The Balmainiacs of 1909Sean Fagan of RL1908.com
It was the most dramatic action ever taken by a rugby league club – the 1909 Balmain team forfeited the premiership Final. Arguments have raged as to what led to Balmain’s actions, and the day’s events have caused the ‘Tigers’ and the South Sydney Rabbitohs to generally harbour nothing but ill-will towards each other ever-since.
The seeds of the dramatic events of 1909 lay in the years before rugby league was formed, back when Balmain and Souths were rugby union clubs. In 1900 the Metropolitan Rugby Union (MRU) replaced the private clubs of the 1800s with district clubs. This was done to more evenly distribute the talent between clubs, and to build upon the growing support for suburban based clubs.
While Balmain had use of ‘the best ground in the colony’ in Birchgrove Park [Oval], the MRU inexplicably ignored its ‘home-and-away’ scheduling for club matches, and refused to allocate South Sydney matches anywhere but at the SCG or Sports Ground.
Between 1900 and 1906, Souths and Balmain had met 14 times, yet the ‘red-and-greens’ had only twice been required to play at Birchgrove.
While most clubs trained indoors at night or on fields under moonlight, Souths and Easts had exclusive use of the lights of the Sports Ground. Understandably, other clubs, particularly Balmain and Norths felt that Souths and Easts were receiving favourable treatment.
The newspapers and opposing fans had come to call the Balmain club “the Balmainiacs”. Unafraid to vent their feelings, especially at home games, Balmain were not the most popular club amongst Sydney ‘rugbyites’.
When the opportunity came to join the newly formed rugby league in the early months of 1908, most rugby union clubs lost approximately half of their players and members. In Balmain’s case, the League got just about everybody.
When the Balmain Union club held its first meeting of 1908, all the district’s League supporters attended and voted against the election of every official for the coming season.
While they really had no cause to even be at the Union club’s meeting, the presence of the League supporters prevented the Union club from being formed for the coming season. The MRU organised the follow-up meeting for the same night as the next Balmain League meeting, just so it could carry on its business.
By the start of the 1909 season, the NSWRL was in a dire financial crisis – its founding fathers, James Giltinan, Victor Trumper and ‘Harry’ Hoyle, all lost their positions.
Under the stewardship of North Sydney’s Alexander Knox, the NSWRL convinced the clubs to forgo their gate receipts from matches, and hand it all over to the League.
It quickly became apparent to Knox that the only club attracting reasonable crowds was Balmain at Birchgrove Park. Consequently, Balmain were given a home game in almost every round. As a result, they enjoyed great on-field success and climbed the premiership ladder. Balmain reached the Final against South Sydney.
However, as Souths had won the minor premiership by two points, the NSWRL play-offs system meant that Balmain had to beat them in the Final, and then beat them again in a second Final to claim the title. It seemed unlikely.
Balmain lobbied the NSWRL to schedule the Final at Wentworth Park, which was half-way between the two districts. The League refused, and put the match on at the Agricultural Ground – Souths home field.
Balmain’s complaints were quickly overtaken by outside events when more than half of the 1908 Wallabies team suddenly defected to rugby league for a series of matches against the Kangaroos. The Final was postponed indefinitely.
Knox publicly criticised the NSWRL officials who were involved in ‘bringing-down’ the NSWRU via paying huge sums to the Wallabies. Other officials didn’t see a problem with the League’s actions, and Knox soon lost his position on the NSWRL.
Funded by entrepreneur James Joynton-Smith, the three ‘Wallabies v Kangaroos’ matches did not earn enough gate-money to fully cover his costs or those of the NSWRL. So a fourth game was arranged. To increase interest and gate-takings, the NSWRL scheduled the Final on the under-card.
Balmain were seemingly aggrieved at the demotion of importance of the Final, and asked the NSWRL to ensure it was played on a separate day. They also argued that their players’ labour should not go towards paying money owed to Joynton-Smith and the NSWRL. The League refused and Balmain announced that they would not play.
On the day of the Final the Balmain players arrived outside the ground in the early afternoon, well before the scheduled kick-off time of 2 o’clock. They then picketed the entrance, endeavouring to convince patrons not to enter.
Despite very heavy rain and the protests of the Balmain footballers, enough of a crowd turned up to clear the debts of Joynton-Smith and the NSWRL. Balmain stuck to their word and did not appear on the field. Souths kicked-off, picked up the ball and scored a try. The referee awarded them the match, and with it the 1909 premiership.
In the days that followed a public meeting was held at Balmain to decide what to do about challenging Souths being credited as premiers. It then became apparent what Balmain had been trying to achieve. The first speaker at the meeting was North Sydney’s Alexander Knox. He had convinced Balmain to forfeit the Final in the hope that the NSWRL would not earn enough money to pay off its debts or be able to reimburse Joynton-Smith.
With the NSWRL bankrupted, Balmain and Norths officials would lead the formation of a new rugby league body – one in which they, and not South Sydney and Easts, would be the dominant office-holders. With little hope of winning the premiership, Balmain felt they had more to gain by causing the NSWRL to collapse.
Further meetings were held, attempting to instigate legal proceedings and investigate forming a new League, but they eventually stalled.
In the opening round of the 1910 competition, the NSWRL scheduled a ‘re-match’ between Souths and Balmain at Birchgrove Park to appease the local supporters.
‘The Balmainiacs’ responded by establishing a record crowd for a NSWRL club match of over 5,000. The home team though were beaten 13-5 in a very tough and physical encounter.
The Referee thought it necessary to praise the Birchgrove crowd for their behaviour, offering, “Naturally they like to see their favourites win, and what district does not? In the present instance, however, their team had to play second fiddle, but as sports they took the defeat in good spirit, and liberally applauded the visitors.”
At the first NSWRL meeting of 1910, Norths’
Alexander Knox was banned from rugby league
Courtesy of Sean Fagan of RL1908.com
Interesting read and thanks to the blog site