During the 1920s rugby league usurped rugby union for prominence in Australia’s three eastern state universities – the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland (Brisbane), and the University of Melbourne.
A combined “Australian Universities” rugby league team was regularly selected, playing matches against the touring British Lions and New Zealand Kiwis, and twice ventured on overseas tours.
University teams travelled to other states and country districts, and the first annual inter-Varsity rugby league contest was played in front of a 50,000 strong crowd at the SCG.
Sydney University had so many rugby league players that a 7 team inter-faculty competition could be played.
Meanwhile the code’s officials dreamed of rugby league being the one rugby code in Australia, uniting all classes of society, where the men from all walks of life would positively influence the good character of each other.
A largely untold story, much remains to be uncovered and confirmed about the extent of rugby league in the Universities during this decade.
In particular, its inter-Varsity history between the three institutions, and the combined “Australian Universities” team, has never been explored and, as a result, is almost completely forgotten.
At Sydney University both codes were on offer for students, while in Brisbane (1920-29) and in Melbourne (1923-24) the 13-man version was the only rugby code being played.
Rugby union in the early 1920s was extinct in Queensland and Victoria, and only being played in the NSW capital amongst schools, the University, and a handful of Sydney clubs. Many within the Universities were enamoured with rugby league as a game to play, and they were encouraged by NSWRL and QRL officials to join the code, particularly Horrie Miller (NSWRL Secretary and a former Sydney University student).
The most prominent example of this is the formation of the Sydney University Rugby League Club that entered the Sydney first grade competition in 1920, participating until the close of the 1937 season.
University students though all remained amateur, declining to take any form of professional payments or allowances for playing rugby league, other than for travel or accommodation.
The University of Melbourne team competed in the short-lived rugby league competition in the Victorian capital in 1923 and ’24. After finishing as runners-up in the 1923 competition, the club succeeded in being officially affiliated to the University’s Sports Union – something which was never attainable by their compatriots at Sydney University.
A number of Melbourne University’s players were amongst the Victorian team that lost 45-13 to the visiting England side in their 1924 tour-opener at Fitzroy in late May (crowd 12,000). The Victorian team’s winger, P. Stott, was later selected in a combined “Australian Universities XIII” that faced the Lions in Sydney in their final match in Australia.
Held mid-week at the Sydney Sports Ground, according to a cable news report in the Argus “It was only towards the end of the match that England gained a lead and won by 31 points to 28” in an entertaining contest. The home team was primarily Sydney players, but along with Stott, it also included J. Vidulich and J. O’Sullivan from Queensland University.
In just one of the many unanswered questions about this period, the Argus revealed on 15 April 1924 that “A combined Universities’ team will play against the Engllshmen, and a combined Universities’ team will tour Auckland.”
In regard to this second Australian Universities rugby league team, on 26 June 1924 the Argus stated that two Melbourne University players “K. Fraser and J. Love who have been touring New Zealand with the Australian Universities team, have returned to their studies, and will be a tower of strength in the ‘Varsity, for their match with Melbourne.”
The detail of this tour is scarce, and conflicting. Brief mentions in New Zealand newspapers refer to the team being from Sydney University, but are ambiguous as to which code the team’s matches were played under.
However, in the Rugby League News of 5 September 1931 Bob Cunningham, the Sydney University RLFC’s treasurer, in writing very briefly about the history of combined Australian Universities sides, states: “A second tour of New Zealand was made in 1924, the team being drawn from the Universities of Queensland, Melbourne and Sydney.”
In explaining the first tour, Cunningham wrote: “In 1922 an Australian Universities team toured New Zealand under the control of the Australian Universities Sports Association, and the members of that team were awarded Australian ‘Blues’.“
Aside from taking the lead role in the national combined team, the Sydney University club itself was particularly keen on mounting development tours.
Commenting in the Rugby League News of 6 June 1931, Frank Benning, one of Sydney University’s finest forwards, revealed that the club had been undertaking extensive tours since its inception in 1920: “If we cannot boast of a premiership record,” wrote Benning, “we can claim to have done more for Queensland and NSW country football than any other club.“
“In eleven years we have conducted two New Zealand tours [a reference to the Australian Universities teams of 1922 and 1924] and visits all along the Queensland coast as far north as Townsville, including Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Maryborough, Cairns, and at centres like Toowoomba, Ipswich, and nearer home in the Northern Rivers, in Tenterfield, Inverell, Tamworth, Newcastle, Katoomba, Leeton, Griffith, to mention a few of the better known districts.“
The Australian Universities team are known to have made two further appearances, both against the Kiwis. In 1925, with Frank O’Rourke starring at centre (he would later play for Leeds), the Australian Universities team sprung a surprise 15-13 win at the Sydney Sports Ground.
