1908–09 Kangaroo tour of Great Britain

The pioneer Kangaroos squad of 1908-09

The 1908–09 Kangaroo tour of Great Britain was the first ever such tour for the newly-formed Australia national rugby league team (or 'The Kangaroos'). The tour was to England and Wales and coincided with the first Wallabies Rugby Union tour of Great Britain, which in hindsight put the Kangaroos in a tough position. The game of rugby league was not yet twelve months old in Australia however a New Zealand side had already toured to Britain (the All Golds in 1907), Australia had encountered New Zealand during the 1908 season and the pioneer Australian leaders of the game were keen to match up against the Northern Union founders of the code.

The 1908–09 Kangaroos wore jumpers of sky blue and maroon representing the New South Wales Blues and Queensland Maroons players that comprised the team. The first Kangaroo tour was considered a financial failure, with poor weather and economic conditions contributing to smaller than expected gate takings.[1] Tour promoter James Giltinan was bankrupted as result. However for almost a century afterward, Kangaroo tours took place every four years and involved a three-Test Ashes series against Great Britain (under the name Northern Union) and a number of tour matches. The 1908-09 tour was later depicted in the 1988 Australian television movie The First Kangaroos.[2]

The tourEdit


The Kangaroos sailed for Britain on RMS Macedonia prior to the close of the 1908 NSWRFL season, denying some of the selected players to appear in the inaugural grand final.[3] They worked as stokers to keep their fitness levels up as well as doing daily sessions in the ship's gymnasium and boxing ring. The jerseys were coloured sky blue and maroon, combining the state colours of NSW and Queensland respectively. When tour captain, Lutge was injured early in the tour, Messenger became captain in the 1st and 2nd Test Matches. After he was injured, Alec Burdon assumed the captaincy for the 3rd Test. One of the players Pat Walsh sailed to Britain separately on the ship, Salamis and brought the live Kangaroo mascot with him. Walsh arrived in England for the 5th match of the tour against Salford.The team's live marsupial mascot died before the end of the tour due to the execrable weather.[4]

The Kangaroos scored some memorable victories, including wins against Yorkshire, Lancashire and Hunslet (featuring their fearsome forwards "The Terrible Six"). Rugby league made its first appearance in Scotland in 1909 when Glasgow’s Celtic Park hosted a game between the Northern Rugby Football Union representative side and the touring Australians.[5]


Matches played: 45 Won: 17 Drew: 6 Lost: 22 [6]
The Ashes: Great Britain 2-0.
Leading try scorers of the tour were Devereaux 17, Messenger 10, Frawley 10, Walsh 9, Courtney 8.
Dally Messenger was the tourists' leading point-scorer with 160, a full 103 points clear of next highest-scorer.[7]

