NSW football pioneer Ralph Robertson in his military uniform. Picture: Supplied

THE INDUCTION of Ralph Robertson into the Australian Football Hall of Fame matters a great deal to the Australian football community of Sydney and in particular, those whose passion for the game predates the arrival of the Sydney Swans and the birth of the GWS Giants.

After 14 games for St Kilda in 1899 and 1900, Robertson moved to Sydney and became a star of the local competition, first for East Sydney and then for North Shore. He changed clubs because he moved across the city to live in the days before the Sydney Harbour Bridge made traversing the city that much easier.

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But it was in representative football when he became a star of the game. Between 1903 and 1914 he played 41 games for New South Wales, at a time when the state was turning out teams almost as talented as the traditional powerhouses of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.

Back then there were no Tassie Medals for the best player in the triennial national carnivals, nor did they pick All-Australian teams. But newspaper reports and the general chatter of the day suggest he would have been a walk-up start for the All-Australian team had there been one and certainly the Tassie Medal in 1914 had it been constituted.


Former Sydney chairman Richard Colless has been advocating the case for Robertson's induction for many years. He is one of a group of Australian football identities in Sydney who meet regularly and cast aside their club allegiances to celebrate the game and promote its heritage and legacy.

"This guy was a gun," Colless said. "The Sydney competition wasn't so strong so it's hard to focus on the gravitas of that, but as a state player, his record was extraordinary. He captained New South Wales 14 times."

Richard Colless speaks at Ron Barassi's funeral in November 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

It wasn't just official interstate games where he dominated. New South Wales regularly played against the leading club teams from the VFL and the SANFL. In 1907, Robertson's team knocked over Port Adelaide, which finished second that year. Two years later, they knocked over South Melbourne, coming off winning its first VFL premiership.

"I think it's just his domination against the best teams in Australia," Colless continued. "He was diminutive by today's standards. He was 171 centimetres, which is about the same as (current day Western Bulldog) Caleb Daniel, but in those days, you could play in a key position at that height."

Robertson served in the Australian military expeditionary forces that attacked German colonies in the Pacific during the First World War. He was discharged in 1915 on the grounds of ill health and recuperated in the Riverina region. He then went to England and joined the Royal Flying Corps and was killed in a training accident in 1917.

NSW football pioneer Ralph Robertson in his military uniform. Picture: Supplied

Earlier this year, Robertson was one of 100 inductees into the newly formed NSW Australian Football Hall of Fame. But it is this latest honour that leaves the true believers of the game in NSW, and particularly in Sydney, especially proud.

"His name rolls off the tongue here like Ron Barassi's does in Melbourne," Colless said. "He was a pioneer because he demonstrated that it was possible to play the game in Sydney and match it with the best in the country.

"And I would imagine at the time that was quite inspirational."

Ralph Robertson (NSW pioneer)

  • St Kilda 1899-1900, 14 games 
  • East Sydney 1903-1908, estimated 80 games.
  • North Shore 1909-14, estimated 70 games.
  • Captain 1904-08 (Easts) and 1909-14 (North Shore).
  • 2x Premierships 1903, 1909
  • 39 games for NSW 1903-13
  • NSW National Carnival captain 1908, 1911, 1914
  • Killed on Active Service 1917