Herbert Henry "Dally" Messenger
- 90Wallaby Number
Though “Dally” Messenger’s Test match career came and went in the space of a week, his impact upon Australian rugby remains with us today. The son of a boat builder and professional sculler, and a grandson of a man who had been barge-master to Queen Victoria on the Thames in England, Herbert Henry Messenger was bestowed the nickname of “Dally” early in life by his father. Messenger’s portly figure apparently reminded all of NSW parliamentarian, William Dalley (the “e” disappearing by the time Messenger came to prominence as a rugby player).
Born in Sydney’s working-class suburb of Balmain in 1883, Messenger moved with his family to Double Bay when he was 18 months old. There his father erected a boat shed and family home. In the late 1880s during a mini-boom in professional sculling on the Nepean River to the west of Sydney, the Messengers lived at Penrith. His father built boats for the local rowing clubs, and was part of internationally famous sculler Bill Beach’s support team. Illness to his mother resulted in young Dally living with relatives in Albert Park, South Melbourne, in his early teens. Staying for two years, Messenger attended the local public school, where he played Australian football. He later claimed that this experience aided his prodigious kicking skills.
Returning home, Messenger played rugby for the Double Bay Primary School. He left school at the age of fifteen, working alongside his father and older brothers as an apprentice boat builder. He continued playing rugby in local semi-formal “pick-up” matches, however, rowing and sailing took his interest when it came to serious competitive sport. Messenger entered formal rugby union for the first time in 1901, with the Double Bay Warrigals in The City and Suburban Association (CSA) competition. The CSA would eventually evolve into what today we know as the NSW Suburban Rugby Union (“Subbies”). However, in Messenger’s time, the CSA and its clubs were not affiliated to the NSWRU and its players were outside of the reach of NSW selectors.
Messenger played for the Warrigals until the end of the 1903 season, during which time he came to the attention of officials of the Eastern Suburbs district club. However, he rejected all overtures made to him to move into the district grade ranks, and in 1904 gave rugby away completely. In 1905, encouraged by an Easts official who convinced Messenger he could make a name for himself, he returned to the paddock with the Easts second grade team. Later that season he was chosen in a Combined Second Grade team that toured south-western NSW, and played two first grade games for Easts. The following season (1906) opened with Messenger a permanent member of the Easts first grade team, and within weeks he was chosen for City II against Country.
At the age of twenty-three, his ascent to the top echelon was complete with his selection in the NSW team for matches against Queensland in Brisbane. In the return contests in Sydney, playing as a centre three-quarter, he quickly became a favourite with the public for his bright, creative, individual and “crowd pleasing” style of play, and propensity to land long-range place kick goals. Standing at 5ft 7½in (171cm) tall, and with a playing weight of 12 stone (76.2 kg), Messenger (and many other backs of his era) was smaller than most of today’s half-backs. He was not without critics though, with more than a few Sydney newspaper journalists and NSWRU officials chastising him for not playing the team game, and not sticking to his assigned position in the backline.
Messenger was indifferent to his detractors, and simply quietened them by continuing to score unexpected and spectacular individual tries. His growing popularity with the public, which in turn increased gate-takings for the NSWRU, off-set those calling for him to be dropped for not being a team player. In 1907 Messenger played for NSW against Queensland and New Zealand. In the second NSW v. New Zealand contest of the winter, he was man-of-the-match in the home team’s 14-0 defeat of the All Blacks. It had been a decade since NSW had last tasted victory over New Zealand, and the first time they had kept the New Zealanders scoreless. The most memorable feat of the day, was one spectacular moment from Messenger that lasted in the collective memory of Sydneysiders for generations. After collecting the football on the NSW team’s own 25 yard line, Messenger cut through the All Blacks defence, until within 5 yards of the goal line.
