The state of New South Wales is known for many things, home to five World Heritage sites including the Sydney Opera House, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the state’s sporting pedigree. On this day, 112-years ago, the sport of rugby league was born in The Premier State and the rest, as they say, is history.
The year is 1908 – William Taft has been elected President of the United States and London is hosting the third edition of the Summer Olympic Games but the Olympics was not the only sporting entity in its infancy.
So to was rugby league in New South Wales.
The New South Wales Rugby Football League (NSWRFL) played its opening round of matches 112-years ago, to the day, on the 20th of April in 1908, in what was the Sydney Premiership (later replaced by Super League and the ARL Premiership in 1994).
The NSWRFL actually formed a year earlier, at the Bateman’s Crystal Hotel in Sydney, in response to growing disgruntlement amongst players over administration issues caused by New South Wales Rugby Union.
A key figure of this movement was J.J. Giltinan, who was elected as the organisation’s first secretary, and was awarded lifetime membership by the NSWRFL in 1914 with his legacy still evident today given the Minor Premiers in the NRL are awarded a shield named in his memory.
New South Wales and Australia cricketer Victor Trumper and Sydney politician Henry Hoyle were also key forerunners in the organisation’s creation with the pair acting as the NSWRFL’s first treasurer and president respectively.
The inaugural Sydney Premiership was comprised of nine teams, eight from Sydney and one from Newcastle: Balmain Tigers, Cumberland Fruitpickers, Eastern Suburbs Roosters, Glebe Dirty Reds, Newcastle Rebels, Newtown Jets, North Sydney Bears, Western Suburbs Magpies and South Sydney Rabbitohs.
On Monday 20th April 1908, four matches were played across two stadiums, both attended by 3,000 spectators, with Glebe defeating Newcastle 8-5 and Eastern Suburbs beating Newtown 32-16 at Wentworth Park. South Sydney beat North Sydney 11-7 with Balmain coasting past Western Suburbs 24-0 at the Birchgrove Oval.
After ten rounds of fixtures four teams emerged as semi-finalists with South Sydney ahead of Eastern Suburbs on points difference closely followed by Glebe and North Sydney. A 23-10 success for the Suburbs against North Sydney coupled with South Sydney’s 16-3 win against Glebe set up a clash between Australia’s two best rugby league sides.
However, both teams were weakened ahead of the Grand Final, losing players to the disastrous first Kangaroo tour of Great Britain, organised by Giltinan, which resulted in Giltinan becoming bankrupt and he, along with Trumper and Hoyle, were kicked out of the league the following season due to almost bankrupting the NSWRFL entirely (although they would all be awarded life membership in the NSWRFL in 1914).
South Sydney edged out Eastern Suburbs 14-12 in the Grand Final, played at the Agricultural Society’s Ground, in a match described by the Sydney Morning Herald as “brilliant”.
Those games, played on Monday 20th April 112-years ago, set the foundations for the future of rugby league in Australia as we know it today.
Both teams that played in the inaugural final over a century ago remain present in the NRL today so whilst both sets of supporters may despise the other team, without one another the sport of rugby league may not have been what it is today.