A history of Brisbane Rugby League: 1922 to 1932, the great schism

There were two momentous events that affected Brisbane rugby league in 1922.

In an amazing development, for the first time since the competition began in 1909, the same set of teams ran out for a second year running! Wests, Valleys, Coorparoo (Easts), University, Carlton (Souths) and Brothers (plus Past Grammars joining a year or two later) would become the core of the competition through an unprecedented period of stability.

On a more serious note, while the all-powerful QRL secretary Harry Sunderland was away managing the Kangaroo Tour, BRL players met and formed the first players’ association. Their list of concerns was lengthy. The country leagues were able to run their own competitions but the QRL held and profited from the Brisbane competition, paying the QRL secretary up to 600 pounds per season (a fortune in those days).

Meanwhile the conditions for players were poor. For example, Davies Park, the home of rugby league, had a single shower and six nails in the wall for 60 players plus spectators.

The clubs and players unanimously demanded that club and referee representatives take control of the Brisbane competition. Secretary Sunderland saw the writing on the wall and did not contest the motion.

On the field the great Western Suburbs team won again. Boasting legends such as Norm Potter and Cecil Aynsley (the Red Flyer) they went through the 1922 season undefeated and easily accounted for Coorparoo in the grand final 20 points to nine. Coorparoo had now been runners up three times in four years. In fact between 1919 and 1929 Coorparoo were bridesmaids six times while winning only a single title.

The 1922 Wests side were widely considered the greatest BRL team up to that time. 1922 was also the first season Queensland, led by Wests’ Norm Potter, defeated NSW in the annual interstate series. Queensland would go on to dominate interstate football for the rest of the decade.

After 1922 we saw an end to the traditional dominance of Valleys and Wests. In 1923 Norm Potter left for Central Queensland. It should be noted that up until the rise of poker machines in Sydney in the 1960s, big contracts offered to go to the bush leagues were a greater threat to the Brisbane competition than poachers from down south, as well as the odd defection to the British Rugby League.

Over the first seven years of the revamped BRL, all seven different teams claimed the BRL premiership. In 1923 it was finally the turn of Coorparoo, who had been regular bridesmaids to this point. While Coorparoo defeated Valleys in the final in front of 8000 fans, a Potter-less Wests tumbled from undefeated in 1922 to the wooden spoon just a year later.

In 1924 Valleys, marshalled by Test halfback Arthur “Fatty” Edwards, returned to the winners circle with a tight 11 to eight win over Brothers, after leading 11 to two at halftime. It was a titanic defensive struggle with two of Valleys’ three tries coming through kicks and Brothers’ two tries coming late in the second half. Ex-Union club Past Grammars returned to the competition that year and made it to the semi-finals before crashing out to the eventual premiers.

But money and control thereof was becoming an issue for the competition. With 37,000 spectators turning out to see Great Britain take on Australia and large crowds watching the dominant Queensland team there were funds washing through the game. However, the power had shifted from Brisbane to Ipswich (home of Jimmy Craig, Bill Paten, Perce Parcell and sometimes Norm Potter) and Toowoomba (Duncan Thomson, Tom Gorman, Vic Armbruster, Dan Dempsey and Herb Steinohrt among others).

Herb Steinohrt

Herb Steinohrt is a Queensland rugby league legend. (Wikimedia Commons)

On top of this a hostile QRL was actively undermining the independent BRL administration. The Brisbane club competition struggled for relevance as the QRL staged regular representative fixtures to cash in on the game’s stars. It got to the point that representative fixtures between Ipswich and Toowoomba, with a Brisbane representative curtain raiser, were staged in direct competition to BRL club fixtures on the same day. Any Brisbane players who refused to turn out for their rep side were disqualified from state selection.

In 1925, Carlton came from fourth (out of seven teams) during the regular season to claim a second title with a dominant grand final victory over Coorparoo (second place yet again) in front of 6000 spectators. Coorparoo had impressed all season after signing South Sydney great Harold Horder for two pounds per week but with two players touring New Zealand with the Queensland side they were no match for a fitter Carlton in the grand final – a team who “battered the opposition to a standstill”.

