The University of Sydney was established in 1850. Tertiary education in those days was a modest business. In its first year of teaching there were 25 students. At the end of its first decade 121 students had attended. Yet interest in sport was immediate and a cricket club was formed in 1852 which meant that nearly half of the students were members of it. A University Oval was created in 1858 next to the site of the current No. 1 Oval, and in 1886 another ground was provided on the area now known as Hockey Square. The Boat Club could have been established as early as 1860 and the Athletics Club was established in 1878, followed by the Lawn Tennis Club in 1885. By 1885 the No. 1 Oval had been established in its current location and has been in use there ever since. The University had the advantage of a steady supply of recruits from the residential colleges which were soon built, and it quickly assumed a prominent place in the local sporting scene.
Commentators have observed that as a city Sydney suffered in comparison to Melbourne from a lack of playing fields because its early city development did not include planning for open space for sporting activities, a deficiency which Melbourne was able to rectify. In that context the University was better off than most sporting institutions in Sydney as it has always had comparatively better facilities.
The prevailing view is that football was first played internally at the University in 1863, but the rules employed are unknown. The Football Club seems to have been established, or at least played its first recorded match, in 1865 and commenced to play football according to the rules of Rugby, but when it later claimed to be the oldest rugby club in New South Wales and to have been in existence since 1863, this was refuted by the opposition because it was alleged that it had sullied its record by playing by other rules during that period. The only other club then in existence was the Sydney Football Club, and the Australian Club was formed in the same year. The first competition “football” match, against the Sydney Football Club was an inauspicious affair, lasting an hour and a half, during which no goal was scored and the match was drawn owing to a misunderstanding over the rules. Attempts to agree upon uniform rules were not immediately successful. The Melbourne rules were published in Sydney newspapers in 1866 and the other two clubs publicly adopted them, leaving the University Football Club without opponents for several years. The University eventually had to play the Sydney Football Club, presumably in accordance with the Melbourne rules, in order to find some opposition.
The tradition of Intervarsity was also soon established with the first competition taking place between Sydney and Melbourne in 1870. University sport attracted prominent citizens of the day including William Charles Windeyer who was a senior politician and later a judge of the High Court and who represented the University in cricket, football and rowing, and Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia, had a long association with University sport going back to his days playing for the Cricket Club in 1866.
In 1870 University finally found an opponent who was willing to play football according to its preferred Rugby rules when the Wallaroo Football Club was established, although uncertainty surrounding the actual rules continued. In 1874 the Southern Rugby Football Union was established for clubs prepared to commit to playing football according to the Rugby Union code of rules. Matters started to come to a head in 1877 with an invitation from Melbourne for an intercolonial football match between New South Wales and Victoria, which coincided with a letter from the secretary of the Sydney University Football Club putting forward a resolution to modify the rules which permitted scrummaging and running with the ball. The interstate match was opposed in Sydney because of a lack of common understanding of the rules to be applied, and did not take place. The proposal to change the rules was said to be due to the fact that scrummaging was so exhausting to the players and so dreadfully monotonous to the spectators who “preferred an exhibition of judgement and skill to mere brute force”. What was being proposed in effect was an adoption of some of the features of the Australian game which allowed handling and running and outlawed scrummaging , with the result that the main way of moving the ball around the field was to be by kicking it. The University proposal would have led to a combination of the rules of rugby and Australian football although at a critical meeting of the Southern Football Rugby Union on 16 June 1877 the University Club representative retreated under pressure and was quick to indicate that it was not his intention to move for the adoption of the Victorian football rules and that he and the University club intended to stick to Rugby union as they had always done. The outcome was a resolution that those who wanted to adopt the Victorian Football rules should form themselves into their own association, which was later to be called the New South Wales Football Association.
The debate over significant changes to the Rugby Union rules continued for several years but the movement for change eventually withered and died due to lack of agreement thereby resulting in the status quo and condemning the game of rugby union to a future of scrummaging and spectator tedium.
The Waratah club had been continuing to advocate total adoption of the Melbourne rules and went ahead to organise its own match against Carlton which took place in 1877 with a return match played in Melbourne in 1878. The University gave up the fight for reform and resigned itself to playing in a rugby competition. As it turned out, it was a significant moment in the history of football in New South Wales and, as subsequent events have revealed, from then on the future of football in the State was unfortunately settled in favour of the dominant Rugby with Australian football relegated to a minor role, unlike the position in the southern States where the reverse prevailed.