Cummeragunja, the Aboriginal football team that was too good

Sir Doug Nicholls learnt to play football on the oval at the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission. The Cummeragunja footy team was so successful in the local competition in the 1920s they were handicapped.

Dr Rod Gillett recounts the story of the Cummeragunja footy team that was too good.

 

The Cummeragunja footy team, where Sir Doug Nicholls first played football before he commenced an illustrious career in the VFL, was so successful in the 1920s that it was handicapped by the local league.

After winning the Western and Moira Riding district league premierships five times out of six between 1926 and 1931, the club was not allowed to field players over the age of 25.

Sir Doug, was born and raised on the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW bank of the Murray River in the Barmah Forest near Echuca. This mission was established in 1888 by the NSW Government for the Yorta Yorta people.

Sir Doug played football for Cummeragunja before embarking on a football odyssey that would take him to play at the highest level in Melbourne and to various roles in aboriginal advancement, culminating in the Governorship of South Australia.

It is not known if he played in the Cummeragunja team that won the 1921 pennant. We do know though that Sir Doug went to play for Tongala in the Goulburn Valley League in 1925.

He moved to Melbourne in 1927 to try out with Carlton but was rejected because of his colour, went to VFA club Northcote where he played in the 1929 premiership and winning best and fairest awards, and then to Fitzroy from 1932-36, and then back to Northcote. He represented both the VFA and the VFL.

After their premiership win in 1921 Cummeragunja were excluded from the league, but were subsequently reinstated, and then went onto even more success.

Some the players in those Cummeragunja premiership teams were Aaron, Selwyn Les and Eddie Briggs; Lindsay Whyman; Maurie Charles; Sid Williams; Gringo Morgan; Bob Nelson; Eddie and Frank Atkinson; Andy Cooper; Ossie Jackson, Tommy Dunnolly Jnr; Wally Nicholls and Herbie, Joe, Fred and Eddie Walker.

Many of these family names are still prominent in football in southern NSW and northern Victoria. Former Carlton star Andrew Walker has recently returned home to coach Echuca.

Roy Hay, in his acclaimed work:- Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, has unearthed recollections from the children of teachers at the Cummeragunja school in 1922 who recalled barracking for “Cummera”:

“The dark men were very good players. They were marvellous. They could run like hares. They used to play marking the ball – that sort of thing – and used to rise up you know. And they used to pass the ball right down the ground and they would shoot goals from any angles. They were marvellous and they were nearly always premiers” (p.91).

The earliest records of Cummeragunja playing football in the district are in 1888 when a mission team played Echuca. In 1890 a competition known as the Northern District Football Association based on Echuca was formed made up of teams from Echuca, Echuca East, Rochester, and Cummeragunja.

By 1898 Cummeragunja were competing in the Nathalia and District Association and they went through that season and the following year without losing a game.

However, though they regularly played matches against teams in the local area, the Cummeragunja team had problems getting off the mission as permission was required by the station manager.

Cummeragunja continued to field a team up until World War II when they were in the Echuca district league. In 1939 they lost narrowly to Deniliquin in the first semi-final.

Sir Doug returned to home to Cummeragunja for his last game in 1940 for a fund-raising game against Echuca at the Victoria Park Oval in Echuca.

And why do we highlight this team’s feats?  Because they were in New South Wales.

References:
Athas Zafiris (2016), “Cummeragunja aboriginal football team that opened the eyes of white Australia”, shootfarken.com.au

Roy Hay (2019), Aboriginal People and Australian Football in the Nineteenth Century: They Did Not Come from Nowhere, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne UK. Paperback version is available from the author roy@sesasport.com.au

The Make-Up of the NSW’s Greatest Team Ever

When Jack Fleming made his debut for South Melbourne in the newly-formed VFL in 1897 he became the first player from NSW to play at what was to become, the highest-level. Fleming was born in Inverell in northern NSW but went to South Melbourne from the South Broken Hill club.

Nick Blakey

Nick Blakey aged 18 and fresh out of Waverly College in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, became the 453rd player from NSW to play VFL/AFL football when he debuted for the Sydney Swans against the Western Bulldogs in round one of the 2019 season. He continued the rich tradition of players from NSW playing at the highest level that had begun with Jack Fleming 122 years ago.

The list of NSW’s Greatest Players provided the basis for the selection of the NSW Greatest Team Ever at the Carbine Club’s function in May this year.  You can view the entire list here, however to facilitate the list in its entirety, it has been reduced in size.  (You can enlarge the document for easier viewing by holding down your CONTROL button and press the + button at the same time.  To reverse this, hold down the CONTROL button and press the minus [ – ] button.)

