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Rugby League in Sheffield before the Sheffield Eagles

Learn more about the attempts to set up a Rugby League team in Sheffield before the Sheffield Eagles

The Sheffield Eagles are recognised as establishing rugby league in Sheffield but they weren’t Sheffield’s first rugby league team, it is in fact the third time there has been an attempt at setting up a “Rugby League” team in the City - first in 1914 and then 1922.

The Research

The Sheffield Eagles Heritage Project have discovered the existence of Rugby League in Sheffield before the Sheffield Eagles thanks to a box of documents sent to the Heritage Project by Nigel Borham. This included a photocopy of Issue 5 of Code 13 Magazine from 1987. Graham Williams wrote an article titled “Before the Eagles: A History of Sheffield Hornets” that revealed the little known story. A full copy of the article is available below and the story that follows is based heavily on Graham’s article. It shows that Sheffield isn’t the rugby league newcomer that many people suggest. Sheffield was in fact involved in rugby league even before that name was in use. If either of those previous clubs had been successful then we would have already celebrated over 100 years of rugby league in Sheffield.

Sheffield Northern Union Football Club

With the breakaway from Rugby Union in 1895 the Northern Union was formed – this was to eventually become what we now know as Rugby League. In the early 1900s there were two rugby union teams in the Sheffield and the Northern Union saw the potential to establish the new game in Sheffield. A Northern Union game between Yorkshire and Australia was held at Bramall Lane in 1911 watched by over 4,000 people. Various meetings took place in 1914 about a Sheffield club and on 30th April the Northern Union Committee meeting in Huddersfield approved the new Sheffield Northern Union Football Club, based in Heeley. They were going to play in the Northern Combination, a reserve team league, alongside four other teams including Featherstone Rovers. A practice match on 29th August saw Sheffield NUFC lose 37-6 to Huddersfield, with their first full game also seeing them lose to Wigan “A” 25-0. With the outbreak of World War 1, a lack of funding and many of their players conscripted Sheffield weren’t able to fulfil their fixtures from October onwards and on 24th November they submitted their resignation from the competition. They’d played five games, lost five games, scored 28 points and conceded 190. The early form of “rugby league” in Sheffield had only lasted a few months.

Sheffield Hornets Rugby League Football Club

1922 saw the second attempt at rugby league in Sheffield, in the east end of the City, an area now long associated with the Sheffield Eagles. Darnall Rugby Union team were losing players to the Northern Union game, struggling with running costs and were having to cancel games. They made the decision to switch to the Northern Union and were accepted on 27th April 1922. They were originally going to use the name Sheffield NUFC once again but this coincided with the point when Northern Union renamed itself as Rugby League. Instead of using the name Sheffield RLFC they decided to be known as Sheffield Hornets. They were accepted into the Yorkshire Senior Competition, a second grade league containing 15 teams including 9 “A” teams from other rugby league clubs – Featherstone Rovers, Halifax, Hull, Hull KR, Hunslet, Keighley, Leeds, Wakefield Trinity and York. After a public meeting in July of that year it was agreed that the team would play at the Darnall Wellington Cricket and Football Ground in Darnall.

Darnall Greyhound Stadium shortly after closure in 1965. By RJRoweCollection - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The new team wasn’t prepared enough for any practice matches against other teams so had games between the players that they had signed, or were looking to sign. The first game of the 1922/23 season was away against Hull KR on 9th September – coincidentally almost 62 years to the day before the first ever Sheffield Eagles game on 2nd September 1984. The Sheffield Hornets were captained at that first game by Edgar Quigley, a New Zealand international, signed as a statement of how ambitious the club wanted to be. The Hornets struggled though and lost that first game 33 points to 5. The first game in Darnall was the following week against Sharlston when it was another loss, 6 points to nil. There then followed a series of tough defeats against Hunslet, Hull and Wakefield Trinity, conceding an average of nearly 60 points a game. The Hornets realised they were struggling and asked the Rugby League Council for financial support to recruit more players, which they did, and new players were brought in. There was increased confidence amongst the team and closer games, but still no wins in the YSC, with them also knocked out of the Challenge Cup. By the end of January the record was played 17, lost 17, points for 91, points against 434. Things started to change though - there were two draws in February against Keighley and Wyke, but they remained bottom. The first win was at home on 17th March 1923, 25-2 against Pontefract, this was followed by an away win at Sharlston, before drawing with Hull, then top of the division. The results on the pitch started to generate interest off it with 2,000 watching the home game against Hunslet on Easter Monday – the Hornets lost 8-2. They went on to finish the season played 26, won 2, drawn 3, lost 21 with 185 points for and 351 points against.

In order to generate further interest and players, a schools match (Hunslet v Wakefield) was held in April with schools from across the City invited to watch. As a result six schools in Sheffield planned to take up rugby league. Things were looking positive for the 1923/24 season but they could no longer play at the Wellington Ground and had to move to the Hyde Park Ground on Manor Oaks Road. Plans were underway for the next season in a division now reduced to 10 other clubs, with new players recruited and practice matches held. Despite two losses at the start of the season these were then followed by a win and a draw, with things looking increasingly positive on the field. There were financial problems for the club off the field though, with not enough income being generated, leading to cancelled matches. It was hoped that rugby league fans in the City would come to their rescue but unfortunately no new funding was found. The fixture on 14th November 1923 against Keighley had to be cancelled and no further games took place. This meant the Hornets’ record ended played 6, won 3, drawn 1, lost 2, points for 60, points against 71. The signs were that the club was growing on the field, but the money wasn’t there to keep the club going. As can be seen there were many echoes of the Sheffield Eagles story, but the Eagles have managed to survive the many ups and downs of the last 39 years. The records of the Sheffield Hornets and Sheffield NUFC are patchy but if anyone has any more information on these Rugby League pioneers then please do share them.

Further reading

You can find out more about the Darnall Wellington Cricket and Football Ground HERE.

You can find out more about Hyde Park Cricket Ground HERE.

The Full Article

You can read the full, original article below.

Code 13 Magazine 1987 - Before the Eagles


Richard King