AN organisation that now administers rugby league in an area seven times larger than the United Kingdom began with the humble amount of five pence.
That was the amount which one of the founders, Sinan Boland, borrowed from his railways workmate Carl Swenson to pay for the postage to call the first meeting of what is now the Queensland Rugby League.
Esteemed league writer Jack Reardon penned “Swenson obliged further by typing the letters and addressing the envelopes to Boland’s fellow executives of the new body – George Watson, Jack O’Connor, Mickey Dore, E.L. ‘Buck’ Buchanan, Jack Fihelly and Alf Faulkner.”
The group was borne of a discontented band of Brisbane Rugby Union footballers who would meet regularly at Queen Street. At first they conducted their breakaway under great secrecy.
Labor Party identity Fihelly was the most prominent of the seven rebels, being a Member for Parliament and Deputy State Premier. He is believed to have first discussed the concept of a professional game as early as 1905.
Early meetings were held in the homes of the men before a tiny inner city office was rented as their headquarters.
Primary factors in establishing the new organisation were a desire to compensate players who needed to travel or miss work through injury, to give players a greater voice in the running of the game and to free up the on-field rules for more attractive and open play.
It followed similar revolts in the north of England and New South Wales. Indeed legendary sporting icon Victor Trumper was said to have been a major supporter of the cause.
Also revealed many years later was the role played by two key figures – Phil Dwyer and Tom Hennessy – in helping to establish the rules of the new code.
The first mention of the breakaway group in the media was on March 14, 1908 and a fortnight later on March 28 the official announcement of the Queensland Rugby Association was made.
In less than two months a Queensland representative team took on the New Zealand All Golds in Brisbane (May 16), following which was a one-off match against the Maori and a three-match series against New South Wales.
Laying the foundations of the current State of Origin concept, Queensland was well beaten 43-0, 37-8 and 12-3 against their interstate rivals.
League's popularity led to outrage from many sectors, alleging a ‘Ruination to Rugby’.
While several star players began to emerge, the figure of W.H. Beattie could not be overlooked. A well-known businessman, he crossed over from rugby union to referee the first major league games in Queensland, even assisting players with preparations before matches.
Not even a year into existence, the new body changed its name to the Queensland Amateur Rugby League (QARL), eventually becoming the Queensland Rugby League (QRL) in 1911.
The early popularity of league came despite several mitigating factors including poor finances, unrelenting domination by New South Wales and the continued opposition of rugby union.
Regardless, club rugby league officially began in Brisbane in 1909, with W. Evans scoring two tries as North Brisbane beat Toombul 8-0 at the Brisbane Cricket Ground.
However the game was far from confined to the capital city and early Queensland teams contained players from the likes of Maryborough, Bundaberg, Childers, Ipswich and Warwick.
Ipswich had a team in the Brisbane competition by 1910 and an exhibition game was played between Valley and Pirate FC at Gympie during the same season.
Such was the success of the game around Maryborough, there were soon 14 teams playing in that particular area.
Alongside Queensland’s fist Australian representatives – Doug McLean, Micky Dore and Bob Tubman – was another player of note in those early years.
Mick Bolewski, another to wear the Kangaroo jersey during his career, became the first Queenslander to sign with a British club (Leigh), earning vastly greater pay than was available at home.
As the code endeared itself with the public, two newspaper articles relayed widespread impressions of of the time.
“The feature of the game was the exceptional vigour with which it was played. Neither side spared the other when it was a question of tackling.” – The Bulletin, 1907
“The game was fast and open and play shifted from one end of the ground to the other with amazing rapidity.” – The Brisbane Courier, 1908.
Typically, the wondrous feats performed on the field took precedence over persistent detractors.
QRL History …… pt. II (1909-1913)
1909 was a watershed year for rugby league in Queensland. Firstly, the QRA changed its name to the Qld Amateur Rugby League (QARL) in January, before Brisbane staged the first club competition in the state. This was a four team competition, mostly comprised of former rugby union teams and players keen to join the new ‘professional’ game.
