There has always been a bitter rivalry between Rugby Union and Rugby League. This has come to prominence in recent years with Rugby Union buying some of Rugby League's best players.
Rugby League launched the first raid on Rugby Union playing ranks when Herbert Henry "Dally" Messenger was poached from Rugby Union as a draw card for the new game in 1908.
While teams were being formed for the new code, James Giltinan, Henry Hoyle and test cricketer Victor Trumper had been approached by the Northern Union (England's Rugby League competition) to send an Australian side to tour England to promote the game for both countries. The prospect of travel persuaded many players to switch codes.
When the Australian side arrived in England, mining strikes had gripped Northern England and consequently many people couldn't afford to attend the Kangaroos games. This, along with the Northern Union's decision to send the Kangaroos to play in the Union-loving Southern England to promote League, saw the expedition struggle financially.
Giltinan, who funded the tour, became bankrupt and was sacked upon his arrival back to Australia, along with fellow entrepreneurs Hoyle and Trumper.
The tour saw the Kangaroos away from home for nine months. The players were so broke that the Northern Union had to pay for their fares back home. Almost half the squad elected to stay in England to work in mines and play in the English competition, further depleting the ranks in the Australian competition for the 1909 season.
In 1909, the NSWRL organised its second raid of the Union ranks, in an attempt to reverse the publics waning interest in the new game.
The NSWRL planned to buy the top 25 Wallabies players. In 1908, Rugby League players were only paid if they were injured due to playing football. In 1909 that all changed with the poaching of the Wallabies, making League officially the professional code.
Harry Flegg, given the task of buying the Wallabies to play the Kangaroos in 3 exhibition games, decided to offer 25 players from both the Wallabies and Kangaroos squads £10 each. The Kangaroos being broke jumped at the offer. The Wallabies however, knew how much the new code wanted them, declined.
Flegg followed the Wallabies around constantly, trying to broker deals with them. In the end his £250 offer to the 25 Wallabies was dwarfed by the amount eventually accepted of £1850.
Because the Wallabies accepted payment, they were no longer eligible to play the amateur Rugby Union. The money used to poach the Wallabies was so high that the NSWRL couldn’t afford to pay any of the Kangaroos players for the matches against the Wallabies. The Kangaroos players became very disgruntled and most of them either retired or quit the game over the ensuing three seasons.
The game had absolutely no money. The administration had sacked its three pioneering financiers Giltinan, Hoyle and Trumper, for allegedly having secret bank accounts holding NSWRL money. The loss of these three men meant Rugby League had to look elsewhere to find financial assistance to help fund the purchase of the Wallabies.
Enter James Joyton-Smith, a philanthropist who was chairman of the South Sydney Hospital, who agreed with the NSWRL that all gate receipts made from the Wallabies v Kangaroos games would be split evenly between the NSWRL and South Sydney Hospital. After three games the gate receipts hadn’t covered the amount Joyton-Smith outlaid to purchase the Wallabies. So it was decided a fourth game would be played on the same day as the 1909 final between Souths and Balmain.
The grand idea sounded perfect, but they didn’t bank on a boycott to play the final by Balmain, who believed the game shouldn’t be a curtain raiser for the fourth Kangaroos v Wallabies game. Souths kicked off and scored a try against no one and were awarded the premiership by forfeit. The gate receipts for that day were enough to repay Joyton-Smith for his purchase of the Wallabies and the season ended with the NSWRL having just under £40 in the bank.
In the end, it was the greed of Rugby Union players that saved Rugby League.