In The Beginning….
It all began in 1962 when word spread around amongst the footy starved Mexicans and Crow Eaters that there was a footy team in Moree looking for a game. Bob Hudson, a PMG employee (Post Master General, now Telstra and Australia Post) had been transferred north from Aussie Rules territory in southern NSW, had organized a team and was looking for a game. We obtained some goal posts from somewhere and arranged for the grounds staff to set up an oval at the far end of Consett Davis. This produced the first hic up of introducing Aussie Rules into rugby heartland. Many of the grounds staff were migrants of which many were poms who had never seen an Aussie rules ground in their life. We arrived for our first practice to find the boundary lines running almost directly from point post to point post, (barely clearing the 50 meter square if it had existed at that time).
The game against Moree proved an eye opener. The word had got around and the ground was almost encircled with cars or spectators, which was a surprising indication of the extent of interest in Australian footy in the area since many of these spectators were from outside the University. Some enterprising supporter went around with the hat and we collected almost 30 pounds ($60.00), which kept the club in the black for the next couple of years. As for the game, we soon discovered that Bob’s Moree recruits did not have a lot of footy skills, therefore we could afford to move Jack Obst from full back to full forward and the game ended up a little one sided.
We paid a return match in Moree at the show grounds, which we again won easily. Apart from the footy an added attraction of going to Moree was a swim in the hot mineral spring Moree baths.
Setting up the Administration
Flushed with success we decided it would be prudent to form a club and get things official. There were 3 main reasons for setting up a club:
- To get some money from the Sports Union to by footballs and any other assistance that was available,
- To get Aussie Rules mentioned in next years handbook which might attract or not distract enrolments from footy heartland, and
- To get in an application to attend next years intervarsity at Sydney.
The over riding philosophy (or mission statement as it would be called today) was to foster the development of Australian football throughout the whole area. We did not want to confine footy to the University. Hence names like Northern District Australian National Football League, and an endeavor to play games in Armidale. We were fortunate to get the use of the show grounds through some Aussie rules sympathizers in the district.
Another strategy was to try and introduce footy to young players in Armidale. We approached the schools offering to facilitate games between the schools but this received a rather cool reception. We even approached TAS, because they had recently appointed a head master from Geelong Grammar. He was polite and diplomatic, inviting us into his office, where he confided that he appreciated what we were doing but if he let Aussie rules into TAS, he would be out on the street, courtesy the Old Boys, Board etc. We were however received favorably at the Catholic school where some of the brothers were from down south, and we ran training sessions on Wednesday afternoons at the show grounds for some of their classes.
I heard that in later years, a game pr games were played between Armidale High school and the catholic school.
There was also support from Armidale as well as within the University. Keith Smith had moved north from South Australia to a farm close to Robb College, had contacts with the show grounds and was instrumental in getting use of the ground, especially as he knew that soccer was trying to get on there as well. Mr. Wilkins had a bakery in Armidale and donated money that went to buy the Wilkins’s Shield that became the trophy for the local competition. Neville Crewe a member of staff at Adult Education Center of the Uni was a mad keen South Melbourne supporter, gave guidance with administration.
We had good relationships with the local paper “The Armidale Express” always ready for some extra copy, which accepted a weekly column on our activities. Some Mexicans starved of the footy coverage they were used to in southern newspapers once commented to me that they looked forward to our weekly Aussie rules news. Robert Wesley-Smith later took on this role and just to sex things up a bit wrote under the pseudonym of “Stab Kick”
Rugby Aussie Rules interface
With the introduction of a second code of football into the University some rivalry was inevitable but interesting. Overall there was a state of competitive harmony between the two codes. In the initial stages Aussie Rules was indebted to rugby before we got our own footballs, jumpers etc. Aussie rules players who could kick drop kicks long and accurate were sought after in the College teams. Jack Obst was well known throughout district because he could land a drop goal from the half way line of the rugby field. There were the inevitable debates about which was the superior code until Sandy Cuthbertson made the observation that each debaters views were determined by the code they had been brought up with.
Both codes had something to offer each other. On the one hand a few games of rugby improved the tackling skills of Aussie rules players whilst a few games of Aussie rules improved the ball handling skills of rugby players. However Brian Brocklebank said his ears were never the same after playing in the second row. With rugby established as the Saturday game and Aussie rules on Sunday, players could easily participate in both which led to the popularity of the 1964 social 4ths rugby competition.
Northern Districts footy league
If the seeds were sown in 1962, things started to germinate in 1963. We had to get a team to Sydney Intervarsity and get some more games in Armidale. Sydney University team traveled to Armidale one long weekend. They had obviously had to recruit a few rugby players to make up the team and with the handicap of travel we beat them, much to the surprise of some of the staff – Sydney graduates.
Moree still had a team and with the nucleus of a team in both Robb and Wright colleges there was the nucleus of a competition with two rounds and a final between the two top teams. A great idea St George but inevitably there were setbacks. The distance between Armidale and Moree was arduous, it soon became obvious that Moree would be bottom team and games were forfeited. Inevitably a car broke down when Al Watson’s car rolled on the return from Moree late one night and the occupants feared they would die from exposure to those Northern NSW frosts before help arrived. A game was held half way at Inverell in an effort to minimize the travel.
By 1964, Page College was established so a 3 team local competition was preferred to travel and uncertainty of playing Moree. Alistair Watson offered to umpire and received 1 pound a game for his troubles. Rent for use of the showground was paid in kind, with volunteer labor painting the fence around the oval.
