North Sydney entered the competition in 1908 as a foundation club of the fledgeling New South Wales Rugby League. The area was predominently working class, and the new code had little trouble attracting players willing to split from Rugby Union. Their distinctive red and black hoops earned then the politically uncorrect nickname 'The Bloodstained Niggers'. Their lifeblood were the strong wharfhands that worked no the ferries that crossed Sydney Harbour from Milson's Point to Dawes Point (now the site of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). Despite not threatening for the early premierships, Norths fielded a strong side, and actually had the honour of supplying Australia's first Kangaroo captain, tough hooker Dinny Lutge.
North Sydney Oval soon became the Bears home ground, and despite long running battles with the local council, is still being used today. This is the longest running tenancy in Australian Rugby League history. However, this might not have been the case, as the Norths board fought a long, hard battle with the council to get a fence erected so that they could prevent patrons getting in for free!
By the end of World War 1, Norths were becoming known as 'The Shoremen'. They were also becoming known as a club that would get nowhere near a premiership. The board took swift action to alleviate this, and during the period from 1919 to the start of the 1921 premiership, undertook one of the most effective buying strategies ever seen.
Norths signed former Glebe captain Chris McKivett as coach. McKivett is probably the highest achiever of either Rugby code in Australia. He is the only man to have captained both the Wallabies and the Kangaroos, and also won an Olympic Gold Medal with the Wallabis at the 1908 London Olympics. His signature with Norths was followed by their famous enticement of two of the greatest wingers ever. The board, in a move which seen as a majorfinancial expense t the time, offered Souths ace, and former Norths junior Cec Blinkhorn 20 pounds and a new suit if he came across the harbour. Unable to resist such a massive offer, he accepted, and his other wing partner, the brilliant Harold Horder, followed. The club was therefore able to boast a stunning backline for the 1921 season, which complimented their traditionally big forward pack.
The whole package was sewn together with the signature of arguably the greatest halfback to lace a boot. Duncan Thompson was a Toowoomba product, who had tried his luck with Norths before finding himself on the Western Front in 1917, in a field hosptial, with a bullet lodged in his shoulder. The bullet was never removed, and Thompson resumed his League career after the Armistice of 1918. He quickly earned himself the nickname "the fox" after his uncanny ability to evade defenders and keep the ball alive. Under McKivetts watchful eye, Thompson created and mastered the art of 'contract football', where each pass was treated as a 'contract' between the passer and the reciever, thereby placing a huge onus on a team's ability to promote the ball in difficult circumstances. Thompson's contract football, developed over 70 years ago, forms the basis of the coaching technique of Wayne Bennett and the Broncos to this day.
North Sydney's 1921 side remains one of the greatest attacking machines ever seen in Rugby League. So obvious were their talents, that an Australian crowd record 48,818 packed into the SCG for the Round 5 match with Easts. The 8-8 draw which followed is reputedly one of the finest games ever played, with Horder setting up the match levelling try in the last minute of play. It was the only match of the season that they didn't win, and their final round 31-17 belting of Wests gave North Sydney their first premiership. They were undefeated.
The Kangaroo Backline
The 1921-22 Kangaroo tour saw the entire threequarter line of Horder, Frank Rule, Herman Peters and Blinkhorn selected. This is the only time this has ever happened. Also travelling to England were Clarrie Ives, and Thompson. Rule unfortunately was unavailable due to business commitments. Nevertheless, the tour continued Norths doninance of the game, with Horder jagging a mammoth 35 tries. It would have been a Kangaroo Tour record, except that Cec Blinkhorn scored a staggering 39 tries at the same time, to set the current record. No Kangaroo has ever come anywhere near these figures.
The 1922 season continued in the same way. They lost 4 matches, 3 of them by a point, and won the minor premiership on percentages from Glebe. The 2 clubs fought out the final, but Norths thrashed them 35-3. All the points were scored by the threequarters, with Horder contributing 17 points from 2 tries and 7 goals from 7 attempts. They then went on to beat Easts 18-11 in the City Cup final. It was the last time they would win a major trophy.
The Beginning of a Long Hibernation
Poor form in the 1923 season led to Horder and Blinkhorn returning to Souths, and Thompson returning to Toowoomba, where he led them to a stirring 12-5 victory over 1925 premiers Souths in a match billed as the "Championship of Australia". Thompson remians the capatain of the only Norths premiership sides, as well as the only Toowoomba side to claim to be the best side in the country. Meanwhile, North Sydney's recruiting failed to replace them, and they slid down the premiership ladder as a result
The North Sydney Curse
Since the heady days of the 1921-22 seasons, Norths have been more synonymous with bad luck than premiership success. probably the best example came 21 seasons after their last success. Norths had built up a formidable side in 1943, based around their legendary captain-coach Frank Hyde. They had beaten their opponents, Newtown, three times in that season, and went into the grand final as favorites. The prospect of seeing a rare Bluebag or Red and Black premiership saw another crowd record 60,992 people jam into the SCG. So big was the crowd, that the gates were closed an hour and a half before kickoff!. But noone of them were aware that the North Sydney curse was striking in the dressing rooms below.
