by Tom Mather. Available in paperback, or as an ebook, via Amazon.
Prominent Sydney sportsman, James J Giltinan is widely recognised as the driving force behind the movement, which led to the establishment of rugby league in Australia, in 1908.
But he does not get the same recognition for the ground-work he laid for the cycle of international tours to Australia, by Great Britain teams, which effectively ensured that rugby league remained the dominant rugby code. As time went by, those British sides, the first of which toured in 1910, played in a host of regional centres, as well as Sydney and Brisbane, something touring rugby union sides could not emulate, because the 15-man code’s strength was in the capital cities.
With Giltinan as manager, the first Kangaroos toured Britain in 1908-09, sailing for England, from Sydney, on the Royal Mail steamer, Macedonia on August 18, 1908. They stopped briefly in Melbourne, where Giltinan met with Australian rules authorities about the prospect of a hybrid code. The players helped stay fit at sea, by working in the ship’s boiler room.
On arrival in England, the team’s superstar, Dally Messenger revealed he was on a media ban, which wasn’t a smart move, given Giltinan needed big crowds, to ensure the tour’s financial success. The Australians were always up against it, because they had arrived in the UK in the middle of industrial disputes, which hit the north of England (the game’s heartland) more than anywhere else. People in the north simply did not have the money they had in their pockets, 12 months earlier, when Messenger also toured – as a guest player with the New Zealand All Golds. Giltinan also insisted on one shilling admission charge, despite pleas from the English for him to reduce the price to sixpence.
The English authorities also wanted to spread the gospel of the game, so they scheduled the Test matches at venues outside league heartland – London, Newcastle and Birmingham.
There were only 2,000 at the London Test, which finished a 22-all draw, but 22,000 turned out at St James Park, in soccer mad Newcastle, despite poor coverage in the local press. Australia lost that Test , 15-5, and went down 6-5 in controversial circumstances in Birmingham, where the crowd was 9,000.
There also was a match against an English selection at Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland, with the Australians wearing the green and white of Celtic.
A reporter for ‘The Scotsman’ (newspaper) was shocked at the physicality of the game, compared with rugby union.
Giltinan went back to Sydney before the end of the tour, because he learned there were moves afoot to topple him as secretary of the fledgling League.
While the tour was a financial failure, and Giltinan was declared a bankrupt four years later, Mather points out that it was Giltinan’s constant badgering of English officials that saw the ‘home’ League agree to send a side to Australia in 1910, admittedly 12 months later than Giltinan had wanted.
Such was the success of that trip, both financially and on the field, it effectively ensured that tours would become part of the rugby league calendar, something not even two World Wars could stop.
A H Baskerville, a young postal worker from Wellington, New Zealand, devised the first New Zealand tour (the All Golds) to Britain, 12 months before the Kangaroos. But Giltinan was the man who pushed the idea of the British returning the favour, something they had been reluctant to embrace.
Mather, the father of former Great Britain centre, Barrie-Jon Mather, says there is no definitive answer as to whether that first Kangaroo tour was a private venture, or a league sponsored event.
At the time it was referred to as a tour ‘home’, to the ‘Mother Country’. A number of players stitched up deals with English clubs, the most notable, Albert Rosenfeld (Huddersfield), who was one of the original inductees in the British Rugby League Hall of Fame. ‘Rozzy’, as he was known, died in Huddersfield in 1970, aged 85, the last survivor of that first Kangaroo tour.
Tom Mather has been meticulous in his research, although there were the inevitable dead ends, particularly when it came to some of the details of those early meetings, when the rebel rugby league code was starting up.
Mather has written a host of league books, many about British tours, including ‘The Last Hurrah’, which chronicles the Lions’ successful campaign in Australia and New Zealand, in 1970, with John Whiteley as coach, and Frank Myler the skipper. He also has written ‘The Iceman’ (about renowned Australian coach, John Monie) and ‘From Saint to Shark’, about English prop, Cliff Watson.
A former school teacher, Mather has lived in Australia since 2013, and is based at Horsley, in the Illawarra. Barrie-Jon, who worked for the New South Wales Rugby League before Covid hit, lives at Dee Why in Sydney. Barrie-Jon played for Wigan and Castleford in England, and the Perth based Western Reds in Australia. He was the first Great Britain league player to be capped by England in rugby union, in 1999, while playing for Sale.
Footnote: A movie called ‘The First Kangaroos’ was made in 1988, with Essex born, Chris Haywood playing Giltinan.
1 James J Giltinan
2 The First Kangaroos
3 Albert Rosenfeld
4 Great Britain drew huge crowds in Australia, right up until the late 1970s. Here Keith Hepworth races away at Lang Park in 1970. Ron Coote is on the left, Col Weiss the chaser on the right. The referee is Don Lancashire.