Saturday, 8 February 2014

1917 (2013)

The 1917 season started amid public pressures against the game for continuing to run during the war. Administrators of the game believed that competition should continue as it gave people an enjoyable escape from the depressing realities of war. Since the beginning of the war, the NSWRL had regularly played matches against teams made up of servicemen, as well as exhibition games and donating monies from many of the largest drawing games to the war campaign.

Because of a large number of Rugby League players enlisting for war service, clubs had to start looking further afield than their own suburb to find top quality players so as to remain competitive.

From 1908 til 1959, clubs were not restricted by a salary cap as they are today. Instead, they had to abide by a very strict residential rule, which meant that players had to live in the area of the team they were to represent for one year, or if they were coming from the country, interstate or overseas, just 28 days.

For the 1917 season, Glebe officials travelled to Newcastle and were very impressed with a burly centre from Lambton by the name of Dan ‘Laddo’ Davies, who was playing for Newcastle Wests.

Davies agreed to join Glebe for the 1917 season and moved to Sydney early in 1917, so that he would have lived in the area long enough to be ready to play in Glebe’s first match of the year.

When Davies arrived in Sydney, he lived with a relative in the suburb neighbouring Glebe, Annandale, who also had a team in the NSWRL first grade competition. Glebe administrators were aware of Davies’ residence, but reassured him that players regularly play for teams outside the suburb they live in, which was very much not the case at all.

On May 12, the 1917 season began. Davies ran out for Glebe, ironically against Annandale. His participation in this match was the catalyst for a series of events between Glebe, the NSWRL and the entire Newcastle Rugby League that would have severe, far reaching ramifications that spanned several years.

Glebe beat Annandale 26-5 with Davies on debut. Annandale, aware that Davies was living in their area, lodged a complaint requesting the game be forfeited by Glebe for fielding an illegible player.

An official investigation began regarding the matter. Davies was asked to sign a declaration by Glebe officials stating that he had indeed been living in the Glebe area, however it was quickly found to be false.

The NSWRL stripped Glebe of its two competition points for the win against Annandale. Davies' dishonesty saw him being handed a life ban by the NSWRL.

Glebe believed they were being discriminated against and future events of that season would suggest such, but it was the demeanour of the club that caused things to get out of control. In their Round 12 hard fought victory against Newtown, three Glebe players were sent off. On the following Monday, two of the sent off players received excessive suspensions for the rest of the season for seemingly minor incidents which numerous previous occurrences actually avoided punishment.

Glebe grew more vocal in their opposition to the penalties handed down by the NSWRL and in turn, the NSWRL handed down even more severe punishments for indiscretions by the Glebe club and its players in an attempt to show that they were in control.

The next week, Glebe was to line up against neighbouring rivals Balmain. The two clubs had always held a strong and passionate rivalry, like most neighbouring clubs do. These games always drew good crowds and provided more often than not, close, hard fought and entertaining matches, which invariably meant that gate takings for these matches would always be among the highest of the year at club level. Balmain had won back to back premierships in 1915 and 1916, with Glebe finishing second and third respectively in both seasons. 1917 was proving to be again very similar. Balmain were clear competition leaders and Glebe were fourth when the two sides were set to meet each other for their second match in the 1917 season in Round 13, which was scheduled to be played at the SCG, ensuring both clubs would receive a generous sum from gate takings as it was deemed a neutral venue, thus both sides would receive an equal gate taking for the match.

Because of the reactions by Glebe over the Davies decision, and the excessive suspensions from the previous week, the NSWRL made a last minute decision to switch the game from the SCG, to the significantly smaller Birchgrove Oval. This meant that Glebe not only missed out on a share of a potentially larger gate taking, but they would receive no monies at all as the game would be played at Balmain’s home ground.

Glebe officials were outraged and the first grade players decided to boycott the match. Glebe had fully intended to forfeit the match as a protest against the NSWRL, however they instead fielded a second rate team made up of reserve graders and juniors. Balmain flogged Glebe 40-9, Glebe's worst defeat since 1910 when they were beaten 36-0 by Easts.

The NSWRL were angered by the Glebe players for boycotting the game, so they decided to review the issue over two weeks, to allow themselves time to calm after the incident so as to not make a rash decision. This ploy failed as they decided to suspend the 14 First Grade Glebe players for the rest of the 1917 season, as well as the entire 1918 season, including the Burge brothers Albert, Laidley and Frank.

During the long off season, the NSWRL overturned the suspensions of twelve of the suspended Glebe players amid much anger and heavy criticism from the media and the public. Frank and Alby Burge later had their suspensions cut back to May 1918, ensuring that they would be able to play in the first competition match of the 1918 season, which ironically again, was against Annandale.

Upon receiving his punishment, Dan Davies quietly and promptly returned home to Lambton to go back to work in the coal mines. Upon his arrival back home, just weeks after his sentence was handed down, his former club Newcastle Wests tried to have the penalty overturned so that he could play exclusively in Newcastle, however the NSWRL would not shift their stance. Soon after their appeal was rejected, Newcastle Wests threatened to boycott their match at Wickham Oval against Newcastle Norths, unless Norths allowed Davies to play for Wests. Norths agreed and the match went ahead.

However, the NSWRL soon learnt of Davies match in Newcastle and their action was swift and more excessive than any of their suspensions and bannings handed to Glebe during 1917. Every player and administrator from the Newcastle competition, except for Newcastle Easts were banned for life.

The suspended players and officials started their own rebel competition, which included all the prominent stars in the local competition, who were known as the ‘Bolsheviks’. Upon hearing the news of the rebel code, the NSWRL again imposed life bans on everyone associated with the rebel competition, but as it wasn’t administered by the NSWRL, the bans were duly ignored and the rebel competition continued.

Newcastle Easts remained loyal to the NSWRL and thus were left with the task of helping recreate a new competition which contained all players from the now rebel clubs who wanted to remain loyal to the NSWRL The loyalists were known as the ‘Lilywhites’. This competition consisted of mostly second string sides which saw the Lilywhites competition quickly become the lesser of the two.

For the 1918 and 1919 seasons, Newcastle had two competitions running simultaneously, but as the rebel competition was the more successful, the NSWRL eventually lifted all its life bans imposed on players and officials in the Newcastle competition and sanity was restored, allowing the competitions to be reunified again for the 1920 season.

Annandale eventually exited from the NSWRL at the end of the 1920 season.  Glebe followed suit in 1929, despite being one of the consistently best performing sides since the games inception in 1908. It is believed that when the board had to decide on Glebe’s existence, past indiscretions by the club factored heavily in the NSWRL decision to axe the club.

The residential rule was eventually scrapped in 1959 when the game was going through several changes, such as the introduction of poker machines, overseas players and future expansion plans.

Davies played for Newcastle Wests in the Bolshevik competition and was selected to represent Newcastle against the touring English side in 1920. He eventually retired in 1923 at the ripe old age of 28. He lived the rest of his life in Newcastle up until his death in 1967.

***************This article appeared in the Men of League magazine**********************

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