It was another difficult year for the referees. A match between Coorparoo and Brothers had to be replayed after what would have been the match-winning try was denied by the referee. Coorparoo lodged a protest that was upheld and the Tigers won the replay to claim the minor premiership. The referee from that second game so angered the Brothers side that they refused to take the field for the semi-final the following week until their letter of protest at the officiating was symbolically acknowledged by the league.

Crowds were poor as the competition struggled to attract patrons in the face of the popular Bulimba Cup competition between Ipswich, Toowoomba and Brisbane and the all-star Queensland side, who took out the interstate series for a fourth year running. Rugby league was never more popular but the BRL was struggling.

In 1926 Brothers won the premiership over, you guessed it, Coorparoo before a record crowd of 10,000. A major factor was the Brethren’s signing of the legendary centre ‘Gentleman’ Tom Gorman from Toowoomba. The first Queenslander to lead a Kangaroo Tour led the Fighting Irish to a memorable title, after being lured to the club as their first ever paid player. Gorman was the player of the grand final, described as a “splendidly contested battle, hot and furiously waged… with the issue in doubt right to the final issue”.

The former rugby union power club were considered a side that relished the forward battles (called “the Celtic Style”) and had taken some time to adapt to league where they had previously revelled in union’s set pieces. Captain-coach Gorman added the classy finishing touches that made them a premiership-winning side.

The previous year’s premiers Carlton slumped to the wooden spoon, while the University club suddenly went from regularly propping up the table to finish the season in second place. In an odd occurrence the 1926 final was boosted by an interstate clash between Queensland and NSW as the curtain raiser! In the grand final Brothers won with a halfback on debut, 17-year-old Tom Casey setting up one of the side’s two tries.

Another significant moment that year was when Coorparoo’s Graham ‘Paddy’ Crouch became the first Indigenous player from any code to tour overseas, when selected for Queensland’s visit to New Zealand.

Poor relations between the BRL and QRL continued to haunt to code. In 1926 Ipswich were awarded the Bulimba Cup on forfeit after both Toowoomba and Brisbane refused to play the final round under the QRL banner.

In 1927, there was a new premier with Past Grammars, led by former Toowoomba great Vic Armbruster, taking their first ever title over Western Suburbs, who returned to the top of the table for the first time since 1922. Wests debuted a 17-year-old winger, Eric Harris, who got them to the final with two intercept tries in their semi. The ‘Toowoomba Ghost’ would go on to score nearly 400 career tries for Leeds in the British competition. Wests were looking good things to win the competition until they lost champion Queensland playmaker Jeff Moores for the final, who took a lucrative offer to go to England – 800 pounds sign on, six pounds a week and a guaranteed job.

Vic Armbruster

Vic Armbruster was a legend in Queensland in the 1920s. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

In 1927, the grand final moved from the Exhibition grounds because of a school athletics carnival! The QRL also continued to stage representative matches, often at short notice over the top of the BRL competition, causing continuing friction. In 1927, ten representative matches were held.

The previously modest University side secured back-to-back premierships across 1928 and 1929. At the time they were the last of the existing BRL sides to win a premiership since the ‘new’ competition had commenced in 1922. The Students were described as playing “bright, enterprising football”. In 1928 they defeated Carlton who attempted to putting the students off their game by waging a predominantly forward battle. Varsity scored two tries in the second half to take the match ten to seven. The following year the grand final was even closer, with University defeating Coorparoo (the perennial bridesmaids) by a single point. Coorparoo starved the Varsity’s brilliant attack of possession through dominance in the scrums but could not hold their line once the Students got some football.

