The Maher Cup was a special event. It dominated the sporting life of towns from Tumut to West Wyalong like no other. To represent your town in the Maher Cup meant you were somebody. Before the Second World War when it was played on Wednesday afternoons, shopping stopped and main streets became abandoned. It became a metaphor for a sporting event significantly more important than others within its field.
Pat Sullivan, editor of the Gundagai Independent, described its hold on 15 May 1952.
The Maher Cup with its popular appeal, and the test match atmosphere it engenders, has become sacred to the residents of Group 9, who over a period of thirty years have developed a mania for the thrills associated with Maher Cup football. To them competition football is devoid of the tense atmosphere -the kill – that they seek.
So why did it make such an impact? Here is my attempt at an answer. This post is a work in progress. I’m hoping others will be able to add to and argue the points I’ve made.
(1) Timing – War
In 1920 Australians were exhausted by the Great War. Few people had expected its longevity and ferocity, the sacrifices and suffering. Maimed young men returned to remind us each day on our streets of our towns of the great waste. They filled repatriation hospitals. The trauma and suffering was usually dealt with behind closed doors, with nightmares and mood swings. Our towns had lost the zest of youth. Imposing monuments of mourning where constructed in parks and in front of town halls. In addition Spanish Influenza, bought home by the troops, killed many thousands in NSW in 1919.
At last, by early 1920, the long process of troop repatriation was completed. We craved relief, optimism, hope, distraction – normality.
In country towns most men below the age of 30 had enlisted. By 1915 or 1916 football and cricket ceased to be played in any competitive manner. In 1920 these clubs were being reformed. At Tumut Ted Maher was busy doing exactly that in support of cricket, tennis, racing and football. He was helping them get back to normal, happy lives bathed in community spirit.
(2) Timing – Football
Rugby League started replacing Rugby Union from 1908 in Sydney. By the time Ted Maher’s Tumut moved to the new code in 1921 most of the southwestern slopes and northern Riverina towns were already playing League. People seemed to flock to it. With the ball located more in fast moving backlines it was widely considered more open, more entertaining than the 15 aside game.
(3) Local Rivalry
The first Maher Cup match at Tumut Racecourse against Gundagai drew a record crowd for a non-racing event. So it was a hit from the start even though the first three matches were played under the Union rules. It was fueled by a history of intense contests between these neighbouring towns. We really cared when our team met the neighbours. I remember as a child at West Wyalong beating Barmedman or Temora was special.
(4) Every Team Could Win
The twelve towns that played a substantial number of Maher Cup games were mostly similar in size. Which one of the following (including their surrounding farms and villages) was the largest – Cowra, Young, Cootamundra, Temora, West Wyalong, Junee or Tumut? I’m sure people would provide a wide range of answers. The number of votes cast in the March 1922 state elections provides a useful population comparison: Young 1,990; Cootamundra 1,712; Cowra 1,577; Harden & Murrumburrah 1,574; Temora 1,476; Wyalong & West Wyalong 1,271; Junee 1,245; Grenfell 1,197; Tumut 1,054 (1,616 with Adelong included); Burrowa 861; Gundagai & South Gundagai 793; Barmedman 368.
There was no big town or city with greater resources that could dominate the Maher Cup. Wagga teams made occasional appearances but in this rapidly growing city on the Barassi Line Rugby League was never the dominant code.
(5) Barassi Line
What has recently been dubbed the Barassi Line is the fuzzy border between Australian Rules and Rugby League territory. It runs just below Tumut through Wagga between Coolamon and Junee and onwards in a northwesterly direction. Below it the settlers came mainly from Victoria. The presence of this line meant two things. Firstly that Maher Cup country was contained – it could not readily expand west or south. Secondly the NSW Rugby League and later the Country Rugby Leagues were keen to do all they could to foster their code in the Riverina and southwest Slopes – to at least hold the line.
The railways were the way that most people moved between towns until probably the late 1940s. By the 1920s the agricultural Maher Cup towns had very good access to passenger rail. The backbone of the network was the Main Southern Line connecting Sydney with Melbourne via Harden, Cootamundra and Junee. Numerous branch and spurs were built in the pre-automobile era to support closer settlement, wheat delivery and economic development.
The people of the small towns were more in charge of how they organised their working (and recreational) week than those in the city.
Perhaps Barmedman pushed above its weight because its teams were mainly composed of farmers and rural labourers. Maybe Junee and Harden generally underperformed (until Harden’s surge of dominance in the late 1950s) because they were largely dependent on the railways for employment.
I have always found it perplexing that the Wednesday afternoon games were so popular when people worked considerably longer hours than we do now. But farming work is flexible and seasonal. One the crops are planted, winter becomes a relatively quiet time. Businesses in small towns could also be flexible in accommodating their employee’s time for football than city bosses would likely be. Other than the railways there were few large centrally controlled industrial employers in the area.
Perhaps The Cup was simply lucky to have lots of drama – floods, disputes, protests, scandals, violence, political intrigue etc. As John Madigan points out in his book The Maher Cup and Tumut all seven deadly sins were on display. I think all the bad publicity simply drove more interest. The local newspapers thrived on the conflict, took sides, and often sought to inflame the situation. The Maher Cup and local newspapers had a synergistic relationship.
From the late 1930s 2LF at Young called all the games. I believe that one of their broadcasters, John O’Reilly, was simply brilliant at his job, For me he set the benchmark that no-one has ever matched. His dulcet tones undoubtedly introduced the game to many, including women and children, who may have not otherwise have been interested.
The Maher Cup towns, with the single exception of Temora, had a higher proportion of Catholics than NSW as a whole. Where, in 1947, only 22% of the State’s population identified as Catholic – in Boorowa it was 43%, Murrumburrah/Demondrille 39%, Young/Burrangong 37%, Cootamundra/Jindalee and Cowra/Waugoola 32% and Junee/Ilabo 30%. Catholics were not just the backbone of the labouring classes but in the southwest slopes they formed a large proportion of farmers. The Irish names that dominate much of Cup history indicate that Catholics seemed to embrace Rugby League more than other groups. Perhaps the Irish Catholic culture was less critical of the gambling and drinking which were an integral part of rugby league culture, and even Sunday sport, compared to Protestants. Probably the priests, often from Ireland and without family commitments, had the time, interest and belief to work with youngsters to develop their sporting skills, in a way that state school teachers could not.
What do you think?