Sydney was a popular destination for interstate Aussie Rules football teams in the latter part of the 19th century. Only two seasons after VFL club Geelong had played a series of four games, South Adelaide arrived in 1884 for a schedule of five matches in two weeks.
Now known as the SANFL Panthers, South was only eight years old when the team arrived by train in NSW. Their first game in Newcastle had to be abandoned because of torrential rain, so it was on to the Sydney Cricket Ground for an impromptu match against local club Waratah before the end of June.
A crowd described as ‘meagre’ in the Sydney press watched as South Adelaide whitewashed Waratah: 10.8 to 1.1. Behinds were not generally counted in a team’s score in the late 1800s with matches played in two halves — not as a four-quarter game. Waratah players must have run out of puff as South Adelaide nailed nine goals in the second and final term. The Saturday afterwards South drew its game with NSW at the SCG. The score was 3.15 to 3.9 in the Croweaters’ favour, but as goals only were counted 130-odd years back the match was adjudged as drawn.
There was something of a festive feel to this match as the tramways department arranged for extra trams to run at frequent intervals to the SCG. Before the start of the match, and then again at half-time, the City Temperance Band played a series of numbers described in the Sydney press as “some choice selections of music which were greatly appreciated by the occupants of the grandstand.”
However, the crowd of 1,500 disappointed local officials.
And then on the following Tuesday a tiny crowd of just 100 watched on as South Adelaide defeated East Sydney by one goal. In fact South’s kicking was atrocious – they landed 1.21 to East’s 0.3, giving the South Australians their one-goal win. Two days later the rostered game against the Sydney club was postponed, again because of the weather, but on 5 July South Adelaide downed the hard-working, combined NSW side by four goals: 9.8 to 5.7.
The Sydney club wanted its share of the limelight so after the earlier cancellation of its game they challenged South Adelaide to a game on the following Monday. That day happened to be South Adelaide’s rostered date for the train trip out of the Harbour City, but they squeezed in the match.
Sydney fared much better than Easts even though a number of its players drew scathing criticism from captain George Crisp. He told reporters at game’s end that several of his players failed to follow his directions during the game. This led the executive of the NSW Association to state that any re-occurrence of direct non-observance of a captain’s instructions would lead to “the public naming of the delinquents.”
Crisp didn’t play in the match, issuing his instructions from the sidelines. Another notable absentee was former Carlton vice-captain Billy Goer. Straight after the game had ended some members of the Sydney Club drove the South Adelaide team and officials to the (then) Redfern main railway station in a four horse-drawn bus.
Relations were very cordial at Redfern as the South Australians said goodbye. Next day’s press reports stated that “after the usual shaking of hands, three lusty cheers were given as the train moved away.”
South would go on to take out the premiership in South Australia a year later: in 1885.
Next up: West Torrens plays a representative Riverina side on the way to Sydney for matches against NSW: all in July, 1922. With thanks to Dr. ‘Rocket’ Rod Gillett and Ian Granland of the NSW Aussie Football History Society.