April 20, 2018 marks the 110th anniversary of the first-ever round of rugby league matches to be played in Australia. One of the venues on that historic Easter Monday was Sydney's Birchgrove Oval.
Your author paid a visit to the historic ground on the Sunday morning before rugby league’s milestone anniversary, just to see what was happening. I’d Googled “Birchgrove Oval” and “news” in the previous days, only to find distress articles from a few years back about Aussie rules goalposts being erected there. This made the ghosts of rugby league history scream in agony at the horror of it all, apparently.
On this given Sunday though, hundreds of kids and their parents were in the middle of enjoying a cruisy morning in the sun, as the Balmain District Junior Rugby League’s season entered its second week. La Perouse was battling Concord-Burwood on the main field, while over on the minis ground closer to the water, Five Dock RSL was up against Carlingford Cougars.
If your young-un was out on the field, you’d probably be sitting a little more tense than usual, on the green wooden bench wrapped around the storybook picket fence which circles the playing area. If your kid was up next, you’d more likely be chilled out on the grass hill of your choice, enjoying the comfort of that fold-up camping chair you scored for Christmas.
If you’re a rugby league nerd, any trip to Birchgrove isn’t complete without revisiting that famous image taken of the first-ever game of rugby league played in Australia, here at this very ground in 1908 (that old shot is actually from 1910, but let’s not ruin a good story … and all that). When you take a picture from the same angle as that now grainy black and white image, you realise, save for a two-tier grandstand in the background which has since been removed, that this place doesn’t appear to have changed that much at all.
Birchgrove was the home of the Balmain District Rugby League Club between 1908 and 1932, according to the Centenary of Rugby League sign erected behind a small shed at Birchgrove back in 2008.
As the highly respected historian Sean Fagan wrote in his superb 2007 book Pioneers of Rugby League, in the years leading up to the commencement of rugby league, the Metropolitan Rugby Union on several occasions stopped the Balmain union club from using Birchgrove for its home games. Writes Fagan, “Balmain was particularly frustrated at their allocation of matches against South Sydney. They had played against Souths 14 times since the inception of the district scheme in 1900. However, only twice had South Sydney been forced to travel to Balmain’s home ground, Birchgrove Park.”
The Balmain rugby union club’s playing group was the first to switch in its entirety over to the new rebel code, and through their involvement in rugby league, got to enjoy playing at the picturesque venue after all. “The non-use of Birchgrove by the MRU had been the centre of dissatisfaction shown in Balmain – it was no surprise that the rugby league would want to use this ground, and would have no trouble gaining access to it,” Fagan wrote in Pioneers. “The use of Birchgrove and Wentworth Parks was a statement that the league was committed to the principals of local football.”
You know by now what happened on that famous Easter Monday at Birchgrove back in 1908; Souths beat Norths 11-7 and the trouble-making “Balmaniacs” toppled Western Suburbs 24-0. Despite the Easter Show and Sydney Cup also being staged at the same time, the double-header at Birchgrove still attracted a crowd of about 3,000. They paid six pence entry fee for the privilege, not likely knowing how important their presence was to the eventual course of Australian rugby league history.