Opposing Team F A Date Venue Attendance Status
1   Mid-Rhondda 20 6 3 October 1908 King George's Field, Tonypandy 7,500 Tour match
2   Bradford Northern 12 11 3 October 1908 Valley Parade, Bradford 4,000 Tour match
3   Rochdale Hornets 5 0 10 October 1908 Athletic Grounds, Rochdale 3,000 Tour match
4   York 5 5 14 October 1908 Clarence Street, York 1,781 Tour match
5   Salford 9 9 17 October 1908 The Willows, Salford 6,100 Tour match
6   Runcorn 9 7 21 October 1908 Canal Street, Runcorn 2,700 Tour match
7   Cumberland 52 10 24 October 1908 Recreation Ground, Whitehaven 4,000 Tour match
8   Leigh 11 14 28 October 1908 Mather Lane, Leigh 6,000 Tour match
9   Dewsbury 0 15 31 October 1908 Old Crown Flatt ground, Dewsbury 2,000 Tour match
10   Yorkshire 24 11 5 November 1908 The Boulevard, Hull 3,500 Tour match
11   Hunslet 12 11 7 November 1908 Parkside, Hunslet 6,000 Tour match
12   Aberdare 37 10 10 November 1908 Athletic Ground, Aberdare 5,000 Tour match
13   Warrington 3 10 14 November 1908 Wilderspool, Warrington 5,000 Tour match
14   Northern Union XIII 10 9 18 November 1908 Goodison Park, Liverpool 6,000 Tour match
15   Hull Kingston Rovers 16 21 21 November 1908 Craven Street, Hull 7,000 Tour match
16   Lancashire 20 6 25 November 1908 Central Park, Wigan 4,000 Tour match
17   Barrow 21 5 28 November 1908 Cavendish Park, Barrow 6,500 Tour match
18   Halifax 8 12 5 December 1908 Thrum Hall, Halifax 6,000 Tour match
19   Swinton 10 9 9 December 1908 Chorley Road, Swinton 1,500 Tour match
20   Northern Union 22 22 12 December 1908 Park Royal Ground, London 2,000 Test match
21   Treherbert 6 3 16 December 1908 Athletic Ground, Treherbert 4,000 Tour match
22   Wakefield Trinity 13 20 20 December 1908 Belle Vue, Wakefield 3,000 Tour match
23   Leeds 14 10 25 December 1908 Headingley, Leeds 12,000 Tour match
24   Oldham 5 11 28 December 1908 Watersheddings, Oldham 11,800 Tour match
25   Northern Union XIII 9 14 2 January 1909 Fartown, Huddersfield 7,000 Tour match
26   Widnes 13 2 6 January 1909 Lowerhouse Lane, Widnes 1,000 Tour match
27   Wigan 15 7 9 January 1909 Central Park, Wigan 4,000 Tour match
28   Batley 5 12 12 January 1909 Mount Pleasant, Batley 5,735 Tour match
29   Ebbw Vale 9 8 18 January 1909 Bridge End Field, Ebbw Vale 5,000 Tour match
30   Wales XIII 13 14 19 January 1909 Penydarren Park, Merthyr Tydfil 6,000 Tour match
31   Wigan 8 16 20 January 1909 Central Park, Wigan 9,100 Tour match
32   Northern Union 5 15 23 January 1909 St James' Park, Newcastle 22,000 Test match
33   Keighley 8 8 26 January 1909 Lawkholme Lane, Keighley 1,000 Tour match
34   Hull F.C. 9 8 30 January 1909 The Boulevard, Hull 10,000 Tour match
35   Northern Union XIII 17 17 3 February 1909 Celtic Park, Glasgow 3,000 Tour match
36   Cumberland 2 11 4 February 1909 Devonshire Park, Carlisle 2,000 Tour match
37   Broughton Rangers 12 14 6 February 1909 Wheater's Field, Broughton, Salford 12,000 Tour match
38   Warrington 8 8 8 February 1909 Wilderspool, Warrington 7,000 Tour match
39   St. Helens 12 14 6 February 1909 Knowsley Road, St. Helens 1,500 Tour match
40   Northern Union 5 6 10 February 1909 Villa Park, Birmingham 9,000 Test match
41   Huddersfield 5 3 20 February 1909 Fartown, Huddersfield 9,700 Tour match
42   Barrow 3 11 22 February 1909 Cavendish Park, Barrow 6,000 Tour match
43   Merthyr Tydfil 13 15 27 February 1909 Penydarren Park, Merthyr Tydfil 4,000 Tour match
44   Northern Union XIII 7 14 3 March 1909 Goodison Park, Liverpool 3,000 Tour match
45   Lancashire 14 19 8 March 1909 Wheater's Field, Broughton, Salford 4,000 Tour match

Financial difficultiesEdit

The seven-month tour proved to be a true test of survival and was almost a disaster due to small gate-takings.[8] A crippling cotton mill strike in northern England made it difficult for many fans to afford their way through the turnstiles and there was criticism of the entry price the Australians wanted to charge. Australian morale ebbed during one of the meanest northern winters on record.[9]

Giltinan as promoter of the tour had borrowed £2,000 to fund the operation and took the full risk. He paid the players a weekly allowance of one pound early in the tour but before long it was cut to ten shillings. Things eventually became so bad that the team would travel on overnight trains to save on accommodation. The players had sailed from Sydney on one-way fares and the Northern Union had to pay the players' fares home. Later, evidence emerged that Giltinan lost £418 on the campaign and was bankrupted on his return to Sydney.[11]


Peter Moir a seminal figure in the foundation of the Glebe club had an unhappy tour and played in only four games and no Tests. At tour's end he wrote a letter home, The team is run by a clique and you are picked by them. I am very disappointed at not getting a game. It is very hard as all my people live here and they keep asking me why I am not playing and I cannot tell them a lie. [12]

Deane, Walsh, Frawley, Devereux, McCabe and Rosenfeld all stayed behind to play in the wintry Northern Union competition when the Australians boarded the RMS Seuvic for the journey home.[11] On the return journey Messenger met and fell in love with Annie Macauley whom he would marry. Also while en route back to Australia, secretary J. J. Giltinan, president Henry Hoyle and treasurer, Victor Trumper, the men who had done most to form the NSWRL, were being voted out of it.[13]

