Rugby Ontario's History
The history of Rugby Football in Ontario dates back to the 1870’s, although for 50 years the game was primarily played at the university level, and only on an occasional basis.
Even in the mid-1920’s, British Rugby, as it was called to distinguish it from its Canadian Rugby Football offspring, was virtually unknown in Ontario. However, by 1929, the fledgling British Rugby Union of Ontario had eight clubs in Toronto and Hamilton. Notably, in November of that year, 4,000 spectators turned up at Crang Stadium to see Quebec defeat Ontario 8-6 in the first inter-provincial game in over 50 years. The Ontario team wore navy blue shirts and shorts and red socks.
During the 1930’s, the number of Ontario rugby clubs more than doubled. However, by 1936, the sport was running into problems, as the growth of the game in the province halted a few years prior to the second World War.
The resurgence that led to the formation of the present Ontario Rugby Union began in the fall of 1949, when Freddie Miller, his brother Bob, his step-father Norman Fawdry, and David Holland founded the Wanderers RUFC. The club played games against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, the McGill University Redmen, and Westmount RFC.
Although a very successful recruiting drive in the summer of 1950 resulted in over 80 players being available to play in the fall, there was clearly a need for new teams to join the Wanderers in league play. Consequently, on September 12, 1950, a momentous meeting was held at the 48th Highlanders Memorial Hall in Toronto, a highly appropriate venue in view of the fact that the 48th Highlanders had been one of the six original clubs in the British Rugby Union back in 1929. Those in attendance were divided into three groups; one group was to remain as the Wanderers, while the remaining two groups were requested to choose new club names and colours. The groups decided on Nomads (blue and white) and Barbarians (black and white) - clubs that stand to this day.
At about the same time, George Jones of Brantford contacted Wanderers to advise he was forming a club in the City of Brantford. Along with the University of Toronto, the addition of a Brantford-based club meant that there were now five teams officially in the league. In order to round out the number, a sixth team had to be found. On September 23, 1950, at the second week of training at Riverdale Park, the Irish Canadians were formed.
All six teams were in action by Saturday, September 30, 1950 - the first match day of the new Ontario League. Irish lost 9 – 0 to Varsity, Nomads defeated Brantford 16 – 8 and Wanderers won 16 – 3 against Barbarians. Brantford Harlequins went on to win the News of the World trophy as first league champions.
By early 1952, it was clear that the administration of the sport of rugby in Ontario could no longer be run by one of its member clubs. As a result, on March 20, 1951, the Wanderers bank account was closed; each of the four Toronto-based clubs were given $15, and the balance was transferred to the new Ontario Rugger Union. John Alliban, the secretary of the Wanderers and a founding member of the club, became the first secretary of the Ontario Rugger Union, and the Wanderers first president, Lionel Frost, becoming the first president of the new Union.
The game continued to grow throughout the 1950’s, with clubs being formed across Ontario. Although not all would last, the following new clubs appeared during the decade:
1952 – OAC Guelph, RCAF Centralia, St. Catherines, Ottawa Beavers (another Freddie Miller offspring)
1953 – Avro, Greyhounds
1954 – Toronto Saracens, Hamilton Hornets
1955 – Canucks, Balmy Beach
1956 – Yorks, Old Boys
1957 – Canadian Bank of Commerce, Peterborough
1958 – Ajax, London Foresters
1959 – Kingston, Kithchener-Waterloo, Oshawa, Royal Canadian Regiment, Sarnia Saints
There were Ontario and Toronto leagues established by 1953, and a Seaway league was added in 1954. Five clubs fielded at least two teams, with the Irish and Barbarians fielding third teams. Venues in Toronto included High Park, Pantry Park, Eglinton Park, Back Campus, Rosedale, and Centre Island.
In the 1960’s, the league structure continued to expand and accommodate the growth in the game. By 1962, there were Western, Northern, and Central divisions. A South Western Ontario Rugby Union (SWORU) was formed in 1964, and was joined in 1971 by branch unions in Niagara, Northern and Toronto District. Northern had folded by 1978, though the year saw the addition of the Mid-Ontario Rugby Union (MORU), which lasted until the majority of the clubs joined the Toronto Rugby Union in 1985.
The third of the present branch unions, Eastern Ontario Rugby Union, joined the Ontario Rugby Union in 1979, having previously played in the Quebec league under the name of the Ottawa Area Rugby Association. SWORU’s schedules were combined with Niagara’s in 1990, and there was no independent SWORU Branch executive listing after 1993. The Southwest Rugby Union was reformed in 2003.