Trains & Coota : 2 Reasons the Maher Cup Became Famous

Tumut put up a challenge cup in 1920. By 1924 local newspapers had started to call it the now famous Maher Cup. The Sydney press likewise by 1927. The reasons why it became rural rugby league’s most obsessive quest, rather than fade away after a couple of seasons to sit gathering dust, as was the fate of most such trophies offered up by small-town businessmen, is complex.  I contend two elements were fundamental and critical – (1) The regional rail network (2) Cootamundra.

This map is designed to illustrate the argument.

In 1921 only one in 50 people in NSW owned a motor vehicle. While the numbers increased to one in 16 by 1930 [Source: Official Yearbook of NSW 1929-30, p.121], for almost everyone taking the train was the only practical method to travel between towns in reasonable time.

The southwest and the Riverina enjoyed an excellent and still expanding rail network. All the teams that challenged for the Maher Cup in the 1920s were connected to that network. The dates in green on the map illustrate how the more distant teams were quite rapidly drawn into the Maher Cup competition from 1923 to 1927. The latter year could perhaps be designated as that in which the Cup can be said to have become really famous.

If the Cup had stayed at Tumut where it began, or in Gundagai which made the first successful challenge, interest would unlikely have widened so much. It would probably have been sidelined by a trophy from a better located place. That it moved to Cootamundra in 1922, that Cootamundra was THE powerhouse team for the next five years, and that Coota so well promoted it, made all the difference. Situated on the most important intercity rail link in the nation with tentacles running to the Lachlan, deep into the Mallee and beyond the Murrumbidgee, Cootamundra was easy to reach.

Coota remained the centre of Maher Cup country for another 43 years. But by then passenger rail was a mere shadow with almost everyone travelling between towns by car on sealed roads. Wagga, Canberra and Orange grew to become sponge cities soaking up people and services from our towns and villages. When in 1965 the Wagga-based Murrumbidgee Rugby League moved football power further south what was left of Cootamundra’s gravitas went south, as well as any future for the Old Tin Pot.

PS. An earlier post with more reasons: 
http://mahercup.com.au/blog/2013/12/12/10-reasons-why-the-maher-cup-was-such-a-success/

The Importance of Sydney Imports

While the Maher Cup was about small town locals battling against each other for bragging rights, to do so successfully usually required outside assistance.

For 40 years, beginning with Phil Regan of Glebe being paid by the burghers of Cootamundra in 1922 to captain and to coach some talented youngsters, the usual modus operandi for victory was to import a quality player or two, preferably with the skills to develop players.

Ten players from this match on 5 May 1951 at the SCG later played Maher Cup – five from each side.

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Barmedman Rugby League : a brief(ish) history to 1945

The mouse that roared. Regularly defeating towns ten times its size there was something special about Barmedman.   On Maher Cup Days the three pubs overflowed as the population of a few hundred became thousands.  If the Cup was a religion this was its Jerusalem.  Eric Schlunke captured the fanaticism in his thinly fictional short story Village Hampden.

This is an attempt to record some of Barmedman’s social and football history.

Queen Street in 1910 showing the now demolished newsagency, the imposing Barmedman Hotel and beyond the then modest Queensland Hotel.

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The Broads: West Wyalong’s Hard Corps

The Broads

West Wyalong was a hard place. In this driest part of Maher Cup country the mallee is more scrub than forest.  When disturbed the fine sandy red soil generates dust that just hangs. Making a living was hard, the football fields were hard, the man were expected to be hard.   The hardest of them often had the surname Broad. Three generations over five decades, thirteen family members, more if you include the Broad girls’ sons and the in-laws, were at the heart of the town’s Maher Cup passion.

The Broads first came to notice outside the Bland Shire when four of five brothers: George, Fred, Alf and John made up most of the forward pack in the town’s 1925 Maher Cup winning team.

Source: Ancestry.com

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Phil Regan of Glebe and Cootamundra

Phil Regan (top left) lead the undefeated Maher Cup team in 1923. Others in shot are Ray Sheedy, Eric Weissel and Curtis 'Dick' Pellow. Source: Wal Galvin collection

Phil Regan (top left) led the undefeated Cootamundra Maher Cup team in 1923. Others in shot are Ray Sheedy, Eric Weissel and Curtis ‘Dick’ Pellow. Source: Wal Galvin collection

Phil Regan

He may or may not have been the first paid player-coach to leave  a top city club and take a country team to a higher level, but he was the best. Within weeks of taking up the job in July 1922 he had transformed a tired Cootamundra team into champions.

For the next five years he caught the train back to Coota for the football season, took board at a hotel and inspired and developed the local lads. Phil Regan led the team in 54 Maher Cup matches, prevailing in all but seven. Continue reading

The Poetry of Rugby League

In Maher Cup days many punters penned poetry which ended up published in the local paper.  A sampling of these can be found here.

The following (probably unpublished) verse from 1935 is not about the Maher Cup, but is posted as it reveals much about the casual attitude to the violence of football at the time, and the camaraderie that necessitated that everyone be assigned a nickname. Continue reading

Group 9 in the 1920s.

This is the first instalment of a brief history of Group 9 Rugby League.

Rugby League emerged in the Riverina in 1911, at West Wyalong. By 1921 it had replaced Union throughout the southwest. The NSW Rugby League, recognising the need to join up clubs and to organise this rapidly expanding sport, proposed prior to the 1922 season to divide the rural parts of the state into twelve groups. Group 9 was to include the teams Harden, Wagga, Cootamundra, Gundagai, Tumut, Temora, Barmedman, Wyalong, West Wyalong, Mildil, Ariah Park and Ardlethan. Continue reading

A Pictorial History of Cootamundra Rugby League to 1971

The following has been prepared with thanks to Susan Chambers and the wonderful resources that her father Wal Galvin diligently and painstakingly collected.

A football club was first formed at Cootamundra in 1882. The committee then debated what rules to adopt. Although they decided on the ‘Victorian game’ rather than Rugby the team did play at least one game of Rugby that year. In 1885 the ‘Our Boys‘ team provided the code with some permanence. By the 1895 Rugby was well established and a second team, the Pirates, enabled a home town derby.

Cootamundra Rugby Team 1914

Cootamundra Rugby Team 1914

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Gundagai 1921

Wirth's Circus in Sheridan Street, from Dr. Gabriel's photos.

Wirth’s Circus in Sheridan Street – from Dr. Gabriel’s photos.

1921 was the second year of Maher Cup football and its first under Rugby League rules.  For the first time Mr E.J. Maher’s trophy left Tumut. It was the year of Gundagai.

The transition to League was simple. By the time the Tumut and Gundagai area clubs met to decide whether to stay with Union or move to the more attractive code, nearby Junee, Harden and Cootamundra and just about every other town in the southwest, had already moved. The decision was made without rancour or acrimony.

But there was much more than football on the minds of Gundagai people…. Continue reading