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WallabiesCarl Mullen signs rugby ball for small boy

History of Rugby in Australia [1] [3]

Early Days

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the southern hemisphere comprising the mainland of the world's smallest continent, the major island of Tasmania, and numerous other islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Australia is the sixth largest country in the world.
Some type of Football has been played there since the 1820s although since the rules of Rugby football were not even written down until 1840 it is likely (as is the case elsewhere) that some sort of derivation of school football was being played, carried there by ex-pupils/masters etc.
The most quoted first reference to football in Australia is that of the Sydney Monitor dated Saturday 25th July 1829 which stated:
“The privates in the barracks are in the habit of amusing themselves with the game of football; the ball may be daily descried repeatedly mounting higher or lower, according to the skill and energy of the bold military lickers thereof. It is a healthy amusement, and much played in Leicestershire.”
The reference to Leicestershire is interesting since Rugby school is located in the adjoining shire, Warwickshire, close to the boundary with Leicestershire (in case you were wondering, Leicestershire's external boundaries have changed little since the Domesday Survey in 1085).
Although it is most probable that football games continued to be played on a social level there is little hard evidence since it was not reported in the newspapers of the time.


Australian (Victorian) Rules

On 10th July 1858, in an open letter to the editor of Bell’s Life in Victoria, Thomas Wentworth Wills, Rugby and Cambridge-educated, though Australian born, proposed Football, shooting or athletics to be the game played by cricketers during the winter to keep fit; within 3 weeks a game had been organized with the aim of laying down rules for the new game, this eventually became Australian Rules football. The oldest surviving set of Australian football laws were drawn up the next year on 17 May 1859 three days after the formation of the Melbourne Football Club the MCC Committee having directed Wills, H.C.A. Harrison and W.J.Hammersley, to formulate appropriate rules.

Wills, who had been captain of cricket and football at Rugby School, was said to have insisted that the ground was too hard in Melbourne to allow the rugby tackle and that was one feature of the game not included in the rules which formed the basis of what became known as Melbourne or Victorian Football and a number of the new clubs observing those ‘Rules’ formed the Victorian Football Association in 1877, eight breaking away in 1897 to found the Victorian Football League.

The situation in Sydney was somewhat similar; the first Rugby football rules not being published there until 1860 and the first Rugby club, Sydney Football Club, not founded until 1865. In 1874 ten of the then seventeen Sydney Rugby clubs formed the Southern Rugby Football Union, (NSWRU from 1892) subscribing to the RFU Laws first adopted in 1871.

The initiative was blessed by the Melbourne Cricket Club and there is no doubt that the well established Cricketing organization which existed at that time aided greatly the rapid rise of the game which drew large crowds by the 1870s. The South Australian Football Association (now the governing body know as South Australian National Football League (SANFL) was founded on the 30th of April, 1877 and the Victorian Football Association (VFA) was formed 7th May, 1877 (now operates as a semi-professional league). By the late 1800s the new game was supreme in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane.
Cricket and the need for a winter training alternative were later to play a part in the adoption of Rugby as it had in the creation of Australian rules football. In 1858.

External link to A History of Rugby in Victoria

Development of School Rugby

During this time the idea of muscular Christianity had developed in the public schools in England and quickly spread to schools in the colonies. It was therefore natural that the game which Arnold or Rugby school chose to illustrate this process became the game of choice for developing this ideology. In Australia this ideology was also seen by the ruling classes as a way to control the lower classes, develop national pride and national honour.
Sydney on the other hand was suffering from a lack of public recreational space which was stunting the development of sport in general. The other Australian colonies had started playing each other at cricket in March 1856 and this highlighted further Sydney’s lack of grounds and stable clubs. Another inhibitor was the slow development of colony’s education system.
With this background a Sydney cricket club, The Albert Cricket Club, published the laws of football alongside the rules of cricket in its 1860 annual report. Note: although no copy exists to verify it, it is generally believed that the football laws were those of rugby school since the annual report of 1862/3 shows “the Laws of Football as played at Rugby school”.
In 1863 a grammar school and theological college was opened in Newington in 1863. Reverend Joseph Horner Fletcher (originally from England and had taught in New Zealand and Queensland) was appointed principle and George Metcalfe (previously taught at Melbourne grammar school) was appointed headmaster. Metcalfe introduced Australian rules football in the late ‘60s and it is said that in 1869 they played Sydney University at Rugby rules which is considered to be the first rugby match played by a regular school side in Australia.
In 1870 a game was played between Newington and the King’s school which is reported to be the first inter-school rugby game in Australia. Metcalfe was replaced as headmaster in 1869. The second master, Joseph Coates, who had been acting as sports master, and was also from England, possibly introduced rugby once he, assumed greater control.
In Western Australia, various scratch games had been played between visiting ships and local people. Rugby had also been introduced to the high school in Perth (Hale School) by its headmaster Davies who formed a team there in 1878.  He arranged a Rugby game on May 24, 1879 [2] between the Boarders and the Day-boys. A number of masters (Davies, Hart, Perry and Parker) also took part in the game, which resulted in a victory for the Boarders by two goals to three touch downs. Since this game is reported to be “the first game of the season” one can imagine that might have been earlier games also.
Former Rugby School 'old-boy', Thomas Breama Beuttler, replaced Davies as headmaster and organized the competitive game in Western Australia which used Rugby Rules, Perth High School (Hale) vs. a Town side on January 18th 1881.
By 1882, a small league had been formed consisting of Perth, Rovers, Fremantle, Unions, and the 'Fearnoughts'. However, by 1885 emphasis had shifted to the Victorian code and rugby gradually died out.

