- 34Wallaby Number
Alec Burdon’s poor treatment by the NSWRU following a serious shoulder injury in 1907 was used by the founders of rugby league as an example of the inadequate allowances given to footballers. Though Burdon’s injury was not the catalyst for the codes to split, it remains firmly entrenched in sporting folklore as “the moment” that gave birth to rugby league in Australia. It many ways it is a pity that Burdon is remembered primarily for a damaged shoulder and his place in League lore, rather than for his exemplary, and substantial, contribution to Australian rugby. Born in Sydney in 1879, Burdon soon acquired the ubiquitous nickname for all young men blessed with orange-red hair of “Bluey”.
He attended Fort Street High School, and began his rugby career in the late 1890s with the Grosvenor F.C. Burdon then moved to the newly- formed Glebe club when the district scheme was introduced in 1900. Initially placed in the second XV, he was elevated to first grade mid-way through the season. A hard working front row forward, Burdon caught the attention of representative selectors almost from his debut with Glebe, and was chosen for Metropolitan against Newcastle in one of the final matches of the 1900 season. Glebe’s winning of the premiership no doubt also boosted his profile. In 1901, Glebe again won the club competition (jointly with Sydney University), and Burdon’s tireless and resourceful play had wise judges quietly nodding approval from the grandstands. In July of 1901 Burdon was fast-tracked into the NSW team for a two-match series against Queensland.
From that point on, until the shadow of the looming League split in 1907 raised doubts as to his loyalties, Burdon was the first forward picked in every NSW and Australian team (barring injury) on offer. His run began at the conclusion of the 1901 club competition, when a NSW team travelled to New Zealand. Though NSW enjoyed just one victory, Burdon appeared in all seven matches of the three- week campaign. Significantly given later events, amongst his fellow NSW forwards were future “Leagueites” Dinny Lutge, Arthur Hennessy and the team’s captain, Tom Costello. Over the following seasons he also played for NSW alongside Edward Larkin (who became NSWRL secretary), Peter Moir, Pat “Nimmo” Walsh and “Jersey” Flegg (NSWRL president).
Burdon made his debut for Australia in the first -ever Test match against New Zealand. Held at the SCG in front of 30,000 spectators, Burdon and his fellow forwards contained the All Black pack for the first half of the contest. However, the New Zealanders broke loose in the second stanza, winning 22-3. The following season saw a visit from Great Britain. Under the captaincy of Scotland’s David “Darkie” Bedell-Sivright, the tour gave rise to particularly vigorous bouts of “play” between the forwards. Burdon played in first two Tests (both losses), but was forced to miss the third match after suffering a shoulder injury.
At the end of 1905 Burdon was part of Australia’s first overseas tour, with the national team travelling to New Zealand. The visit included one Test match, and Burdon regained his place in the front row. Despite the New Zealanders fielding a third-string XV, (the famous “All Blacks” tour party had already left for Great Britain), Australia could still not overcome the locals, losing 14-3 in Dunedin. By 1906 Burdon had moved to the Sydney district club, where he was elected captain (he was also at that time vice-captain of NSW). Described as a tireless worker off the field for the interests of his fellow footballers, he soon became an active campaigner seeking to improve their conditions and benefits.
In the first week of May in 1907, Burdon injured his arm in a club match for Sydney against Souths. Burdon had already been involved with cricketer Victor Trumper and entrepreneur James Giltinan in secret meetings planning the formation of the NSWRL. His injury came a fortnight before news broke that Albert Baskerville was organising a professional rugby league team (later nicknamed “All Golds”) to visit Sydney on their way to Great Britain. The sight of Burdon getting about the city with his arm in a sling was used to highlight the plight of the players and their lack of benefits under the NSWRU. Burdon returned to the field in time to prove his fitness for selection in the upcoming representative matches, but was not chosen; his suspected involvement with the professional rugby (league) movement the likely reason for his sudden exiling. As a consequence, Burdon travelled with his Sydney club team mates on a short tour of northern NSW. Burdon played against Manning on 22 July in Wingham. During the match “the ball was passed to Burdon, who ran to the line, but was thrown heavily, and his shoulder put out.” By the time Burdon, his arm again in a sling, returned to Sydney, news of the imminent formation of the NSWRL had already broken in the city’s newspapers. His predicament added fuel to the fire of discontent amongst the city’s largely working-class footballers, and the injury became the legendary trigger that purportedly started rugby league. Burdon resigned from the Sydney club and took up a senior role with the NSWRL, acting as a selector and one of the chief organisers. In early 1908 he was elected on the founding committee of the Glebe rugby league club and first grade captain.
He played for Glebe until his retirement in 1910. Burdon was also a selector and member of the 1908 Kangaroos who toured England and Wales. During the tour he played two Tests for Australia against England, and appeared in 23 minor matches. Late in the tour, when the Kangaroos’ captain (Dinny Lutge) and vice-captain (Dally Messenger) were absent through injury, Burdon took over the on-field captaincy, including the third Test match. He earned high praise from team- mates and in newspaper reports for his strong leadership, and more than one observer suggested that the tourists may have had a far better win/loss record if Burdon had been in charge from the outset. Burdon continued to have involvement with rugby league after his retirement. He was bestowed life membership status by the NSWRL, and elected to the position of vice-president in the 1920s. He also coached the Australian team, including the home series against Great Britain in 1932.