We know they were great – their names and deeds have left an indelible imprint in the annals of the game.
From Messenger “The Master” in 1908, to Churchill “The Little Master” in 1958, and the procession of stars in between.
Whether in hectic battles, hard struggles or easy victories, these were the footballers who had the magnetism on the field to set alight the enthusiasm of the crowd.
They rarely disappointed, seemingly incapable of putting up a weak performance. For the most part, it is no coincidence that these players were the cornerstone of premiership success for their clubs.
For its first fifty winters, the Sydney club competition was built on the “district scheme” and the “residential rule”. It was a scheme that divided the metropolis along electoral boundaries. It both nourished and fed on the fostering of suburban tribalism and rivalry.
The district scheme wasn’t primarily about ensuring talent equalization and parity between the clubs. It was about allowing districts to nurture, keep, and take pride in their own. It was a time, long before salary caps, that clubs could build a football dynasty – and many did.
Eastern Suburbs, on the shoulders of Messenger, became the first club to enjoy a golden era – winning three premierships in a row from 1911 to 1913. Souths and Glebe tried to bring Easts down, making for terrific contests and booming crowds at what had earlier been a stagnating club competition.
But all credit was given to Messenger. “Mention Giltinan, Trumper, Hoyle, and dozens of others,” said Johnny Quinlan (a NSWRL and Easts official), “they certainly supplied the brains of the organization in those days – but it was Dally M who supplied the crowds with their afternoon thrills.”
It wasn’t all Messenger though. That Easts team included the fleet-footed winger Danny Frawley and the code’s first great hooker, Sandy Pearce. The iconic Frank Burge wrote decades later that league had “never had a gamer, rougher, tougher” footballer than Pearce.
Others would argue though that Burge himself eclipsed Pearce. Though his Glebe team were unlucky to never win a premiership, Burge’s name continues to blaze prominently in league lore.
Over 180cm tall, 15 stone and “a body like a Greek god”, Burge played as a mighty and powerful backrower, running with a high knee action and outstanding speed. More significantly, he possessed a “football brain”, anticipating the play to come.
Burge roamed the centre line of the field, looming up behind his wingers and centres as they cut back inwards, offering behind their shoulder “I’m with you son!”. As much as it must have been comforting to hear Burge, and know he was there, no doubt it also contained the hint of a threat.
In one amazing afternoon Burge amassed eight tries against the newly formed University club on the old Sydney Showground – welcome to first grade boys!
The Referee, Australia’s most respected and popular sports journal of the time, rated Burge as “one of the mightiest forwards rugby of any brand and any country”. He went by a self-adopted motto: “Positive football with pride in yourself and your club”.
Burge’s cohort at Glebe was the half-back Chris McKivat – the only man to captain the Kangaroos and the Wallabies. League offered McKivat far greater scope for his artful talents as a runner and creative passer than in rugby union. In his Wallaby days McKivat, as all rugby half-backs were, was constrained to the base of the scrum. But in league McKivat developed a running game, and became one of the first and finest exponents of the reverse pass.
McKivat was also lauded as “the ideal captain” and “an incomparable leader”. He would constantly chip away at his team mates, particularly the forwards to fire them into action. “His criticisms, some of them stinging, rattle out like pistol shots – all the time – however, he knows what we wants, and he gets it!” recorded a league journalist in 1911.
A more than keen rival to McKivat was Balmain’s half-back Arthur ‘Pony’ Halloway. As with every half-back battle ever since, each had their supporters and their critics. ‘Horrie’ Miller, the NSWRL’s secretary at the time (David Gallop’s forerunner if you like) entered the debate, declaring “’Pony’ was not eclipsed – his brilliance was such that in spite of Chris’ sparkle he attracted attention.”
Halloway was a tough little bugger too. At work one Saturday morning he had part of a finger chopped off in an accident. It didn’t stop him turning out for the Tigers that afternoon at Birchgrove Oval, despite the obvious pain and a blood-soaked bandage.
Halloway’s success at club level is up there with the likes of St George’s Norm Provan (10 Grand Final wins). Though in the shadow of Messenger, Halloway played in the Easts team that won in 1912 and 1913, before moving across to Balmain. There he found unprecedented glory as captain-coach of a team that won five premierships in six seasons (1915-1920), including 1916 where they remained undefeated all season long.