Friction continued between the QRL and BRL through to the end of the decade. In 1929 the Brisbane clubs held secret meetings with the Queensland Rugby Union about leaving the QRL, but they came to nothing and the instigators of the meetings were banned by the QRL for 12 months. In response to the BRL’s machinations, the QRL set up its own competing club competition in 1929 using four Ipswich clubs, plus Brothers and Valleys (who both played a team in each competition). Fans had to buy season tickets to the new club competition to get tickets for the more popular QRL representative fixtures. Only players from clubs in the QRL competition would be eligible for to play for Queensland or be selected for the Kangaroo Tour. The ARL backed the QRL competition over the BRL. It would more than 65 years before Super League would again result in two competing professional league competitions in Australia.

Bothers and Valleys played in both competitions to allow their Australian players to remain eligible for higher honours. Somehow the BRL competition won by University remained the more popular with fans. The rival QRL competition was won by Ipswich Past Brothers, who still play in the Ipswich competition today and in fact are the reigning premiers. However both competitions suffered as disillusioned fans stayed away (that sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it).

At the end of 1929 the BRL clubs sensationally voted switch codes and join the Queensland Rugby Union. With rugby league in the city facing disaster, some prominent businessmen, coaches and referees brought representatives from the NSW Rugby League north to broker a deal between the warring parties. Meanwhile, 1930 again saw rival competitions, the QRL and BRL agreed to a peace deal in July that year.

The BRL came out the better of the deal. They retained control of the competition and were guaranteed lucrative matches against touring sides, while the parties also agreed to set aside a series of Saturdays for standalone QRL representative fixtures.

On the field Carlton won the 1930 title over Valleys, their first since 1925. ‘The West End Boys’ as they were known lost only one match all season, but it was the final against Valleys. However as minor premiers Carlton exercised their right to challenge and reversed the result against the Diehards in the grand final, winning 19 points to eight and a “brilliant and clever display”. The two warring competitions also played an end of season knock out cup once peace was declared, with Valleys taking that title over Past Grammars. In 1930, Brisbane won the Bulimba Cup over Ipswich and Toowoomba for the very first time.

In an all too familiar situation for Brisbane Rugby League of the time, the 1930 semi-final between Carlton and Coorparoo finished a little early. Coorparoo objected to a refereeing decision which turned the game Carlton’s way in the dying stages (an apparent knock-on was ignored allowing a Carlton player to pick up the loose ball and score), punches were thrown and two Coorparoo players were sent off but refused to leave. When the recalcitrant pair did finally leave the field, they took their teammates with them. The referee (who incidentally was Ernie Silverton, a recently retired captain of the Carlton club!) allowed the conversion, then declared the match for Carlton eight points to six. One Coorparoo player was suspended indefinitely for striking a touch judge, while the Coorparoo captain received a ban of all of one match for pushing the referee (downgraded from striking). Just another day in the BRL.

Brothers had dropped out of the competition in 1930, but they returned the following year, alongside a new team from Wynnum (‘The Seasiders’), the area’s first since 1913. Valleys emerged victorious in 1931, their first title since 1924, led by two great centres: captain Arthur ‘Skinny’ Donovan and Fred ‘Firpo’ Neumann. The club also boasted gun hooker Jack Little who joined Neumann on the 1933 Kangaroo Tour. The Diehards easily defeated a Past Grammars side that was beginning to make its mark under former Valleys captain, Test halfback Arthur ‘Fatty’ Edwards. The highlight of a dominant 27-to-nine victory was a 50-metre solo try from Donovan in the second half, described as one of the best of the season. Little also dominated the scrums to give the Sky Blues no chance of staging a contest.

In 1932 the Brisbane Rugby League showed just how far it had come by being the only non-Test side to defeat the touring English team. On the club scene, Grammar came up short once more, losing by the slimmest of margins, eight to seven, this time to Western Suburbs in one of the great grand finals. Wests had obtained the services as coach of their legendary forward leader Norm Potter and he returned the side to its former glory in front of 5000 fans. The highlight of the match was the opening try to Wests, as the ball went through six pairs of hands in a thrilling 70-yard movement.

