Rugby League’s trailblazers

Gareth Walker journeys back to the sport’s historic origins

Just days after Rugby League celebrated its 125th birthday, it seems a fitting time to look back to when it all began.

As a Rochdale lad, I’ve always taken great pride in the fact my boyhood club was one of the founder members of the Northern Union, Hornets nickname and all.

The league table that first season makes for less enjoyable reading, however. Hornets finished clear at the bottom of the pile, winning just four of 42 games and scoring only 78 points in the entire season.

But the club was one of 22 visionary organisations that created what we now know as Rugby League, having voted unanimously as a group at the George Hotel on August 29, 1895, to split from the RFU.

That first season included seven other clubs that are still playing outside the top division – Halifax, Oldham, Hunslet, Leigh, Bradford, Widnes and Batley – and so help form the subject of this column.

The insight used comes from a remarkable piece of Rugby League research in the 1995 book ‘Rochdale Hornets Football Club Limited – First Season in the Northern Union’, written by the club’s then historian Colin Atkin.

It’s a painstaking piece of work that includes details from every match that Hornets played that season, and as such provides a very Rochdale perspective on that groundbreaking campaign.

But there are fascinating inclusions on each of the above clubs, with details from all 42 matches that season and a comprehensive statistical section.

The preface notes that it was still a 15-man game with line-outs and rugby union rules, with drop-goals worth four points, penalties and tries three, and a conversion an extra two.

Rochdale had to wait until the cricket season finished as their home matches were largely played at the Dane Street ground in the town.

Before that, a Mr W Brierley had been their representative on that historic George Hotel date, and he then spoke at a public meeting in Rochdale to explain the move to supporters and how match payments would be made (while revealing that they already had been for the previous two years).

At the time the club had £47 in the bank, and the move to the Northern Union had minimal local opposition.

But on the field Hornets struggled from the off, losing their opening match 8-3 to St Helens on Saturday September 7 in a game that kicked off an hour-and-a-half late.

“The Rugby Union was notorious for its unpunctuality and it is hoped the Northern Union will so something about this far which has been much criticised in the past,” one report noted.

The November clash at local rivals Oldham attracted a crowd of 11,000, with 2,000 estimated to be from Rochdale as the Roughyeds won 13-8.

Hornets played on Christmas Day (Leigh, 0-0 draw), Boxing Day (Hull, lost 0-18), December 28 (Hunslet, lost 6-4) and New Year’s Day, (Leigh, lost 0-5) as part of a run of six games in 15 days over the festive period.

By the time Hornets lost at home to Halifax, 0-6, on January 18, they were rock bottom of the Northern Union and would remain there.

Another low point came in February when referee Mr Slevin filed a complaint that he was mobbed after a Dane Street game against Brighouse Rangers.

The venue was suspended from the competition until the end of March. Hornets then lost an appeal and future of the club was plunged into doubt by the financial implications.

Help came from the unlikeliest source when Oldham offered to stage their away derby and give the gate receipts to Rochdale, with the £156 minus £10 expenses from a 13,000 crowd helping to save the club.

It was an early example of Rugby League people helping their own, and although Hornets’ miserable season on the field continued to the end, the club survived and, like so many others, is still here today.

The season retrospect noted: “Supporters have stuck by the club loyally; their faith in the team being highly commendable and deserving of a better return.”

What they did have, and could never lose, was an important place in Rugby League history.

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