Terrific article in today's Australian, explaining just how close Melbourne and Sydney (and hence Australia) came in the 19th century (with further attempts in the early 1900's and 1930's) to having a united code of Australian football - it would have succeeded had it not been for the English public school-educated rah-rahs of the NSWRU
They should never be forgiven -
Storm, Sydney symbols of vision generated in the distant past
Sean Fagan explains the significance of the Sydney Swans and Melbourne Storm playing in their respective grand finals (Sean Fagan is the author of The Rugby Rebellion - The Divide of League and Union)
September 30, 2006 The Australian
WHAT an ironic double it will be, if the Sydney Swans and Melbourne Storm win their respective grand finals this weekend. For more than 130 winters, football administrators in Sydney and Melbourne have dreamed of the day when their game would hold supremacy in their rivals' metropolis
In the late 1870s, Melbourne's Carlton and Sydney's Waratahs played each other in a series of matches under Australian football and rugby union laws. Their goal was to showcase the finer attributes of both games, in the hope of forging a hybrid football code for Australia. The matches attracted enough interest for the Waratahs and the Sydney University clubs to put to the NSWRU that scrums and unlimited running with the ball should be removed from rugby. It was essentially a vote to merge the two codes. However, by a mere handful of votes, the largely English public school-educated NSWRU officials, rejected the changes
. The Waratahs left the NSWRU in disgust, and helped to establish an Australian football club competition in Sydney that flourished through the 1880s.
In the meantime, the NSWRU regularly dismissed proposals from the Victorian Football Association for a "merged rules" contest between the colonies. Ultimately frustrated, the VFA went it alone
. In 1881, a crowd of more than 5000 attended the SCG to see Victoria thrash the best of the fledgling NSW Australian football players. Staggered by the support shown for the inter-colonial contest, the NSWRU quickly engaged with rugby union bodies in New Zealand, arranging for a NSW team to cross the Tasman at the end of the 1882 season and begin a regular interchange of visits.
Meanwhile, in Brisbane, a hot battle was taking place between the two codes for the loyalty of the city's footballers. Sensing an opportunity, the NSWRU offered to pay the costs of the Brisbane players to visit Sydney - provided they agreed only to play rugby union
. The first NSW-Queensland rugby union match duly took place, with victory going to the home team. In 1883, the NSW team returned the favour by travelling to Brisbane. The Queenslanders achieved a surprise win, and almost overnight footballers flocked to the rugby code - success over the "mother colony" proving to be a telling allure
For the next two decades, both codes dabbled in each other's territory, in the hope of expanding their realm. For a short time, a Victorian rugby union team saw the light of day, but, like the Australian football club competition in Sydney, it withered away. The years immediately after federation quickly changed the attitude of many - no longer colonial Britons, but Australians. In 1903, a small group of men thought it was time Sydney football fully embraced "the Australian game".
Led by Test cricketer Victor Trumper, and NSW politician (and former Tasmanian) Edward O'Sullivan, an 11-club Australian football competition was formed. They argued that it was time NSW supported its own Australian-born code
. A mid-season showcase-match at the SCG between Fitzroy and Collingwood suggested O'Sullivan had hit the target. More than 26,000 spectators flocked to the ground. It was a spectacular result in terms of Sydney crowds. Australia's first rugby union Test against New Zealand only weeks later attracted just 4000 more (and that was a record for a Sydney Test). The VFL instructed the two Melbourne clubs to leave the gate-money behind, so it could be spent in Sydney on expanding the code. Much of the money went towards employing 'lecturers', who visited schools to teach the finer points of the game, and leave a football behind for the boys' use. The investment paid off. By the winter of 1905, rugby's hold on schools and juniors had been cut in half as youngsters embraced the alternative of Australian football
- including Dally Messenger's two younger brothers.
NSWRU officials were startled by the trend, but could do little to prevent it. Many openly admitted rugby was on the wane, and they were facing a real challenge to hold the support of the city. However, during the 1905-06 summer, the New Zealand 'All Blacks' toured Britain - their astonishing success and popularity garnered pound stg. 10,000 for the NZRU. With the annual wages of a working man rarely topping pound stg. 100, the news caught everyone's attention
. Trumper joined with Sydney entrepreneur James J Giltinan, and turned away from Australian football. They laid plans to start a professional rugby league club competition, with the objective of taking their own team to Britain and sharing in the rich profits on offer. They also schemed with men in Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide to establish professional clubs to take up the new code.
Led by Messenger, Sydney's working-class footballers and their supporters spurned rugby union and Australian football, and joined rugby league. Upon forming the NSWRL in Sydney in August 1907, Giltinan immediately opened negotiations with Melbourne's John Wren, the famed sporting promoter and Collingwood Magpies patron. They began organising a rugby league match in the southern city between NSW and the New Zealand 'All Golds' team. Both entrepreneurs also envisaged the possibilities (more the money) that a NSW-Victoria interstate football match could bring. Their initial plan was thwarted by the late arrival of the New Zealanders in Australia, leaving no time for the Melbourne match before the 'All Golds' were due to join their ship for England.
In late 1908, Giltinan took the opportunity to meet Australian football officials, in the hope of persuading them to open talks to create a hybrid national football code with rugby league. He also suggested that he could convince rugby league in New Zealand and England to join the scheme. This would lead to Australia's best footballers, from all states, playing in winter Test matches in Sydney and Melbourne on a scale that would out-rival cricket for interest. The Victorians agreed to examine Giltinan's ideas, and by 1914 serious plans were in place to initiate the merger. The sudden advent of World War I shelved the concept. It was revived again in 1933, and talks progressed so well between the NSWRL and VFL that a secret trial game was held between NSW and Victorian teams at the Sydney Showground.
Ultimately, both the VFL and NSWRL were dissuaded by fear; if the new code was not an instant and all-encompassing success, they would have in effect created a third football code that would have diluted their own support. Both codes retreated into their own territory for the next half a century, before beginning to establish one-city and interstate clubs, and ultimately expanding into their opponent's home city. The two codes may now be achieving their long-held dreams, but in the process they have opened the door to their rivals.