Rugby League in Brisbane

The advent of professional rugby league in New South Wales saw many Queensland rugby players leaving for Sydney to play league. In 1908, the Queensland Rugby Union (QRU) banned its players from going to Sydney to play league, which resulted in disgruntled players forming the Queensland Amateur Rugby Football League (later renamed to the Queensland Rugby League). The new organisation was attacked by both the local press and the QRU for introducing professionalism, which they claimed would destroy the sport. The first official club competition commenced on Saturday 8th May 1909 with four Clubs namely North Brisbane, Toombul, Valleys and South Brisbane.

These fixtures were controlled by the Queensland Amateur Rugby League Referees’ Association which was formed in April 1909 – the Chairman being Mr W H ‘Bill’ Beattie. Members included were M Bore, J Fihelly, G Watson, A Tighe, Buck Buchanan, G Gilles, A Vizer and A Ambrose.

John “Jack” Arthur Fihelly MLA (1882–1945)

1909 BRL Grand Final Referee
President of the QRL 1913-1915
and the father of the game in Queensland1

Jack Fihelly was an enthusiastic footballer. An aggressive forward, he represented Queensland against New South Wales in 1905-07, and in 1907 both Queensland and Australia against New Zealand. A founder of the Rugby League code in Queensland and a Queensland and Australia representative player, he was also assistant manager of the first Australian team to visit Britain in 1908-09. He became a referee later, officiating during the first war world. He was president of the Queensland Amateur Rugby Football League in 1914-16. Confident, ambitious and a protégé of Edward (Red Ted) Theodore2.

The Brisbane Rugby League was formed in 1922 due to objections between the Brisbane rugby league club and the Queensland Rugby League (QRL). A number of decisions from the 1918 ‘Ricketty Johnston Affair” and subsequent outcomes caused some disquiet. At the time, the BRL fixtures were controlled by QRL affiliated referees who were on individual signed contracts with the BRL. The formation of BRL ensured a major change where a six club three-grade senior competition was created, with the establishment of a BRL referees’ appointment committee. 3

Laurie Kearney officated a number of interstate games from 1919 to 1921. Source: The Daily Mail 18 July 1919.
Reg Leighton of Ipswich officiated the first BRL 1st Grade Grand Final. Source: The Telegraph 13 June 1924 p5.

The 1925 season ended in controversy when during the 1925 BRL grand final, a try by Coorparoo in the final minutes of the game was disallowed by the referee Alf Matzdorf, causing a narrow win to Brothers. The Coorparoo club lodged a protest, claiming the touch judge Stephenson was not in agreement 4. The protest was upheld by the BRL and agreed to a rematch. Subsequently Brothers appealed to the QRL. Brothers also attempted to censure the BRL chairman who was allegedly publicly supported the rematch 5.

The game ended up being replayed after much debate 6 on the 12th September with Coorparoo winning by a point. The referee was Jack Roche who also acted as Chairman of the BRL during the censure motion 6.

A mid-season dispute occurred during the 1926 season, where the threaten to strike over QRL bonus payments to representative match referees. As talks deteriorated, the BRL approached a number of the rugby league referees to change their name to the Brisbane Rugby League Referees’ Association (BRLRA) and to affiliate with the BRL as its governing body. After advertising for new members, a special meeting of the members was held at Gilbert Chambers in Queen Street on Monday 20 September 1926, where it was agreed to become the BRLRA and thus the Association was formed.

The first president Stan Russel devoted most of his life to rugby league as he was also junior league president and BRL delegate.

When the Association first affiliated with the Brisbane League it asked for equal delegation of two, the same as the Clubs, but this was rejected and the Association was allotted one only. The Association agreed to this but only after lengthy meetings.

The photograph below shows the 1926 Queensland Rugby League Referees’ Association, just prior to the formation of the association.

Back row left to right – W Tuckett, EA Crawford, A Matzdorf, S Russell, M Ahlberg, J Brady.
Second row – JE Court, TJ Laws (international), C Kilpatrick, R Muir, TI Fry (B.A.), T Freeze, WE Stock.
Sitting – C Sturgess, F Smith, M O’Connor (vice-president), EA Cludwick (president), EJ Goodwill (international, hon, secretary and Q.R.L. life member), P Cutluck, JE Jones.
Source: The Telegraph 4th September 1926 page 14.


  1. Max Howell, 2008. The Centenary of the Greatest Game Under the Sun – One Hundred Years of Rugby League in Queensland. p44. Celebrity Books, Indooroopilly.
  2. Betty Crouchley, 1981. Fihelly, John Arthur (1882–1945). Webpage accessed January 2015.
  3. Mike Higgison, date unknown. QRL History The 1920s – the first golden era”. Webpage accessed January 2015.
  4. Anon, 1925. Rugby League, Coorparoo Enters Protest. p8. Daily Standard 15 July 1926
  5. Anon, 1925. Rugby League, BRL’s Confidence in Chairman. p4. Daily Standard 6 August 1926

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