By 1914, rugby league in Sydney was doing much better than rival codes, as the following profit figures for the season demonstrate:
Representative games: rugby league 4252 pounds; rugby 348.
Club matches: rugby league 8795 pounds, union 625, Aussie Rules 390.
When World War I erupted in August 1914, the British government immediately discouraged the playing of all professional sports, arguing that it discouraged enlistments. Rugby league continued its competition, while rugby union suspended theirs.
On the original Anzac Day in 1915, the NSWRL’s first secretary, Ted Larkin and his brother were killed at Gallipoli, fuelling acrimony over playing sport in a time of war. It is relevant to today’s debate over sport being played in a pandemic.
Back then, the AJC kept racing and the NSWRL stated it wanted to ‘‘preserve the continuity of the game’’ and to ‘‘provide legitimate means of recreation for the players and patrons who were unable for one reason or another to serve.’’
Senior rugby league officials 100 years ago were also Labor members of parliament, with one newspaper describing the code as “the playground of NSW politicians.” NSW Labor Premier WA Holman took a view at odds with his anti-conscription colleagues, saying in July 1915 ‘‘Your comrades at Gallipoli are calling you. This is not the time for football or tennis matches. It is serious. Show that you realise this by enlisting at once.’’
It’s the National Party now which is supporting the NRL with former Racing Minister, Troy Grant, a member of V’landys’ Innovation Committee. NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro has also backed the NRL resuming saying “the NRL is the tonic we need to get through this virus.”
The code’s best players joined the debate, with Dally Messenger calling in June 1915 for football grounds to be converted to rifle ranges, while the NRL’s record-holder for most games, Cameron Smith, argued the NRL should halt play in the wider interest of protecting the community from the virus.
By the time of the NSWRL’s AGM in March 1919, Joynton Smith was re-elected unopposed as president and announced assets of 5520 pounds and liabilities of only 27 pounds. When V’landys assumed the chairmanship of the ARLC last year, he confronted a balance sheet of minimal assets and little cash.
Rugby struggled to restart its competition after the war, while Smith had earlier flirted with Aussie Rules officials over a proposal, at their behest, to amalgamate the two codes.
It sounds like heresy now but the man behind the merger was Charles Brownlow, after whom the AFL’s best and fairest award is named.
Aussie Rules had held a carnival at the SCG which attracted a poor crowd, compared to the big attendance at the league, prompting Brownlow to argue a merger of the two codes would produce a magnificent spectacle. Plans to fuse the two codes were nicknamed “Brownlow’s Brainchild”.
Secret talks between the codes- which took newspapers six months to reveal – came to nothing.
The report of the meeting in Melbourne noted Brownlow asking ‘‘Don’t the clubs (in rugby league) cause trouble?’’.
A Mr E Mead, representing the NSWRL, replied: ‘‘Very little notice is taken of their attitude.”
Given that rugby league’s top administrator, Todd Greenberg, recently fell victim to a campaign by powerful NRL clubs, maybe the sporting world was radically different 100 years ago.
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.