The Guardians of the Game

The story of rugby in both New South Wales and Australia in the critical decade of the 1920s really begins of course with the cessation of hostilities in Europe in November 1918 and the pivotal year of 1919 when the game in Australia had to be resurrected from a standing start.

Following the massive devastations of the War, such a task was to be no sinecure for the New South Wales Rugby Union. The 1918 annual report lists in memoriam the names of 388 members, both players and officials of the New South Wales Rugby Union killed in action. And we must bear in mind that the whole of the administration and club system had been virtually closed down in 1915 at the senior level, whereas the professional league had continued to play through the War and had all their systems and clubs in place, with ground leases secured and finances sound. This was to provide a vital springboard for the League's remarkable growth in the 1920s and a consequent financial bonanza. The conflicting decisions about playing through the duration of the War had an enormous influence in the post-War years on the wellbeing of each code, with particular damage to rugby in country New South Wales where most union clubs and branches failed to re-form. And, of course, in Queensland.

So, for rugby union in New South Wales, where were the players to come from to re-start the game? Bearing in mind that nearly 100 percent of senior pre-War players had enlisted, a scarcity of troopships to bring them home was the first hurdle. Many Australians did not arrive home until June 1919.

The, to add to the difficulties to the Union's officials and their committee of volunteers came the worldwide influenza epidemic. This meant that many potential players had to be quarantined on arrival home. Public meetings were banned and the early committee meetings of the Union were held on a ferry in Sydney Harbour.

What about finds to begin again, particularly to pay for ground leases? There were no funds! The balance sheet attached to the 1919 annual report shows that the Union's only assets were a loan to the Queensland Rugby Union of £332 which they were not in a position to pay and which was written off finally in the 1922 accounts, £110 in loans to branch unions which did not-reform and were also written off, and the grand sum of £32 in cash. With no assets, bank borrowings were clearly inaccessible. When the stark reality became widely known the day was saved by the donation to the Union of £500 by the AAGPS. Work could begin, albeit pretty modestly.

In February 1919, the executive of the New South Wales Rugby Union took over the running of the district grade competition from the Metropolitan Rugby Union, which had run it since 1900. This effectively meant the end of the Metropolitan Union (but not the Metropolitan Junior Rugby Union, which continued until post-World War II). They decided that because of the shortage of players they would suspend the district residential qualification rule to allow clubs to recruit as widely as possible. This enabled them to form six clubs for the commencement of play in April 1919: Eastern Suburbs, Glebe-Balmain, University, Manly, Cambridge (Stanmore) and YMCA. There were to be four clubs in the second grade premierships.

The highlights of that first year which rekindled the public's interest in a code they thought had disappeared other than in the schools were undoubtedly the matches featuring the triumphant 1st AIF rugby union teams on their return home in May. The first match was against Australia, whcih the Diggers won 29-18 and the second against New South Wales, when they cruised home 42-14.

And what of rugby in Queensland? Firstly it is worth noting that New South Wales derived an enormous benefit from the fact that the majority of players in those 1st AIF teams were from New South Wales and they injected great strength into the post-War New South Wales scene. Queensland did not inherit such a building block. They barely had enough players to field teams for the resumption of the all-important Interstate series. Secondly, both rugby league and the Australian Football League had retained great player drawing power in a much smaller population base.

But the Interstate series did proceed in 1919, with the results:

Match 1   Sydney University Oval   New South Wales 32   Queensland 14  
Match 2   Sydney Sports Ground   New South Wales 30   Queensland 13  
Match 3   Brisbane Cricket Ground   Queensland 25   New South Wales 24  
Match 4 Brisbane Cricket Ground New South Wales 17   Queensland 8  

Regrettably in Queensland, most clubs could not reform in 1919; some switched to league, notably Brothers and University. If you wanted to play rugby union in Brisbane in 1920, you couldn't. The only option was to move to Sydney, as did those great stars Tom Lawton and Otto Nothling.

Overall, the future of rugby union in Australia going into 1920 looked bleak. Not only had Queensland been lost, but the Victorian Rugby Union failed to re-form, with no prospect of substantial assistance for either of them from the fragile New South Wales Rugby Union.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man! Men in fact, men with vision - The Guardians of the Game. They saw that much more had to be done than just re-starting the district grade competition in Sydney, important though that of course was. Henry Braddon, William Hill, James McMahon and their committee realised that with Queensland out of the picture, success in discharging their self-imposed responsibility of keeping the rugby flame in Australia would be dependent upon Australia (read New South Wales by this time) remaining on the world rugby stage. If they could not achieve this, then it would be death by anonymity. Their vision was that New South Wales must play the game at the very highest level if the game of rugby union was to survive in Australia.

The exercise, then, was how to convert this vision into reality. As practical men, they began negotiations with the New Zealand Rugby Football Union for the All Blacks to tour new South Wales in 1920. The two Unions agreed to an annual exchange of visits 'for as long as was necessary'. At the same time, Braddon began a dialogue with the South Africans.

What follows in the fascinating survival story of this watershed decade is the year-by-year conversion of the vision to reality in the form of New South Wales' matches at the highest level of the game. Following persistent submissions by the late Myer Rosenblum and the late Jack Pollard, these remarkable achievements were formally recognised by the Council of The Australian Rugby Football Union on 3 October 1986, the minute reading:

It was resolved to adopt the recommendation of the Executive that, consistent with the decision awarding Tests status to the 1927/1928 Waratahs, Test status be awarded to matches played by New South Wales against other International Countries including the New Zealand Maori tours to Australia in 1922 and 1923, when Rugby was not played in Queensland in the period 1919-1929.

For more incredible stories about the New South Wales Rugby Union:

Guardians of the Game - Shop Now

Mulford, JG. (2004). Guardians of the Game: The History of the New South Wales Rugby Union 1874-2004.pp.68-71.

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