The club competition versus representative football dilemma has been ongoing in rugby league for longer than most fans realise.
As St George Illawarra, with eight players involved in the opening State of Origin match, prepare to take on the Wests Tigers (no Origin reps) at WIN Jubilee Oval at Kogarah this Sunday, it is worth looking back at how the situation developed.
The opportunity for players to “back-up” after playing representative football dates back to the 1950s when Sunday football began to gain acceptance. Until that time most major sporting events were staged on Saturdays and Sunday sport was virtually taboo. The first time a premiership rugby league match was played on a Sunday was in 1941, amid much opposition from the church.
But by the 1950s religious objections began to subside and even though Saturday football continued to predominate (especially with the match of the day at the SCG), a number of club games began to be scheduled for Sunday afternoons.
Sunday football suited a club like Eastern Suburbs (now the Sydney Roosters), who had a large following among Sydney’s racing fraternity. Punters could attend Randwick on the Saturday and follow the fortunes of Easts the next day. This also led to a boom in illegal betting on the game, but that is another story.
The onset of Sunday football gave administrators another option when devising the season’s playing schedule. There was a public demand for football on both days of the weekend and the league was only too willing to cater for it.
It meant that the club competition would not have to be suspended for representative matches, as it was in the past, and the only rider was that rep players were required to front up for two games in two days if they were fit.
League Immortal John Raper says that players of his era were expected to turn up for their clubs a day after playing rep football. “It was part of our dedication to the game,” he said. “It was an honour for us to play for New South Wales or Australia but St George expected us to put in for the club the next day. In those days we never had any objections. We weren’t earning big money but we never thought twice about doing the right thing by our club.”
The first time that the Sydney Cricket Ground hosted a club game on a Sunday was in 1966, the day after 38,907 people watched New South Wales shade the touring Great Britain side 18-13. The Sunday game, between St George and Balmain, drew a crowd of 55,934. It remains the biggest attendance for a single regular season game ever played in Sydney.
It was a match of incredible anticipation. Balmain had gone through the first nine rounds of the season without defeat and already they had recorded one victory over the Dragons, who had won the premiership for the past 10 years.
According to a front page report in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The fans started arriving at 6am – a blonde in white boots was first there – until by 3.30pm they were audible seven blocks away”.
Dragons players Billy Smith, Raper, Kevin Ryan and Ian Walsh had all turned out for New South Wales the day before, as had Arthur Beetson for Balmain.
The game was close all the way. The Herald wrote that “Men who seemed to be ‘out on their feet’ in the latter stages of the game continued to throw themselves at the opponent with the ball”.
The paper’s report reserved special praise for Raper: “Johnny Raper was tremendous ... even though he looked to be feeling the effects of a hard game the previous day”.
Despite scoring the only try of the game (to winger Eddie Lumsden), St George went down 10-3. The hero for Balmain was fullback Keith “Golden Boots” Barnes, who booted five penalty goals.
St George would gain their revenge on grand final day a couple of months later when Walsh steered the Dragons to their 11th consecutive premiership win, when they outplayed the Tigers 23-4.
At Kogarah this Sunday, eight Dragons will be aiming to channel the brand of energy displayed by Raper and his representative team-mates of 1966 when they face up to the modern-day Tigers.