The Canberra Raiders' spectacular grand final win against the Balmain Tigers in 1989 is widely regarded as Australian rugby league's greatest ever decider. For a fledgling club, this was an extraordinary and unexpected achievement, heralding a sequence of years that produced two more premierships and two near-misses. The Raiders' trademark adventurous style of play was welcomed by all lovers of the game. Attacking football was back in vogue.
David Headon tells the story of a unique football team that entered the Sydney competition in 1982 with little fanfare and plenty of pessimism, despite the fact that league had been an integral part of communities across the Limestone Plains for nearly a century. From this firm base, the Raiders emerged to make their mark.
Absolutely Bleeding Green recounts the big wins and heart-wrenching losses as it follows the players through their Raider careers, revealing how the club was able to build exceptional team spirit, even in difficult times. It includes interviews with players past and present, with coaches and administrators, as well as with families and supporters who are so proud of the distinctive lime green jersey.
"This terrific book tells the story of a unique club that changed my life forever, just as the Raiders changed rugby league forever." —Mal Meninga, rugby league Immortal, Canberra Raiders Hall of Fame
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ROOTS FREDERICK CAMPBELL TO 1921
Early newspaper reports confirm that the first games of contact football in the Australian colonies were played by members of the military. In 1829, a journalist for the Sydney Monitor newspaper noted for his readers that 'privates in the barracks are in the habit of amusing themselves with the game of football'. What those privates were actually playing we'll never know, but within a few decades in England and in New South Wales the biff and barge of some version of footy acquired rules to create a code that had been developing as part of English folk football for hundreds of years. Some participants insisted on using their feet; others wanted to pick the ball up and run with it. William Webb Ellis is usually cited as the first notable ball carrier, back in 1823.
The renowned Rugby school in England produced a first set of rules in written form for the running game during the 1840s. In colonial Sydney, the Albert Cricket Club published the codified 'Rules of Football as Played at Rugby' in the club's annual reports of 1862 and 1863. Throughout the 1860s in New South Wales scratch matches were regularly organised, with the first well-publicised game taking place in Sydney's Hyde Park on 17 June 1865. It took a few more years, but eventually a pattern of inter-school invitation games paved the way for the formation of the Southern Rugby Football Union (later the New South Wales Rugby Football Union) in 1874. This was the same year that the first two country school rugby teams were established, one in the west at All Saints' College, Bathurst, and the other down south at St Patrick's College, Goulburn. The game was spreading, taking root.
In these formative years, rugby found its home among the middle classes of the 'Mother Colony' of New South Wales, so it was hardly surprising that the sons of the more prosperous citizenry — professional men, landed gentry, merchants and miners who had struck it rich — had established a Sydney University Football Club by the mid-1860s. On 19 August 1865, the students played the Sydney Football Club in 'an exciting struggle' marred, it seems, by 'a misunderstanding with regard to the rules'.
The captain of the University side that day was 21-year-old Frederick Campbell, grandson of the influential founder of Canberra's Duntroon Station, the merchant, Robert Campbell. Born in 1846 and educated at the prestigious Cholmeley School in Highgate on the edge of London (where he was a classmate of renowned Australian novelist, Marcus Clark, best known for the classic convict novel, For the Term of His Natural Life), Fred returned to Australia in 1864 following the accidental death of his older brother at Cambridge and, shortly after, the death of his mother. He loved his rugby and played a leading role in the establishment in Sydney of the University's rugby club and the introduction of the game to his fellow-colonists living on the distant Monaro plains.
Campbell purchased Yarralumla homestead in 1882. Within ten years he had made a series of such splendid additions and adornments to the main residence that when Canberra was confirmed as the nation's capital in 1908, and the Commonwealth had acquired all the land it needed, Campbell's fine home became the Governor-General's residence. It still is.
If the rugby game was firmly in the hands of well-to-do colonists in Sydney and country New South Wales in the 1860s and '70s, this situation changed completely in the 1880s and '90s for a few reasons, the most important of them when working men for the first time gained more leisure hours on the weekends. As historian Chris Cunneen points out in League of a Nation (1996), by 1888 banks and business houses were closed on Saturdays at twelve o'clock and within twenty years the only workers not getting a half-day holiday on Saturday afternoons were shop employees. The composition of rugby teams altered substantially as a result. Working men revelled in the toughness of the game and many had the physical attributes to succeed. There was only one problem: as the game got rougher, injuries increased. For those working-class players who got badly hurt there was no financial compensation or assistance whatsoever.
