Albert Bentley Burge
- 92Wallaby Number
“‘Son’ Burge is one of our greatest forwards of all time,” claimed Dally Messenger. “They called him ‘Dirty Sonno’, entirely without cause. I always found him to be a thorough good sport on and off the field.” Albert was the second oldest of the four Burge brothers, almost certainly the greatest set of siblings to play the rugby codes in Australia (the others were Peter, Frank and Laidley).
Albert played two Tests for the Wallabies before crossing over to League in August 1909. Albert Burge was born in Penrith in 1888; located at the foot of the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney, at that time it was a rural town. By the early 1900s the Burge family moved to the city, and the Burge brothers began progressing through the grades with the South Sydney club. Following his older brother Peter, Albert entered the Souths first grade team late in the 1905 season as a back-row forward and part-time goal kicker. The Referee noted that Albert Burge, then just seventeen years old, was “a very tall and younger brother of the NSW forward, accomplished some excellent high marking against Glebe”.
Part of the success of the Burge brothers was due to their height and weight advantage. By today’s standards Albert, who stood at 6'2" (188 cm) and weighed 13 st, 12 lb (88 kg), would be considered a touch on the light side. However, in the pre-WW1 era, with few footballers who were over six foot (183cm), Albert had a tremendous advantage, particularly in the lineout and in forward play generally. While his brothers Peter and Frank showed more flair than the dour play of Albert, he made up for it with his tenacity and toughness. Still learning the game in club football, the representative selectors gave an indication that Albert’s progress was being closely watched when he was chosen to represent City against Country in 1906.
He was also a member of the Souths team which played against the Auckland City club during its four-match tour of Sydney in July 1906. Though hopeful of moving up to the NSW team in 1907, Albert was overlooked. However, completely with surprise, he was called into the Australian team on game day for the third Test against New Zealand on 10 August 1907. A sudden family bereavement had caused Easts’ Charles Murnin to drop out of the Australian team at the last moment, and he was replaced by Bob Graves. However, amidst the drama of the formation of the NSWRL (two days earlier), the NSWRU found that Graves had planned to join rugby league, and he was promptly removed from the team. The selectors then advised Albert that he was in the side.
His brother Peter, playing in the front row, was captain. Albert’s Test debut though was marred by a catastrophic error that ultimately stopped Australia from recording its maiden victory over the All Blacks. With Australia leading 5-0, and the game nearing fulltime, the New Zealanders put in a high kick towards the home side’s fullback, William Dix. Standing five yards from his own goal line, Dix steadied himself to catch the ball. Young Albert was the only Australian within 25 yards of Dix, and raced back to provide support to his fullback. Unfortunately, Albert made the fatal mistake of only watching the ball, and collided with Dix just as he took the catch.
Both Australians fell to the ground, the football fell loose, and the All Blacks swooped on it, scoring a converted try to secure an unlikely 5-5 draw. The blame, notwithstanding some latitude was given for his inexperience and youthful exuberance, was laid firmly upon Albert. To Albert’s credit he did not let the moment define the limit of his career, and he set about restoring his reputation. The 1908 season came and went though without the State selectors giving him a chance for NSW (he played two games for Metropolitan / City). In the meantime, his brother Peter left with the Wallabies on their inaugural tour of Great Britain, France and North America.
The Wallabies though lost the services of forwards Murnin, Peter Flanagan and Albert’s brother Peter through illness and injuries at the start of the tour, and the management cabled the NSWRU back in Sydney seeking two replacements. Kenneth Gavin and Albert were promptly offered the opportunity to sail to England. Albert gladly accepted, and he and Gavin arrived in England in mid-November 1908, a month before the opening Test against Wales. While Gavin was overlooked for that Test, Albert impressed all and gained his second appearance for Australia.
By all reports, Albert made the most of his second opportunity, and played particularly strongly and vigorously in a grim encounter at Cardiff Arms Park (in which Australia lost 9-6 to Wales). One incident though, where Albert appeared to kick Wales’ captain Bill Trew in the head while dribbling the ball along the ground, saw him earn the ire of the Welsh newspapers. Albert claimed it was an accident, and the referee took no action. Albert continued his impressive form, and rarely missed any of the top-flight matches over the following two weeks.
However, on 28 December 1908, the Wallabies returned to Cardiff to play the local team, and Albert found more trouble on this visit. This time his knee came into hard contact with the groin of an opposing forward. Albert claimed he was merely kicking at the football on the ground, and the contact was accidental, but the referee would have none of it and order the Australian from the field. The newspaper furore that erupted, and general disquiet against the vigorous play of the Australians generally, resulted in the Wallabies’ management and captain (“Paddy” Moran) deciding that Albert had played his last game on the tour.
Even on the North American leg of the campaign, Albert was not called upon to play for the Wallabies. After returning home the NSWRU held an inquiry into Albert’s sending off, and initially resolved to seek more information from the RFU to decide if further penalty was necessary. However, with no one keen to continue flaming the drama, it was allowed to quietly be forgotten. In July 1909 Albert was finally chosen for NSW, playing in three matches against Queensland.
The following month though he was one of fourteen players who accepted lucrative financial offers to form a rebel Wallabies team to play a series of rugby league matches against the Kangaroos (Albert is thought to have been given £100). He showed his versatility in these matches, playing fullback in the second game when William Dix dropped out through injury. After the series The Referee summed up his performances: “Several of the Wallabies will make champions of the Northern Union (rugby league) game. A.B. Burge, in particular, is a forward who has few, if any, equals in the League game.
Fast and clever, he handled the ball as though it was a cricket ball.” Albert played the 1910 season with South Sydney, but unlike some of the other ex-Wallabies, found he was out of favour when it came to being chosen in the representative teams. The Rabbitohs too overlooked Albert for the 1910 premiership Final against Newtown, and he decided to move to neighbouring Glebe. He enjoyed a more successful season in 1911, playing for NSW and captaining Glebe in the premiership Final (a team which included his younger brother Frank).
Apart from a sojourn with the North Sydney club in 1913, Albert played the remainder of his career with Glebe, retiring in 1919. His final football seasons though had not passed without further controversy. The most dramatic events came in 1917 when he led a players’ strike by the Glebe footballers against the NSWRL. The team refused to take the field against Balmain in a protest over numerous long-standing issues with the NSWRL, and their perceived inequitable treatment of the Glebe club. The League suspended Albert and the other Glebe players until the start of the 1919 season - effectively an eighteen month ban.
That set off a wave of discontent amongst the Sydney rugby league community, and murmurings of forming a rival League began to take shape. In April 1918 the NSWRL lifted the bans on all the Glebe players, except for Albert and his brother Frank, who remained off the field for a further month. The controversy failed to tarnish the reputation of the Burge brothers, and Frank was ultimately inducted into the ARL’s Hall of Fame. Albert Burge spent much of his life working as an oyster farmer and for a time was a locksmith. He passed away in 1943.