Cootamundra v Tumut 6 June 1923

Games That Changed The Game No. 1

This is the first in a series.

“And the rain it gently, pattered down! And the lovely green flats of the ‘Bidgiee silhoutted, as it were, against the sky line as the special train from Tumut, with footballers and supporters aboard steamed over the railway bridge yesterday afternoon. The footballers’ quest was the Maher Cup — they were going to capture it for Tumut— so they said. And their supporters were going to stir them on to deeds of derring do”.

(The Gundagai Independent, 7 June 1923).


Let us step back from the poetry. It was a Wednesday afternoon – the 16th challenge for the Maher Cup was set to be played at Fisher Park Cootamundra. It was less than three years since Ted Maher put the Cup into play. Things were starting to get very serious.  The rules were read scrupulously, and Rule 9 was a problem.

It all started back on the 17th August 1921, near the start of it all, with Tumut and Gundagai, when, at the fifth attempt, Gundy finally took the Maher Cup away, for the first time, from the town of Tumut.  Rejoicing resulted.  The next month a record crowd came to Anzac Park to see the boys defend it – the first Maher Cup match at Gundagai, again against the old foe, Tumut.

Maher Challenge Cup  Rule No. 9 reads: “All Referees for Cup matches must be mutually agreed to by the opposing teams, and all matches must be played under Rugby League Rules”. But what to do if there is no agreement about the man in the middle?  On Wednesday 17th August the Gundagai and Tumut teams decided not to agree.

The convention to date, as Gundagai saw it, was that the  hosting team appointed the referee.   That’s what had happened when Gundy went to Tumut, those five times.  This time Gundagai had prepared their local ref. and Tumut didn’t like it. However they begrudgingly gave in.  Gundagai then won the game, quite easily.

Even so, Tumut folk determined that they has been dudded. The punters demanded a rematch. Managed by a neutral referee the idea was that each team would put up £10 pound –  winner take all.  But the talk was just that. The bad blood that was nourishing the Maher Cup thickened, but the grudge match did not eventuate.

In 1922 these squabbling teams were sidelined by the Cootamundra juggernaut. Cootamundra worked out that they should do football professionally, given that good money could be made.  They imported a very useful player, Mr Phil Regan of Glebe, to be captain-coach.  Regan based his team on local young players.  He made them  fitter than the opposing teams, they followed instructions, they played as a co-ordinated unit.  They also had a wunderkind five-eight Eric Weissel, born nearby in Brawlin.  At fullback Bill Lesberg was both a defending rock and beautiful kicker.

The others would need to follow suit.  Tumut appointed Clarrie Horder of South Sydney as captain-coach. Trounced 21-3 by Coota in their previous Maher Cup match – the last game of the 1922 season, against Regans’s boys, the newly professional Tumut, under Clarrie Holder, were now well primed and supremely confident for this the first challenge of 1923.

The Game of  6 June 1923

The week prior Tumut has declared that the appointed referee would be Jack Young from Adelong.   The pretense was that Adelong was not Tumut, and as such he was thus neutral.  Coota in that same week declared that Mr Glen Evans from Cootamundra would be in the control. Thus on Wednesday afternoon, on Fisher Park Oval, Cootamundra, the inevitable standoff occurred with two referees in attendance.

The arguments continued for an hour in front of the restless punters. Only “when the clouds looked black, the silver lining came”. A disgruntled Tumut caved, in rather than reboarding their train and choofing off back over the Murrumbidgee.

According to the Tumut description of the match, the referee could have been more impartial:

“Regan was allowed to put the ball into Coota’s second row”; “Lesberg with a punch knocked Horder spinning”; “Regan kicked high, and the forwards got under the ball, but for some unaccountable reason the referee penalised Tumut under the post”; Coota were playing “their 14 men against 13 of Tumut”; and, “Horder tackled Schoefield who resented it, kicking him in the face, and two more Coota men reigned punches on Horder while he lay on the ground. When he got up to defend himself the police hopped on to the field and warned Horder….” etc

Ending 17-8 in “dull and fading light” Tumut felt dudded.

