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Australia’s First Rugby League Club

FOUNDING DATES Glebe - January 9 Newtown - January 14 South Sydney - January 17 Balmain - January 23 Eastern Suburbs - January 24 Western Suburbs - February 4 North Sydney - February 7 Newcastle - April 9 Cumberland - April 21
Glebe – January 9
Newtown – January 14
South Sydney – January 17
Balmain – January 23
Eastern Suburbs – January 24
Western Suburbs – February 4
North Sydney – February 7
Newcastle – April 9
Cumberland – April 21

There is a small-time war being fought out – all related to when was each of Sydney’s clubs first formed, and therefore, who is the oldest.

According to the newspapers from January 1908 (everyone of them), Glebe were first, on January 9.

Newtown are the oldest club still playing. For decades Newtown claimed it held its founding meeting on January 8 and before Glebe, despite the contemporary evidence (i.e. newspapers) overwhelmingly confirming Glebe as first.

It is impossible to verify the dates contained in the Newtown club’s minute book are correct, and when they were written up – the newspaper reports provide particularly strong evidence that the club’s documents are incorrectly dated.

This is not to say that some additional evidence may be uncovered in the future to confirm the date of Newtown’s meeting as January 8th, but it seems particularly unlikely.

It is interesting to note that if the newspapers were all wrong, where are the published letter(s) from the Newtown club in the days/weeks after the newspaper reports making a public correction?

Not one newspaper contains a correction and/or letter from Newtown, even though such letters were common place in newspapers at the time when individuals/clubs believed a newspaper had made an inaccurate statement.

Simmering under the radar a little is the belief that Souths were first because they held meetings in the latter months of 1907. These, of course, were important preparatory meetings, but can hardly be recognised as the founding meeting.

Sunday Sun
: 12 Jan. 1908. Unequivocally confirms that Glebe’s founding meeting was the first held, and that by the 12th Jan the Newtown meeting had not yet been held.

The Sydney Morning Herald: 9 Jan. 1908

The Australian Star of 29/1/08, in summarising the NSWRL’s progress, stated: “The opening meeting of the campaign was held at Glebe, in the Town Hall.”

The Referee
: Wed. 22 Jan. 1908. Confirms the Newtown RLFC was formed on Tuesday 14 January, 1908 – five days after Glebe.

At the founding meetings a public vote was taken to form a club, and its first members sign the club roll.

If the Souths meetings at Arthur Hennessy’s house are to be taken as the founding meeting of Souths, then that would mean that Australian rugby league was founded in mid-1906, when the first secret meetings were held that led to the NSWRL’s formation 12 months later.

Worth noting though is that it was originally intended that the three matches held in August 1907 against the “All Golds”, were to be played by club teams – Easts, Souths and Glebe (Daily Telegraph, August 3). This would imply that along with Souths, many of the 1908 clubs had begun preliminary meetings of some sort.

Overall though, the argument as to which club was founded first is really of no consequence.

The 1908 clubs were not “clubs” in the sense of the word that we understand it to mean today. [Not social clubs as the “Northern Union” clubs were in England.]

James J. Giltinan said, as early as August 1907, that the premiership would be run using the district scheme.

Each “club” was merely an administrator of rugby league within the district each was allocated by the NSWRL (akin to the way the NSWRL or QRL look after their state). Each district, more or less, followed the lines set out by the NSWRU in 1900.

Under the NSWRU system (and NSWRL in 1908), a public meeting was held at the start of each year – there, at the local town hall, a vote was taken each year on whether to form a club for the coming season or not.

The first district rugby league club meetings were certainly momentus, but, in themselves, nothing unique for Sydney’s rugby community – they resolved to form a League club instead of Union. Some people at those public meetings voted against forming rugby league clubs (Newcastle Feb. 8 voted NOT to form a club!).

Balmain rugby league supporters stacked a meeting that was attempting to form the Balmain rugby union club for 1908, ensuring the vote failed to pass the motion. The NSWRU organised the next meeting to coincide with the ensuing Balmain rugby league club meeting – the vote passed the second time.

At Rockdale Town Hall on February 28, a resolution passed forming the St George Rugby League Club. However, it never took the field as only three men signed on to be members. (Note – had St George participated in 1908 it would have taken a large ‘chunk’ of the Newtown club’s district and footballers, even though Newtown formed six weeks before the St George meeting.)

It is also important to observe that the meetings (dates/venues) were all organised by officials of the NSWRL – no doubt with the assistance of particular players/supporters in each district, but nevertheless, the NSWRL conducted the meetings, not autonomous groups/syndicates acting independently. As the NSWRL’s officials could not attend every district on the same night, they were all done independently (hence all the clubs have different founding dates).

The NSWRL adopted a district scheme for Sydney (same as the NSWRU had used) – it therefore made no difference who was first. No club could claim another district’s area by getting in first. All that mattered was that each district that resolved to form a club lodged an application/fee with the NSWRL by 1 April 1908 – the date which the NSWRL announced it would decide the boundaries (a player-pool equaliser if you will).

Interestingly, the first NSWRL rules included a specific clause providing for the entry of a Sydney University rugby league club, even though one had not been formed (and wasn’t
until 1920).

As it was the NSWRL who were deciding where meetings were being held, anyone looking to form a club from outside the NSWRL couldn’t really do it. The disgruntled Wests RU players who formed Cumberland had to convince the NSWRL that their club would be viable before the vote to form the club was taken (not the other way around).

Unlike the district clubs of the NSWRU, each of the rugby league clubs were given 33% of the gate-receipts by the NSWRL, and were allowed to draw-up their own constitution. Over time, this gave the clubs independence and autonomy, and they became more than simply district representative bodies.


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