The 1899 Originals
Rugby Union Football in Dubbo was built on simple but solid foundations. The code would not have survived for a century otherwise. At the core of things were the players. In the main, they were either raw-boned sons of the soil or the offspring of the town`s richer merchants, shopkeepers and professional families. There were a few others though. Dubbo clubs, as in most country rugby centres, always seemed to struggle to harvest their full complement of fifteen players for each game. This gave opportunities - even advantages of scarcity - to poorer youth uninitiated into the basics of rugby union.
Often these three or four players were recruited from local pubs, sometimes less than an hour from kick-off time. These hasty recruitment drives occurred even when an inter-district match was looming. Fifty years later, the scarcity problem still existed and local players made frantic dashes to Dubbo`s Occidental, Pastoral, Club House, Court House, Railway or Royal hotels seeking volunteers. Noel Pitt, the Peacocke brothers- Gerry and Peter, Laurie Magin, Max Madgwick, and other stalwarts of the early 1950s, testify to these flying visits coaxing likely lads away from theirleisure drinking sessions and into the ranks of the hard-pressed rugby team.
To modern readers this may seem a pretty haphazard way to run a football club. Maybe it was but in the earliest years, Dubbo was an emerging rural service centre of a mere 2,000 or so people. Experience of the basics of rugby union football was confined largely to the district`s sons of pastoralists and of the wealthier business and professional men who had spent time at rugby union schools in then far-off Sydney. Dubbo had to wait until 1935 before Dubbo High School, which began functioning in1917, became a breeding ground for rugby enthusiasts. The solid core of players was bolstered by young men and boys who learned the game "on the job" as it were. Lucky indeed was the country town, which could boast an older, more match-wise former player to coach its teams. More often than not, the youthful captain of the side was also player-coach.
An 1899 photograph of the first Dubbo team testifies vividly to the simplicity of the game in the town and its players. The team certainly looked a rag-tag-and-bob-tail group. Their guernseys were a riot of designs. One was emboldened with a maltese cross. Another sported coloured horizontal bars. Another was sombre black (the captain`s no less -Jack Hives Jnr holding a standard leather football inscribed with the year, 1899). The rest were of various shades of white. Players wore flat caps or were otherwise bare-headed. Their motley of footwear including sandshoes barely resembled the specialised spiked, high cut boots of later years. Their football knickers would doubtless have evoked derision later from callow youth so intolerant of differences from the fashionable shorts of their own time. A century later those knickers still arouse amusement; they are quaint. Mostly black, but among them four white long legged creations, the knickers all had deep pockets unlike to-day's brief, close fitting models. Why the pockets? Easy; to carry cloths to remove mud or grime from players` faces and to dry their sweating hands. Some of the more conscientious men carried resin believing it would help them to catch "the globe" in slippery conditions.
The 1899 Originals certainly presented a huge contrast to modern teams as they posed for their photograph. Modern teams are so regimentally correct. In their standard playing uniforms, they sit rigidly, arms folded and gazes uncompromising and unsmiling dead ahead. No room for eccentricity here. The outcome? The modern breed of rugby warrior appears far more intimidating than the 1899 team. How different the reality is, in the heat of play, is anyone`s guess. The Originals and their immediate successors were hardened by tough physical living and working conditions. Few needed weight training exercises, few were sedentary. They walked or ran more often than they travelled by push bike or horse. Today, heavy reliance for endurance and speed conditioning is placed on modern gymnasia with their impressive assortment of high-technology equipment.
The Originals were husky and sharp featured; their modern counterparts are chunkier, sleeker and more mentally focused on winning. Even W. Tink, the club secretary in his black three-piece serge suit with fob watch chain dangling from his waistcoat pockets and his straw boater looked relaxed and comfortable. So did E. Howe, the player-team manager with his jaunty sports coat, bow tie and flat cap. The stern reality of battle on the field at the Dubbo Sports Ground (for years Number 1 Oval and now the home of the Dubbo Rugby Club`s headquarters) and the abyss of possible defeat seemed to the 1899 team barely worth contemplation. Their minds were more on the social aspects of their contests than on dominance or of victory at too great a cost. The 1899 Originals` prime enjoyment came from the surge of pleasure from a tackle well done, a pass thrown with bullet-like accuracy, winning a line-out with a skilful jump, the thrill of scoring a try and the happy banter and horse-play of pre-and post-match sessions.
The stringent, professional, minimal-error dictates of the modern game were largely unknown to the 1899ers. Such steely ambitions were really beyond their ken. Dubbo`s first teams were learning the simple tasks and performing the basics as best they could. They were simple amateurs who were unwittingly pioneering a football code in Dubbo, which, despite many reverses has stood time`s inflexible tests.
Players were obliged to pay for their football. They bought their own guernseys, knickers, sox and boots. They paid a yearly membership fee of about 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence.) No half-time oranges or energy-charged liquids were supplied. Half-time breaks often stretched well beyond a customary ten minutes. No medical treatment or first aid was available as a matter of course as it is today. A bucket of water and a rag or "magic sponge", clean at the kick-off whistle but usually grimy soon after, were the best the players could expect. Only a football, a rather precious commodity, and a playing field were provided by the club`s directors.