The first year of continuous rugby football being played [1][4][5]

  1863 map  

The news paper reports available (Sydney Morning Herald/Bell's life in Sydney) confirm Sydney Football Club (now defunct) which was founded on 30th May 1865 and formally constituted on 6th June 1865 to be the first Rugby football club in Sydney. It played its first internal match on 17th June 1865 in Hyde park. They then played a scratch team fielded by the Australian Cricket club on 8th July (won 1 goal to nil), 15th July (draw nil-nil) & 22nd July (unknown).

The Sydney University Rugby Union Club was also founded in 1865 although, there are also claims that this occurred in 1863 but no reliable evidence has been found to date to support this earlier date and it most probably emanating from the fact that scratch sides were being put together to play visiting naval ships earlier than 1865. On 17 August 1865 they played an internal match 1st year vs 2nd & 3rd  years and then on 19th July they played Sydney FC (20-a-side).

The Wallaroo Football club was established in 1870. They restricted their matches to playing the occasional military team, the Uni. of Sydney and the King's School.

By 1874 there were enough clubs to form a Sydney Metropolitan competition and in that year the Southern Rugby Union was established, initially being administered from Twickenham in England. Administration was handed over to New South Wales in 1881.

As the popularity of the code increased it began to spread north to Queensland, culminating in the first inter-colonial game of rugby football in Australia in 1882 between the Southern Rugby Union of New South Wales and Queensland. This contest created the impetus for the formation of the Northern Rugby Union (of Queensland) which was officially incorporated on 2 November 1883. Despite the enthusiasm of the volunteer administrators who strived to establish the code in Queensland, for a long time it languished behind New South Wales in its influence on the
Australian rugby scene.

In 1892 the Southern Rugby Union of New South Wales and the Northern Rugby Union of Queensland became New South Wales and Queensland Rugby Unions respectively.

Representatives from these two unions combined on 24th June 1899 to form a test team to play a visiting team from the British Isles. Four tests were played, Australia winning the first test at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

1899 Australian team
1899 Australian Team

Sydney                   24th June 1899     Australia 13 Britain 3
Brisbane                22nd July 1899      Britain 11 Australia 0
Sydney                   5th August 1899    Britain 11 Australia 10
Sydney                   12th August 1899 Britain 13 Australia 0

Without a national jersey, the Test matches in New South Wales were played in blue jerseys and in Queensland in maroon - both with the Australian Coat of Arms on their chests.

On 15th August 1903 Australia and New Zealand played a single test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the first Trans-Tasman test, in front of a crowd of 30,000. This was the beginning of intense rugby rivalry between the two nations. The New Zealand team were unbeaten on the tour and won the test New Zealand 22 Australia 3. The Haka was performed before the game.

Britain returned in 1904 and won the series 3-nil:
Sydney                   2nd July 1904        Britain 17 Australia 0
Brisbane                23rd July 1904       Britain 17 Australia 3
Sydney                   30th July 1904      Britain 16 Australia 0

As popular as Rugby had become, it would soon feel the impact of the breakaway professional game of Rugby League, which was formed in 1908. 

