1889 SAFA Premiership Play-Off: Nwd vs Port

Courtesy of John Devaney at

The Grand Final Concept

Uniquely Australian and a quintessential element in the great Australian game, a grand final is like nothing else in sport. For the two teams involved, a whole season's commitment, aspiration and hard work is laid on the line in a 'winner takes all' finale that pays no heed whatsoever to previous form or achievement. In today's AFL it is theoretically possible, though somewhat unlikely, for a team finishing as low on the ladder as 8th after the home and away series to end up earning the right to call itself the best in the land. In the SANFL in 1984, Norwood, which qualified for the major round in 5th place with 13 wins, thereafter managed to win 4 successive finals games to annex the premiership, beating minor premier Port Adelaide, which had won 4 more minor round matches, in the premiership decider.

More recently, AFL club Adelaide won the 1998 flag despite beginning its finals campaign 5 places and 3 wins below eventual grand final opponents North Melbourne; moreover, it began its finals campaign with a loss to Melbourne, while North won both its pre-grand final finals matches comfortably. Other examples of this sort of thing abound, but the point being made is that grand finals are games apart, completely different from and much  more important than any other games. To  qualify for a grand final is to qualify for  equal rights, in a football sense, wit h past performances - other than their  residual, non-quantifiable impact on factor s such as morale and confidence - completely irrelevant.

Yet finals football, and grand finals in par ticular, only became part of football's  essential fabric very gradually. In major competitions like the VFA and SAFA the  premiership was, for many years, awar ded to the team which finished the home  and away series of matches at the head  of the ladder, a system which was later  emulated in English soccer. In 1 896, the top two teams in the VFL,  Collingwood and  South Melbourne , could not be separated on the basis of wins achieved, and so it was decided that the destiny of t he premiership would be determined on the  basis of a single, 'winner takes all', pl ay off match. Collingwood duly defeated  South Melbourne to take out the 1896 flag, but of much greater long term  significance was the enormous interest,  and substantial revenue, that the match  generated.

Meanwhile, in the background, discussions were taking place between a number  of the VFA's stronger clubs with a view to establis hing an elite, breakaway  competition, discussions which eventually  led to the formati on of the VFL the  following year. This new organisation was  quick to discern the potential benefits  (in terms of pounds, shillings and pence) of using a play-off sys tem to determine  each year's premiers, and from its ve ry first season of operation the VFL  implemented what it called a 'final round' involving the teams which finished the  home and away series occupying the top  4 places on the ladder. In 1897, this  final round was conducted on an all play  all, or round robin, basis, but  attendances were disappointing, with an  aggregate scarcely in excess of 30,000  spectators attending the 6 matches. Unfortunately, the round robin format lacked  the immediacy and drama that had so appealed to fans attending the 1896 play- off between Collingwood and South Melbourne, and sensing this, in 1898 the VFL began to utilise the first in a vari ety of finals systems which shared the common element of culminating in a single, decisive play-off ( see footnote 1 ). 

Other major competitions soon followed  the VFL's lead: the SAFA implemented a  finals system in 1898, for ex ample, the VFA in 1903, an d the WAFA in 1904. For  well over a century theref ore, the now familiar concept of a series of play-off  matches, incorporating some kind of handicap system ( see footnote 2 ), and  culminating in a single, conclusive  premiership-deciding match, has been as  integral a feature of th e Australian game as the high mark, the unique scoring  system, the hand pass and the impor tunate bagging of umpires.

Although the VFL can, in a sense, lay claim to having 'invented' finals football, the very first premiership-deciding match  in a major competition took place on Saturday 5 October 1889 in the colony  of South Australia. It involved reigning Australian champions Norwood and Port Adelaide, and came about because the two clubs concerned had finished the seas on with identical win-loss ratios. The match was extremely well received, and  it would be hard to imagine its not  having played a significant part in informing the minds of those who oversaw the  implementation of the VFL's finals series less than a decade later. The match also contributed in no small measure to the development of the  intense rivalry between Port Adelaide  and Norwood which exists to this day. Contemporary Match Preview (See footnote 3)

For the first time in the history of South Australian football it has become  necessary to play off for the premiership, and today on the Adelaide Oval the  Norwoods - last year's premiers - and the Ports - the second t eam of 1888 - meet  to wrestle for the much-coveted position. Extraordinary interest has been ex cited in the match, and a huge  sum of money is staked, the ports being slightly the favourites, especially among the smaller bac kers, but the Norwoods have a  host of backers.