It did not take long for the issue of payment of players to be discussed, even within doggedly amateur, middle-class rugby circles. In 1894–95, England's workers with a liking for rugby, virtually all of them located in the industrial cities of the north, took action and created a set of new rules for what they called the Northern Union game — the first version of Rugby League. It would be professional. Players did not get much money, but whatever they got helped.
Australia embraced the new code after a boisterous meeting attracting about 50 men of influence took place at Bateman's Crystal Hotel in George Street, Sydney, on 8 August 1907, to establish the New South Wales Rugby League. Henry 'Harry' Hoyle, a 54-yearold former Labor politician known for his fiery trade union speeches, was elected president; J.J. Giltinan, an entrepreneur and former commercial salesman with a passion for all sport, became honorary secretary; and the legendary cricketer Victor Trumper assumed the treasurer's duties.
It was clear at the outset that the new game (called 'Rugby League' in Australia from the start) had to be taken seriously by rugby's diehards. Those who chose to ignore it initially were forced to recognise the challenge posed when, in August 1909, the 'Great Defection' occurred: fourteen rugby union Wallaby players changed codes. Considering their day jobs, this should not have surprised anyone. Four were labourers, two painters, two carpenters, a fish seller, storeman, boilermaker, clerk, wharfie, journalist, boat builder, draper, fireman, tailor, compositor, cleaner and two others of vocation unknown.
Here was proof positive of the extraordinary changes that had dramatically altered rugby's playing ranks. Until then, the game's adherents had been confident the code would survive the league threat. The 'Great Defection', together with the vital signing to league of the most celebrated player in either code, Herbert Henry 'Dally' Messenger, gave Rugby League a momentum that — when it continued to be played during the Great War years and rugby was not — it would never lose.
The strength of southern football
From the early 1870s some of the young men of the Limestone Plains decided that they too would like to pick up a footy and run with it. Settlements near and far produced scratch teams, among them Michelago, Williamsdale, Tuggeranong, Gundaroo and Bungendore, and the more distant and populated Goulburn, Yass and Cooma. Records suggest that the first inter-town game of rugby down south, between Queanbeyan and Yass, took place in 1878, in the same decade that the code's fortunes accelerated in Sydney.
The Ginninderra community had a special advantage from the start. In 1864, by coincidence the year that Frederick Campbell returned to Australia, the Cricketers' Arms Hotel at One Tree Hill (a stone's throw from what is now the ACT village of Hall in northern Canberra) opened for business. It became a hub for a range of sporting activities, attracting the locals in droves and many settler sportsmen from further afield. So popular did the Cricketers' Arms become that when Sydney-based politician, committed republican E.W. O'Sullivan, stood for and won the NSW Legislative Assembly seat of Queanbeyan in October 1885, he made it his business at election time over the next twenty years to travel down from Sydney, shout the bar at the hotel and move with dramatic flair into a recitation of his signature poem, Advance Australia. Typically, as the Goulburn Evening Penny Post recorded in July 1894, O'Sullivan would then treat 'his audience to a couple of excellent songs, after which he took his departure amid cheers'. On other occasions he made good use of the balcony of Queanbeyan's Royal Hotel to deliver his persuasive mix of Federationist, feminist and sporting sentiments. He was an avowed believer in the exciting possibilities ahead for the Australian community, 'a remarkably athletic people'.
Frederick Campbell was patron of the Queanbeyan District Football Club in the mid-1890s while Edward O'Sullivan, for two decades (1885–1904) Queanbeyan's activist Legislative Assembly member, was the patron of the Ginninderra Football Club about the same time.
Points of the Lazarus sundial
In 1860, Nathan Moses Lazarus donated a sundial to his adopted hometown of Queanbeyan. His gift adorns a small square in front of the Visitors' Centre in the town today. A civic-minded, free migrant son of a Jewish couple who had themselves migrated from Holland to Britain, Nathan was well aware that his father, employed in the textile industry, had worked hard to feed and clothe his family in inner-city London. Times were tough. Nathan decided to strike out for the colonies to seek a new life.