The teams for this inaugural club rugby league season were Valley, Toombul, North Brisbane and South Brisbane, with district extents based on electoral boundaries. With the rugby union body securing sole leasing rights to the Exhibition Grounds, QARL then secured a lease of their own to utilise the Brisbane Cricket Grounds as their playing headquarters.
A modest crowd of about 800 turned up to see the first round of fixtures of the Brisbane club competition on May 8, 1909. The early match saw North Brisbane defeat Toombul by 8-0, with W. Evans scoring the first-ever try and P. Dwyer kicking the first-ever goal. The second match saw South Brisbane defeat eventual premiers Valley 12-2. The Brisbane Concert Band played throughout the afternoon, as was a common occurrence at sporting events during this time.
The continuous trickle of rugby union defectors to the professional ranks of rugby league was not limited to representative players either. Many highly-regarded club rugby players soon joined the new Brisbane competition, not solely for the ‘professional’ aspect, but also for the revitalised open-style and running aspect the new code offered.
By season’s end, the powerful Valley Football Club dominated the club competition, culminating in their inaugural 23-4 grand final win over South Brisbane. The formation of a number of junior clubs around Brisbane, was also an important feature of this inaugural season.
With the establishment of regular club competition, interest in the game soared. Fihelly recognised though, that there was still some resistance in the newspapers against promoting the new code, with a number of newspaper executives firmly entrenched in rugby union circles.
Therefore, top-flight representative rugby league was a must for the new code’s survival. Queensland sides that included not only players from the Brisbane competition, but from other centres around the state, again took on visiting teams from across the Tasman.
Crowds of between 5,000 and 7,000 flocked to the ‘Gabba to see the visiting New Zealand and Maori sides take on Australia and Queensland. Mixed results were tempered with free-flowing attacking football thrilling the big crowds. Conversely, dour rugby union contests were being shown up by the new code, and interest in rugby league throughout Queensland exploded.
There was a downside though. Harsh economic times, public ridicule from rugby union purists, and the age of a number of inaugural representative players, saw many of the 1908 pioneers unfortunately disappear from the rugby league landscape by the end of 1909. However, Fihelly and Dore stood fast, and continued their plight to establish the game off the playing field.
Following the conclusion of club competition in 1909, a Brisbane representative side visited numerous country centres around the state. And with Ipswich, Bundaberg, Townsville, Toowoomba and Charters Towers all providing quality players to the state representative side, it augured well for the future expansion of the code. Ipswich in particular was the first regional centre to take up the code fully.
With a number of players participating in Brisbane already, it wasn’t surprising to see a fully-fledged Ipswich side enter the 1910 Brisbane competition. In fact, by 1911, Ipswich supplied two teams to the Brisbane competition. However, the rigours of work and injuries in a long season saw the sides merge by season’s end.
Interest in the game around the mining town also saw the emergence of a number of local teams, and the Ipswich competition quickly emerged under the auspices of their own QARL executive. The Starlights team won the first Ipswich premiership in 1910.
The visit by the first Great Britain side to Australian shores in 1910, also added a truly international flavour to an already popular game. But it was during these formative five years, rugby league established itself as the number one football code in Queensland. Brisbane and Ipswich were now firmly entrenched in their own local rugby league competitions, while the long-established rugby union and Australian football codes floundered.
A number of towns around the state were also sourcing public interest and the playing logistics of rugby league. With the emergence of new clubs South United, Kurilpa, Woolloongabba, Railways, West End and Natives during the next four years, it was inevitable that the first strong junior base in any sport was also now forming.
The senior club competition also swelled to six inner-city teams, with Valleys becoming the benchmark club in Brisbane. The representative scene was now also highly anticipated with an annual interstate series, intercity challenge matches, tours by local and interstate representative teams and international tours, as the game flourished. However, the shadows of war were growing increasingly closer ….