In 1930 the New Zealanders defeated Australian Universities 18-12 in what The Sydney Morning Herald described as “a hard and rugged game.” This match was also considered unique in that it was the first rugby league game given permission by the Sydney University Sports Union to be played on the University Oval. In the Sydney University RL Club’s 18 seasons, it was never permitted to host a home game.
The code was so popular at Sydney University that inter-faculty teams were formed each season for regular Saturday and mid-week competitions. In 1934 the participating teams were: Arts, Medicine, Science, Economics, Law, Pharmacy and Engineering.
Significantly, there were also rugby league matches between the Universities.
A triangular inter-University series appears to have been played in Sydney during the August vacation of 1924. The Argus of 15 July 1924 stated that the tournament would begin on August 23. Later reports refer to Sydney University coming out winners, and that Melbourne lost it’s match to Sydney (by referring to the game being the 3rd time that the two institutions had met – the others being in 1909 and 1910 under RU).
An extensive report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 August 1924 covers an inter-Varsity rugby league clash won 38-8 by Sydney over Queensland (Brisbane), and confirms this particular contest had been an annual fixture since 1920: “The engagement was the fifth between these Universities, and the Queenslanders have not succeeded in winning a match.”
That first contest in 1920 between the two Universities had been held at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a curtain-raiser to a NSW v England match that drew well beyond 50,000 fans.
The next year future Australian Wallabies captain Tommy Lawton played rugby league for the University of Queensland in the annual clash. Lawton then left for Oxford University, but he was soon embroiled in controversy when his rugby league dalliance had been exposed, leading to the English RFU banning him as a “professional” – the ban though was removed, with the RFU creatively declaring that as there was no rugby union in Queensland at the time, Lawton had not transgressed by playing rugby league as an amateur.
Bob Cunningham, in the 1931 Rugby League News article referred to above, recounts that when the Sydney University club was formed, one of its first resolutions was to institute an annual inter-Varsity match with the Queensland University’s rugby league club, and that “these contests have been maintained to the present times and are essential for University bodies as they provide the competition between Universities that helps so much to mould their sporting traditions.”
“These games,” continued Cunningham, “are played alternately in Sydney and Brisbane and provide excellent opportunites for many young undergraduates to extend their firsthand knowledge of Australia by actual contact with the people and industries of the centres visited.”
Unfortunately the involvement of the Melbourne University team was limited to the 1924 season – at the end of that year the brief attempt to forge a club competition in the Victorian capital collapsed. All of the city’s rugby league clubs, including the University, changed to the amateur code, re-stablishing rugby union.
The reformation of the QRU in the late 1920s also impacted on Queensland University, amidst mounting pressure on students to eschew the professional code (even though they were playing as amateurs) and join the new Brisbane rugby union competition.
The University had teams under both codes as the decade closed, but despite the split resources, the rugby league team won the Brisbane club competition in 1928 and 1929.
However, with high schools crossing back to rugby union, the University faced an increasingly harder task each season to bring competitive and enthusiastic rugby league teams (three grades) into the field. After the 1935 season University dropped out of the Brisbane club competition and ceased to exist.
For rugby league it had been an all too brief flirtation with University and amateur football. Despite reassuring and welcoming words from NSWRL Secretary Horrie Miller, that pointed towards a desire for rugby league to be an inclusive game for all classes of society, the code seemed content to leave the Universities, and amateur football generally, to play under a re-established rugby union.
As each season passed, the game on the field demanded more training, increased athleticism and greater risk of injury. By the end of 1937 it was even obvious to the Sydney University club that they could no longer compete, voluntarily withdrawing their three grades from the Sydney club competition.
While Miller had hoped for rugby league to be a game that traversed across all classes of society, (as in Australian football in the other states), and Cunningham demonstrated how the University men playing the game and meeting Australians of all ilks rounded off the undergraduates’ knowledge and character, some will point to the relentless parade of miscreant NRL footballers as evidence of the ultimate benefit that the code lost when it indifferently let the men of the Universities and their clubs fade from the Sydney and Brisbane club competitions, and embolden the revival of amateur rugby union.
Miller’s dream of one rugby code, united across all Australians from all walks of life, positively learning from each other, influencing each other, was gone.