June 2020

The Grand Final that never was

The story behind a controversy that led to one of the fiercest rivalries in rugby league history.

South Sydney’s second Premiership was attained in circumstances that led to a long running rivalry with Balmain and saw the attempted collapse of the NSWRL after existing for only two seasons. 111 years later, the 1909 non-Grand Final remains the only occurrence of such an event in Australian rugby league history.

Following the birth of the NSWRL in 1908, South Sydney quickly established itself as a dominant force, taking out the inaugural Premiership. They were opposed by the likes of Balmain, Eastern Suburbs, Glebe, Newcastle, Western Suburbs, Newtown, Cumberland and North Sydney.

Cumberland was removed from the competition at the start of 1909, never to be seen again.

In the early years of the Premiership, the game favoured Souths and Easts with matches often played at the Agricultural Ground or SCG, both sides’ respective home fields.

Balmain became a Premiership force in 1909 when founding fathers and board members Henry Hoyle, Victor Trumper and James Giltinan were dumped from their positions due to the game being in financial strife.

J.J. Giltinan

They were replaced by North Sydney’s Alexander Knox who requested clubs forfeit their gate receipts to the League. Knox worked out that Balmain’s ability to fill Birchgrove Park made them a valuable side and he endeavoured to provide them a home game almost every round.

The 1909 regular season finished with Souths topping the table, closely followed by Balmain. The structure of the finals system back then meant Balmain would have to beat Souths twice to win the title.

The Tigers wanted the match to be played on neutral territory, at Wentworth Park. Instead the league decided to play the game at the Agricultural Ground, handing Souths home field advantage.

Balmain begrudgingly accepted the decision, but bigger problems were brewing.

Enter the Wallabies

In 1909, far removed from the world of rugby league, England was involved in an arms race with Germany. The Germans were building a naval fleet with the intention to challenge the Royal Navy for command of the seas.

England responded in kind by developing the most modern battleship in the world at the turn of the century – The Dreadnought. Australia, being a member of the Commonwealth, saw its duty to support England and the Sydney Lord Mayor of the time Sir Allen Taylor, commissioned the Dreadnought Fund, in order to raise money to present a ship to England.

The NSWRL saw an opportunity to support the Lord Mayor’s fund with NSWRL President Edward William O’Sullivan penning a letter to the Mayor, asking to hold a match between the Wallabies and Kangaroos.

I propose that Rugby League (Kangaroos) should play a friendly game with the Rugby Union (the Wallabies), the entire proceeds to be devoted to your proposed Dreadnought funds,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan’s intention was to hold all negotiations above board and rely on a form of communal solidarity between the two codes to allow the match to happen. Some of his boardroom colleagues preferred a more underhanded method.

Henry “Jersey” Flegg was a NSW and Australia selector in 1909 and his brother, Bill Flegg, saw an opportunity to snatch the cream of the Wallabies. Bill initially pledged £500 to poach players from rugby union.

Bill found support in Samuel George Ball (SG Ball) who approached newly arrived English businessman James Joynton-Smith for funding. Joynton-Smith agreed to supply £1800.

The poaching of 11 rugby players cost £100 each – a year’s wage – while Chris McVivat was handed £200 and A.J. McCabe and Paddy McCue received £150 each.

Sullivan, upon hearing about this resigned in disgust. Knox vented his fury at the poaching of the Wallabies and he was quickly removed from his post.

The series was to occur at the end of the NSWRL season, delaying the final between Souths and Balmain.

With the first three games being unable to cover their own costs, a fourth match was scheduled and to increase publicity, the NSWRL grand final was scheduled as the curtain-raiser. 

Balmain was not keen on playing the grand final as a curtain raiser to what amounted as little more than a money making exhibition. The Tigers were also upset their players’ efforts would go towards funding an endeavour they had no part in or wished to support.

They committed to not playing the final.

And supposedly had convinced Souths to stand down as well.

The Final

14 September 1909 was grand final day for the NSWRL that year and was also the date of the fourth Wallabies vs Kangaroos match.

Balmain arrived well before the 2pm kick off time and picketed the entrances to the Agricultural Ground trying to persuade punters not to enter.

The victorious 1909 South Sydney side

When kick off rolled around only Souths were on the field. They kicked off, regathered the ball and scored with the referee then awarding them the 1909 premiership.

The Sydney Mail’s column “Wanderer”, captured the controversial conclusion to the season.

“The public are again being worried by the internal dissension in the Rugby League. One wonders whether this washing of the linen will ever reach the end. The latest difficulty arises from the awarding of the Premiership to South Sydney. The League committee decided to play the last match of the premiership between Balmain and South Sydney as the early fixture to the Wallaby and Kangaroo flutter, to which Balmain showed its disapproval by not putting in an appearance to play the match. 

“The referee reported the facts to the committee, who awarded the premiership to South Sydney by default. At the same meeting that that decision was arrived at representatives of the Balmain Club waited by deputation upon the committee and urged that match be played last Saturday.

“The committee however, by awarding the premiership to South Sydney put the seal upon the conclusion of the game for this season. Now all sorts of legal proceedings are threatened. Balmain people are prepared to supply funds to fight the League, and statements are being made which cannot be conducive to good football, not to mention good fellowship.”

The aftermath

In the days and weeks that followed, Balmain seethed over the decisions they felt had gone against them in the lead up to grand final day. They threatened legal action over the monies handed to Joynton-Smith and the NSWRL they felt belonged to them.

The fans, known as Balmaniacs, held multiple club meetings weeks after the event, with a column written in the Sydney Sportsman detailing one such meeting. North Sydney’s Alexander Knox appeared at the event, rousing support for a court challenge.

Mr. Knox was the first spruiker, and he suddenly found he had a terrible liking for the Balmain club and he had always been a strong barracker for them… He was chock full of legal opinions and other things… A resolution was carried to try through the courts to make J.J. Smith cough up the takings of the last match, which just cleared the outlay on the whole deal… The meeting finished up with an appeal to the public and the other League clubs for sufficient dough to carry out the legal proceedings,” wrote a columnist going by the moniker “Scrum” in the 6 October 1909 edition.

It soon became known that Alexander Knox was hoping to use Balmain’s forfeiture to bankrupt the league and set up a new competition that would be helmed by Norths and Balmain rather than Easts and Souths.

Balmain’s plans to challenge the forfeiture in court stalled and the title remained with Souths. At the first meeting of the 1910 NSWRL season, Knox was banned for life.

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