League built on great rivalries
Rivalry has been an integral thread in rugby league's rich history stretching all the way back to the very origins of the game early in the 20th century.
With this weekend’s XXXX Rivalry Round we celebrate the modern animosity between Intrust Super Cup combatants over 20 seasons, but in the game's formative years in Brisbane there were rivalries that lasted for decades at a time and regularly spilled over into the stands.
In his wonderful book, Our Game – The Celebration of Brisbane Rugby League 1909-1987, Steve Haddan has meticulously researched some of the most bitter rivalries the game has ever known and recounted in graphic detail the violence on and off the field that often accompanied such clashes.
The first truly great rivalry of Brisbane Rugby League was between Valleys and Wests, which culminated in extraordinary scenes in a 1917 pre-season meeting, 100 years ago this year.
The ill feeling had carried over from the 1916 grand final where Valleys captain Barry Love threatened to haul his players from the field. Wests had won a try-less premiership decider courtesy of a Mick Scott penalty goal, and a wild brawl erupting amongst supporters in the aftermath.
When the two sides next met it was again a violent affair, with inner-city gangs of the time using the game as a meeting point for wild clashes.
“There were gangs that would convene – like English football – and they would fight and bring knives to games and sometimes brawl,” Haddan said.
Referee Jack Roche attempted to calm the crowd when a riot broke out during the 1917 pre-season game only to be kicked in the head by a soldier. The crowd was finally subdued when an umbrella-wielding female patron hit the soldier so vigorously that he had to be taken away for medical treatment.
As Haddan writes, rather than being horrified, “The Daily Standard remarked that ‘when so much enthusiasm and keenness are displayed by the public so early in the season it may perhaps be forecast that the rugby games will have an unusually successful season’.”
Almost 40 years later the bad blood was running just as deeply when Wests and Valleys met in the 1955 major semi-final. Wests star Alex Watson was felled by Valleys fullback and skipper Norm Pope in back play and was knocked unconscious. He lost two front teeth, had four others chipped and despite returning to the field was later found to have suffered a fractured jaw.
Valleys went on to win the grand final a week later, and 15 years later Pope was appointed coach of Wests in the face of great resistance from many within the club who had never forgiven him for his unpunished act on Watson in that major semi-final.
“You've got this lovely texture of the game of rugby league that we love so much that's very much a part of what the game means here,” Haddan said.
“That's why I wrote this book. You've got the game being just as interesting off the field as it was on the field still.
“That's the beauty of the game.”
Did you know? with Tony Webeck
The rivalry between Burleigh and Tweed Heads has become ferocious over the years, but there is extra significance for Sunday’s clash at Pizzey Park. Locked together at 13 wins apiece with one draw, both clubs have gone winless through the first five rounds. If Burleigh were to lose again, they would equal Tweed's record of the worst start to a season by a defending premier when the 2007 champs started the 2008 season 0-6. Tweed are on a record-setting run of their own, their 11-straight losses the worst losing streak in the club's history.
A former editor of Big League, Tony Webeck is the Chief Queensland Correspondent for NRL.com.