A look back as rugby league looks ahead to a post-pandemic world

With the on-field action taking a back seat during the summer months, the headlines of the rugby league off-season are usually taken up with transfer talk, expansion talk, rule change talk and fixture announcements, all the while mixed in with a splash of player misadventure.

In the background to this season is how the NRL faces the challenges of a post-pandemic world, with the occasional COVID-19 outbreak posing an ongoing threat to crowd numbers and a World Cup tentatively pencilled in for the end of the year.

In a twist of fate, 100 years ago the New South Wales Rugby Football League found itself in a similar position. With the worst effects of Spanish influenza in Sydney all but over by autumn 1920, the NSWRFL was pushing ahead into a post-pandemic world led by Secretary Horace ‘Horry’ Miller, the man credited with the phrase “the greatest game of all” and whose assertiveness for the game was not unlike his 2021 equivalent, Peter V’Landys.

Here’s a look at the issues that were taking up the headlines in the lead up to the season kick-off on 23 April 1921.

Despite the pandemic being declared all but over, the 1921 season was, surprisingly, a shortened one. This had little to do with the pandemic but was rather because of the end-of-season tour to Great Britain. As such the Sydney competition was shortened to just eight rounds instead of the usual 16. There were, however, no cries of an ‘asterisk’ year which followed when the NRL reduced the 2020 competition by six rounds. In fact the change was met with enthusiasm – keen to avoid a season-ending injury, the top players of the day would have to give the preseason a miss and come into the season off the pace, but with every win crucial, starting off the season fully match fit was key.

So with the big names of rugby league lacing up for a preseason starting in mid-March, The Arrow’s league reporter, revered sports writer John Corbett Davis, who went by the pen name of The Cynic, proclaimed “the men are turning out to practice as never before, the older players eager and frolicsome,” a description not used nearly enough in modern rugby league parlance.

As for the Kangaroo tour itself, brazenly described by the rugby league News as “the most stupendous tour conceived by any athletic body,” it was to be the first tour to the Old Dart since 1911-12. It would see both Australians and New Zealanders considered for the side, and the first foray into European fixtures was said to be in the works.

It was also set to be significantly more expensive than the last tour. While the 1911-12 edition had come at an operating cost of £7000, the 1921-22 tour was set to double to £14,000, roughly $1.4 million in today’s money. Part of the increase came from player wages, fairly generous for the time, to be paid to the players on tour, with each to receive a weekly allowance of £4 and 5 shillings, about in line with the average blue-collar wage.

The payments almost jeopardised the New Zealanders’ participation in the tour because, as a strictly amateur organisation, acceptance of such payments or even association with a professional body could have risked the players giving up their amateur status. Cool heads prevailed, but in the end only one New Zealander, Bert Laing, was included on the tour, which would go on to turn a decent profit.

At the same time the amateur/professional debate was heating up between rugby league and the Amateur Sporting Federation and its associate members. With the line between amateur and professional athletes having become increasingly blurred, the ASF sought to come to an agreement on a new definition of ‘amateur athlete’ among its member bodies, and Miller wanted rugby league to come under the amateur umbrella despite including professional athletes.

At stake for athletes who played rugby league was the threat of being banned from other amateur competitions after having already been banned from amateur swimming since 1909, leading to the formation of the League of Swimmers in response. The matter was particularly personal for Miller, who had himself had his promising athletics career jeopardised after being banned in 1909 because of his involvement in rugby league.

The concept of professionals and amateurs competing side by side wasn’t particularly controversial, with the amateur Sydney University side taking part in the Sydney competition and with international cricket sides often comprising a mix of amateurs and professionals at the time. However, the sticking point came in regard to the administration, with the ASF taking the line that an amateur sport could not be run by professional administrators, including its individual clubs. Miller agreed to the federation’s ruling but was ultimately overruled by the clubs themselves.

Meanwhile, the 1921 version of a Cameron Smith-esque retirement saga came in the form of seven-time winning Balmain halfback Arthur ‘Pony’ Halloway. Rather than leaving everyone hanging, Halloway had at least announced he was hanging up the boots shortly after Balmain had taken out the 1920 premiership. Halloway was linked with a number of different roles, including coaching the amateur Sydney University team and, as hinted in Smith’s Weekly, a foray into politics.

