FROM inauspicious beginnings in 1869 with a game at Centennial Park that erupted into an all-in brawl, the Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union is now entrenched as the strongest rugby region in country Australia.
The senior men’s representative team claimed the Caldwell Cup – the Holy Grail of NSW Country rugby – for a record fifth straight year in April, trumping arch rivals and fellow steel stronghold Illawarra 24-11 in the final.
Newcastle and Hunter also won the under 20s, beating Central West in the decider, to claim the Country Championship double for the second time in four years.
Not to be outdone, the Newcastle and Hunter women’s team won a 13th consecutive Country title on Saturday.
Rugby union was first played in Newcastle on June 5, 1869, 46years after William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball and ran with it at the Rugby School in England.
An eight-man Volunteer Artillery team challenged United Cricket Club (11 players) at Centennial Park, Cooks Hill.
The game burst into a brawl, dubbed the battle of St John’s Green, with the result of the game and the fight unknown.
The first reports of a sport like rugby being played in Australia date back to the 1820s, when visiting ship crews would play army teams at Barrack Square in Sydney. However, it wasn’t until 1864 that the first formal club was formed at Sydney University. The metropolitan competition was born a decade later.
The Newcastle Football Club was founded at a meeting at the Ship Inn on May 1, 1877.
Maitland and Wallsend clubs were established later that year and were followed by Advance (1880), West Maitland (1885), Oriental (1885), Union (1885), Ferndale (1885), Waratah (1885), Raymond Terrace (1886), Carlton (1887), Centennial (1887), Lambton (1888), Wickham Albion (1888) and Greta (1890).
The Newcastle Rugby Union was formed in 1888 and continued until World War I, when all competitions were suspended.
The game re-emerged in 1926 with a match between GPS Old Boys (now Wanderers) and Novocastrians at Empire Park.
During the early years, the union secretary suspended a Lambton player for carrying a shot-loaded whip onto the field.
The same secretary warned Singleton Pirates that unless they treated visiting teams and referees with more respect, the Pirates would be disqualified.
The Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union now consists of 19 senior clubs in three divisions, 96 junior teams from under 7s through to under 18s and a women’s competition.
Defending champions Merewether Carlton have been the most dominant club, claiming 17 first-grade premierships, one more than Wanderers.
Maitland winger Charles White was the region’s first Wallaby, playing in the historic opening Test in Australia against Great Britain in 1899.
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Noted Newcastle physician Dr Herbert Moran led the Wallabies on the first tour of Great Britain and North America. Before each game they performed a war cry that was described as an Aboriginal version of the haka.
In total, 34 players from the region have worn the green and gold, including greats Cyril Burke, John Hipwell and the dual-code international Phil Hawthorne.
Burke played 26 Tests over a decade from 1946 and is at the top of a procession of 11 Wallabies halfbacks to have hailed from the Hunter. Fred ‘‘Possum’’ Wood began the production line in 1907 and was followed by Josh Stevenson, Harold ‘‘Slogger’’ Snell, Syd Malcolm, Jan McShane, Burke, Hipwell, Dominic Vaughan, Steve Merrick, Josh Valentine and Luke Burgess.
Apart from his Test appearances, Burke won the Anderson Medal for the region’s best and fairest player four times – a record matched by Merrick – and became a renowned coach.
Merrick has the distinction of being the last player plucked from NSW Country to play for the Wallabies when selected for two Bledisloe Cup games against the mighty All Blacks in 1995.
Burgess, a Maitland junior, was the last home-grown product to wear the green and gold.
Though outnumbered by the playing counterparts, Newcastle has supplied two Test referees.
Bob Fordham controlled seven Tests from 1983 to 1987, including officiating at the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.
Sandy MacNeill had the whistle for 16 Tests. His achievements included officiating at the 1991 Rugby World Cup and being in control when South Africa were readmitted after the downfall of apartheid, against New Zealand at Ellis Park in 1992.
Popular optometrist John Miner controlled some internationals and went on to become an assessor for the International Rugby Board at the 1987 and 1991 World Cups.
Australia co-hosted the inaugural World Cup with New Zealand, and the All Blacks overpowered France 29-9 in the final.
Nick Farr-Jones had the honour of being the first Wallabies captain to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, in 1991, after they beat hosts England 12-6 at Twickenham. Eight years later, Australia became the first nation to win a second World Cup, thrashing France 35-12 at Cardiff.
On the local scene, Newcastle, frustrated at the continual migration of players to metropolitan areas, entered a team, the Wildfires, in the Sydney competition in 1995. They played five seasons before the Sydney club presidents voted to axe them and Canberra.
Despite a proud history of Wallabies, the clash between Australia and Scotland at Hunter Stadium next Tuesday will be the first Test played in Newcastle.
The city was surprisingly overlooked as a venue when Australia hosted the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
The British Lions beat NSW Country 72-13 at No.2 Sportsground in 1989, a match remembered for the outlandish ‘‘Gallipoli’’ move devised by Country coach Daryl Haberecht.
From a scrum, Country halfback Rob Long passed the ball to sprinting winger Dwayne Vignes, who bounded over his own forward pack. Vignes landed on the startled Lions forwards, clambering down their backs towards the try line. But referee David Kennedy spoiled the audacious plan by blowing a penalty for dangerous play.
France edged out the Australia Barbarians 26-25 at Topper Stadium, now The Gardens greyhound track, in 1997 and there have been a host of other tour matches and Super Rugby trials played here.
The British and Irish Lions will return next year for a battle against a combined NSW-Queensland Country side, and now that Hunter Stadium is one of the best in Australia, more international teams will be including Newcastle on their list of stopovers.
In the meantime, the NHRU, with a new $7million redeveloped home at No.2 Sportsground, which hosted its first matches at the weekend, will keep developing the game and working towards the next home-grown Wallaby.