The first Wallabies 1908/1909 [3]

The first Australian representative team, the first Wallabies, went on tour IN 1908. Sailing on the steamship 'Omrah', the team spent 9 months touring the United Kingdom, Ireland and North America. The British newspapers started to call them the Rabbits but there was no way they were going to be called after an animal which was introduced to Australia by the British and had become a pest. The name “Wallabies” won by a couple of votes.
The 1908 tour coincided with the London Olympic Games in which Rugby Union was a sport. Invited to play, the Australian team won the gold medal by defeating Cornwall, the Champion English team representing England 32-3. There were only 2 teams in the competition, France having pulled out.
Following on the heels of a tour by the New Zealand All Blacks, the Australian team was pressured to produce a war cry similar to the Maori Haka. The team were ordered to perform an Aboriginal war cry, but were embarrassed by it. The Australian Captain Herbert 'Paddy' Moran called it the first Wallabies gravest affliction.
Syd Middleton became the first Australian to be sent off in a test match as they played Oxford.
When the team returned home, eleven of its members were enticed by the money offered to join the newly formed Rugby League, rugby union was under pressure and started to decline as measured by reduced crowds.

  1911 australian states map  

Notable Milestones in Australian Rugby

1882 - The first inter Colonial match is played between New South Wales and Queensland.  New South Wales won 28-4.
1883 - The Northern Rugby Union (NRU) was formed to administer the game in Queensland.    The Southern Rugby Union (NSW) tours New Zealand becoming the first team in the world to tour overseas.

1883 NSW
1883 Southern Rugby Union (NSW) team

1884 - The first New Zealand representative team visits Australia and wins all nine matches on tour.
1886 - A numerical value was adopted by The Rugby Football Union in England for tries and goals. Tries earned one point, conversions two and a goal from a mark, three points.
1888 - Club rugby is formally organized in Victoria and the Melbourne Rugby Union formed (MRU) against strong opposition from Australian Rules.
          -The first British Rugby Team to tour abroad makes an unofficial tour to Australia and New Zealand.   In a tragic boating accident, the British Captain R L Seddon drowned.  He was replaced as Captain by A E Stoddart who had just completed a tour of Australia with the English Cricket team.  To help cover their expenses, the team also played a number of Australian Rules Games in Victoria and South Australia.
1892 - The Southern Rugby Union and the Northern Rugby Union change their names to New South Wales Rugby Union and Queensland Rugby Union respectively.
1899 - Australia plays their first Test match - against the touring side from Great Britain.   In a four Test series played in Sydney and Brisbane, Australia won the first Test 13-3 at the  Sydney Cricket Ground on 24th June.

1899 Australian team
1899 Australia team

1903 - The first Test Match between Australia and NZ is played at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 15th August, won by NZ, 22-3. This tour greatly increased the popularity of rugby and large crowds started attending grade matches in Sydney and Brisbane.
1907 - A then record crowd of 52,411 attended the 13th July match between New South Wales and New Zealand at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
1907/8 - Financed by newspaper proprietor Joynton Smith and a group of Sydney businessmen, Rugby League is established as a professional variant of the game of Rugby Union in New South Wales and Queensland.  Enticing the defection of Dally Messenger, then the most famous rugby player in Australia, they are able to attract a number of other prominent Wallabies.
1908/9 -  The first Wallabies tour the United Kingdom and America, winning 32 of the 38 matches played.  While in England, they competed in the 1908 London Olympics of 1908, winning the gold medal for Rugby Union.

olympic medal players
Olympic Gold Medalists

1912 - Australia tours America.  This was the first and only tour specifically to America. The 1912 Australia rugby union tour of Canada and the United States was a collection of friendly rugby union games undertaken by the Australia national rugby union team against various invitational teams from Canada and the U.S, and also against the U.S. national team.

Dr. Otto Martin Bohrsmann (1869–1944) was tour manager. He was a Sydney physician who served as New South Wales Rugby Union treasurer for a number of years. Howell attributes the team's poor performance to a lack of discipline stemming from weakly imposed tour management. Bohrsmann's name would later be given to the landmark Mona Road, Darling Point, Sydney property Otto, which he bought in 1925 and which was retained by his descendants until 2010. His sister Altona would give her name to another Sydney landmark, a Point Piper home which in 2007 set the mark as Australia's most expensive home when it sold for A$50million.

Billy Hill was the secretary of the New South Wales Rugby Union, he toured with the squad as Assistant Manager and refereed some of the matches. At this time team coaches were frowned upon, with the team captain expected to fulfill these duties.

Ward Prentice had toured with the 1908 Wallabies and had played both Tests of that tour. He had made three further Test appearances for Australia in 1910. He was a rugged on-field leader and the 1912 tour marked his swan-song in international rugby, appearing in fifteen of the sixteen matches. After World War I he had a brief first-grade rugby league career Sydney in 1920.