At the dawn of the 1920s Balmain were the most successful club in the league’s history – given the team included three future ARL Hall of Famers, we shouldn’t be surprised (Halloway, Jimmy Craig and Charles ‘Chook’ Fraser).
Unexpectedly, the next galaxy of stars to arrive in the same place at the same time was across the harbour at North Sydney. Under the coaching of McKivat, “the Shoremen” sky-rocketed to the top of the league totem, leaving Balmain, Easts and Souths to watch on for a change. Unfortunately for Norths, their “dynasty” was all too brief, lasting just two seasons.
Their success had been built upon the shrewd and inventive work of their half-back Duncan Thompson, and their two wingers Harold Horder and Cec Blinkhorn – arguably the best array of wingers to ever play in a Sydney club team together. The Norths side was an exhilarating combination to watch, and in one match they attracted over 48,000 fans to the SCG. The club earned more money in that one afternoon than it had all season in most other years.
Horder, who had already won two premierships with Souths, was acclaimed far and wide for his talents. His length-of-the-field tries were long remembered. “Horder was the most brilliant, most elusive, most successful, and most extraordinary wing I ever saw,” wrote JC Davis in 1930 (editor of The Referee). “He had the speed of an even-timer, and sprang into his speed instantly, he had the turn of a hare. His mind was as quick-moving as Messenger’s, and he had the anticipation of a Burge.” Horder amassed a career tally of 239 tries from 194 matches.
Duncan Thompson left Norths in 1923, and it is no coincidence the club’s slide downwards came with his departure. Thompson had definite ideas about how the game should be played: “Attack is the keynote to success” was his approach.
Thompson perpetually backed up team mates, and insisted that they never succumb in a tackle until they had off-loaded the ball. Describing it as “contract football”, Thompson would say: “The player does not die with the ball – it moves on and on – ideally no ball carrier is so smothered that he must play-the-ball.”
It was new thinking, bringing a science of team combination to the fore, rather than relying on the raw instinct of one or two naturally gifted individuals to achieve victory.
“A champion team must be almost obsessed with teamwork – individual brilliance is expendable,” explained Thompson. “Contract football is flowing football – it has no relation to bash-and-barge stuff – it is what rugby league is all about, or is supposed to be.”
The “contract football” philosophy served league well until the advent of the 10m rule and uncontested play-the-ball, with Wayne Bennett acknowledging Thompson’s methods for the exciting and ultimately successful style of the 1990s Broncos.
The first club to master “the art of teaming” was South Sydney – between 1923 and 1932 the Rabbitohs won seven premierships and finished runners-up twice. It was a glory period that only St. George would ever surpass. The Referee glowingly stated that teamwork “has reached a state of practical perfection.”
The Rabbitohs exuded a grand team, with most of the players rising through the district’s junior ranks. The most popular heroes of many were George Treweeke, Benny Wearing and Alf ‘Smacker’ Blair.
Wearing, a goal-kicking winger, was spoken of as “a real artist in every way”. His signature play was to audaciously kick the football over the head of the opposing fullback, and then use his phenomenal speed and incredible dexterity to snap up the leather without stopping on his way across the chalk-line.
Treweeke was a veritable man-mountain, towering over his team mates at a staggering 188cms – a remarkable height for those days. Playing in the forwards, his “bull-like rushes through the ruck” made him an exceedingly difficult man to bring to earth.
While Souths would go on to deliver two more golden periods, interjected by the regal 11 premierships in a row by St George, the other truly great team of the early decades was Eastern Suburbs.
Between 1934 and 1941 the Roosters won four titles and were runners-up in three other seasons. It was a side built around “the Bradman of League”, the goal kicking centre Dave Brown.
Like all great footballers, Brown seemed to be a step or two ahead of everyone else on the field.
“He always knew what was going to happen,” recounted Dick Dunn, his Easts team mate. “If somebody punted a ball up, he’d be right down there in attack, and if they dropped it, he’d scoop it up and away under the posts he’d go. His positional play was equal to anything. Goal kicking, oh goal kicking, he was just supreme.”
Measuring greatness is a risky task. Many footballers are labeled ‘great’ in their generations. The only true measure is that their names continue to be mentioned as the decades roll by.