IT’S 62 years since the death — in Gunnedah — of the world’s greatest rugby league player.
Herbert Henry (Dally) Messenger was the first superstar of the game, a footballing freak who dazzled crowds on both sides of the world — in the game’s cradle in England more than 100 years ago and in Australia, where his consummate skills, dash and kicking artistry put him streets ahead of anyone else playing the game.
Someone of his flair and style, his crowd-pulling power, would be able to “write his own ticket” in the cashed-up riches of rugby league today. But he made very little from the game and, later in life and virtually penniless, he spent the last six months of his time in Gunnedah, where he died on November 24, 1959, aged 76.
Thankfully, his memory lives on today – in the league’s gold-star individual honour, the Dally M Award.
Dally Messenger burst onto the young country’s sporting narrative at a momentous time.
He was originally a rugby player, whose brilliant play soon landed him in NSW and Australian teams. Rugby league, the breakaway play-for-pay game, was not played in Australia at that time (1907).
But, unknown to rugby administrators, a small group of men, intent on starting the game, had been meeting in the sports store of champion cricketer Victor Trumper in the city. Dally Messenger was the “prize catch” sought by promoters of the new game, which had its origins in the north of England in the 1890s.
These men invited a New Zealand league team, en route to England, to play three matches in Sydney, as the pressure on Messenger to turn to league ramped up.
The night before the first game, the mounting pressure on Messenger to embrace the new game had the right effect. Dally said “yes” but added a proviso that, first of all, he had to “ask Mum.”
So, Trumper and a key mover in the setting up of the breakaway league, JJ (James) Giltinan, caught a taxi to the Messenger home, to meet “Mum.” There they made an offer of 180 pounds to Dally for the three matches. Mum then said to Dally: “What do you want to do?” Dally said he wanted to switch. The prize had been landed.
The New Zealanders were so impressed by Messenger’s ability in the three games that they invited him to join their tour to England, which he did.
Dally was the sensation of the tour, in which the visitors lost only one game, Dally scoring 146 points, 101 more than the next closest team member. Spectators lauded his uncanny anticipation, his remarkable try-scoring feats, his flair in running and his prodigious goal-kicking. Even British supporters feted him as the world’s greatest footballer.
Messenger went back to England the following season (1908-09), as captain of the Kangaroos, Again, he was a great drawcard.
In one match on tour, he retrieved a ball behind his own goal line, with English forwards bearing down on him. He dummied, feinted, changed pace and beat the whole team to score a length-of-the-field try. On another occasion, he dummied to touch down in his own goal and, as opposing players stopped, he sprinted away to score between the posts at the other end.
In another match, he kicked deep in his own half, ran forward and juggled the ball on his fingertips over the sideline and then streaked away for the tryline.
During that tour, the Australian team was invited to play an exhibition game in Glasgow, on the home ground of the famous Glasgow Celtic soccer team. Soccer officials, impressed by Messenger’s spectacular display of running and kicking, offered him a 1000-pound contract with Celtic as an outside-right.
But before leaving Australia, Messenger had promised his mother that he would come home, instead of staying in England. There were similar offers from Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur in the English Soccer League. But Messenger remained steadfast and turned down the offers.
Messenger’s glittering career spanned just 176 matches between 1907 and 1913. Four times he led Eastern Suburbs to the Sydney premiership (1908, 1910-13), also representing New South Wales 23 times and Australia on 38 occasions. On the New Zealand tour in 1907-08, he played 30 matches.
He also went on three tours with the Kangaroos. When he came home from the 1910 tour of England, he married a widow, Annie Macauley, at the start of the 1911 season. He was the first picked for the Kangaroos’ tour of England in 1911-12, of course, but declined. After four years of continuous football, he needed a break, a major disappointment to English crowds. But he continued to excel at club level — if anything, his skills continued to grow.
In those early years, Messenger was a sensation, his club and representative games drawing as many as 50,000 spectators. Far more than any other single figure, he was the catalyst for the phenomenal success of league.
In 1914 the Messengers had their only son, Dally junior, and the following year the couple bought the Albion Hotel in the city. Seeking a break from inner-city life, in 1916, the couple bought a banana plantation on Buderim Mountain, near Maroochydore in Queensland, which turned out to be a financial failure.
So, in 1917, they took over the Royal Hotel in Manilla, in the north west of NSW. It was another difficult time with so many of the district’s young men away at the war but Dally enthusiastically set about rounding up some of the local remaining lads to form a rugby league team, which played matches against other towns.
The Messengers were enjoying life but in late 1918, tragedy intervened. Both caught the dreaded pneumonic influenza plague, which swept Australia, taking thousands of lives. Dally survived, Annie did not. Their son was then four years of age.
Messenger returned to the city and in 1922 married again. He returned to his old trade, carpentry, and worked with the Department of Public Works until his retirement. He had little money for the remainder of his life. It was his first wife’s money which bought the Albion Hotel, the banana plantation and the Royal in Manilla and after Annie’s death, it was almost all gone.
In the last 25 years of his life, Dally was a travelling ambassador for the game. He lived in the NSW Leagues Club in Phillip Street and made tours of country districts, encouraging youngsters to take up the game. He was feted, though not paid, but, over time, he became disenchanted with his celebrity status and became more and more withdrawn (“doing a Greta Garbo,” he once described it).
Gunnedah’s Con Barbato, publican of the Court House Hotel, had known Dally for years and invited him to come up to stay at the Court House. The last six months of Dally’s life were among his happiest. He lived quietly, with a set routine – he rested in his room during the day and each afternoon went down to the nearby Gunnedah Public School for a chat with the youngsters, before spending an hour or two talking to the locals. He retired early each night.
In mid-November, Group 4 organised a dinner in his honour and presented him a wallet of notes. Soon after, he became ill and was admitted to Gunnedah District Hospital. Discharged after a week, he had another heart attack and was re-admitted but could not be saved. His death occurred on November 24, 1959.
His body was flown to St Mark’s Church, Darling Point, which was packed for the funeral service. Former team-mates and friends carried his coffin and thousands of people lined the route from the church to Botany cemetery.
Tributes came from all over the world but the large portrait hanging in the NSW Rugby League headquarters for decades said it all. It simply read THE MASTER.