QRL History …… pt. III (1914-1919)
The onset of the First World War and Australia’s entry into it saw many sporting associations and other social groups go into recess. It didn’t take long for a war of words in the newspapers to emerge, with the rugby league executive at loggerheads with their rugby union counterparts over the very real issue of continuation during wartime.
The stance of the conservative rugby union side was that people should not be at home enjoying football while our troops were dying in the trenches, and that these able-bodied young men should be defending. The rugby league fraternity (with their ties to the ALP) argued young men back home should be playing rugby league to stay fit, while also providing a distraction for families to the ever-increasing death lists being printed in the papers.
At the forefront of this very public spat was the entrepreneurial Harry Sunderland, a former press editor and journalist who had joined the rugby league executive in 1913, and was now the League’s Secretary. Sunderland knew how to manipulate the press to suit a certain argument, and he was in his element affecting public opinion on anything from the league-union stance to that of conscription and political support for the war effort.
He was also a ruthless businessman who knew how to position himself well in any business action. During the next 25 years, Sunderland’s power would influence the game like no other, polarising football supporters on every aspect of the game.
Eventually, the rugby union made the decision to go into recess in 1916 - rugby league did not. It was not an unforced decision though, with numbers in rugby union playing ranks dwindling, few enclosed Brisbane sporting grounds, and a general lack of public support. The folding of rugby union was the catalyst for mass affiliations of rugby union clubs like Past Grammars and University, the formation of the Merthyrs club from Brothers rugby club players, and regional competitions to the League from all around the state.
These defections had been occurring ad-hoc for some two years by this stage, with regional centres realising representative opportunities only lied with the League game. By 1919, district rugby union bodies in north and central Queensland had switched, thus making the takeover complete.
This one moment in time is almost singularly responsible for rugby league gaining ascendancy over its once bitter rival, a position it has never relinquished. In 1917 though, there was some discussion of amalgamation between the two football codes, but again neither party would relent.
On the Brisbane club scene, the game’s headquarters varied between the Gabba and the Exhibition Grounds, with the Valley football club becoming the benchmark side in the competition. The royal blues attacking style of play while still managing to field some of the biggest players in the game was unrivalled, not to mention the shrewd management of the club itself. This dominance manifested itself into seven premierships during the first 11 years of competition.
However, the first true rivalry of the game arrived six days before the Gallipoli landing in 1915 when a meeting of officials and other interested parties at the Carlton Club Hotel saw the Toowong and North Brisbane clubs merge into a new club called Western Suburbs.
From the outset, the dominance and fierce rivalry of the Wests and Valleys clubs was unparalleled in Brisbane sporting circles, the Diehards nudging out the Paddington boys 10-9 in a spectacular 1915 grand final, before Wests took the honours 4-2 a year later.
By war’s end, the League had clearly become the largest sporting body of its type in Queensland. With the rugby union now also declared broke, and the other football codes playing strictly as amateurs, rugby league had no opposition sporting-wise, and enjoyed massive public support.
However, stormy times were brewing with regional leagues wanting more voting rights on issues within the League, proposed changes to the player qualification to an electorate system, and questions over the League’s financial statement.
It all came to a head during a tumultuous 1918 season, with record crowds flocking to club matches in Brisbane and representative matches staged in country centres. However, with powerhouse clubs Valleys and Wests at continual loggerheads with local League officials over the game’s management, and discontent at voting rights from both club and regional league levels, frustration and mistrust brewed.
Then in September 1918, a single incident referred to as the “Ricketty Johnson Affair” caused ripples that would eventually change the rugby league landscape in Queensland forever. Essentially, the Wests club imported two Sydney club players leading up to the 1918 semi-finals - Albert ‘Ricketty’ Johnson from Balmain and C. Baker from Eastern Suburbs.
Winning a crunch top-of-the-table clash with Merthyrs 5-0 at the Exhibition Grounds, an appeal by Merthyrs saw the League then strip the competition points from Wests, citing that Johnson was ineligible to participate in a QRL competition.