Balmain, Souths and the 1909 premiership farce

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In Local Hero, the 1988 biography of Wayne Pearce, the then-Balmain captain recounted how every new Tigers player was told the story of how Souths had reneged on a supposed agreement with Balmain to boycott the premiership final of September 18, 1909.

Eight decades on, Balmain’s games against Souths were still seen as opportunities to get back at them for the “injustice” of 1909.

In 2009, Ben Elias told the Sydney Morning Herald that Souths 1909 premiership “should be taken away. People take gold medals away from Olympians who cheat – I would say this is on par. It’s clearly stated in the records they both agreed not to turn up – one team did and they won the premiership.”

As I discovered after including a precis of the incident in an article about the early history of premiership deciders, it still elicits passionate disputation. 112 years later!

I’m confident in saying two things at the outset.

First, it was a farce, to which Balmain, Souths and the game’s administration all contributed. But the biggest contributor was rugby league’s parlous financial state.

Second, the events leading to the farce of September 18, 1909 are far more interesting than a 112-year-old chip on Balmain shoulders.

Many rugby league supporters know some version of the story – and there are multiple versions. Most of the disputed details concern the role of Souths: what, if anything, did they agree with Balmain beforehand, and, regardless, should they have withdrawn in solidarity, rather than perpetrating a ridiculous charade, when it became apparent Balmain wouldn’t play?

I’ll get to that, but to understand what happened we have to go back 12 months earlier to where it all began.

The New South Wales Rugby Football League’s (NSWRFL) first season in 1908 was a partial success. The recruitment of the immensely popular rugby union star Dally Messenger provided some initial impetus and many reviews of the fledgling code in the popular press were positive.

In late 1908, The Sportsman wrote: “They play that kind of football that delights the public taste, having a clever lot of backs behind a rattling set of forwards. The success of the league now largely depends on the ability of our representatives to win matches in the north of England.”

Trouble was, not enough of the public turned up and JJ Giltinan’s Kangaroo tour of 1908-09 was a financial disaster. The NSWRFL lost £500 in 1908, while Giltinan was bankrupted after the tour of England lost £418. Ten of the 34 pioneering Kangaroos accepted contracts with English clubs just to raise funds for the tour.

When Giltinan and the Kangaroos returned home in May 1909, rugby league was on its knees. Giltinan had already been dismissed from his post with the NSWRFL, along with fellow founding directors Henry Hoyle and Victor Trumper, on the grounds of financial mismanagement and allegations of impropriety.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Rugby league was broke and crowds were dismal. The NRL we know today probably wouldn’t exist in the same form if it wasn’t for what happened next: the entry of Sydney businessman James Joynton Smith.

Smith financed an audacious raid on rugby union, with almost all the 1908-09 Wallabies team defecting to league, including Olympic gold medalists Robert Craig, Chris McKivat and Arthur McCabe.

This caused quite a controversy in Sydney sport. While rugby league was still barely scraping by financially, the defections were seen by some as a tipping point.

Having invested somewhere between £1500 and £1800 on the new recruits – $223,000 to $268,000 in today’s money – Smith wasn’t content with business as usual.

A series of games between the Kangaroos and Wallabies was arranged late in the 1909 season, with a total of about 37,000 people attending the three fixtures and the Wallabies winning the series 2-1. They were essentially fundraisers for league, union and, of course, James Joynton Smith.

But they weren’t enough for Smith to recoup his outlay. A fourth Kangaroos-Wallabies clash was scheduled for the evening of September 18, 1909 at the Sydney Showground. The Kangaroos won 8-6 and, while the crowd was small, Smith likely broke even.

All that was slightly overshadowed by events earlier in the afternoon. The 1909 NSWRFL premiership final between Balmain and Souths had been scheduled as a curtain-raiser to the inter-code showdown and Balmain wasn’t happy about it.

Balmain’s objections were entirely reasonable. The significance of the premiership final was clearly diminished by being relegated to the undercard, the clubs stood to gain nothing financially as a result and many of Balmain’s players would’ve had to skip work and forego wages to make the 2pm kick-off.

Two days before the scheduled fixture, the Balmain club unanimously decided it wouldn’t play.

As it happens, a few Balmain players attempted to picket the Showground on the day. This turned out to be a public relations mistake, with sections of the press turning on the club.

The Sportsman took a very dim view, remarking that Balmain “had run like a pack of kids with letters to the dailies, and used other efforts to prevent the crowd from rolling up to the fixture… nothing but disgust is expressed for their despicable behaviour”.

The ridiculous charade subsequently perpetrated by Souths – kicking-off to a non-existent opponent and running in an unopposed try before claiming the premiership – was far from edifying. But it seems many were weary of the affair and happy to consign it to history after a most tumultuous season.

Which brings us back to the burning questions: was there a mutual agreement to boycott and, regardless, should Souths have claimed the premiership?

If there was an agreement – a handshake, a wink or a nod – the details have been lost to history. Ian Heads’ wonderful, sprawling history of NSW rugby league, True Blue, notes that the surviving documentary evidence consists of rumours and “idle talk”, including a letter to the editor of the Evening News by somebody titled ‘Balmain Barracker’, hardly compelling or impartial evidence.

On the latter question, Souths clearly felt compelled to turn-up and provide a spectacle of some sort. After the charade of their premiership ‘victory’, they played a scratch game against an assortment of players from other teams before the Kangaroos-Wallabies game.

If Souths hadn’t turned up, they would almost certainly have been premiers anyway. They’d finished two points clear of Balmain in first place. Under the rules at the time, Balmain would’ve had to beat them twice to take the title and the NSWRFL had already indicated it wouldn’t reschedule one game, never mind two, due to its leasing arrangements.

After more than 112 years, it’s time to put this one to bed. Balmain were dudded but didn’t do themselves any favours. Souths could’ve stayed home but were obviously beholden to financial imperatives.

Like it or not, everybody was playing for James Joynton Smith at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, that was probably a good thing.

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