Story: Rugby league

Page 2 – Origins of rugby league

Birth in Britain

In 1895, after years of disenchantment with the London-based Rugby Football Union (RFU), 22 of the most powerful Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs broke away to form the Northern Union. It was not just a geographical split. Most northern players were working-class men whose requests for ‘broken time’ payments to compensate them for time off work when playing their sport were rejected by the wealthy southerners who held the power. The rebel clubs, players and officials were banned for life by the RFU.

Streamlining the game

After initially retaining rugby union’s playing laws, the Northern Union systematically streamlined its game to make it more attractive for spectators. Lineouts were abolished, all goals counted as two points, and the first Challenge Cup knock-out competition was played in 1897. Part-time professionalism was permitted from 1898 and an early form of play-the-ball was introduced in 1906. The biggest change of all also occurred that year when team numbers were reduced from 15 to 13.

From black to gold

Eight All Blacks toured Britain with the 1907–8 All Golds. George Smith, Duncan McGregor, William Johnston and Bill Mackrell were 1905 All Black Originals and very much aware of the great upheaval which had split English rugby a decade earlier. Hubert Turtill, Edgar Wrigley, Tom Cross and Eric Watkins had also represented New Zealand at rugby union. Some other All Blacks of that era, including Albert Asher and George Gillett, changed codes later.

New Zealand and Australia

Newspaper reports of big crowds at Northern Union matches attracted the attention of Albert Henry Baskerville, a Wellington postal worker, rugby player and author, in 1907. Baskerville set about assembling a strong New Zealand team to play the clubs and counties of northern England, which had been banned from meeting the 1905 All Blacks. He found an ally in great All Blacks wing and track athlete George Smith, who in turn contacted people of similar mind in Sydney. In both Australia and New Zealand the affluent ruling rugby bodies were accused by players of being too miserly in matters of touring allowances and compensation for injuries.

All Golds

Baskerville’s pioneers were cynically dubbed the All Golds by newspapers at the start of their 10-month, 49-game odyssey. The name referred to the players being paid, but it came to hold a proud place in New Zealand sporting folklore. The team played rugby-union games in Sydney and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) before adopting Northern Union rules in Britain, where they triumphed 2–1 in a historic first test series. Five All Golds were signed by British clubs and stayed in Britain, but their teammates became rugby league’s first world champions with a 2–1 test-series win in Australia on the way home.

Team of the century

In 2007, to mark the centenary of the original All Golds tour, a team of the century was named as follows: fullback Des White (a member of New Zealand’s national team, the Kiwis, from 1950 to 1956), wing Tom Hadfield (1956–61), centre Tommy Baxter (1949–56), centre Roger Bailey (1961–70), wing Phillip Orchard (1969–75), stand-off half George Menzies (1951–61), scrum-half Stacey Jones (1995–2006), prop Cliff Johnson (captain, 1950–60), hooker Jock Butterfield (1954–63), prop Ruben Wiki (1994–2006), second-row Mark Graham (1977–88), second-row Ron Ackland (1954–63) and loose forward Mel Cooke (1959–64).

Tragically, 25-year-old Baskerville died of pneumonia in Brisbane only a few days after scoring a try in the inaugural trans-Tasman test match in Sydney. Such were Baskerville’s organisational skills that the New Zealand winter sports scene might be very different had he survived to establish rugby league in his homeland – and even further afield. He had already spoken to some of the All Golds about mounting a tour of the United States.

How to cite this page:

John Coffey. 'Rugby league - Origins of rugby league', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 2-Sep-13
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/rugby-league/page-2