country of origin social match to wind up the season).

Early in 1914 a combined team played H.M.A.S.Melbourne and went down 3-6 but in a return match on 30 May the hosts were victorious, with a final score of 24-5 in a game which was ‘fast and strenuous and the tackling on both sides frequent and efficient’. The ‘newly formed’ Training College club again played other club sides but primarily in preparation for their away fixture with the Sydney College in July – I have found no evidence that they ever competed for the Dewar Shield. And although the Herald reported that University were again expected to ‘come off towards the end of August.’ as they prepared to leave for the inter-Varsity Championship in Sydney; that visit, as explained above, did not eventuate. In the last match of the competition on 8 August South went down to East 14-8 but still took possession of the Shield by virtue of points gained during their run of wins earlier in the season. [East Melbourne team of 1914]

East Melbourne RFC ('Table Talk' newspaper, 6 August 1914)

East Melbourne RFC (‘Table Talk’ newspaper, 6 August 1914)

By the time of that last match Australia had entered the war and by early September 1914 newspapers in all States were carrying stories of Rugby players volunteering to join the colours and followed those soon after with the first reports of a seemingly endless stream of casualties.

Over the following years there was an occasional exhibition or fund raising match, often by schoolboy or service teams, but any formally structured Rugby competition in Melbourne was to cease for the duration and beyond. Further research is needed to establish which, if any, of those pre-war clubs emerged after the War and for how long, if at all, they continued to play Union [18] and indeed which body took responsibility for organising the team to represent Victoria against the visiting South Africans in 1921. [19] In preparation for that event a nominal Melbourne side played HMAS Australia at least once at Albert Park three weeks beforehand and a Melbourne and a St.Kilda club are credited with providing one player each to join the Navy men who comprised the rest of the Victorian team.

During the period covered in these notes most representative games were played at the Melbourne, Carlton, East Melbourne [20], South Melbourne [21] or St.Kilda Cricket Clubs but relatively few club or practice matches were played on enclosed grounds, some exceptions being the Essendon Cricket Club and the Friendly Societys’ Gardens/Arena. [22] As with the soccer competition, most of such games would have been held on open parklands. For example, a 1908 State practice match was held on the ground outside the Scotch College Cricket Ground (just north of the Friendly Societys’ Arena on the other side of Swan Street), and other matches were held on Albert Park and Middle Park, used extensively post war, also open parkland. University was probably the only club with a ‘home’ ground not in the public realm but this was shared and they could not claim precedence in using it.

The general situation is probably summed up by a 1912 player who thought it worthy of mention that they were now able to change for a game in the comfortable facilities of the new Association Ground (see footnote) rather than trying to hide ‘…behind a couple of oars in the Albert Park boatsheds…’

No Side

World War I marked the end of an era but it was only one phase in the continuing struggle between rival codes. Three weeks after the Royal Military College (RMC) opened in Duntroon in 1911 it entered a team in the local Union competition, the first game being against Queanbeyan. However, the majority of the first intake of cadets came from Victoria and spectators were amazed to see one of these former Rules players emerge from a scrum and punch the ball half way down the pitch, then another collar an opponent and hold him to the ground while awaiting further instructions from a bemused referee. It was not until the Federal Territory Australian Rules Football League was formed in 1924, and the RMC promptly registered a team, that Rules players no longer had to convert to the fifteen-a-side game. [23]

Two years later, back in Melbourne in 1926, the clubs which had been playing League since 1923 decided to change codes and form a new Union. Quinn has it that this was prompted by rumours of an All Black tour to include Victoria and the chance of competing with this renowned team in Melbourne – it was in fact more than just a rumour and the visit which eventuated from the undertaking [24] was followed in one week by another and the first of two matches against the NZ Maoris. But that story belongs to another era.

Research & content Ron Grainger – first published 2006 (revised 2010)


I am grateful for the generous assistance of many historians and archivists, especially Judy Macarthur, former ARU Archivist and her successor Bronwyn Wood, and for that of the the staff of the State Library of Victoria in accessing various collections, including most of the periodicals & newspapers listed below. And add thanks to my brother Peter for his assistance.

