Rugby league historian David Middleton has come across a century old error that robbed an Australian international his rightful place in our list of Test players. His quest is to ensure the injustice is set right.
After 106 years it is time to correct an injustice that has cost a South Sydney champion his place as an Australian rugby league international.
Centre Arthur Conlin, who captained the Rabbitohs to their first two premiership titles in 1908 and 1909, has been denied his due recognition as a Test player, all because of a clerical error and confusion over his name.
Until relatively modern times it was newspaper convention to name a person by initial and surname so when A. Conlin was listed in Australia’s centres for two Tests against New Zealand in 1909 most casual observers believed it was the same A. Conlon who had toured Great Britain with the first Kangaroos of 1908-09. Newspapers were notorious for minor errors in names – often the result of transcribing lists written in the handwriting of a club official.
Some publications, such as sporting newspaper the Referee, attempted to set the record straight. In June, 1909, ‘Hunslet’ wrote that” “A. Conlin, at centre three-quarter, was safe, and justified his inclusion. He is not, as some think, the old player Albert Conlon, of the Glebe. He is younger, taller, and a South Sydneyite.”
Ironically, Conlin’s opportunity to break into the Australian backline came as result of Conlon’s unavailability. The South Sydney centre led the Rabbitohs to victory in the first premiership final of the NSWRL in 1908, taking over from original skipper Arthur Hennessey, who had left for England aboard the RMS Macedonia with the first Kangaroos.
Albert Conlon returned with his touring mates early in the 1909 season but after one appearance back in the maroon jersey of Glebe, he was forced to stand down indefinitely after a family crisis. Meanwhile, Arthur Conlin was in dashing form for Souths who were unbeaten through the early rounds of the season. The 26-year-old captained the Rest of New South Wales against the Kangaroos and was later chosen to represent New South Wales and Metropolitan against a touring New Zealand side.
He was then promoted to Australia’s line-up for the first Test against the Kiwis, making his debut at the Agricultural Ground in Sydney. Overlooked for the second Test in Brisbane, Conlin returned for the third, played at Wentworth Park where he distinguished himself with a try in a 25-5 victory, which handed Australia a 2-1 series win and earned the team permanent possession of the “Black and White Cup”.
Conlin remained at the helm of the Rabbitohs and guided Souths to a second premiership after the sensational Balmain “no-show” in that year’s final. Balmain boycotted the decider in protest at the scheduling of the game as a curtain-raiser to the fourth clash between the Kangaroos and Wallabies. Tigers’ officials believed they had reached a mutual agreement with Souths to abandon the final but the Rabbitohs saw it differently, turned up to play and were awarded the premiership by forfeit. Balmain blood boiled over the incident for decades.
Meanwhile, Conlin stuck with Souths until 1911 before a change of residence forced him to swap the cardinal and myrtle for the black and white of Western Suburbs. He played a season with the Magpies before slipping quietly into retirement.
Conlin’s omission from the game’s record was first observed in 1928 when his Test appearances were mistakenly included in the record of Albert Conlon in the NSWRL’s official Annual and Souvenir. It appears that no correction was ever made. A decade later the Courier Mail in Brisbane reported on a get-together between old Kangaroo teammates Bill Heidke and Albert Conlon at an interstate match at the ‘Gabba: “Beside Bill Heidke sat Arthur Conlon, who played for Australia against New Zealand in 1909.”
Every subsequent publication, official annual (including those written by this author), annual report and history has fallen for the same error. Conlin, who died in 1947, should be listed among the 799 players who have represented Australia in Tests, World Cup matches and internationals but until now he has been denied his place. A recommendation has been made to the Australian Rugby League to retrospectively allocate a player number to Conlin and to finally restore his place in the list of Australian internationals. It is proposed that Conlin be awarded number 799 with an asterisk to indicate its non-sequential allocation.
Recognition of Conlin’s Test record will also bring to 67 the number of Australian internationals for South Sydney since 1908.
The other player involved in this long-running mix-up, Albert Conlon, was a central figure in the establishment of the Glebe Rugby League club in 1908. Born in 1880, Conlon had played first grade rugby union for Glebe since 1901 and captained their premiership winning side in 1907. Months later he threw his support behind the new rugby league movement and was among the most prominent players in the new code in 1908. He was one of five Glebe players chosen to tour with the first Kangaroos but when he sailed with the team in August, he left Australia with a heavy heart. His older brother John, a prominent boxer and NSW rugby representative, had taken his own life a month earlier, setting in train a series of tragic circumstances that befell Conlon and his family.
Only weeks after he returned from the tour, where he had played five-eighth in the second Test at Newcastle, there occurred “a lamentable accident to his children”, forcing him out of the game.
“He made only one appearance for Glebe in 1909 and missed a large number of representative games, including the series against New Zealand, another against the Maoris and he took no part in the historic series of games between the Wallabies and Kangaroos.
Before the start of the 1910 season, Conlon suffered further tragedy when his four-year-old son, Richard, died while Conlon and wife, Catherine, were attending his mother’s funeral. A horse kicked the toddler outside the family home at Fairfield and all efforts to revive the young boy were unsuccessful. The family had been advised to move out of the inner city on account of “the delicate state of [Conlon’s] wife’s health”. Catherine Conlon died later the same year.
Albert was finished with football by this time and after remarrying in 1913, he later relocated to Brisbane and took up the management of a city hotel. He maintained strong ties to the game and became a local selector. He died in Brisbane in 1956.
The above article, written by renowned Rugby League historian David Middleton, featured in the March 2015 edition of ‘Men of League Magazine’. It is being reproduced with the permission of Mr Middleton. To learn more about, and to join, Men of League, please click here.