The clubs have met four times... .....this season, the Norwoods  winning two, losing one, while the other was drawn; but no inference as to today's game c an be safely drawn from these  results, as it is to be admitted  on all hands that the Ports have considerably improved during the last few months, while the Norwoods lately have not been in such form as they were when  they won two matches. Mr. J.J. Trait, who is acknowledged to be the best umpire in  Australia, will act in the match, and as he is specially known for his strong determination to put down rough play at all costs there  is very little probability of the disgraceful play which characterised  the last match between these clubs. If the weather only keeps fine the attendance should be even  greater than on the last occasion.

The Norwood team is slightly different to that which did battle for them before, and it has been somewhat improved by the substitution of McGrath, O. Bertram, and Roachock for Haldane, Honner and McCarthy.

On the other hand, the only alteration in  the Ports' twenty is that Lowe takes  Miller's place.

The chosen teams are:
NORWOOD: R.M. Bertram O. Bertram, Com be, Dixon, Daly, Guster, Grayson,  Jackson, McKee, McGaffin, McGrath, Rawson, Roberts, Roachock, Shaw,  Slattery, J.J. Woods, C.W. Woods, Wilson, Waldron
PORT ADELAIDE: A. Bushby, W. Bushby, Correll,  Davis, Ewers, C. Fry, J. Fry,  Gardiner, Hamilton, Hills, Kempster, Le Leu, Lowe, J. McKenzie, K. McKenzie,  Miers, Phillips, Stephens, Tomlin, Webb

Special trains will leave  the Port at 1.55pm and 2. 08pm, in addition to the  ordinary trains, and a spec ial will leave town afte r the match, at 5.55pm.

Contemporary Match Report ( See footnote 4 )


at 2.45 pm

FIELD UMPIRE - Mr. J. Trait 
GOAL UMPIRES - Messrs. I.A. Fisher and J. McKenzie

Note:-Port and Norwood Club Tickets admit, also S.A.C.A. Football  Tickets

Grand, 6d.; Reserve, 6d. extra

1st Quarter

The much talked-of match between the  Norwoods and Ports for the premiership  came off on the Adelaide Oval on Saturday afternoon. For weeks past both  teams have been training assiduously, and they entered the field in the pink of  condition. Both clubs were content to take level money, although some of the  supporters - principally of the Ports - laid odds on, but when the game started the Norwoods were slightly the favourites.

The very strongest teams that could possibly be got together were selected, and  the eastern club had the best combination they have had this season. Special  trains from the Port brought up large numbers of spectators, and when the ball  was set going there were quite 10,000 people  on the ground.

The official figures show that 7,227 paid, and the balance was made up of tickets. Both pavilions were crowded to their fullest extent. The members' reserve was also filled, and  the mounds in front of the buildings were packed with people.

The Norwoods entered the field first, being received with applause, and then a loud cheer greeted Mr. J.J. Trait, the crack Australian umpire. The Ports were not long following, and from t he cries that assailed them it was evident that their supporters had rallied in force. When the two teams took their places t here was little to choose between them, and it is questionable whether ever befor e any two so evenly matched clubs had  assembled on the Adelaide Oval. The conditions for a good game could scarcely have been improved upon.

The ground was in splendid trim, but a fairly strong  wind blew across the ground  towards the bridge. No delay wa s experienced in getting to work.

The Norwoods having secured the wind at  six minutes past three, J. McKenzie  sent the leather down towards the north  goal, and from the very first both teams  went into the game at a terrific pace. 

QUARTER TIME: Norwood 3.1; Port  Adelaide 3.1  (behinds recorded, but not count ing towards a team's score)

2nd Quarter

All the first quarter the play had been terribly fast, every man doing good service. There was not the slightest difference bet ween the teams, both of them giving a  magnificent exhibition, the marking and kicking being perfect. The Ports with the aid of the wind were  the first to attack (during the second  quarter), but Jackson warded off. Shaw and Roberts troubled the Ports' back  line, and C. Woods receiving a free on  the boundary from a very difficult angle  made the Norwoods' goal total four. On kicking off, some very bad attempts at marking by the Norwoods let in Gardiner, and he sent forward.

Roberts, who was marking excellently, dispatched back to the centre, but K. McKenzie with a long kick sent it forward  again, and the ball went over  to the gate, remaining on  that wing for some time. Ewers was prominent, and Kempster met all attacks.