With the side about to take the field, Frank Hyde and his team were frantic, as their champion lock Harry Taylor hadn't shown up! Unbeknown to Norths, he had been conscripted on the eve of the match, and sent to fight in New Guinea. Some people even suggested that he was nabbed by Army MP's at the dressing room door. A hurried reshuffle of the team unsettled Norths, and they got flogged a brutal Newtown side 34-7
It was their last ever grand final appearence. Four years later, Manly-Warringah was born, and have competed in 15 grand finals (winning 6) since then.
Ken Irvine's Brilliance
The completion of the Harbour Bridge signalled a decline in the working class population, and Rugby Union grew with the influx of 'toffs' in the area. Norths suffered as a result, but their junior ranks recieved a kajor boost in 1958 when Mosman sprinter Ken Irvine ditched plans to trial for the 1960 Olympics, and turned Rugby League. Irvine was a sensation for the Bears (as they were now known), and put in 12 years of loyal service or the bears, before spending his twilight seasons with Manly. In 16 seasons, Irvine amassed a current premiership record of 212 tries from 236 games. This is almost an amazing 1 try per match! He bettered this playing or NSW, scoring 28 tries from just 23 games, but his crowning achievement must surely be the 33 tries he scored in 31 tests, better than 1 try in every test!
Ken Irvine joined Norths during a period which threatened to see them challenge for the premiership. They won both lower grade grand finals in 1959, and Irvine was the leading tryscorer in the premiership with 19 tries. Sadly, premiership success was to avoid him. In 1969, as captain, he led the side in a walk off the field during a game against Canterbury!
Irvine's career repersents a highlight not only to Norths, but to the sport as a whole. The great man, sadly, died of leukemia in 1991, aged 50.
Norths continued in the same way that they had been accustomed to for the best part of the century. In 1983 they actually finished third in the minor premiership, but lost both semi finals. It wasn't until 1991 that things started to go right for the Bears. Former State Rail cheif David Hill was in charge of the club, and set about to manipulate the new player draft for the benefit of his club. The draft allowed Norths to snare the prized signatures of Mario Fenech and Phil Blake from Souths, but then Hill pulled of one of the best pieces of negotiation ever concocted by a club official.
Test centre Peter Jackson was about to be drafted by the lowly Gold Coast Seagulls. Hill actually talke Gold Coast out of choosing Jackson, claiming that there was no point in signing a player who didn't want to be there. So the Seagulls withdrew from the race to sign Jackson, the hottest player on the market, and he became a Bear. That year was a brilliant year for Norths, which included the amazing statistic of local junior Greg Florimo playing 100 first grade matches before his 22nd birthday! Norths made the semi-finals, and thumped Manly 28-16. Then the dreaded 'North Sydney Curse' struck again. In the major semi final, winger Daryl Halligan, probably the most accurate goal kicker in history, landed only 1 goal from 6 attempts, and Penrith advanced to the grand final with a 16-14 win. Penrith were eventual premiers. In the final against Canberra, Norths raced to a 12-0 lead, but went into hibernation. Canberra eventually won 30-14. Norths missed out on a grand final place after 2 chances.
Norths next attempt was in 1994. Ex Wests junior Jason Taylor was at the helm, and the bears produced one of their finest displays, holding out defending premiers Brisbane 15-14. Magnificent defence from forwards Gary Larson and Billy Moore repelled desperate efforts by Brisbane to score miraculous tries. Meanwhile, Taylor exhibited a tactic that Allan Langer had ignored or forgotten: a calm 35 metre field goal sending Norths into another grand final qualifier, and the Broncos into oblivion.
The curse struck again. Playing Canberra again, Gary Larson was inexplicably sent off (later exonerated), and with only 12 men, they were no hope. Norths missed out yet again, with Canberra winning the premiership the following week. A similar story happened in 1997, when injury again crueled their hopes in a grand final qualifier. Their victors, Newcastle, would win their historic first premiership the following week, while Norths looked on. In 1998, despite being one of the form sides of the competition, injury hit hard at the end of the season, and their 20-2 loss to Canterbury was a result of simply not having the troops to be competetive. The curse had struck again
During the year, the board took a courageous step, which was encouraged by the NRL. The Bears were to relinquish their 91 year residency at North Sydney oval, and relocate to Graham Park, Gosford.
Halfway during 1999, the combined pressures of building problems with Graham Park, and a growing $4 million debt pulled the club apart at the seams. In one of the Bears sadest ever episodes, long serving coach Peter Louis was sacked amid a player revolt, as Norths on field stocks plummeted to depths not seen soince the bad old days of the '70's. At the years end, the board was sacked, and an administrator took over. The first task: organise a joint venture with Manly Warringah. This sparked a massive outcry whit the Bears faithful, and the formation of the 'Save the Bears' group.
After some deliberation, and the signing of most of the Bears younger brigade, the name 'Northern Eagles' was born. The club, at present, plays out of North Power Stadium, and Brookvale Oval. However, it is certain that the Gosford dream will fully manifest itself, albeit with a splash of maroon. A genuine premiership contension side and a huge parochial crowd may yet bring a premiership into the realm of Norths again. Back to the Rugby League Co-op.