Country playing fields were invariably bumpy spaces cleared by a crude agricultural grass cutter. The required lines on the field were slowly hand-marked in liquid lime solution (the ubiquitous "white wash"), the groundsman using a brush and a stretch of taut line twine. The fields were marked off in the now superseded imperial measures of yards not metres. Obtaining and erecting goal posts would normally have presented major problems. Not so in Dubbo because one of the code`s strongest supporters and officials was one Edwin H. Utley, some-time sawmiller, mining speculator, hotel keeper, rural property owner and mayor of the Dubbo Municipal Council. Mayor Utley was only too pleased to supply the posts and to use his own employees to erect them.
When an inter-district match was played, and these ate up major slabs of travel time, the club provided conveyance in a horse-drawn omnibus or by steam locomotive where the venue was located close to the few recently opened railway stations. Cause for major public jubilation, the railway linking Dubbo to Sydney was opened officially on 1 February 1881. On occasions, some players made their own independent travel arrangements, either on horse-back or by push bicycle!
Relations with their opponents were normally genial; off the field that is. There was an established tradition of treating one`s visitor-opponents with elaborate courtesy. In Dubbo`s case this usually meant entertaining them after the game at a formal occasion at some hotel or other. Invariably, there were speeches welcoming the visitors, expressing loyalty to the Crown and praising one`s own players and one`s opponents for their sportsmanship and flair. Where visitors were obliged to travel long distances, special arrangements were made to greet them at highly public events and to entertain them at pre-match "smokers" in a hotel. Again speeches, singing, recitations or some other entertainment were customary. The townsfolk turned out in large numbers. Such visits were special events and the folk were eager to evaluate their team`s opponents.
The level of cordiality in the game itself differed from the pre-and post-game courtesies. Existing evidence indicates that the rules relating to body contact were more casually interpreted than they are now. Perhaps the rugged, take-no-prisoners violence of the early rugby years was a throw back to those distant days in England when a peculiar type of ball game involved whole communities struggling against one another. The desired goals were caves, or islands or some other prominent landmark. One goal was located in the opponent community`s area, the other lay within the defending community`s borders. No-holds were barred in " folk " football matches. Clubs and stones were sometimes wielded and individuals were known to attack on horseback surging through their opponent`s ranks. Horse-attack was extreme and disdained as a form of cheating but football violence was usual nonetheless. Severe injuries to players and occasional deaths were not uncommon.
The savagery of the old English mode of play had softened considerably after the time when William Webb Ellis at Rugby School picked up the football and ran with it. Even so, when players in colonial New South Wales inherited the game from English enthusiasts, the rules were vague on what constituted unduly rough play. Inter-personal conduct brought from colonial England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales was harsh by modern norms. Conditions in the penal colony and prevailing public and private behaviour only accentuated the severity of human interactions. The rugby fields of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were no places for the faint hearted. The grounds may have been hard but the players were harder.
Interestingly, the rules and specifications of the code have altered only a little over time. The strong conservatism this suggests is surprising. The influences of the English approach to the game and the prescriptions related originally to rugby union matches have been strong indeed. Thousands of games have been played over more than a century and hundreds of clubs in Australia have participated but these experiences have impacted only marginally.
The game in 1899,as now, was played on a field approximately 100 metres between opposing goal posts and was 68.6 metres wide. Goal posts stood 5.64 metres apart and were braced by a horizontal cross bar some 3.05 metres from ground level. The ball then, as now, was about 28 centimetres long and weighed between 390 and 450 grams. Leather was invariably used to make the covers of the oval balls and red rubber bladders were used to inflate the covers. The measure of a good ball was its capacity to stand up to rough treatment by burly players for long periods of time. One enduring, key specification, in the conventional game is that each side shall comprise fifteen players with some concessions for replacements. This was adhered to in the days of the pioneers, as much as player availability would allow.
The most obvious differences in the rules concern the duration of a game and the scores for tries and for goals. Today an orthodox game is played in two halves of 40 minutes duration. In 1899 practicalities such as the vagaries of travel times necessitated relaxing this requirement on occasions. The duration in such instances was always shorter and never longer than the rules decreed. Today a try earns four points, a converted try yields two points and a field goal is worth two points. In 1899 and for years to come a try gained three points, a converted try two points, a penalty goal three points and a field goal four points. Eyewitness accounts of early games in Dubbo suggest that field goals and marks for kicks were far more frequent than they are today.
Games of rugby union were played in Dubbo well before 1899 but with a major difference. As early as 1876,indeed, a Football and Sports Club was formed. Thetitle was, however, misleading because rugby football matches, if any, that were played under the banner of this club went unheralded and unreported. The focus of the Football and Sports Club was decidedly on the "Sports" element. This meant the Club concentrated on conducting "pedestrian" events, gymkhanas-cum-equine meetings, and bicycle races. Pedestrianism was expressed in traditional foot races -the 100 yards dash, the 220 yards, the quarter mile and the mile; field sports such as throwing the shot, hurdling, high jumping, long jumping, hop-step-and-jumping and relays; and numerous novelty events including tossing sheaths of hay, egg-and-spoon and three-legged races, trotting with hefted bags of wheat for stretches up to 440 yards, and greased pig chases.