Combe and Daly kept the goal out of danger on their end, and then  the Ports tried the other wing, and  worked the ball across to the pavilion, where Stevens who was working very hard  in the ruck showed up, and after the sphere had traversed the ground, Hills tried  a shot, and the ball passed just outside the post. When the welcome spell came to the men, the figures  on the board read -  HALF TIME: Norwood 4.1; Port Adelaide 3.3

3rd Quarter

During the first half the wind had gradually shifted around, and was blowing across the gate. After the interval the Ports were the first to open aggressive tactics. The Ports put all their power into the play, and Gardiner finished up a nice run with a good kick.

Hills placed in front of Le Leu, and a loud cheer announced that the totals were again equal. For a little the Ports prevailed, but the score was too dangerous for the Norwoods, and by a series of long marks  they called upon the Ports to defend. When the final change took place the score was -  THREE QUARTER TIME:  Norwoods 5.3; Port Adelaide 4.7

4th Quarter

Aroused to still greater exertions by the loud cries of  their supporters the teams went into work at a great pace. The Norwoods had evidently reserved themselves for a big attempt. Being bounced, a series of marks by Rawson, Daly and McGrath gave Shaw an opportunity, and the game looked all over as the ball went right up to the goal,  but it fell short, and J. Fry secured.

Taking it around the gate wing the Ports  called upon the Norwoods to defend. Ha milton dispatched to Hills, who failed, and J. McKenzie had similar luck. The Norwoods played wonderfully well together, their long marking being  exceedingly good. They transferred the play to the Ports' end, where Webb  defended.

Sending it along the pavilion wing, Hills gave Phillips another chance, and he made amends for previous misses by equalising the score. With time rapidly drawing on the team s were urged on by their supporters and  the Norwoods made a gallant  effort, while the Ports defended in equal style. The red team, however, seemed to have a little bit in hand, and by some good marking Waldron forwarded to McGaffin, and his kick put the Norwoods a goal ahead.

Hamilton just previously was partly disabled by being seized by cramp. Resuming, the Norwoods again attacked and their combined play was too good  for their opponents. In a scrimmage some distance from the goal C. Woods put  his foot to the sphere and sent it between the uprights. The umpire thinking a Port man had kicked it did not give a decision, and nothing was registered.

By Mr. Trait's order the ball was kicked off from behind, and then some hot play ensued in the Port's quarters. K. McKenzie got away from two Norwoods, but  Roachock outwitted him. Rawson, Roberts and Guster kept the ball forward and  Daly missed a running shot. Then O. Bertram also tried a running shot, and a  loud cheer greeted another goal.

With everything to gain the Ports started off again, but before anything serious had eventuated, the bell peeled out, and the  great contest was over, leaving the Norwood team premiers of 1889.  FINAL SCORE: Norwood 7. 4; Port Adelaide  5.9


There is little doubt that taking the play right through the better team won. Although the Ports had the larger number of behinds, goal kicking is a most  important factor in the game, and the magenta team failed in this respect, while  many of their shots were  from impossible distances.

With the single exception of when Carlton beat Norwood in 1887, the game was the finest contest ever seen here. In the first quarter the play was truly magnificent; not a mark was missed or a  chance between the teams, but the Norwoods lasted a trifle better, and their last  charge proved irresistible.

For the first time this season the Norwoods beat their  opponents in the ruck. It is impossible to say who played best, as fully fifteen  men on each side were really brilliant,  whilst all the others did good service. After the match was over many of the Norwoods' supporters went to the dressing room, and Waldron, the capt ain, was greeted with ringing  cheers. Mr. Trait was similarly complimented, and he was personally thanked by the club. Bushby, the Ports' captain, on behalf of his team  thanked Mr. Trait for the admirable way he  had conducted his duties.

The Norwoods then gave three cheers for the Ports and their captain.


1. That is, with the single exception of 1924, when the round robin format was resurrected, with similarly disastrous consequences in terms of attendances.
2. Initially, this tended to consist of allowing the minor premier the 'right of  challenge', whereby if it was defeated at any stage during the finals it could claim a 'second chance' in a decisive play-off  against the winner of the final. The concept of the second chance, in various  forms, would be retained in all future  finals systems.
3. From 'The Register', 5/10/1889.
4. From 'The Register', 7/10/1889.

Courtesy of John Devaney at

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