Victor Trumper: The cricketer turned rugby league trailblazer

Victor Trumper Credit: Alamy
Victor Trumper Credit: Alamy

Victor Trumper is a name which historians would associate with cricket, representing New South Wales and Australia. 

He is known as one of the best of his generation, in 1904 he scored 103 runs before lunch in a test for Australia in England at Old Trafford. 

He went on to play 48 test matches for Australia across 13 years, scoring eight centuries and 13 half-centuries. 

However, Trumper was a multi-talented sportsman, as he also played amateur rugby. 

Trumper started playing rugby at sport, at Crown Street Public School and for Newtown Juniors, whilst also playing Australian Rules Football. 

In 1899 Trumper called time on his involvement in rugby league after he was selected for Australia’s Ashes test against England for the first time. 

However, he continued to closely follow the sport, and in Australia it was a time where the amateur vs professional sport debate was rife, especially in rugby league.

At the time England’s cricket side consisted of both professional and amateur players. 

Trumper spotted that the amateur players were from more affluent backgrounds, whilst the professionals were more working class. The two groups also changed in separate dressing rooms on the tour.

Trumper agreed that it was only fair for the players to receive a cut of the gate receipts, which could cover travel costs, equipment expenses, whilst also covering and loss of income due to injuries which players picked up whilst playing sport.

The Australian team which Trumper was a part of was solely made of amateur players, however it was agreed that all players would take an equal share of any profits made. 

Victor Trumper and Professionalism

Trumper then became an advocate and campaigner for more professionalism in sport, and threatened to start a major crisis within cricket, which led to an agreement being made which saw some funding given to players, however professionalism still was banned.

It wasn’t just cricket which Trumper was passionate about, and Trumper’s actions helped to establish rugby league in Australia in 1907.

He was close friends with a number of rugby players and was regularly in contact with names such as, Herbie Collins (future Australia captain) and Jack Scott, who would go on to score the first rugby league try in the southern hemisphere.

Many see the comparison between the disputes in both cricket and rugby league to be too coincidental to have nothing to do with each other. 

It is widely believed that Trumper was heavily involved in the conflicts in both sports.

However, as Trumper was still an international test cricketer, he was unable to commit a lot of time to forming a new code.

However, he offered to help by opening his cricket store in Sydney up to be used as a meeting point.

A number of meetings were held between rugby league players and officials who weren’t happy with the state of play within the sport. 

In these meetings they discussed forming a new code and becoming professional, similarly to what had happened in England just over a decade earlier. 

When the group decided to form the new code, it was named the New South Wales Rugby Football League, the first time the term ‘rugby league’ had been used. 

The birth of rugby league in Australia

At a meeting at Bateman’s Crystal Hotel, rugby league was born in Australia, and officials began to recruit players for their sport. 

Rugby Union threatened a lifetime expulsion to any player who signed up to play in the new code.

Trumper was part of a group who managed to recruit Herbert ‘Daly’ Messenger, the most famous rugby player in New South Wales at the time. 

This sent shockwaves across the state, and rugby league began to find its feet.

A year later, an Australian side travelled over to the northern hemisphere, to face Great Britain in a test. 

They played their first ever international at Loftus Road in London, giving away a late penalty which allowed Great Britain to draw the game. 

Great Britain would go on to win the next two fixtures, before the Australians suggested that the tours were played regularly and named the ashes, after the cricket series which Trumper regularly featured in. 

Following this tour, the New South Wales Rugby League adopted what was then the Northern Union’s rulebook, however it wasn’t too dissimilar to what they were playing already. 

Tests against New Zealand, who didn’t even have a professional league at the time followed and rugby league was thriving in Australia. 

In 1915, Trumper passed away after suffering from kidney disease. 

He will always be remembered as a fantastic cricketer, but also a man who held beliefs which led to the foundation of rugby league in Australia. 

Without Trumper’s passion, determination, and belief in professional sport we may not have seen rugby league played in Australia. 

The code in the southern hemisphere only exists because of the formations Trumper and co laid down.

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