Nathan Moses Lazarus's great-great-grandson is Glenn Patrick Lazarus, the 'brick with eyes', an integral part of the Canberra Raiders' machine in the club's first two historic premiership wins in 1989 and 1990. Glenn is a confirmed Raiders and Rugby League legend, but more on that later.
The Lazarus family's involvement in all aspects of early rugby in Queanbeyan was one of the mainstays of the game's popularity in the town in the decades before the Great War. The Queanbeyan Age records that a 'Lazarus' played in a game against Cooma in June 1882. This young man was certainly one of the eight sons (and ten children) of Nathan and his wife, Harriet Grogan — an English-born, Roman Catholic woman for whom Nathan converted to Catholicism. The resilient Harriet had her first child aged 36, her last child aged 52 and lived to be 100! It's all there in the genes, as they say. The Lazarus who played in the Cooma fixture was probably the third son, Isaiah, and the game he played in took place exactly 100 years before the Canberra Raiders' inaugural season in the Sydney Rugby League competition. Members of the Lazarus family regularly assumed administrative positions and team selection responsibilities, but their contribution was just one family expression of many in a thriving, 19th-century rural township intent on growth and, with it, enhanced quality of life.
At the time of Federation in 1901, Queanbeyan fielded teams variously named the Golden Eagles, the Young Men's Football Club (YMFC, organised by the local Presbyterian minister), the Boys' Club and the Seniors. Family members could be pitted against one another, as was the case in July 1906 when a 'Lazarus L.' turned out for the Warrigals against a 'Lazarus A'. The A. Lazarus was Alf, Alfred William, a grand uncle of Glenn who, unlike his grandnephew, was an attacking centre. The Queanbeyan Age reported on the July 1906 game that he 'smartly picked up the ball and evading opponents, crossed the line and scored'. A more likely role model in the family tree for the Raiders' Glenn was probably his great grandfather's brother, Isaiah, who was badly injured playing his part in a June 1888 Queanbeyan–Goulburn game that was a particularly willing contest. As the Queanbeyan Age reported: 'In one of the scrimmages a Queanbeyan player collared a Goulburn man about the region of the scalp; the man so collared resented this treatment by giving his opponent a gentle shaking, upon which the Queanbeyan player referred to, in a clear and melodious tone, informed several of the visitors that if they "required anything", his address was Royal Hotel, back yard.'
Intense inter-town and inter-settlement rivalries began at this time, with the Queanbeyan teams comprising just some of a number of regional teams vying for local supremacy. These included the Cooma Rovers, Cooma Carltons, Cooma Juniors and Cooma Waratahs, Yass, Goulburn Pioneers, Gunning, Bungendore, Braidwood, Captains Flat, Numeralla and Hall. In 1905 Queanbeyan hosted a Sydney Tramways team and in 1906 teams from Queanbeyan, Yass, Goulburn and Cooma began competing for the coveted Ryrie Cup. Queanbeyan and Braidwood agreed to do battle for the Mandelson Cup, probably the first time in the region that a well-known hotel owner had sponsored a sporting event. It would not be the last.
Amenable locations for post-match gatherings were an important part of country football's appeal from the start. For many years, the Cricketers' Arms was the best-known spot in the area but as soon as towns (in the region and across the country) began to be more than a few tents, shanties and pockets of itinerants, multi-purpose hotels of all shapes and sizes were built. The Cricketers' Arms became even more popular post-Federation, especially when Morris 'Mon' Lazarus took over as licensee in August 1905. Mon, the oldest son of original patriarch Nathan, made many improvements to the hotel, which thrived until 1908 when Yass/Canberra was announced as the site of the nation's new capital city and Commonwealth priorities took precedence.
Queanbeyan's expanding population in the new century inevitably led to more pubs. Three were popular haunts for sporting clubs of all kinds, particularly the rugby fraternity: Hungerford's Victoria Hotel (favoured by the Golden Eagles team), the Royal Hotel and McPherson's Commercial Hotel. Alex McPherson, born in Dingo Creek, was the first proprietor of McPherson's. For a while this pub was probably the Queanbeyan sportsman's first choice; later, the name became better known locally because of the McPhersons' violin-playing, thespian and footballing son, Alexander 'Barney' McPherson, another talented Queanbeyan youngster who went on to play first grade in Sydney.