There, confronted by the New Zealand fullback and other tacklers, he suddenly leapt in the air, and hurdled shoulder high over the defenders. Messenger came down in the in goal area, grounding the ball for a simply incomprehensible try. While the feat sounds almost too improbable to be believed, the descriptions recorded in Sydney newspapers the following day confirm the now legendary story. Messenger missed the first Test against New Zealand due to injury, but played in the final two Tests of the series (one lost, one drawn). He initially refused to travel to Brisbane for the second Test match, citing the cost of needing to employ someone in the family boatshed while he was away. The Australian team’s manager secretly agreed to financially compensate Messenger for his costs, and he quickly left Sydney in time to join the side.
The payment amount to a breach of the RFU’s Laws Against Professionalism, and the NSWRU held an inquiry when the Australian team arrived back in Sydney. There were also increasing rumours that Messenger was going to join the newly formed NSWRL, and had agreed to be part of the New Zealand “All Golds” rugby league team about to tour Great Britain. The NSWRU’s investigations could find no proof of Messenger’s intention to turn professional, and did nothing about the secret payment from the Australian team’s manager – primarily as Messenger wasn’t the first NSW or Australian player to have received such a payment, and the NSWRU risked being exposed by other players if Messenger was singled out for punishment.
Messenger played in the third Test match, but announced two days later that he was joining rugby league. The story of his defection to the thirteen man code has taken on legendary status in both rugby codes. Messenger’s involvement with the formation of rugby league extends back months before he quit rugby union. His active desire to be a willing participant in the breakaway movement stems from his father, uncles and grandfather all being professional scullers (in England and Australia); they all held a belief that a sportsman should be rewarded for his labour where it was being used to generate profit. Messenger, like many of his contemporaries, argued that the NSWRU should have been far more liberal when it came to sharing the vast profits it was making from gate-takings at the time.
Rumours of his acceptance of a place in the “All Golds” team extend back to late June 1907, when the team’s contract was secretly drawn up in Wellington (New Zealand) and his name was listed as a member of the team. The tour was organised as a co-operative agreement, with each player having to find and contribute £50 to take part (and ultimately share in the tour’s profits). The day after the final Test match, the League’s founder, James J. Giltinan, visited the Messenger family boatshed at Double Bay. There, Messenger and Giltinan went through a pretence with Messenger’s mother. Ultimately, Giltinan agreed to pay Messenger £50 to join rugby league, and, effectively, buy him his place in the “All Golds” tour team.
The money was given directly to Messenger’s mother so that Dally and Giltinan could deny the footballer had been paid money if the question was ever asked. The significance of the loss of Messenger to Australian rugby union is difficult to quantify. There was no hue and cry from the NSWRU or rugby supporters amongst the newspapers, lamenting Messenger’s defection. It is naive to suggest that without Messenger rugby league would have failed, and that had it disappeared, rugby union would have prevailed as the leading winter sport. A predominantly working class city, a professional football code (either Australian football or soccer) would have arisen in Sydney before too long and usurped amateur rugby union.
Messenger continued playing rugby league until retiring at the end of the 1913 season. In that time he played for NSW, Queensland, Australia, New Zealand and Australasia. He also captained his club side, Eastern Suburbs, to premierships in 1911, 1912 and 1913. He became the foundation rock upon which rugby league built itself in Australia. He has been inducted in the ARL Hall of Fame, and the League’s “Dally M Awards” are named in his honour. After retirement Messenger found daily life didn’t live up to the excitement of thrilling his adoring crowds. He struggled financially, and spent much of his time as a sort of ambassador for rugby league, visiting cities and towns across NSW and Queensland where he trained junior teams, kicked-off matches and attended presentation evenings.
Messenger also worked various jobs, ranging from boat building, boat master, publican, and for a time ran a banana plantation in Buderim in Queensland. Unlike others who have subsequently crossed the rugby divide, Messenger refused throughout his life to denounce his former code. He was always happy to meet and talk to anyone about his rugby union days, and openly stated that he played more games in the amateur code than in rugby league. Messenger passed away in August 1959, he was 76 years old.