Touring partyEdit

A group of the 1908 Kangaroos

Tour managementEdit

Tour manager: James Giltinan
Giltinan had borrowed £2,000 to fund the entire tour as promoter. He was one of the founders of the breakaway code's Australian formation in Sydney a year earlier.[11]
Assistant manager: John Fihelly
Fihelly was one of the code's founders in Queensland. He had represented for Queensland in rugby union and in the state's first representative league side in May 1908. He was a state selector that year. He did not play any matches on tour & performed the role of Assistant Manager. He would later referee many matches of the 1909 Brisbane club competition & a 1910 Test match. [14]
Tour secretary: Bill Noble
Selected as a player, Noble the 1908 Newtown club captain was injured early and made only three tour match appearances. He performed the role of Secretary/Treasurer, managing the tour's scarce finances. [11]
Tour captain: Denis Lutge A rugged North Sydney forward North who worked as a stevedore, Lutge was elected Tour Captain by his team-mates shortly after the squad set sail from Sydney. He had captained Australia in the 3rd ever Test match against New Zealand in June 1908. Lutge broke his arm early in the tour and appeared in only five tour matches and no Tests. [11]
Test captains: Dally Messenger & Alex Burdon Lutge's deputy as tour vice-captain, Messenger stepped up to lead Australia in the first two Tests, scoring all of Australian's points in the 2nd. A knee injury from attempting field goals kept him out of the 3rd Test. Burdon was one of the founders of the Glebe club and its first captain. He was a selector on the 1908 tour and selected himself in two Tests and 24 tour matches. He led Australia in the 3rd Test. [11][15]

Touring squadEdit

Name Tests Club Tour Apps Position Pts
Dally Messenger 2   Eastern Suburbs 31 Three-quarter back 155
Jim Devereaux 2   North Sydney 31 Three-quarter back 54
Dan Frawley 2   Eastern Suburbs 24 Three-quarter back 41
Andy Morton 1   North Sydney 24 Three-quarter back 32
Ed "Tedda" Courtney 3   Newtown 31 Forward 30
Albert Conlon 1   Glebe 8 Half-back 27
Pat "Nimmo" Walsh 3   Newcastle Rebels 28 Forward 24
Arthur Butler 2   South Sydney 20 Half-back 22
Sid Deane 2   North Sydney 26 Three-quarter back 21
Albert Rosenfeld 1   Eastern Suburbs 14 Three-quarter back 21
Tom McCabe 1   Glebe 22 Forward 18
Arthur "Pony" Halloway 1   Glebe 31 Half-back 15
Larry O'Malley 3   Eastern Suburbs 34 Forward 15
Jim Abercrombie 2   Western Suburbs 32 Forward 12
Bill Heidke 2   Souths Brisbane (Qld) 26 Three-quarter back 12
Lou Jones 0   Eastern Suburbs 5 Forward 6
Bill "Jerry" Bailey 0   Newcastle Rebels 3 Three-quarter back 9
Mick Bolewski 3   Queensland 33 Three-quarter back 9
Alec Burdon 2   Glebe 26 Forward 9
Billy Cann 0   South Sydney 9 Forward 6
Robert Graves 1   Balmain 23 Forward 6
Peter Moir 0   Glebe 4 Forward 6
Arthur Anlezark 1   Queensland 17 Half-back 3
Sandy Pearce 3   Eastern Suburbs 33 Forward 3
Bill Hardcastle 0   Ipswich 6 Forward 3
Charlie Hedley 1   Glebe 18 Forward 2
Tommy Anderson 0   South Sydney 5 Forward 0
Frank Cheadle 0   Newtown 7 Three-quarter back 0
James"Barra" Davis 0   South Sydney 6 Forward 0
Alf "Bullock" Dobbs 0   Balmain 6 Forward 0
Arthur Hennessy 0   South Sydney 7 Forward 0
Denis Lutge (c) 0   North Sydney 5 Forward 0
Bill Noble 0   Newtown 3 Forward 0
John Rosewell 0   South Sydney 1 Forward 0

Test matchesEdit

First TestEdit

12 December 1908
Northern Union   22 – 22   Australia
William Batten (2)
Johnny Thomas
Ernie Brooks
George Tyson
Asa Robinson
Ernie Brooks (2)
[1] Tries:
Jim Devereux (3)
Arthur Butler

