Monday Milestone: 1920s Rugby League – Earl Park Riot

Filed in Other by on August 5, 2013

1920's Rugby League
As we head towards the rugby league finals, the Milestone takes opportunity to track the history of the people's game parking the Delorean this week in the 1920’s.

"You started this you bastard, now I'm going to finish it"
– Balmain forward Tony Russell in the ambulance after the Earl Park Riot

This Week in History:
August 11
Earl Park erupts into violence after the referee loses control of the match between St George and Balmain

So you think rugby league is a thug’s game these days?

There’s too much fighting that sends the wrong message to the kids?  Hardly.

The Milestone can promise you, that the great game of rugby league is a lot more sedate than it once was. Rugby league in the 1920s was something else.

We go back this week to 1928 to a simply match between St George and Balmain at a now disused football ground called Earl Park, that lies in Arncliffe, in southern Sydney.

It’d already been a torrid Round 11 match, and there was no love lost between these teams. An earlier incident had already seen Saints forward Harry Flower sent off, which had understandably not pleased the local, passionate crowd. But it was five minutes from time that the match descended into rugby league infamy.

According to reports, following a tackle, when Balmain enforcer Tony Russell kicked St George player George “Bluey” Carstairs in the face, whilst he was on the ground, which knocked him unconscious, incredulousness followed.

But when referee Mick Brannaghan, opted to simply warn Russell, and not to march him, was the moment he lost control. The crowd, was understandably furious. They began chanting “We want Russell” and baying for his blood. Never before had fans seen such spite.

So when full time sounded, and the local St George side had defeated Balmain by 21-3, nobody in the six thousand strong crowd cared. Because at that moment, Balmain’s George Bishop had taken off, chasing after the Saints’ Arnold Traylor to settle a score, and enough was enough. St George spectators rushed the field to invoke their own justice on the Balmain players.

Violence escalated. As the crowd invaded the pitch, fence posts were ripped out with the pickets being used as weapons. Tony Russell was suddenly Saints Public Enemy Number One and it got insane. The police were called in to calm the insurgence, and indeed stories are told of one man was even seen running behind the grandstand, swinging an axe.

Back on the field, Russell was a lost cause. No matter of protection could save him, and he was badly beaten by the crowd, and was taken off in an ambulance.

However, if the rumours are true, though, there was a mix up from the paramedics, and both Russell and Carstairs ended up in the same ambulance. Still fuming, Russell, despite his injuries still lunged at Carstairs, with the ambulancemen forced to intervene…

No charges were ultimately laid, with the crowd bearing most of the blame, but the bitterness endured for decades.

Some forty years later, Tony Russell still denied kicking Carstairs in the face, noting that he “wouldn’t have wasted the boot leather”, and he went as far to suggest Carstairs had broken his nose first with an elbow anyways.

It was called a black day in rugby league. Next time rugby league is referred to as a thug’s game, remember the 1920s. That was something else.

Milestone Five: Notable 1920s rugby league moments:  

5. 1928 – Western Suburbs take on the first ever animal moniker in rugby league as the “Western Suburbs Fruitpickers” become the “Western Suburbs Magpies”

4. 1927 – Balmain’s Bill Maizey sets a record for the longest suspension – twelve months after punching Easts player George Clamback

3. 1922 – North Sydney defeat Glebe in the Grand Final 35-3 after being tied on premiership points. It is still Norths’ most recent premiership.

2. 1926 – Permanent finals fixtures are implemented due to flagging crowds. Also introduced are the goal line drop out and now only two men are allowed at the play-the-ball.

1. 1928 – The Earl Park Riot erupts as six thousand storm the field in Arncliffe. Balmain forward Tony Russell is taken away in an ambulance.


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