The interesting thing about Messenger is that he did not play much for Australia, with two Tests, or NSW, with twelve games. His rise was meteoric , it caught the imagination of a rugby-mad public. The first captain of the Wallabies, ‘Paddy’ Moran, wrote of the phenomenon in Viewless Winds:- “The outstanding player in the Australian season for 1906 was H.H.Messenger, one of the very great three-quarters of all time. His play was full of surprises, unorthodox, flashy. Like Ronald Poulton’s, his game was directed largely by the unconscious mind. He did not, like lesser players , have to think it all out deliberately. In Rugby we still neglect too much the element of surprise in all our attacks. Our methods are too fixed and too stereotyped.
Messenger never became a slave to copy-book practices. He was a natural player whose instinct enabled him to see and take an opening in that operative second which is all-important. He was like Bradman in cricket: sensory impressions took a shortcut in his brain so that coordination was almost instantaneous. If you watch Bradman you will find him balanced in the correct position, apparently seconds before the ball arrives. Yet he has assumed that stance only after the bowler has begun his action.” It was obvious that he was a footballing genius. His first match against another country was for NSW against New Zealand in 1907 at the SCG. There were 51,000 spectators on hand for the match. It was won by New Zealand by 11 to 3. Howell, et al, wrote in They Came to Conquer: “Much interest centred around the performance of Messenger, who was considered the brightest star in Sydney football and therefore the most attractive for any professional scouts, and the home pack, which included a number of hard men. There were already rumours circulating that the great wing was about to change allegiances and so he found himself viewed with suspicion by a number of Sydneysiders.”
He was also in the second match for NSW against the All Blacks , some 23,000 turning up on a Wednesday to view the encounter. It was a brilliant 14 to 0 win for New Zealand. As mentioned by Sean Fagan, a legend was born in the game. Howell, et al, wrote: “The latter [Frank Bede Smith] scrambled the ball out to Messenger, who ran hard for the line although appearing likely to be collared just short. As two All Blacks attempted to pin his legs, Messenger leaped over them and crashed down in the in-goal area to record a dramatic try. Just to add the icing, he converted from wide out.” Surprisingly, he was omitted from the first Test, doubtless because of the rumour mill re: his intentions to turn professional. The match was lost 6 to 26.
He was, however, selected for the second Test. The team on his debut was Billy Dix, Dally Messenger, Boxer Russell, Frank Bede Smith, Esmond Parkinson, Ed Mandible, Peter Flanagan, Billy Richards, Jack Fihelly, William Canniffe, Peter Burge, Voy Oxenham, Butcher Oxlade (capt.) and Jack Barnett. The match was on the Brisbane Cricket Ground, and NZ triumphed by 14 to 5. Howell, et al, wrote: “Most interest after the match centred on Messenger and any decision he may he may have made regarding turning professional.” Then came the third Test, at the SCG, on 10 August 1907 drawn 5-all, with Messenger once more on the wing. It was the last game of union Messenger would play. Howell, et al, wrote: “The meeting that is regarded as the birthday of league in Sydney happened two days before this match at Bateman’s Hotel.
A week after this match the first openly professional match was staged, between NSW and the New Zealand team (the ‘All Golds’).” Messenger from this point on made his contribution towards league. Moran, in Viewless Winds wrote about Messenger in later life:- “Messenger had a brilliant career both in the Rugby Union and the Northern League games. But somehow all the world went wrong with him, and later, while his name still lingered on footballs and football boots, the man himself was forgotten and fell upon hard times. Like a great Catherine-wheel he had flared and spluttered with a dazzling white light, then suddenly faded out, a dark thing lost in the darkness. “Many years afterwards he came along one day when by chance I had stopped my car in a street to talk of football days to a great little footballer named Jimmy Clarken.
The three of us loitered there, lost in reminiscence of this and that footballer who had feinted or fended his way to a goal-line, when, a little hurt that his own feats were being neglected, Messenger said simply: ‘I was a pretty fair player, myself, in those days.’ Yes, indeed. But it was all a little pathetic. We hastened to repair our omission of tribute and turned the kaleidoscope of our memories to days when, emulating A.E.Stoddart, he leapt over a full-back, or scored amazing tries. We left him lost in a reverie, his eyes shining. He was hearing again the rapturous applause of the great multitude who, still remembering his deeds, had now forgotten him.”