Several of Dubbo`s rugby union players were skilled exponents of some of these events. Equine events doubtless interested rugby union`s sons of the soil but time taken to groom horses and prepare and to transport them to contests made it nearly impossible for footballers to become active participants. Cycling. , which had quickly become a major attraction throughout the world, not least in rural areas, had its appeal and practicality for some Dubbo footballers. The sport was good for increasing their fitness and endurance for the body clashes in football. Cycles also provided a convenient mode of independent travel. Several of the Dubbo footballers were skilled, dedicated cyclists and race riders; members of the League of Wheelmen. But football never featured in the Football and Sports Club`s programmes.
The pre-1899 football games, for example the series contested between the Ormonde and Newtown clubs in 1897, were conducted under no official administrative auspices. They were merely an informal arrangement between two local teams. The matches played were more recreational and social than those sanctioned by a wider governing body. That the five games played by the teams were for the retention of the Ross Cup sponsored by local businessman, G.R.Ross, was incidental. The Cup in any event was merely a one-time commitment by Ross. Of more relevance to the development of systematic, organised rugby union football in Dubbo was the decision on Saturday, 10 April 1897 by an organisation known as the Dubbo Football Club voluntarily to disband. This club was another group whose members had joined together to play privately arranged social matches rather than any controlled by a supervisory organisation. They enjoyed full independence because they had no affiliation with, say, the co-ordinating body known as the Central Western Rugby Football Union.
The 10 April meeting of the Dubbo Football Club held at Fitzgerald`s Court House hotel suggests the club was a failing unit. The members present all agreed to the suggestion of the Club secretary, M. Dunn to disband. Dunn`s proposal was based on the notion that its members could join the Newtown Club and hence improve Newtown`s prospects. The crux of the matter was frankly expressed by George Taylor. The report said: "... it would not be wise to carry on the club, as he thought they would not be able to secure more than six playing members." (Dubbo Liberal, Wednesday, 14 April, 1897.)
At the time, the only real rival to Newtown was the Ormonde Football Club. Not that Ormonde was itself enjoying a trouble-free journey. At its annual meeting on Thursday, 8 April, also at the Court House Hotel, the club secretary, M.B.Houlahan was also frank. His declared that: " ... I would like to draw particular attention to one fact, that members` subscriptions are not paid up, as they should be.
As the club has existed in the past it has had to depend on subscriptions received from members forming the club. I find that last year out of 30 odd members, only seven are paid up members. The year has closed with a debit of 3s 6d,as nothing was made from the social. It is impossible for the club to carry on without funds, and to do this members should pay their subscriptions.
Otherwise than financial the club has prospered. We played five matches with Dubbo District Club and were victorious in all but one, winning the Mitchell trophy. In combined matches (Dubbo and Ormondes) we were victorious twice against Wellington, beaten once by Wellington, and played two drawn matches with Orange, the scores in the first match being nil,and in the second 18 points. Ormonde v Dubbo, June 6th was won by Ormonde - 5 to nil; Ormonde v Dubbo, June 20th won by Ormonde - 11 to 8; first match of trophy, June 27th,won by Ormonde - 18 to nil; second match of trophy, August 1st,won by Dubbo - 8 to 5; final match of trophy, August 15th,won by Ormonde - 10 to 3.
The balance sheet showed a credit on the year`s operations of 1s." (Dubbo Liberal, 14 August, 1897.)
The fortunes of the Ormonde Club were to improve in the 1897 season. A report of its meeting at Fitzgerald`s hotel on Saturday, 31 October to award trophies for the season disclosed that: "A gold medal presented by Mr. T. Gopsill for the best forward was awarded to Mr. J. Young. Mr. G. Taylor, tailor, of Macquarie-street, gave a trophy of a pair of trousers for the best man in his place, which fell to Mr. J. Hives. There was also a gold medal won by Mr. Hives in 1896,but which was overlooked until Saturday, when the presentation was made. Both the medals were neatly engraved." (Dubbo Liberal, Wednesday, 3 November, 1897.)
The rugby code`s pioneer players were clearly lily-white amateurs. The best tangible reward individually they could hope for at the end of a season was a gold or silver medal, suitably inscribed, which would adorn their fob watch chains, or an honour cap or the odd offbeat item such as George Taylor`s trousers. Their satisfactions as members of a team came from winning a cup or shield. Otherwise, the expenses of their sport were borne by themselves alone.
Clearly, rugby union football in Dubbo prior to 1899 was conducted in a relatively random, impromptu fashion. Co-ordination of club fixtures and some control over the conduct of their matches by an independent body were the factors, which led to the firm foundation of the Dubbo Rugby Union Football Club.
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