The rough nature of the league had not changed much since 1909. In a match between Brothers and Carlton the referee was knocked unconscious trying to break up a brawl. After he was revived the match was completed, but there was another fight as the teams left the field, including spectators and requiring police intervention. Not a single suspension resulted from the match.

A team of the era (1922 to 1932) (finals appearances, grand finals, premierships)

• Ernie Silverton (Carlton) (Brisbane – two games) – seven, two, two. Captain 1925. Mr Silverton would go on to become a top referee, handling games between Brisbane and Ipswich representative teams against touring sides from England and New Zealand.

Three quarters
• Graham “Paddy” Crouch (Coorparoo) (Queensland – five games) – 11, four, one. Seven tries and eight goals in finals. Captain 1926. First Indigenous player to tour abroad, with Queensland to NZ, scoring six tries in five games.
• Fred “Firpo” Newman (Valleys) (one Test, Queensland – five games) – 25, eight, three. Eight tries, two goals and a field goal in finals. Captain 1934-1938 and 1941-1943. An intimidating defensive player and absolute legend of the Valleys club.
• “Gentleman” Tom Gorman (Brothers) (Queensland Team of the Century, ARL Hall of Fame, ten Tests, Queensland – 27 games) – five, one, one. one try in finals. Captain 1926-1928. Man of the match 1926 grand final. First Queensland player to captain a Kangaroo Tour.
• Joe Haslet (Valleys) (Queensland seconds – one game) – ten, three, two. Six tries in finals.

• Jeff Moores (Wests) – Moores represented Queensland 19 times and captained Wests before moving to England and captaining Leeds, winning a Challenge Cup final and representing the Dominion XIII against France. He famously scored two tries and kicked seven goals for Queensland in a record 38-to-nil thrashing of NSW in 1926. Moores backed it up by scoring a hat trick in the next encounter, won 37 to 19. By 1927 he was at Leeds and being described as “as fine a centre three-quarter as the game has known”. Moores also recruited Eric Harris to Leeds, who went on to score over 400 tries for the club.
• Arthur “Fatty” Edwards (Valleys, Past Grammars) (one Test, Queensland – 23 games) – ten, four, one. One try and two goals in finals. Captain 1931. Captained Brisbane to victory over Great Britain 1932.

• Billy Brereton (Westerns, Railways, Brothers, Carlton, Wests) – nine, one, zero. Captain 1920 and 1922. Captained Queensland to a 19-all draw against South Sydney in 1918.
• Arthur Henderson (Coorparoo) (Queensland – 21 games). Also played for Australia against NSW Maori in 1929) – eight, three, one. Hooker.
• Bill Kavanagh (Carlton) (Queensland – three games) – eight, two, one. Two tries in finals. Captain 1928. Man of the match 1925 grand final. In 1928 Kavanagh, among others, represented Brisbane in a 32-22 win against an Indigenous team from Palm Island. The visiting Palm Island team had a star three-quarter by the name of Bowen who was chaired from the field by excited members of the crowd. He was described as extremely fast with excellent dodging and sprinting. I wonder if there is an ancestral connection there to the great Matt “Mango” Bowen of North Queensland fame?
• A Jeavons (Coorparoo) (Brisbane – one game) – 17, six, one.
• Ernie Riipenen (Brothers) (Queensland – three games, Rest of Australia – one game) – eight, two, one. Two tries in finals.
• W Ryan (Carlton) – nine, three, two. Captain 1930.

• J Shields (Valleys) (three-quarter) – eight, three, two. Three tries and 15 goals in finals.
• W Kennedy (Coorparoo) (Brisbane – one game) (forward) – 12, four, one. Captain 1929-1930.
• Dudley Bird (Coorparoo, Valleys) (half) – ten, four, two. Two tries and a goal in finals.
• Ack Jones (Wests) – (Brisbane – one game) (fullback/wing) – nine, three, one. Two tries in finals. Captain 1933. Combined Brisbane captain 1929.

Other notables: Harold Horder, Cecil Aynsley (The Red Flyer), Vic Armbruster, Eric Harris (The Toowoomba ghost).

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