Age, Argus, Herald, Leader, North Melbourne Advertiser, Punch / Bulletin, The Referee, Sportsman, Sporting Wire, Sporting Judge, Sporting Globe, Sydney Mail, Sydney Morning Herald

Blainey, Geoffrey; A Game of our Own; Information Australia, 1990
Dunstan, Keith; The Paddock That Grew; Cassell Australia; 1962
Fagan, Sean: The Rugby Rebellion; RL1908; 2005
Griffiths, J: International Rugby Records; J.M.Dent & Sons 1987
Hickie T.V; They Ran with the Ball;
How Rugby Football began in Australia
; Longman Cheshire 1993
Howell, M.L; (& others) They Came to Conquer; international rugby tours toAustralia 1884-2002
; (Vol 1); Focus 2003
Pollard, J: Australian Rugby – The Game and the Players; Pan MacMillan, 1994
Quinn, K; The Encyclopedia of World Rugby, ABC Enterprises 1993
Selleck, R.J.W; The Shop –The University of Melbourne 1850-1939 MUP 2003
Sharpham, P; The First Wallabies; Sandstone Publishing; 2000
Titley & McWhirter; Centenary History of the Rugby Football Union; RFU; 1970


Football rules emerge

[1] ‘Over three Saturdays in August and September 1858 the lads from (Melbourne) Grammar and Scotch College exhausted themselves playing a continuous game of football, probably under modified English Rugby School rules, among the gum trees north of the Melbourne Cricket Ground …. It was not, as is so often asserted, Australian Rules football that was being played; those Rules originated in May 1859.’ 

Extracts from Associated Public Schools; celebrating 100 years 1908-2008: With acknowledgement to G M.Hibbins; Sport and Racing in Colonial Melbourne. See also Melbourne’s Lost Rugby History & The Australian Game, Sean Fagan; Colonial Rugby. And note in relation to continued games;

‘In the early days matches could last five or even seven days, but by 1845, when the first written rules were created by the boys, rule 20 states ‘All matches are drawn after five days, but after three if no goal has been kicked’.
Rusty MacLean, Archivist, Rugby School.

[2] While Tom Will’s letter published in Bells Life of 10 July 1858 had promoted the idea of forming a football club various sources, including A Game of our Own; Geoffrey Blainey, The Emergence of Aussie Rules ; Ian Turner [Sport in History; Cashman & McKernan] as well as the Argus and the Herald of 16 May 1859 agree that the first Rules, then ‘Melbourne Club’ Rules, were not drafted until May 1859.

[3] Until recently it was generally accepted that Sydney University formed the first Rugby Club In 1863 but, while the students may have played several games during that and the following year there is no documentary evidence that they adopted a club constitution or played an inter-club match before August 1865, several months after the Sydney Football Club had been formed and taken the field.

Rivalry between codes

[4] In the period under review usually described as British Association in the Australian Press

Rugby (only just) established in Victoria

[5] A sidelight on the visit reveals that Prince George of Wales (King George V from 1910) and his brother Prince Albert were at that time midshipmen on HMS Bacchante but there is no report of them attending the game. Perhaps that was a wise move as it was said to be viewed by the spectators as of little interest, at least by one obviously biased Argus reporter. However, such thoughts evidently didn’t deter the inaugural NSW ‘Rules’ side then visiting Melbourne from playing two games against the Squadron under rugby rules (laws).

[6] Presumably capped before integration of the Northern Football Union of Ireland with the Irish Football Union in order to form the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1879. Correction: While A.G.Paul was Irish he was not an international. Only three ‘capped’ rugby players were in the party, one other was capped later.

[7] 1888-1890; while sometimes described as the Melbourne Rugby Union it is also referred to as the Victorian Rugby Union or the Victorian Rugby Union Football Club; the latter being the body, in the person of its Vice President, Dr Wilmott, reported in the Age as being represented at the Fitzroy Club’s banquet for the 1888 English tourists. Other references name a Dr Lefevre as President and H.H.Morrell as Hon.Secretary (in 1889).

[8] That meeting elected as President, Dr.Leger Erson, late of Auckland and, as well as resolving to combine with the other clubs in selecting a team to meet Warbrick’s Native team decided on team colours in ‘…crimson with silver fern on breast.’  

[9] Even this was not all as it seemed. The ‘Natives’ title was promoted on the basis that the team consisted of New Zealand-born members. ‘This was untrue: two of the Pakeha ring-ins were born overseas.’  NZ History; NZ Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

[10] In the nomenclature of the time a Junior team did not mean a side of school age players but of a grade below the ‘Senior’ grade.

