Michael Rush – Ned’s first challenger for the World
Michael Rush first arrived in Sydney in 1861, when he was just 16 years old, as an assisted immigrant to augment Australia’s agricultural workforce. He came from County Tyrone, Ireland where his family were farm workers.
His first job was with Michael McGrath, a butcher whose brother Tom McGrath, had dominated local rowing during the 1850’s and no doubt shared many exciting anecdotes with the young Rush. He subsequently moved to northern New South Wales where he first worked as a farm labourer. His rowing skill developed on the Clarence River, transporting meat to riverside towns, on craft known as ‘butcher boats’.
His first known ‘race’ occurred in 1866 and he went on to win the title of Champion of the Clarence in 1868, against fellow Clarence River sculler, Prospero Conlon.
Rush soon became ambitious to meet well-known metropolitan scullers, so along with Conlon visited Sydney in January, 1870. They surprised the locals with easy victories in the Anniversary Regatta, in the all-comers’ pairs and pocketed the modest sum of £12.
Their performance was noted by Sydney rowers (including Ned Trickett and his brother George), challenging them to private matches for large stakes.
Rush’s skills swiftly developed and in February 1873, he became the Australian Champion, beating his opponent by five boat lengths. The win however was marred by controversy. Accusations of race ‘throwing’ were aimed at his opponent, Bill Hickey. While Hickey failed in his attempt to sue his chief accuser for libel (the satirical magazine Punch), his honour was supported by both Rush and Rush’s trainer, Richard Green.
To defend his title, Rush helped to organise an Intercolonial Champion Sculling Race (also referred to as the Grand Championship of All the Colonies). Referred to at the time as the greatest race in sculling history, the race took place on the Clarence River in October, 1874. Rush took the title, beating the then up and coming Ned Trickett.
At this time, changes in seat design were about to revolutionise rowing. Some commentators would say the difference between Michael Rush and Ned Trickett’s defence of the World Championship in 1877 was the sliding seat. While Trickett adopted the innovation, Rush stuck by the fixed seat.
Michael Rush was unique in early Australian sculling in that he provided opportunities for others to compete and excel, by organising regattas and other rowing events, though financially he gained little. He is buried in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery. After retiring from active participation in rowing, he continued to be interested and involved, becoming one of the founding members of the Grafton Rowing Club. Like many others, he was financially ruined by the Australian banking crises of 1893 and in 1913, retired to a cottage and ten acres in Hurstville, New South Wales. He died in 1922 after a brief illness.