What we think happened in the past is the DNA of the present and the future. In the centenary season of the rugby league premiership in Australia, which was opened by a bruising match between two "original" foundation league clubs, the Roosters and South Sydney, it is clear that league has won its history battle with rugby union.
In all the centenary hoopla, it has been overlooked, for instance, that the Roosters and South Sydney were "original" rugby union clubs, too. South Sydney got their Rabbitohs nickname, apparently, in the club's rugby union days when opponents mocked the Souths players because their jerseys were soaked in blood after a morning spent hawking rabbits in the streets of Redfern.
The "history" of the split from rugby union to rugby league in Australia is a tale (according to sports historians) of a floundering, elitist and unattractive code, rugby union, that did not look after the interests of its injured players and was (rightly) knocked off its perch by the egalitarian rugby league code, "the greatest game of all".
For some weeks now I've been going through the 1906 and 1907 files of The Referee, a Sydney sports and arts weekly, which supported what it called "professional rugby".
It's clear, or it is to me, that the triumphal history of the split is not based on what actually happened.
The split did not come in 1908 with the inaugural rugby league premiership. It came in 1907 when a professional New Zealand rugby team, nastily called "The All Golds" (a reference to the perception they came only for the coin), played three "league" matches (but under rugby union laws) against a Sydney side led by the charismatic Dally Messenger.
The first match (NZ 12 d NSW 8) was watched by 20,000 spectators. By the third match, the crowd was down to 3500. But the money raised enabled, in 1908, a Sydney league club premiership to be started and an Australian rugby league team, "the Kangaroos", to be sent to the UK.
The split, devised by James J. Giltinan, an amateur walker and a prominent cricket umpire, was a type of Super League takeover. The takeover was launched, not because rugby union was floundering, but because it was flourishing in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Europe.
Some items from The Referee give substance to this reading of the facts. The Sydney Metropolitan union announced in April 1907 a credit balance of £2399 pounds and 4p. The four matches of the All Blacks in Sydney in 1907 attracted 146,535 fans. Dally Messenger's last game as a Wallaby, the third Test, attracted a crowd of 30,000 and gate takings of £1325. The NSWRU, awash with money, paid its secretary £250 a year.
The Springboks made a profit of £6000 from their 1906-07 tour of the UK, drawing a crowd of 80,000 to the Test against England. The NSWRU was considering inviting the Springboks to tour Australia in 1908. There was also an invitation on the table for Australia to tour the UK in 1908. NSW played a profitable series against Queensland in 1907 and had a successful three-match tour of Western Australia.
On Saturday, the Western Force, a team playing out of Perth, defeated the Auckland Blues in the fifth round of a Super 14 tournament involving sides from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
There is to be a Bledisloe Cup test this year in Hong Kong. Guinness has announced that it will sponsor China's national rugby side. Italy defeated Scotland in a Six Nations Test and Wales won their second Grand Slam in four years by defeating France at the Millennium Stadium.
Rugby league has won the history war in the battle of the rugby codes (for the time being). However, real history suggests it is rugby union that has prevailed as the stronger worldwide code.
- Sydney Morning Herald