When the unimaginatively named 'Queanbeyan Football Club' team was renamed the 'Warrigals' after the native dog, the dingo, it took immediate confidence from the rebranding. On the back of this initiative, the Warrigals designed a new guernsey and, henceforth, their players turned out in a distinctive blue and white horizontal strip. The Warrigals quickly became Queanbeyan's most successful team, a situation that remained basically unchanged through the Great War and for some years after.
A bare three weeks after the Royal Military College (Duntroon) formally opened in 1911, the cadets put a rugby team together to play the best side in the region. It had to be the Warrigals. Over the next decade, the ranks of the college would be decimated, first on the hills of Gallipoli and after that in the mud of the Western Front. While the cadets' team would continue to play rugby post-war, for many years it carried on under the terrible shadow of young lives lost. The game was not the same. Nor was it for their first-ever opponents, but for entirely different reasons. The Warrigals' game quite literally changed completely. Why and how did this happen?CHAPTER 2
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN 1921–81
With the formation of the Canberra Raiders still six decades away, Rugby League in the Canberra–Queanbeyan region began in 1921. A pre-season Warrigals Rugby Club meeting in March at Queanbeyan's Triumph Theatre Supper Room, with a 'large attendance', opened in the usual way with no hint of what was to come. Office bearers were elected, Mr E.F. Land donated a football and, not surprisingly for the times given the lively and 'intelligent democracy' of Queanbeyan (as politician Edward O'Sullivan once memorably put it), 'a lot of discussion took place with regard to the entertainment of visiting teams'. Then, according to the Queanbeyan Age, a 'reorganisation of the club was decided upon' and on a motion by Messrs F. Hayes and Joe O'Rourke 'it was decided to adopt the League game for the coming season'.
Such bland newspaper reportage conceals a truly momentous occasion. It would change the face of sport and cultural life in southern New South Wales, and also in what had been officially named in 1911 the 'Federal Capital Territory' (in 1938, the Australian Capital Territory). The new secretary-elect, Ancel Kidmore Johnston, was the same man who had been guiding the development of the Warrigals rugby side but he responded to his amended role with relish, in the next 'few happy years' (as he would recall) serving as secretary and president of the League Blue and Whites, as well as a group football delegate, group selector and an official umpire.
Rugby League begins
History was created on 22 May 1921 when the Warrigals team played its opening game of the season against Bungendore, the 'first match under Rugby League rules' as reported in the Queanbeyan Age. The journalist penning this story, clearly close to the team and a tough critic of its performances — and apparently unmoved by the club's decision to change codes — went on to write that, with Rugby League:
Although faster than Union rules, members still go on in the same lackadaisical style and forget that 'nick' is required to give the game their best ... Girls and pictures and skating are very nice in their place, but when they interfere with the grand old games, cut them out.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Absolutely Bleeding Green"
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Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
1 Roots: Frederick Campbell to 1921,
The strength of southern football,
Points of the Lazarus sundial,
2 A league of their own: 1921–81,
Rugby League begins,
Between the wars,
A homegrown nursery,
War years and after,
Blues, Roos and a blur named Larry,
Changing the game,
Time to roll up the sleeves,
3 The Canberra phenomenon: 1982–85,
Sink or swim,
The Pioneers, 1982,
'Upset of the decade' and other achievements, 1983,
Two steps forward, one step back, 1984 and 1985,
4 A movie script come to life: 1986–89,
One long nightmare, 1986,
So close and yet, 1987,
Opportunity missed, 1988,
'Inside each of you is a dream', 1989,
5 The team of the '90s: 1990–2001,
Oozing class, 1990,
Rise, fall and rise again, 1991–93,
Mal Meninga and the last crusade, 1994,
Surviving Super League, 1995–96,
The changing of the guard, 1997–2001,
6 Harder yards: 2002–present,
Winters of content, winters of discontent, 2002–06,
Leave your ego at the door, 2007–08,
Return of a favourite son, 2009–13,
Forever Green, 2014–19,
7 Ties that bind,
The Canberra Raiders,