Tom Richards had also toured with the 1908 Wallabies and had played 1st grade rugby all over the world, making district representative sides in Queensland, New South Wales, South Africa and England. He was a leader in the forwards and a natural selection as tour vice-captain. He would later see active service with the AIF, landing on day one of the Gallipoli Campaign on 25 April 1915 and he would be awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry on the Western Front.

The tour took in 16 games with only 11 won by the Wallabies, including the sole Test of the tour played against the U.S. All three matches played in Canada were lost by the Wallabies as well as one of the two matches against Stanford Universityand one of the three matches played against UC Berkeley. 

Opposing Team F A Date Venue Status
Barbarians Club 29 8 5/10/1912 St. Ignatius Field, San Francisco Tour Match
University of Santa Clara 20 8 6/10/1912 Golden Gate Stadium, Santa Clara Tour Match
Stanford University 6 0 12/10/1912 Stanford Park, Palo Alto Tour Match
Stanford University 12 13 16/10/1912 Stanford Park, Palo Alto Tour Match
Olympic Club 20 0 19/10/1912 St. Ignatius Field, San Francisco Tour Match
University of California 18 0 26/10/1912 California Field, Berkeley Tour Match
St. Mary's College 27 0 27/10/1912 St. Ignatius Field, San Francisco Tour Match
University of California 5 6 30/10/1912 California Field, Berkeley Tour Match
University of California 23 3 2/11/1912 California Field, Berkeley Tour Match
Univ. of Nevada, Reno 57 6 5/11/1912 University Ground, Reno Tour Match
University of Santa Clara 19 8 10/11/1912 Golden Gate Stadium, Santa Clara Tour Match
University of Southern California 41 0 13/11/1912 Boyard Field, Los Angeles Tour Match
United States 12 8 16/11/1912 California Field, Berkeley Test Match
Vancouver 3 6 20/11/1912 Stanley Park, Vancouver Tour Match
British Columbia 0 15 23/11/1912 Stanley Park, Vancouver Tour Match
Victoria (BC) 11 13 27/11/1912 Oak Bay Ground, Victoria Tour Match


The team played in the light-blue jersey of New South Wales with a Waratah emblem and the word Australia on the chest.

1914 - 1918 - Due to the numbers of players enlisting in WWI, Australian senior rugby went into recess. Sadly, many prominent players and Wallabies were lost. These losses and the continued impact of Rugby League, greatly affected the strength of the code.  Restarting the game in 1919 in New South Wales proved difficult, but even more so in Victoria and Queensland, which were unable to regroup until 1926 and 1929 respectively.
1921 - South Africa visits Australia and New Zealand for the first time winning all three Tests in Australia.
1923 - The Shute Memorial Shield named in honour of R E Shute was presented by the Sydney University Club, for the Sydney First Grade competition.
1927/28 - The NSW Waratahs tour the United Kingdom, France and North America, winning 24 and drawing two of their 31 official matches. They won three of their five internationals and averaged close to four tries per match. This team is credited with introducing running rugby into the Australian game. As the Waratahs were the only Australian representatives in the 1920s, all internationals played by them have been accorded retrospective Wallaby status.
1928/9 - The Queensland Rugby Union resumes operations and its re-emergence immediately makes a forceful impact on the performances of the Australian team, which defeated New Zealand in all 3 Tests for the first time.
1929 - Australian Rugby Union adopts green and gold as its official colours.  The Australian jersey is green with the Australian Coat of Arms.
1930 - The British Lions tour Australia.
1931 - The Bledisloe Cup was presented by the then Governor General of New Zealand, Lord Bledisloe, for competition between New Zealand and Australia. The inaugural competition was won by New Zealand two games to one.
1933 - The Wallabies make their first tour to South Africa for a four test series, won by South Africa three to one.
1934 - Australia win the Bledisloe Cup for the first time.
1939 - The tour of the 1939 Wallabies is cancelled when war is declared the day after the team arrive in England.  After two weeks in England, the team returns home.
1939 -1945 -Rugby administrators elect to continue the local club competition throughout the period of hostilities of WWII. 
1946 - After eight years, the first Test to mark the end of WWII is played between Australia and New Zealand.
1947/48 - The Wallabies tour the United Kingdom and North America.  In the four tests against the Home Unions the Australian line was never crossed.
1948 - Australia is invited to join the International Rugby Football Board.  This invitation gives impetus to the formation of an Australian Rugby Union combining all State Unions. In order to secure IRB membership Australia needed
1949 - The inaugural meeting of the Australian Rugby Football Union is held on 25th November with eleven delegates from the six States.  The Australian Capital Territory became a member in 1972 and the Northern Territory an associate member in 1978.
         - Australia records its first Bledisloe Cup win on New Zealand soil.
1953 - Australia toured South Africa for the second time and although they lost the series they were given a standing ovation after defeating South Africa 18-14 in a thrilling 2nd Test at Newlands. Wallaby Captain John Solomon was chaired off the field by two South African players.  This was the first Springbok defeat for 15 years.
1958 - The Wallabies fail to win a test during their tour of the British Isles and France.
1961 - To avoid confusion with the Springbok jersey, the Australian jersey is changed from green to gold for the 1961 Wallaby tour to South Africa.  It has remained predominantly gold ever since.
1963 - The touring Wallabies beat the Springboks in consecutive Tests, the first team to do so since the 1896 British team.
1966 - The Ballymore Ground is open in Brisbane.
1967 - The first of many successful overseas tours by an Australian Schoolboys' team takes place to South Africa, winning 5 out of 7.
1970s -  A re-appraisal of coaching techniques and administration is undertaken to further the development of Australian Rugby.