[11] In 1893 and 1894 the Pioneers, Rovers, Crusaders and Pirates were the clubs in competition; a Melbourne club replacing the Crusaders from 1895.

Great Britain in Melbourne

[12] Stated to number about 100 members, including ‘some 40 or 50 playing men’.

Retreat and Revival

[13] The first NSWRL clubs were formed early in 1908 and commenced competition that year.

[14] The first Australian team to be named the Wallabies – not the first Australian Rugby Union. team. While only dubbed the Wallabies after arrival in England I have used that name throughout these notes. Just to add to the confusion (probably because only two team members were from Queensland and the NSW Union was mainly responsible for the tour) there is at least one quoted comment which suggests they were sometimes regarded as a NSW team. Later, playing as Australasia, they won the Gold Medal by beating Cornwall, playing as Great Britain, in the 1908 Olympics.

A State of Union: 1908 – 1914

[15] As I mentioned in Going For The Line one mystery of Victorian Rugby is how the Navy, in the form of HMAS Australia, gets at least one inscription on the Shield during the years when (although virtually making up the 1921 side to play South Africa) there was no Union or club premiership competition.

[16] Originally (1901) the Rugby Union City and Suburban Association which catered for strictly amateur local clubs preferring to play social rugby by invitation rather than in the more aggressive grade competitions. By the time they appeared in Melbourne they comprised a large number of clubs and had an impressive fixture list.

[17] HMS New Zealand, a battlecruiser launched in 1911, whose building had been funded by the New Zealand government as a gift to Britain, was on its way to visit that country. She was back in British waters before the outbreak of WW1 during which she won a number of battle honours.

[18] In 1923 the League teams were Eastern Suburbs, St.Kilda, Kiwis, University, Air Force and Melbourne. Navy replaced Eastern Suburbs in 1924 and those same clubs entered the 1925 competition. At the Annual Meeting of the League in February 1926 they agreed to wind up the League and form the new Victorian Rugby Union.

[19] This was one of only five matches (none a Test) South Africa played in Australia before going on to their first (drawn) series against New Zealand.

[20] Then situated west of Jolimont Road.

[21] Then situated in Albert Park

[22] Renamed The Amateur Sports Ground in 1910* and possibly called the Association Ground around that time as the (soccer) Association then took up debentures in order to acquire the enclosed ground for important fixtures. However, as Rules also ran an Association the 1912 reference might have been to one of their grounds or to a refurbished cricket ground. The whole area surrounding what was the Friendly Societies’ Arena is known generally as Olympic Park, especially since its use during the 1956 Olympic Games and from 5 October 1995 has been administered by the Melbourne and Olympic Parks Trust (MOPT). The site of the former Arena was also the location of the MotorDrome (1924-1933; the venue for the 1926 NZ Maori matches) then of the Olympic Park Speedway (up to 1946) and has been used for various sports, especially Rugby Union on Olympic Park 2 from 1962 to 1987 with many representative matches played there and on the adjacent Olympic Park 1. In 2010 it was renamed AAMI Park and includes the first stadium in Melbourne designed specifically for the three football codes which use a rectangular pitch.

*proclaimed Crown land 24 August 1909; charter dated 19 April 1910.

No Side

[23] Once commonly used to describe the end of a Rugby match. I am indebted to Quinn for the explanation that in the early years of the referee one or other captain would often query which team was awarded the put in to a scrum or line-out; ‘which side sir?’. If that possibility arose when the referee had judged it time to end the play he would anticipate the question by declaring ‘no side’.

[24] As a form of direct assistance in organising the new Union the NZ Rugby Union also sent T.A.Fletcher, Chairman of the NZ Referees Association and member of the New Zealand Council. He remained a Vice-President of the VRU for several years.


The patronage of the Union in 1895 by Sir John Madden, Chief Justice of Victoria [p.4], and in 1909 by the Governor-General, Lord Dudley [p.7], raised my hopes that some rare Annual Report or other authoritative record might have been retained in National or State Archives. So far those searches have drawn a blank, as have enquiries about private archives or collections of the papers of those gentlemen or of other viceregal patrons in the relevant years. Unless and until such prime sources become available it will be extremely difficult to produce a definitive account of those early Unions.

 Research & content  Ron Grainger

Entry page: A History of Rugby in Victoria

Entry page: A History of Rugby in Victoria