Initially, a list of 423 players was provided by the AFL. Former Sydney Swans and inaugural NSW/ACT AFL Commission chairman Richard Colless, the convener of the selection panel for the NSW Greatest Team, was convinced that there were more players than this and asked the NSW Football History Society representatives on the panel, Ian Granland and Rod Gillett, to investigate.

Between them they boosted the number on the list to 453.

Using his geographical and football knowledge of southern NSW particularly along the border region, Gillett was able to add a substantial number to the list that had been overlooked by the AFL’s historians.

This included the likes of former Carlton and Richmond ruckman David Honybun from Coleambly who was recruited by the Blues from Scotch College, ex-St Kilda defender Jon Lilley (Hay) who went to Xavier College, dual Richmond premiership rover Bill Brown also from Hay who went to work for the State Savings Bank in Melbourne;  he also plaPaul Kelly, Bill Mohr, yed for the bank team in the amateurs.  then there was Damian Sexton (St Kilda) from Finley who was recruited from Ovens and Murray league club, Yarrawonga.

A gem of a find was the late Sir Doug Nichols, who grew up and played football at the Cummeragunja aboriginal mission on the NSW side of the Murray River opposite Barmah, near Echuca. Sir Doug played for the mission in the district competition before making his mark with Fitzroy in the VFL. Ironically, he played for Victoria against NSW in the 1933 ANFC Carnival in Sydney.

They also came up with the names of some outstanding SANFL players that had originally been recruited from Broken Hill. Two of these players, West Adelaide’s Bruce McGregor and Neil Davies from Glenelg, were subsequently selected in the Greatest Team. Both captained South Australia in interstate matches and were selected in ANFC All-Australian teams.

Broken Hill has been a rich source of players for both the VFL and the SANFL competitions. Forty-eight players on the list came from Broken Hill’s four clubs: Norths (13), Centrals (9), Souths (11), and Wests (15).

The Albury Football Club provided the most number of players on the list with 49 including five from the Strang family starting with Bill Strang (South Melbourne) in 1904, his three sons Doug (Richmond), Gordon (Richmond) and Alan (South Melbourne) and Doug’s son Geoff, who played in Richmond’s 1967 and 1969 premiership sides.

Rival Ovens & Murray League club Corowa, that merged with Rutherglen for the 1979 season, provided twenty players including current Sydney Swans coach John Longmire (North Melbourne), 1975 North Melbourne premiership star Peter Chisnall and Swans 2005 premiership player Ben Matthews.

The Sydney clubs have supplied 106 players on the list with Eastern Suburbs providing the highest number with twenty-four, the most notable being Carlton champion Mark “Sellers” McClure; Newtown with eleven including Footscray’s 1954 premiership player Roger Duffy, ten from North Shore, nine from Pennant Hills which included the former St Kilda champion Lenny Hayes.

The Riverina was also a fertile area for the list. The highest number of players came from the Wagga Tigers which provided 20 players including 1995 Brownlow medalist Paul Kelly (Swans), the sublimely skilled John Pitura (South Melbourne/Richmond), and the NSW Greatest Team full forward, Bill Mohr (St Kilda) who topped the VFL goal-kicking in 1936 with 101 goals.

Leeton (12), Ganmain (10) and Narranderra (9) also supplied high numbers of players for the list.

South Melbourne/Sydney Swans have been the main beneficiary of players from NSW. One hundred and seventeen players have turned out for the Swans since 1897.

Under zoning by the VFL of Victorian Country/Southern NSW from 1967-1986 the Riverina was allocated to South Melbourne. In this period Rick Quade (Ariah Park-Mirrool), Doug Priest (Holbrook), Ross Elwin (Leeton), Colin Hounsell (Collingullie), Brett Scott (The Rock-Yerong Creek), Paul Hawke (Wagga Tigers), Dennis Carroll (Lockhart) and Jim Prentice (Ariah Park-Mirrool) were recruited from the Swans’ zone.

When the club moved to Sydney in 1982, the number of players from the local competition increased. This included Terry Thripp (Pennant Hills), Lewis Roberts-Thomson (North Shore), Nick Davis (St George), Kieran Jack (Pennant Hills), Arthur Chilcott (Western Suburbs), and Neil Brunton (Holroyd-Parramatta) and many more.

The Greater Western Sydney Giants have also recruited players from NSW since their entry into the AFL in 2012. Their number of players from NSW currently stands at eighteen following the debut of Penrith local and national decathlon champion, Jake Stein in round 12 against North Melbourne.

Stein became the 454th player to play in the VFL/AFL. The list was boosted to over 500 highly skilled players to recognise those from the city and the bush that didn’t go to the big leagues and the players from Broken Hill that represented the SANFL.