I’ve always been fascinated by the year the South Sydney Rabbitohs began in 1908. The focal point of the this tale is Arthur Stephen Hennessy nickname A.S.H & I was immediately drawn to the fact that we share the name Stephen spelt with the PH. ASH is Rabbitoh first grade player #1 & I’m #757, he made his debut in 1908 & mine was 1987 but we are both Stephens & Rabbitohs players so for me we share an affinity. I realise it’s only his middle name, the S in the acronym ASH but the man known as the ‘Father Of The Rabbitohs’ and I both suited up for the mighty Rabbits & didn’t spell our name Steven with the V. (Yes I do answer to the shortened version Steve but that’s beside the point!)
The most satisfying discovery I made was to uncover the fact that the first rugby league game ever played in Australia was held on the 21st of March 1908 at Sir Joseph Banks Park Botany. On this historic day a South Sydney Possibles & Probables trial match was played. I was born & bred in Botany, played for the Botany Rams & still live here today but I never knew about this game that ASH took part in was played at a park that I roamed as a kid.
In The Beginning…
The story of the Rabbitohs inaugural season in 1908 & their eventual victory in the first ever Australian rugby league grand final is a tale that Rabbitohs fans will cherish forever.
Stories will endlessly be told about the clubs Redfern origins, it’s 11-7 victory over North Sydney the first time the team took the field & the march to glory over the Roosters in the grand final at the end of that season.
This article takes you through some key points of this time & highlights the involvement of the ‘Father Of The Rabbitohs’ Arthur Hennessy.
Rugby League broke away from Rugby Union in the late 1800s for the simple reason that players weren’t being paid. The greatest game of all was born in England in 1895.
The beginning of South Sydney traces back to early meetings in the Australian test cricketer Victor Trumper’s shop. Trumper is one of the most important figures in the club’s formation.
Five other men also played huge roles in creating the Rabbitohs – Arthur Hennessy, S. George Ball, Johnny McGrath, Billy Cann & Ed “Son” Fry. Early meetings were held in 1907, plans were hatched then finally a meeting took place on 17th January 1908 at Redfern Town Hall Sydney to form the South Sydney District Rugby League Club.
Arthur Stephen Hennessy (nickname ASH) was born in Sydney on the 24th September 1876. Hennessy played hooker & although only a small man at 5ft 8ins (173cm) & 12st. 6lbs. (79kg) he would become a star rugby union player winning a competition with Souths Rugby Union in 1905 & gaining NSW representative honours.
By the time he finally helped create the NSWRL & the Rabbitohs, Hennessy was 31 years old so his career as a rugby league player was relatively short but he would go on to become the first captain of NSW & the Australian Kangaroos.
A trial match was organised between the South Sydney Possibles & Probables on the 21st March 1908 at Sir Joseph Banks Park Botany as a tune up for the upcoming season but also so the players could learn the rules to this newly created game. Englishman Tom McCabe lectured players and officials on the finer points of the new code. This historic match would be the first ever rugby league game played on Australian soil. Hennessy captained the Probables but they were defeated 9-8 by the Possibles led by Bill Cann.
On the 20th April 1908 the big one happened, the Rabbitohs first ever competition game in the NSWRL. Hennessy took the field for the Bunnies at Birchgrove Oval as an undersized captain/coach. Arthur Hennessy would earn the honour of being named Souths first grade player number #1. This numbering system was introduced by the club in 2003 & Hennessy was allocated his number then. The modern players like myself have embraced this numbering system with pride. Chris McQueen has his number 1070 boldly tattooed on his neck below is left ear.
The first ever try scorer for Souths was winger Tommy Anderson (first grade player #2) in the 11-7 win over North Sydney.
Souths would win their next 2 games before suffering defeat for the first time at the hands of arch rivals Eastern Suburbs 13-12 at the Royal Agricultural Society Showground. The Souths v Easts rivalry has been around for as long as the game has existed.
This would be Souths only loss of the season, they would remain undefeated all the way through to the grand final where they turned the tables on Easts to win the game 14-12. This result secured the competition, the first of the clubs 21 premierships, a record that has allowed the Rabbitohs to be continually described as the ‘Pride Of The League’
Hennessy would only play 5 games for Souths in 1908 before leaving for England on board the RMS Macedonia with the 1908-09 Kangaroos with 2 rounds to go before the finals. When their ship stopped over in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) the Rabbitohs players received a telegram from the team saying a simple message “Premiers”.
The tour robbed both Souths & Easts of their best players for the grand final & condemned the game to a contest without the best talent competing. Notable absentees that went on tour for Souths were Arthur Hennessy, Tommy Anderson & Arthur Butler (first grade player #3) while Easts lost the one & only Dally Messenger, Dan Frawley & Sandy Pearce.
Arthur Hennessy suffered a broken jaw on the Kangaroo tour & didn’t play in a test match. Hennessy played a total of 26 games for the Rabbitohs & would go into coach the Rabbitohs & Kangaroos.
Hennessy would create a institution of “running rugby” at South Sydney. He strongly advocated the no kick principle, emphasizing the importance of ball possession to score tries. This came to be the mark of South Sydney’s football with straight running and backing up. The no kick policy produced fast, open football and for Souths a remarkable winning record.
Hennessy was also caught up in the boundary wars with Easts that forced him to play for the tri colours for a short period.
Hennessy moved to Maroubra where he invested in the Maroubra Speedway and in mini-golf, and partly owned the Amusu cinema, Maroubra, living in a cottage opposite the theatre. Survived by his wife, Hennessy died on 19 September 1959 and was buried with Anglican rites in Botany cemetery.
After a 43 year drought the Rabbitohs won their 21st premiership in 2014. This victory meant that their legions of fans could celebrate the ‘Pride Of The League’ once again & sing the song ‘Glory Glory to South Sydney….South Sydney marches on’.