Another issue was when to play the games. Rugby Union was played on Saturdays while outside the Uni rugby league was played on Sundays. Initially games were played on Saturdays, because this was the way it had always been done down south, although by this time Sunday football was being played in Melbourne. It soon became obvious that playing Saturdays had more difficulties than advantages and it became a Sunday competition, which produced less hassles and more spectators. We could have been the first League outside Melbourne to play as a Sunday competition.
Getting a team to intervarsity was a major aim each year. All things going well we had a team for 1963 in Sydney. Unfortunately all things did not go well; some players driving from South Australia had an accident and did not arrive for the first match against Monash. This was also the first intervarsity for Monash who, being from the heartland were determined to get themselves into the big league with Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth. In addition Sydney had had received buckets of rain and the Uni No 1 oval was a quagmire. We conscripted Alistair Watson, who was in Sydney for his studies while Melbourne offered us one of their reserve players. This must have been the most humiliating match UNE have ever played. Monash kicked about 20 goals in the mud while we managed one point. The point would have been a goal if Will Dennis had soccered the ball off the ground instead of trying to pick it up, and the score would have been more like 40 goals if the ground had been dry.
To rub salt into the wound, when we returned to the dressing rooms at the uni for half time a few players discovered someone had rifled through their gear and wallets had been stolen. At the end of the week other players had their suit cases stolen from their hotel at Kings Cross and my car was stolen from outside a Hotel in Kings cross.
We did manage to win our last game against the Uni of NSW; who were also new to the competition, thanks mainly to the efforts of Jack Obst who kept on top of their crack full forward, and a big name in the Sydney competition at the time. Jack was later selected in the all-Australian team.
We did well in Perth the following year, having learnt a few lessons from the Sydney experience. One lesson learnt was to have a non-playing manager to look after the valuables, get the team onto the ground and let the team concentrate on playing. We beat Sydney unit, a feat that received a special mention at the intervarsity diner.
Perth was noteworthy for the feats of some people took to get there. Ted Nixon, a staff member of the History department, was so desperate to play intervarsity he enrolled for a higher degree to be classified as a student. Geoff Edwards got there by hitch hiking to Burke, where he rendezvoused with Peter Schmidt who drove down from their property on the Paroo River near Charleville, Queensland. They then motored to Adelaide picking up Rob McLean at Broken Hill. Another group including Ted Nixon, Peter Ashby (manager) and Steven Hill took the train across the nullabor.
What they discovered on this trip was that the length of journey on the India Pacific can be measured by the number of slabs of beer that are required for the journey. Unfortunately they miscalculated and at a stop across the nullabor one member of the party was dispatched to the one pub in town for another slab. He returned to the station, slab under arm, to see the train starting to depart. As he ran along the line those on board shouted throw the beer, which he did, then relieved of his load, threw himself on the train as it gathered speed at the end of the station.
Co-opting other players.
There was seldom enough Aussie rules players so rugby or soccer players were enticed to make up the numbers. It was not hard to pick out the rugby players or the soccer players; rugby players held onto the ball waiting for a scrum to form while soccer players went in for the ball feet first.
Staff or postgraduate students who helped or played were, in addition to Ted Nixon: Doug Murray, Neville Crew, Al Watson and Neil Sturgess (the most perfect exponent of the drop kick I have ever seen).
Keith Smith eventually succumbed to temptation and came out of retirement to play, but after one game he had so many sore spots his wife forbid him from playing again.
A student from TAS appeared asking for a game, as he had arrived from Victoria so we put him in one of the College teams. “Stabb Kick” mentioned this player from TAS in his column one week and we never saw him again. There was a positive side to this however; it proved that at least one rugby supporter read the Aussie rules news. (And if you believe the rabbit theory, more than one)
When we were playing visiting teams it was fair game to pull in players from wherever we could. Jock White, a friend of mine from Longerenong Ag College was in a shearing team working on P A Wright’s property so he was conscripted.
The question of whether the high ideals of those early years of fostering the development of Australian football in the New England have been achieved is a matter for debate, but a view of the honor roll showing teams from Coffs Harbor and a Tamworth AFL suggests there has been some progress to this end.
Rolled cars, quokkas and horseshit
Rob Wesley-Smith (Wes/Stab Kick)
I was a co-founder of the Aussie Rules in 1963 and I was in Robb College. Our first intervarsity matches were in Sydney that year. Our captain and outstanding player was Jack Obst. I reckon Jack won the most umpire votes in the 1963 Intervarsity in Sydney, in our second division. We played five games in five days I reckon. In 1963 Ted Nixon organised the design and supply of the first batch of UNE jumpers. Being President I was pretty much self-annointed as captain-coach of the IV team that went to intervarsity in Perth in 1964. We did very well winning two of three games with 18 players in total. I was given a half Blue for my efforts. Hayden Bunton jnr came and spoke to us before the last match in Perth, and I promptly cracked my wrist in that game. But I remember how fantastic it was to play on a well manicured ground. Because some players (not UNE) borrowed a bulldozer (or tractor) on the Island of Quokkas, the Intervarsity footy was cancelled for 1965, my last year — what a bastard! One of our star turns in 1964 was to defeat the St George club from Sydney who hadn’t lost a game in their Aussie Rules comp for one and a half seasons. I think we also beat Mayne from Brisbane. Neville Crew was an early Treasurer, and kindly lent me his (big) car on one occcasion to drive players to Moree.We had to go through snow on the way, I broke my specs and was half blind – quite a trip for me at least. In one of the first Moree games they were a bit short, so I played for them. We rolled three cars in three trips to Moree so we decided to modify our behaviour a bit — we stopped going there. In 1965 we drove to Lismore for a game and a good trip, and at some stage we went to Newcastle. Our games were played on the Armidale showground oval. I had the OK to use their tractor and point harrows to smooth out the cow and horseshit before matches and to try to reduce bumps.