Rev. Freddie Miller's Ontario Rugby History
Rev. Freddie Miller, a true builder of the sport of rugby in Ontario in the early 1950s and a pillar of the Toronto Nomads, as well as a member of the Rugby Ontario Hall of Fame's inaugural induction class (1999), offers an oral history of the beginnings of rugby in our province.
Rugby has a long but inconsistent history in Canada. At the end of the last century, before Canadian football had fully developed, it is believed that some universities and British garrisons had played rugby in Montreal and Toronto. Up until the Second World War, competition was sporadic and inconsistent.
The following stories are reprinted recollections by the Nomads’ first ever captain, Freddie Miller, on how our modern day rugby union began in Toronto.
"Following the recruitment of 80 new players at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) in August of 1950, the committee had to act quickly to mobilize on all this rugby energy. In those day a postcard mailed one day was delivered the next in Metro Toronto. After a frantic strategy committee meeting, we decided to send cards out to about one hundred on our rolls to attend an assembly in the Pine Room of the 48th Highlanders Memorial Hall on Church Street, just north of Wellesley (now the Church Street Community Centre).
At the meeting later in the week, we were ecstatic at the turnout. Almost 80 attended so we knew we had done a good selling job at the CNE. I chaired the meeting and explained that if we were able to divide into three teams we could enjoy a four-team competition, including the university. At our strategy committee meeting we had arbitrarily divided the total group into three, with what we hoped was a good mix of forwards and backs. I read out the three lists and asked them to meet in separate areas of the room.
Group A was to remain the Wanderers and groups B and C had half an hour or so to decide on a name and colours. We walked out of there that night as three clubs; Nomads (blue and white), Barbarians (black and white) and of course Wanderers (red and white) and so they remain to this day. It’s almost inconceivable that something like instant formation of rugby clubs could happen today. But such was the urgency to create a new competition that there was no dissension, no argument or protest, just a willingness to get on with the job of consolidation. But this is not where it ended. This was stage one. There was more to come.
The following Saturday there were again over 80 players out at Riverdale Park, but this time to train as Nomads, Barbarians and Wanderers. It was evident that most had accepted their new club affiliation and there were great expectations for the opening games within a couple of weeks. Our publicity hound, Shane McQuillan was peppering the local newspaper with exciting stories of the formation of a formal rugby competition in Ontario.
This news spread further than we had expected and within days of our milestone meeting we had heard from an excited Welshman in Brantford, the legendary George Jones who claimed he had a team comprising of six Joneses from Wales and several converted football players from other codes. There was only one problem, they didn’t have a ball. George sounded serious enough on the phone that we though we should check it out further.
We had persuaded Wallis Brothers Sports store to stock some rugby balls for us and we felt we could spare the original one, which had been liberated from the guards’ regiment in England. Three of us went down to Brantford the following Sunday carrying the precious ball. We met with George Jones and his brother Vince and two or three others and after we got our ears tuned in to what they were excitedly telling us, we concluded that nothing could stop this rugby enthusiasm. (If the guards’ regiment ever wanted that ball back they’d have a hard job for it is still one of George’s most prized rugby souvenirs.)
The inclusion of this yet unnamed club from Brantford now left us with a welcome predicament. One team of five would have to sit out each Saturday, and that didn’t seem like a good idea to me. The following Saturday there were still 80 out to training and looking more and more at home in their new groups.
I gathered them all together in one huge group, told them about Brantford and the problem it created for us. A sixth club was imperative. Before anyone could offer any suggestions I casually asked if all the Irishmen would step aside. They did and it was a formidable group. There was some muttering about “there goes our scrum-half” and the like. But when everyting had settled down there was a momentary lull and someone from within the Irish group said, “Well, who will be our captain?” and another voice said “Why not the chap in the khaki army stockings?” who turned out to be Athol Blair. And thus the Irish Canadian RFC was formed and never looked back. Just as simple as that.
It’s hard to believe that two weeks later all six teams turned out for games in new strip and feeling like loyal members of Nomads, Barbs, Wanderers, Irish, Varsity and Quins. I became a Nomad and first captain, my brother Bobbie remained a Wanderer, Alliban and McQuillan became Barbarians, and so it went. All of those who fought so hard as Wanderers were now facing each other as rivals. I was astounded how quickly those new rivalries developed.
The first name to be inscribed on the News of the World trophy I had obtained from agents of the English newspaper was that of the Brantford Harlequins, who won by a narrow margin over my struggling Nomads in the finals at Pantry Park in the autumn of 1950.
The News of the World trophy was later replaced by the Carling Cup but whether that was before or after it so mysteriously disappeared, I have no idea."
-Rev. Freddie Miller