It was clear now that Rule 9 needed to change. Immediately after the game the officials decided that the rule would from this time read:

“All referees shall be neutral and qualified, such referee to be mutually agreed upon between the opposing teams on the day of acceptance of challenge, failing such agreement a referee be obtained from the N.S W. Rugby League”.

£100 Match

But also immediately after the game a side match was organised. It was to be a £50 pounds a team “or as much more as wanted”, to be wagered by Cootamundra and Tumut players and supporters and punters on a game to be held at neutral Gundagai under a neutral referee on Wednesday July 4, 1923.

650 supporters came from Cootamundra on a special train. Some 430 travelled from Tumut and neighbouring Adelong. People travelled by motor from Harden, Yass, Junee, Jugiong, Coolac and even Bongongo. Gundagai locals stepped out too. The Tumut Brass Band played selections. Mr Karl Bounader, proprietor of the World’s Best Pictures and lessee of the Gundabidgee Theatre, Gundagai, recorded the activities.  The guestimated 3000+ crowd – greater than the town’s population – contributed a  £121/9/2 gate.

The game was “a hard and interesting exhibition, played in [perhaps surprisingly] a good sportsmanlike spirit”. The ref. was not an issue. However the West Wyalong Advocate reported “the match rather than ending the dispute, is said to have increased the bitterness”.


The grudge match demonstrated the importance of betting in Rugby League culture, and how it quickly became an integral part of Maher Cup culture. The Gundagai Times understated its opinion of this on 2 July 1923:

‘This paper is opposed to the commercial element creeping into sport. Although it is now stated that neither Tumut , nor Cootamundira club was responsible for making the match for £50 aside, still the primary object in view of the stake money put up by the supporters of each side, and – the gate money. When the good old game of football requires, side wagers by club supporters in order to make it boom, the man who likes the sport for sports sake will quickly drop his interest in the game. Big betting on matches leads to queer practices, and tactics that do not appeal to people who always like to see the better team win. We hope this is the last time we will have Gundagai dragged into a position that is unenviable, and that football matches in which the, betting element is the main factor will be jumped on by all true lovers of the game”.

Gambling was not jumped on, instead it fuelled the Cup for another four decades.  Less than a year later  The Gundagai Times scribe was happy to report the Maher Cup odds for what was an illegal activity – “The betting was four and five to one on Cootamundra, and even money was offered and taken that Gundagai wouldn’t cross Coota’s line”.

In 1925 Temora challenged Cootamundra for “£500 aside or £1000 if desired to play on a neutral ground” under a neutral referee etc.  The Tumut Times declared “Dozens of moneyed men have signified their willingness to wager a level £100, while one well known bookmaker put in £500 in one hand”.

So from June 1923 which team had the favour of the referee due to community loyalty was no longer an issue.  The punters were now just wondering whether the referee or the players may be on the take.


Gundagai Times 19 August 1921 :

Adelong & Tumut Express 19 August 1921

Gundagai Times 23 September 1921 :

Gundagai Independent 29 September 1921 :

Gundagai Times 7 October 1921 :

Tumut Advocate 13 March 1923

Gundagai Times 5 June 1923 :

Gundagai Independent 7 June 1923 :

Adelong & Tumut Express 8 June 1923

Gundagai Times 8 June 1923

Gundagai Times 8 June 1923

Tumut Advocate 12 June 1923

Adelong & Tumut Express 15 June 1923

Adelong & Tumut Express 15 June 1923

Gundagai Times :

Adelong & Tumut Express 29 June 1923 :

Gundagai Independent 2 July 1923 :

Tumut Advocate 3 July 1923

Gundagai Independent 5 July 1923 :

Gundagai Times :

Adelong & Tumut Express 6 July 1923 :

West Wyalong Advocate 10 July 1923 :

Tumut Advocate 10 July 1923 :

Tumut Advocate 17 July 1923

Gundagai Times 1 August 1924

Tumut Advocate 7 July 1925 :

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