By the 1970s, rugby union in Australia began to display the first signs of commercialisation when the ARU accepted sponsorship from adidas to cover
the costs of outfitting the Wallabies, the national representative team. While this emerging corporate sponsorship broadened the financial base
of rugby, it did not have a significant impact on how the game was administered, and did not extend to players receiving payment for playing. Rugby union in Australia still supported and promoted the amateur values stipulated by the IRFB. The code therefore continued to be administered by volunteers, and played for pleasure rather than financial reward. The stance provided a justification for the ARU to expel players from participating in the code if they openly received payment for playing. These practices ensured the amateur values of the game were preserved
and continued to flourish. [5]

1971 - The South African tour of Australia is marred by violent anti-apartheid protests.
1979 - The Wallabies win the Bledisloe Cup for the first time since 1949.
1981 - Mark, Gary and Glen Ella become the first three brothers to be chosen in the same Wallaby squad.
1984 - The eighth Wallabies complete the Grand Slam during their tour of Great Britain and Ireland. This was the most successful Australian team to date and its record features a try in every Test by Mark Ella.
1987 - The inaugural Rugby World Cup was played in Australia and New Zealand. It was won by New Zealand who became the first country to retain the William Web Ellis Trophy.
1991  - Second Rugby World Cup is held in the Northern Hemisphere with Australia defeating England 12-3 in the final at Twickenham.
1992 - South Africa and Australia play their first test since the end of apartheid in South Africa allowed them to return to the International Rugby Competition.
1995 - The third Rugby World Cup takes place in South Africa, drawing a world wide TV audience of over one billion viewers. It was won by South Africa.
         - International Rugby Union becomes professional at all levels.
         - The Southern Hemisphere rugby countries of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia form SANZAR (South African, New Zealand and Australian Rugby) to administer an annual provincial Super 12 competition and Tri-Nations tests series between the three countries.
1996 - The Super 12 and Tri Nations competitions begin.  The Super 12 competition is made up of  five teams from New Zealand, four from South Africa and three from Australia.
1997 - The Bledisloe Cup is played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground - the first  international rugby game played at the MCG -  and draws a crowd of 83,000.
- The Australian Rugby Football Union becomes the Australian Rugby Union.
1998 - Australia wins the Bledisloe Cup in its first clean sweep in a three test series since the competition started in 1931.
1999 - Wales hosts the fourth Rugby World Cup. Australia win for the second time, beating France in the Final at Cardiff Park, in Wales.

1999 RWC winners
1999 RWC Winners

2001 - Australia wins its first series ever against the British and Irish Lions.
         - Coach Rod Macqueen and Captain John Eales retire.  The positions are handed to Eddie Jones and George Gregan.
2003 - Australia hosts the 2003 Rugby World Cup but loses to England in the final…by a kick!


1.  The Cygnet - High School Perth, Western Australia. 1879. I(III June 13, 1879): p. 4.
2.  Hickie, T.V., They ran with the ball : how rugby football began in Australia. 1993, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire. xviii,243p.
3. Jenkins, P., Wallaby gold : the history of Australian test rugby. Updated and expanded ed. ed. 2003, Milsons Point, N.S.W. ; London: Random House Australia. xiii, 506 p.
4. History of the Australian Rugby Union website, Accessed September 30, 2008.,183.html
5. The Postmodernisation of Rugby Union in Australia - James Skinner, Bob Stewart & Alan Edwards.
6. A history of rugby in Victoria - Ron Grainer







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