At a time when there is much discussion among Rugby League supporters as to the wisdom of employing overseas players in our game and whether tighter restrictions should be placed on their importation or not, The Faithful might consider that our own Colonial players over the past 102 years have made a massive contribution in terms of quality and, in many cases, a high degree of club loyalty.
There are many reasons why a player would ever have wished to leave his homeland to come and play in the cold North of England. But economic necessities in the early years of the last Century largely decided the matter for many Australians in particular. When the First Kangaroos visited these shores in 1908 as a fledgling Rugby League Nation, they brought with them many outstanding players who had been driven to defect from Rugby Union by, if anything, even more stringent application of the ‘Amateur’ Rules than in this Country. So it was, that a considerable proportion of that early touring party were subsequently signed on by English Clubs. Hull signed Jimmy Devereux and Andy Morton. Devereux had been the leading Try scorer on the Tour and, in fact, scored the first Try Hat-Trick in an Ashes Test Match. He went on to become Hull’s earliest Try Centurion, notching up 101 Tries in 181 Appearances over the next 7 years.
In 1912, Herbert Gilbert joined Hull after the 1911-12 Kangaroo tour. Co-incidentally, Gilbert was their leading Try-scorer on that Tour as well. So, we know that Hull consistently sought quality in those days!!! Bert Gilbert became the first Australian Captain to lift the Challenge Cup when Hull were successful in 1914. Also joining Hull with him was Steve Darmody, an outstanding Back Row Forward whose career was cruelly cut short after losing a leg in the Great War.
Between the Wars, Frank Hurley, a renowned speed merchant came to the Boulevard, but his Hull career was brought to an abrupt halt by War, but the late 1940’s saw a feast of Antipodean talent with the great Bruce Ryan, George Watt, Duncan Jackson, Keith Gittoes and Johnny Payne gracing the Black-and-White Irregular hoops.
An International Transfer embargo saw the supply of Australians dry up for a few years, but there was a short period in the early 1970’s when we had an influx of young players coming to Hull on a ‘swap’ scheme with our own younger talent. However, British Rugby League was woken from its complacency with the coming of the 1982 Kangaroos, who swept all before them, although Hull gave them a fright before going down to the full Test side by 7-13. Of course, Hull were able to secure the legendary Peter Sterling from that Touring party and several others went to other clubs. Later, we had the benefit of the services of, among many others, Craig Coleman, Des Hasler, Ivan Henjak (who all became Coaches in the NRL), Noel Cleal and Colin Best, who holds the distinctions of being the 1000th player to have played in our First team and also of scoring the very first Try at the KC Stadium.
Because of the Salary Cap operation in most countries and whatever Tax and Currency exchange advantages which may have existed, there really has been no let up since the inception of Super League in the demand for Australians in our teams and, in addition to all of the above, our Super League era has seen some notable Australian Test Players, notably Jason Smith, Matt Sing, Nathan Blacklock, Shaun Berrigan and the present-day Craig Fitzgibbon and Mark O’Meley.
While we have to remember that we have had our share of one-game wonders, I calculate that Hull has been the temporary home to some 71 Australians, including 15 Test players. I venture to suggest that most of them have given a tremendous amount of pleasure to successive generations of The Faithful.
By Bill Dalton (Club Historian)