In the end, like many a retiree that came after him, he wound up in Queensland, donning the boots in the Ipswich competition and going on to player-coach the state team that year at the ripe old age of 36. Despite the loss of Halloway, Balmain was also riding high financially on a post-pandemic wave, posting a record profit for any club of £1682, £100 of which was donated to Halloway for his years of service.

There was, however, another 38-year-old hooker gearing up for a big season, with Eastern Suburbs’ Sandy Pearce said to have been getting ready for the forthcoming season by “juggling bales weighing about two and a half hundred-weight.” Apparently his eye for detail didn’t quite extend to other areas, with Pearce opting to wear a black jersey during a trial match against Western Suburbs, which, according to Rugby League News, led to one of his teammates “… mistaking his old pal, grabbed him, and after a bit of a ‘rassle’ stood Sid (Pearce) on his head”. Pearce was to go on to become the oldest Kangaroo tourist at season’s end.

As with any rugby league off-season, expansion was a hot topic, with the NSWRFL keen to move into the St George region because of the large number of local players. St George had been trying to gain inclusion into the Sydney competition since day dot, and the view was expressed in The Arrow that if St George wasn’t included, the local clubs could “play independently among themselves a 14 a side rugby with a seven pack” – two rugby codes were quite enough. There was also the view that the addition of St George came with the bonus of doing away with the unpopular bye by increasing the competition to ten teams.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

But at a meeting in October 1920 the league committee took the less is more approach, instead opting to cut stragglers Annandale, who had managed only two wins in the previous four seasons, with teams on a bye to be sent to play in a country region.

The competition changes also meant there were plenty of new faces in among the clubs, with district boundaries redrawn. Most of the players from Annandale were redistributed to Glebe and Balmain, while St George were able to draw a few players from Western Suburbs’ catchment, including 1911-12 Kangaroo Herbert Gilbert. In The Referee, Davis, writing as The Cynic once again, put an ironically positive spin on things for Wests: “The creation of St George will provide Western Suburbs with an opportunity of bringing to First Grade light all the sparkling talent in the lower grades”. Wests found themselves second from bottom by season’s end.

Meanwhile, a stand-off between St George and Newtown ensued over the residential status of star Newtown captain and international halfback Albert ‘Rickety’ Johnston, with both clubs claiming he fell within their catchment. Regarded as a near shoo-in for the post-season tour, Johnston risked sitting out the season and thus the tour if he played for Newtown and was later found to qualify for St George. After sitting out the first round of the season, Johnston eventually bit the bullet and pulled on the red and white for St George.

Discussion around playing facilities continues to find its way into rugby league headlines today, and preseason 1921 wasn’t any different. After the Sydney Agricultural Ground decided to up its rent to an amount that Miller described as “entirely prohibitive”, rugby league shifted to the Sydney Sports Ground, in turn booting out its tenants, the rugby union, after swaying the owners by pledging £300 to upgrade the entrances. The SCG had also been rented out to the NSWRFL, which left the Rah-Rahs without a ground for the upcoming Springboks tour.

After the NSWRFL declined the union’s request to rent out the SCG as a once-off for a Test out of fear of detracting from their own representative fixtures, the struggling union was eventually forced to fall back on the pricier Agricultural Ground.

Meanwhile, the preseason was fairly quiet when it came to rule changes – in true rugby league fashion this was reserved for midseason. It was decided that referees would feed the scrum to ensure a fair contest in time for the City Cup knockout tournament, which commenced after the premiership concluded in June. In The Arrow, The Cynic once again sang the praises of the change as “the best piece of news rugby league followers have heard for some time”.

The rule didn’t last though. Also in true rugby league fashion, the referees quickly became the subject of criticism for failing to feed the ball into the scrum correctly.

Meanwhile, in The Evening News the question was posited: “Are three points sufficient for a try?”. It would take merely another 62 years to finally resolve.

Pandemic? What pandemic? One hundred years ago there were plenty of controversies to keep the league writers busy in the off-season, from expansion to playing rosters and a good old battle for control of the game and more. The more things change…

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An open minded personality.. fun to be with, because of my positive vibes. God fearing, for without God I am nothing.. Moved with compassion when dealing with you, not selfish or self-centered...

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