The birth of Rugby League in Australia
This clip is from Bicentennial Minutes, a series of 60-second snapshots of Australian history produced in 1988 to mark 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet of British convict ships at Sydney in 1788. In this episode, Peter Luck narrates the story of how rugby league started in Australia in the early 1900s.
Luck identifies the lack of compensation for a rugby union player who was injured as the catalyst for the development of a separate professional football code to be called Rugby League. He neglects to mention that the schism between the two codes had already taken place in England in 1895. He also doesn't mention the key moment in Australia was a meeting of leading rugby union players and supporters at Bateman’s Hotel, Sydney on 8 August 1907 which resulted in the creation of the New South Wales Rugby Football League. Player insurance was certainly a factor, but the move towards a fully professional rugby code was more significant.
Luck does, however, highlight a curious moment in sporting history that is not so well known, when the newly created national rugby league team, the Kangaroos, played the national rugby union team, the Wallabies. The match was played in 1909 when rugby league was still in its infancy and the rules were still very similar to union, so the rules did not have had to be modified to any great degree. The Wallabies won with the final score 15-6 in front of around 25,000 spectators. Legendary player Herbert 'Dally' Messenger had recently 'defected' from Union to League and kicked three goals for the Kangaroos.The idea of a hybrid annual competition between the two national teams on Australia Day has periodically been suggested.
Despite some important omissions it is remarkable that in under 60 seconds Luck manages to squeeze in enough facts and key moments in the history of rugby league to give us an overall account of the code's development. The clip effectively incorporates historic images but unfortunately not footage, which would have been very interesting and informative. It's disappointing that we are not actually shown any rugby being played at all!
The segment opens with footage of a violent clash between players from the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs. While opening the segment with violence may grab the viewer's attention, in many people's view violence tarnishes the game rather than celebrates it. While no one would dispute that league is a tough sport, apart from major games such as the finals and the State of Origin series, the 'biff' (as altercations are commonly called) has pretty much left the game as players and team management have become increasingly more professional.