Dally Messenger (5)
Park Royal Ground, London
Attendance: 2,000
Referee: J Smith
Northern Union Position Australia
Harry Gifford FB Mick Bolewski
William Batten WG Bill Heidke
Bert Jenkins (c) CE Sid Deane
George Dickenson CE Dally Messenger (c)
George Tyson WG Jim Devereaux
Ernie Brooks SO Arthur Halloway
Johnny Thomas SH Arthur Butler
Arthur Mann PR Larry O'Malley
John Higson HK Sandy Pearce
William Jukes PR Alex Burdon
William Longworth SR Jim Abercrombie
Arthur Smith SR Tedda Courtney
Asa Robinson LF Pat Walsh

Great Britain led 14-5 at half-time and stretched to 17-5 before Australia began their fightback spearheaded by Devereaux's three ties. They led 22-20 in the dying minutes before Great Britain snatched a draw with a penalty goal.

Second TestEdit

23 January 1909
Northern Union   15 – 5   Australia
James Lomas
Johnny Thomas
George Tyson
James Lomas (2)
Field Goals:
James Lomas
[2] Tries:
Dally Messenger

Dally Messenger (1)
St James' Park, Newcastle
Attendance: 22,000
Referee: William McCutcheon
Northern Union Position Australia
Harry Gifford FB Mick Bolewski
George Tyson WG Dan Frawley
James Lomas (c) CE Dally Messenger (c)
Bert Jenkins CE Albert Rosenfeld
William Batten WG Andy Morton
Ernie Brooks SO Arthur Halloway
Johnny Thomas SH Arthur Butler
John Higson PR Larry O'Malley
William Jukes HK Sandy Pearce
William Longworth PR Jim Abercrombie
Arthur Smith SR Tom McCabe
Asa Robinson SR Tedda Courtney
Dick Silcock LF Pat Walsh

Third TestEdit

10 February 1909
Northern Union   6 – 5   Australia
James Lomas
George Tyson
[3] Tries:
Dan Frawley

Jim Devereaux (1)
Villa Park, Birmingham
Attendance: 9,000
Referee: E Smirk
Northern Union Position Australia
Frank Young FB Charlie Hedley
William Batten WG Bill Heidke
Bert Jenkins CE Dan Frawley
James Lomas (c) CE Jim Devereaux
George Tyson WG Mick Bolewski
Ernie Brooks SO Sid Deane
Johnny Thomas SH Arthur Anlezark
William Jukes PR Larry O'Malley
Dick Padbury HK Sandy Pearce
Arthur Smith PR Alex Burdon (c)
William Longworth SR Robert Graves
Arthur Mann SR Tedda Courtney
Frank Boylen LF Pat Walsh

A heavy pitch limited scoring opportunities and Great Britain went to the half-time break with a three nil lead. Australia's defence was solid throughout the second half and when Frawley scored for Devereaux to convert they took the lead. However, with Australian centre Bill Heidke off the field having a dislocated shoulder put back in place, Oldham winger George Tyson scored late in the match and secured The Ashes for Great Britain for the first time.[16]

Villa Park, host venue for the third Ashes Test.


  1. ^ Cunneen, Chris (2001). The best ever Australian Sports Writing. Australia: Black Inc. p. 318. ISBN 1-86395-266-7. Retrieved 19 February 2011.
  2. ^ John Robinson and Garrett Jones (8 June 1988). "Family fights to clear League Hero's Name". The Sydney Morning Herald. Australia. p. 74. Retrieved 20 February 2011.
  3. ^ "Football". The Sydney Mail. 1908-09-02. p. 644. Retrieved 2009-11-20.
  4. ^ The Arrow. April 17, 1909
  5. ^ "Scotland". rlwc2013.com. Rugby League International Federation. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  6. ^ 1908-09 Kangaroo Tour at Rugby League Project
  7. ^ totalrl.com. "Death of The Master". On this day in history. League Publications Ltd. Archived from the original on 2011-07-27. Retrieved 2009-07-13.
  8. ^ Cann, W. A. (1946-06-12). "1908-09 Kangaroos blazed R. L. trail". Sydney Morning Herald, The. p. 9. Retrieved 2009-07-06.
  9. ^ Andrews, ABC of Rugby League p299
  10. ^ Baker, Andrew (1995-08-20). "100 years of rugby league: From the great divide to the Super era". Independent, The. independent.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-09-25.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Heads Middleton pp36-37
  12. ^ Heads, Middleton p45
  13. ^ John Coffey, Bernie Wood (2008). 100 years: Māori rugby league, 1908-2008. Huia Publishers. ISBN 978-1-86969-331-2.
  14. ^ Heads Middleton p57
  15. ^ Whiticker p 22
  16. ^ Heads, Middleton p37