Messenger, Herbert Henry (1883-1959), footballer, was born on 12 April 1883 at Balmain, Sydney, third son of Charles Amos Messenger, boatbuilder, from Middlesex, England, and his Melbourne-born wife Anne Frances, nee Atkinson. Nicknamed ‘Dally’ after W.B.Dalley, he was educated at Double Bay Public School, where he played football. He then worked in the family boatshed, in the down-at-heel fishing and ferrying enclave within the otherwise upper-class harbourside eastern suburbs. Messenger’s father and grandfather had been champion scullers and Dally was a good cricketer and sailor of 18-footers and a champion canoeist in 1899-1905.
From about 1900 he played Rugby Union football with the Warrigal club in the city and suburban competition. In 1905 he joined the Eastern Suburbs district team and captained its winning second-grade side. At this time his tactical theory was rudimentary : ‘Just bung the ball out to me, boys, as quickly as you can.’ Next year he made first grade and played for New South Wales against Queensland and New Zealand’s All Blacks. He quickly won a large following, drawn by his great ball-skills, cheeky tricks (such as diving over defenders or carrying the ball behind his back) and his accurate, long-range kicking with either foot.
A centre three-quarter whose ‘feints’, dodges and swerves completely baffle a tackler’, he weighed 12 stone (76 kg) and was 5 ft 7 ½ in (172 cm) tall. He was sturdy and good looking, with brown hair and a determined mouth and chin. In 1907 Messenger was a key member of the State and Australian sides against the touring New Zealanders. In August he played three games against a New Zealand professional team, receiving 180 pounds. Expelled from the Rugby Union code, he joined the New Zealand team for their visit to Britain, playing Northern Union football.
The outstanding player of the tour , he returned to Sydney in April 1908 with 200 pounds in his pocket and well fitted out with new clothes. He captained Eastern Suburbs, runners-up in the inaugural Sydney Rugby League competition. In August he left to tour Britain with the first Kangaroos, whom he led in two Tests. In 1908-13, as Rugby League became the dominant winter sport in Sydney, Messenger was its star player. He captained all three Tests against the 1910 English tourists, and the New South Wales tour of Queensland. He played five Rugby League matches for Australia, fifteen for his State against Queensland and New Zealand, and other famous encounters such as the three 1909 Kangaroos versus Wallabies matches.
Within the Rugby League code his unorthodox exploits became legendary. In a 1910 club game, tackled by C.McKivat and held by one foot, he reputedly kicked a field-goal. Against South Sydney he once scored three tries which led to rule changes kicking ahead, he ran off the field around the defence, then back on to gather and score; later he punched the ball ahead, caught it and scored, the third try resulted from a collapsed scrum, when he stepped on and over the grounded forwards. He brought place-kicking to a new level of skill. An unpredictable individualist on the field, off it he was a gentle man of few words.
His 1911 season tally of 270 points was a record until passed by Dave Brown in 1935. On 14 October 1911 in Sydney, with Congregational forms, Messenger married a divorcee, Annie Maud Macaulay, nee Carroll, owner of the Albion Hotel which they managed together in 1911-17. Because of family and business commitments, he declined to tour Britain with the second Kangaroos in 1911-12. Having led Eastern Suburbs to premiership victories in 1911-13, he retired. His brother Wally played Rugby League for Australia in 1914. About February 1917 Messenger took up a banana plantation at Mount Buderim, Queensland, then in July became proprietor of the Royal Hotel, Manilla, New South Wales. After his wife’s death from influenza in 1919 he returned to Sydney, where he worked as a carpenter with the Department of Public Works.
He married Annie Elizabeth Thurecht on 1 September 1922. A non-smoker, he did not drink alcohol until well after his football days. In his last years he lived at the Leagues Club, Phillip Street. Survived by his only son, he died on 24 November 1959 on a visit to Gunnedah, and was buried in the Anglican cemetery, Botany, Sydney. A typical working-class Australian who became famous through sporting prowess and saw the world, but kept little of the money which he made, Dally Messenger was Rugby League’s first and greatest hero.