Posted on August 25, 2012

A century ago Australian cricket was in the midst of a battle – not with England, but with itself. But no one foresaw that the fight between the fledgling Australian Board of Control and the country’s top cricketers would lead to the establishment of a new football code in this country.

Written by Sean Fagan
[originally published in The Australian]

The first decades of cricket’s Ashes contests were driven by money, as promoters and prominent cricketers organised the tours and shared in the gate money.

Cricketers such as Victor Trumper, who toured with Australian teams to England in 1899, 1902 and 1905, did particularly well financially as the players and their financial backers shared the often spectacular profits.

In 1906, the NSW and Victorian cricket associations began moves to wrest control of Ashes tours from the players and their promoters. The newly formed Australian Board of Control (ABC) issued an invitation to London’s Marylebone Cricket Club to send an England team to Australia for the 1906-07 summer.

On the advice of prominent Australian cricketers, and the Melbourne Cricket Club, the Marylebone club chose to ignore the ABC, instead opening its own negotiations for the tour. The Melbourne club and its contacts in Sydney secretly signed the best cricketers, including Trumper and M.A. “Monty” Noble, to form an Australian team to play England.

Trumper and other senior cricketers were not keen to let the ABC put an end to player-controlled tours. Aided by Sydney entrepreneur James J. Giltinan, and the Melbourne Cricket Club, the cricketers reportedly made an effort not only to secure the 1906-07 Ashes series, but to grab control of the game permanently and run it as a professional sport.

The Melbourne Cricket Club denied that the latter two objectives were part of its plans, but ultimately it didn’t matter as the challenge against the ABC failed, and the players lost control of international tours.

Australia’s top cricketers were reduced to receiving allowances, while the ABC began to build up financial reserves from Test match income.

The change left cricket in a similar situation to rugby union, which was experiencing a groundswell of discontent over the fact the NSW Rugby Union was raking in large profits through gate-receipts from the unpaid labour of their footballers.

The plight of the cricketers was not as poorly as that of the rugby union players – the 3s-a-day doled-out by the NSWRU to Waratahs players on NSW tours to Queensland wasn’t enough to get them through one round of beers if they were called on to shout in a Brisbane pub. A former rugby union player, Trumper played fullback in a representative match on the SCG in 1898 alongside Dinny Lutge, who later captained rugby league’s first Kangaroos, and “Jersey” Flegg, ruler of the NSWRL for its first 50 years.

Giltinan and Trumper, inspired by the financial success of the 1905 All Blacks tour of Britain, which made a profit of over pound stg. 10,000 for the NZRU, turned their attention to rugby. Through Trumper’s rugby connections they were aware of the considerable dissatisfaction among Sydney footballers over their tour allowances, and poor compensation for injuries and time off work.

While it is clear Giltinan and Trumper were on the look out for financial opportunities, they also had a desire to aid the working-class footballers in their fight for a fair share of the income from the gate-takings at their matches.

A NSW game in 1907 attracted over 52,000 to the SCG; a century later, that figure is still yet to repeated by the modern-day Waratahs.

Both men genuinely believed in the principles that they were fighting for: that the preference of the NSWRU to stay bound to the English RFU, and its strict abhorrence to paying footballers for time away from work for tours and injury, was totally unrealistic in working-class Australia.

Giltinan and Trumper had the foresight to see the sympathy of largely working-class Sydney would side with the footballers, and the uprising had every chance to succeed.

Secret meetings were held with leading footballers, and their political and financial supporters, at Trumper’s Sydney sports store – a business he operated in partnership will fellow Test cricketer Hanson Carter, and then later with Giltinan.

In mid-1907 the rebel group made contact with similar-minded counterparts in New Zealand, and aided them in the preparation of the “All Golds” rugby league team, readying itself for the first professional football tour of Britain.

They sent to the Kiwis a contract from one of Trumper’s English cricket tours, which they adopted as a template for their tour agreement.

Trumper and Giltinan also convinced the New Zealanders to include rugby union’s star player, Dally Messenger, as a member of the team.

When the All Golds arrived in Sydney, their leader Albert Baskerville was at great pains to point out that his touring party was going to England under the same “share-and-share-alike” terms of Australian cricket sides, and that the footballers were no more professionals than the nation’s cricketers had been.

Giltinan (secretary) and Trumper (treasurer) became the founding fathers of rugby league, the first professional football code in Australia, and oversaw the NSWRL’s inaugural season in 1908. Without their involvement and organisation, rugby league would not have been formed, and in time, pseudo-amateur Australian football or soccer would have met the needs of Sydney’s working-class footballers.

As it was, rugby league quickly established itself, and Messenger became the star attraction of the sport, (a team-mate in Eastern Suburbs’ 1911 premiership victory was future Australian Test cricket captain Herbert Collins).

By the end of the winter of 1910, after the visit of the first British rugby league tourists, rugby league had usurped rugby union and Australian football from controlling NSW and Queensland.

Many of cricket’s traditions were quickly taken up by rugby league, the most notable being the establishment of a regular exchange of Ashes tours between Australia’s Kangaroos and Great Britain’s Lions.

The most prominent, though subtle, tribute to rugby league’s cricket origins, lies in the now iconic and unique double-V on the Kangaroos’ jersey – a design styled to follow the V-style neck-piping used on Australian cricket vests and sweaters.

[originally published in The Australian]

© Copyright – Sean Fagan

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