Newcastle and Sunderland's historical rugby rivalry

Wednesday 20 January 2021

Newcastle and Sunderland are well-known rivals in soccer circles, but, as local historian Keith Gregson points out in this article, the two cities have been doing rugby battle since 1879.

The RFU celebrates its 150th anniversary on January 26. During the following decade many clubs in the far north will be arranging their 150ths too – sides whose ‘favours’ are familiar on supporters who double up backing for their local clubs with cheering on the Falcons.

One such side is Sunderland RFC (originally Sunderland FC) which was formed in December 1873. The story of this founding is due to be told in the near future on the World Rugby Museum’s blog site ‘From the Vaults’ around the time of the RFU’s own celebrations.

The reason behind the tale being told now lies in the strong links between both foundations.

Two of Sunderland’s founders were schoolboys who were playing rugby at Wellington College in the early 1870s. The college was one of the founding members of the RFU, and the two Laing brothers helped form the Sunderland club while at home for the Christmas holidays in 1873. After leaving school, both were involved with the club for years.

The Falcons remain linked historically to the original 19th-century Gosforth club. In tune with Sunderland, Gosforth was founded in the 1870s – as is witnessed by the 2016 naming of one of the Falcons’ clubhouse bars - the 1877 Bar.

As with Sunderland, too, Gosforth emerged from schoolboy rugby – and specifically that of Durham School. The green and white hooped shirt (as worn by the modern Gosforth side and acknowledged by one of the Falcons’ recent away shirts) is based on that associated with Durham School rugby.

The first fixture between Sunderland and Gosforth appears to have taken place on November 29, 1879.

During the same season Sunderland had fixtures with Houghton, Darlington, Westoe and a Hartlepool side which preceded all the clubs which play in Hartlepool today.

The game was advertised as ‘a football appointment’ in the Newcastle Courant of November 28, 1879. Other familiar local sides with ‘appointments’ around that time (excluding those already mentioned) were Northern, Medics, Percy Park and Durham City. They too will be celebrating significant anniversaries in the none-too-distant future.

A report of the game between the Sunderland and Gosforth during the 1879/80 season has turned up in the Sunderland Echo for March 15, 1880.

The Sunderland side was captained by one of the Laing brothers - Arthur - and featured Alfred Hudson, whose complete rugby kit has been discovered recently in an ancestor’s home. According the World Rugby Museum this may be the oldest complete rugby kit in the World. It is certainly the best preserved, and a video explaining the discovery can be viewed by clicking here.

The Sunderland side also included Henry Kayll – Durham County’s first England international.

The Gosforth side was as follows: W Fenwick (captain, back); W Farr and W Dance (three-quarter backs); W Usher and T Sowerby (half backs); T Charlton, R Smith, A Dawson, H Baumgartner, G Kirby, E Lilly, W S Richardson, R Chapman, T C Watkin and S Burridge (forwards).

The result of the 1880 meeting between Sunderland and Gosforth was a resounding victory for Sunderland – then a strong and established side.

It was not ever thus, and Gosforth (now under the Newcastle Falcons’ name) have gone on from strength to strength, while Sunderland have just been promoted to Durham and Northumberland League One.

Despite Gosforth’s advance the two clubs continued to play each other well into the 20th century, and the revived Gosforth side has featured on the Sunderland fixture list in recent years when the sides have been in the same league.

As opposed to association football, many minis, juniors and seniors at Sunderland RFC are Newcastle supporters when it comes to the oval ball!

About the writer:

Keith Gregson is historian of Sunderland RFC and many of his articles and blogs both on the history of the club and on the art of writing a club history can be found on the RFU ‘From the Vaults’ site by clicking here. Keith was brought up in Kendal and Carlisle, went to university in Newcastle, taught in Hartlepool, lives in Sunderland and realises that this ‘far north’ region is the heartland for Falcons’ support. He is happy to help out others planning on 150th club celebrations in the near future. Keith and his wife Barbara are both season ticket holders at the Falcons, and Keith was the school history teacher to current Falcons scrum-half Michael Young!

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