As a result of the large number of Rugby Union players enlisting for the war, there was insufficient playing numbers to continue running a number of district Rugby competitions. The decision was made in February 1915, with the following announcement being made from the New South Wales Rugby Union:
‘At a special General Meeting held on Monday March 1st 1915, the NSWRU unanimously decided to suspend competition and play only a limited number of matches for the purpose of maintaining physical fitness among the members, and to devote one night per week in each district for drilling and military training and also to hold a number of Saturday afternoon parades on a central ground, in which all District squads would participate.'
The Union’s stance was uncompromising and based on the assumption that the continuation of sport would hinder enlistment, and was consistent with the fact that many of these officials quickly became affiliated to the army, boasting five majors and four lieutenants by early 1915.
The announcement meant the only Rugby games which could be played were social, non-competitive matches, or junior matches. This policy was soon adopted by the Victorian Rugby Union and a year later by Queensland Rugby Union.
This position differed from the New South Wales Rugby League, who announced that they would continue to provide ‘sorely needed entertainment for a troubled public’. This decision was initially met with intense criticism.
However, the defeat of the Conscription Referenda in October 1916, and again in 1917, highlighted that the war did not have the support of the majority of the population, and this, coupled with the amateurism debate and the association of Union with the privileged middle class, confirmed to many the view that the NSWRU was out of touch with the average working person, with little concern for their welfare.
Rugby League, meanwhile, became enormously popular, and were able to secure ground leases, develop new talent and build profits on which to develop the game.
As Rugby League continued to grow throughout the war many players and clubs, devastated by losses at Gallipoli and France, switched codes. In 1918, the Central Queensland Rugby Union went over to Rugby League and with all clubs and schools also moving to League, Rugby Union was not played in the region again until 1929.
In many country areas, Rugby League had become very well established, and with many small towns suffering devastating losses there was little heart to restart the game. In some towns, such as Gunnadah, there would be a lapse of 30 years before a Rugby Union club was formed again.
The game did however continue in most schools, and it is this, along with the boys who took the game back to the country from Boarding Schools, that is credited with keeping the game alive during the war years.
Unfortunately, the end of the war saw the NSWRU with no ground tenure, destitute of funds and prohibited from calling a meeting due to emergency measures caused by the Influenza epidemic sweeping the world.
Eventually, hiring a launch and holding a meeting on Port Jackson, the NSWRU took over direct control of Rugby in the metropolitan area and formed six clubs to enter the First Grade competition.
Newtown 1st Grade Team - 1913
The war had a tragic effect on Rugby Union clubs, growing enlistments meant that clubs were forced to amalgamate in order to maintain playing strengths, these club included Newtown and Cambridge, followed by Glebe and Balmain, while on the North Shore, North Sydney and Mosman combined.
Rugby Union footballers and Officials in Government House grounds on Saturday Afternoon for Service to the Empire