Balmain’s premiership-winning team of 1919.
Balmain’s premiership-winning team of 1919.

Coronavirus omen for long-suffering Tigers

Rugby league has seen it all.

COVID-19 isn't the first pandemic to threaten rugby league.

The Warriors aren't the first New Zealand rugby league to be stranded in Australia under strict quarantine laws.

But today, as the coronavirus threatens to infect the NRL, officials have never been so concerned for the future of the game.

Fortunately, rugby league is resilient.

The Spanish flu spread from the battlegrounds of western Europe over to Australia in 1919. It killed more than 50 million people worldwide, infected 40 per cent of Australia's population and took the lives of 15,000 Australians.

And footy was not immune.

 

 

Immortal Dally Messenger contracted the deadly virus that took the life of his wife Annie Maud Macaulay in June 1919. Pioneer international dual-coder, Kangaroo and Wallaby Jack "Towser" Barnett also fell to the flu.

Like today, people wore face masks, large public events were cancelled and strict quarantine laws were introduced.

Like today, a New Zealand rugby league team was stranded down under, quarantined in Sydney before their 11-match tour in Australia.

Like today, the government considered closing all football grounds to slow down the spread of the influenza outbreak.

But remember, rugby league is a resilient game.

NSW and New Zealand faced off in a tour game in 1919. Picture courtesy of Ian Collis
NSW and New Zealand faced off in a tour game in 1919. Picture courtesy of Ian Collis

 

"There was a full competition and Australia ended up touring New Zealand later in the year, so it (Spanish flu) didn't stop them playing the game," rugby league historian Ian Collis said.

"Australians back then tended to shake it off and get on with it, but remember, we're coming off the back of the Great War … it's that Aussie way, you just get on with it."

In May 1919, approximately 25,000 fans attended a clash between the Magpies and South Sydney at Sydney Showground.

Two weeks later, 30,000 barracked for eventual premiership winners Balmain or Souths at the SCG.

 

Balmain’s premiership-winning team of 1919.
Balmain’s premiership-winning team of 1919.

 

Even during wartime, Australians had a thirst for rugby league.

"A lot of people thought it (rugby league) was really important for the morale of the public, to keep their minds away from the wars that were written about every day in the papers," rugby league historian David Middleton said.

"There was a huge argument that players should be enlisting, but it was a working class game, so many players were working in essential industries required for war effort … a lot of them didn't enlist, but a lot of them did."

Players shuffled in and out of teams as they battled for Australia's freedom.

"Soldiers those days on leave would turn up, and all of a sudden they'd be playing," Collis said.

"Conversely, players would be missed because they had to go and fight overseas."

NRL fans wear protective gear at the Dragons vs Wests Tigers Round One clash. Picture: NRL Photos.
NRL fans wear protective gear at the Dragons vs Wests Tigers Round One clash. Picture: NRL Photos.

But today, rugby league has been confronted with its greatest challenge yet - COVID-19. The fast-moving virus threatens to disrupt the competition and bankrupt the game - that has evolved a great deal since 1919 - for good.

"Rugby league has always been renowned as being incredibly resilient, so many things have come along to challenge it over the years, but it's always risen above it," Middleton said.

"The threat today is so much worse … the fabric and future of the game is seriously threatened by what's unfolding at the moment."


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