On August 5, 1905 Balmain took on Newtown in a club Rugby Union match which, unbeknownst to anyone that day, would be the catalyst for the formation of the Balmain Rugby League Football Club.
Newtown was leading 16-0 in a rough game when a penalty against Balmain drew the ire of their forward Joe Apolony, who began remonstrating with the referee, Mr H.Nelson. Apolony claimed that the referee’s decisions were unfair towards him before he was sent off for allegedly striking the referee.
Balmain officials produced 25 pages of witness accounts of the incident in the hope that it would prevent their forward from any severe punishment; however the Metropolitan Rugby Union sided with their official, who provided only 1 page of supporting evidence.
The MRU agreed to ban Apolony from playing the game for ten years. The decision incensed Balmain players and officials alike. At the club’s next meeting they submitted a motion “That the Balmain team withdraw from the competition as a protest against the action of the Union.” The motion defeated by just one vote.
This incident was the beginning of what would become a fractious relationship between the Balmain Rugby Union club and the MRU.
In 1906 Balmain played more games outside their area than within it. This trend continued in 1907, to the extent that their home ground, Birchgrove Oval was even seeing a reduction in senior and junior level games.
On August 8, 1907, Rugby League was formed after weeks of speculation surrounding its existence. Key players from many of the Rugby Union clubs had already sided with the new code, including Balmain test player Robert Graves and State player Alf Dobbs. The committee selected a squad of 20 players to participate in the 3 games against the touring New Zealand professional side who were en-route to England. Present at the meeting were Graves, fellow player Tommy O’Donnell and official Robert Hutchison.
The games were scheduled for the latter half of August, which coincided with a Country NSW tour that Balmain were embarking upon. While the team was in Mudgee, Dobbs was reading a newspaper which named him as one of the players taking part in the matches against the Kiwi professionals.
Dobbs immediately knew that his secret alliance with the professional code was now exposed, so he immediately asked his club officials on the tour if he could have his return train ticket so that he could begin training with the Professional New South Wales side. The Balmain officials contacted the MRU who made it very clear, that if Dobbs was requiring a ticket back home to partake in a professional game, then he should buy his own ticket.
Balmain secretary Pat McQuade was so furious at this decision that he demanded Balmain forfeit their next match against Lithgow and all players return back home. The players and officials all agreed and they abandoned their remaining fixtures.
McQuade attended the next MRU meeting where he defended Dobbs, but all this did was see him accused of being a professionalism sympathiser.
Dobbs played in the second of the 3 games against the Kiwi’s, while Graves appeared in all 3 games.
Apolony began the push within the Balmain club to abandon the MRU. He organised a meeting with club players and officials but was unable to hire a venue. Undeterred, he held the meeting outside the Leichhardt Council Chambers, where he called on the club to join Rugby League.
On January 23, 1908, a meeting was held at the Balmain town hall “for the purpose of forming a Balmain club to affiliate with the NSWRL.”
Future NSW State Premier John Storey MLA presided over the meeting, where 600 players, officials and club supporters were present. Fellow Labor politician Henry Hoyle, who was the inaugural president of the Rugby League, addressed the meeting and explained the objects of the league. “His remarks were frequently applauded.”
NSWRL Secretary James Giltinan also spoke before Hutchison moved “That a Balmain club be formed to affiliate with the NSW League.” Robert Graves seconded the motion and it was carried.
Local lawn bowler and long-time Balmain Rugby official Cecil Turner was appointed the club’s inaugural President, Hutchison treasurer and Horace Davis was secretary.
One of the provisional members of the inaugural committee was Mr F Napier. Napier was a key member of the new League side, as he was also a trustee for Birchgrove Oval. He brought exclusive use of the ground with him to the League.
March 19, 1908 saw Balmain’s Rugby Union club hold a heated general meeting, where the discussions focussed almost entirely on the club’s mistreatment by the MRU. Napier attended the meeting and revealed that the trustees of Birchgrove Oval had opted to abandon the MRU and side with the NSWRL because they want to see more games being played at their ground.
Hutchison chimed in, saying he felt that he and the club hadn’t been treated with any respect by the MRU, who barely made an effort to attend Balmain meetings.
Many members at the meeting felt that the MRU was not trying to help the game grow in the area, via Balmain’s lack of games in their own area and seemingly abandoning Birchgrove Oval.
A week later, the Balmain Rugby League Club held its general meeting at Oldfellows Hall on Darling St. Hoyle was again present and was greeting with great enthusiasm.
Unlike the clubs who had already agreed to join the NSWRL, where there had been hesitations and uncertainty amongst the players whether to join the professional game or not, Balmain joined almost entirely, decimating the playing ranks within the Balmain Rugby Union side so much that the MRU announced at a meeting at the end of March, that Balmain would not be competing in the 1908 season.
On April 18, 1908, Balmain played its first Rugby League game, a trial match against, fittingly, Newtown. The match ended in a 6 all draw.
The official competition kicked off a week later, Balmain winning their opening match with an emphatic 24-0 demolition of Western Suburbs.
The club had the services of Apolony once again, along with Dobbs, Graves, Alf Latta (who scored the clubs first try and goal) and O’Donnell, won 3 games, drew 1 and lost 5.
Apolony went on to get selected as a reserve in the NSW side to face the visiting Maori side of 1909; however he didn’t take the field. He was eventually made a life member of the NSWRL and of the Balmain Club.