Tamworth Rugby Club is listed in the report of the Southern Rugby Union of 1880, one of 26 clubs in the NSW Colony. By 1882, the number of clubs had grown to 35. The Southern Rugby Union went on to become the more familiar New South Wales Rugby Union.
The nearest clubs were located in the Newcastle district so matches were organised on an ad-hoc basis. There is a report of a game against the Maitland Albions in 1880. The Main North Railway was extended to West Tamworth in 1878 and Armidale in 1883. Its construction no doubt aided the development of the rugby code simply because teams could travel with speed and comfort. Inter district competition assisted with the promotion of the game as did the promotion of a shorter working week so workers could enjoy recreational activities. Saturday afternoons became available for sports and, for our region as for others, the rugby code took hold as a result.
The NERU was formed in 1892 with the Armidale, Albion, Deepwater, West End, Armidale Holiday Association, Inverell, Glen Innes and West Hillgrove clubs. Another club was later formed at Hillgrove. The NERU’s listed member clubs in 1894 were Uralla, Armidale, Gunnedah, Hillgrove, Quirindi, Tamworth and Walcha. The games were haphazard and by arrangement. The seniors cup competition of 1895 included Hillgrove and Armidale-based clubs Albion, Arforma and Armidale whilst the Tamworth-based teams were Acme, Tamworth and Royal Standard. The latter was no doubt associated with the Royal Standard Brewery which was located at the end of Jewry Street. A juniors competition also existed.
There was success in the 1890s. The year 1894 saw the Acme Rugby Club of Tamworth lose to the Albions Club of Armidale 12 points to nil whilst the Tamworth Rugby Club lost to the Federals Rugby Club of Armidale 14-7 in the 1899 final and West Tamworth defeated Albions 8-0 in 1900 for the New England Rugby Football Union Trophy. The NERFU Cup was donated by the late Mr Thomas Danshey in 1892.
The NERFU championship teams from 1892 to 1901 are:
- 1892 Armidale d Albion
- 1893 Armidale d Tenterfield 3-0
- 1894 Albions (Armidale) d Acme (Tamworth) 12-0
- 1895 Gunnedah d Armidale 12-6
- 1896 Gunnedah d Arforma (Armidale) on forfeit
- 1897 Albions (Armidale) d Gunnedah 9-0
- 1898 Gunnedah d Federals (Armidale) 16-8
- 1899 Federals (Armidale) d Tamworth 14-7
- 1900 West Tamworth d Albions (Armidale) 8-0
- 1901 Carlton (Armidale) d West Tamworth 9-3
The mood to move away from the NERU is expressed in an article from 1900 where the Tamworth Football Club, at its annual meeting, passed the following resolution:
"That the secretary communicate with the Tamworth West, Werris Creek and Manilla Football Clubs as to the advisability of not joining the New England Rugby Football Union unless it was guaranteed that the final match be played in Tamworth."
It was felt that the local clubs had supported the NERU for a number of years but that a final match had never been played in Tamworth. Central North (Tamworth) was subsequently formed and applied to affiliate with the NSW Rugby Union in 1903.
The Central Northern Rugby Union Cup was won by the North Tamworth club in 1903, 1904 and 1905. It was presented by CM Oliphant Esq to the club’s captain W Jones. The 1904 Central North competition was composed of the North Tamworth, East Tamworth, West Tamworth, Manilla, “our Boys” (Moonbi) and Quirindi clubs.
The Sawers Shield was donated by William Sawers MHR for the best team in Central North and New England Rugby Unions. Sawers was one of the few non-Armidale residents to hold a position on the NERFU committee. He was president of the Tamworth Rugby Club in 1896 and a vice-president of the NERFU. He was the inaugural member of the new New England electorate in the first Federal parliament.
Between 1902 to 1914, the winner from both competitions would play-off for the right to hold the shield. West Tamworth (1902, 1911) and East Tamworth (1909, 1910) were winners as were Westend (1903, 1907), Carlton (1904, 1906), Hillgrove (1905, 1908, 1914) and South Armidale (1912, 1913). The East Tamworth club won both the Observer Cup in the Central North competition and the Sawyers Shield by winning against South Armidale. The Sawers Shield was not contested from 1915 until 1948 where its status changed from an inter-district one to being for the winner of the New England seniors competition.
In 1913, in spite of the smallpox epidemic which was then raging, the New Zealand Maoris played the Northern Districts team at Tamworth winning 29–8. All players had to have smallpox vaccinations prior to playing.
Prior to the outbreak of World War 1, two New South Wales country matches were played by the visiting All Blacks, the last for six long years as the New South Wales Rugby Union decided to discontinue all senior games for the duration and to give maximum support to the war effort. In contrast, the professional game continued to be played at all levels.