The ten ‘cruelest’ union defections to league
I struggled to select who should be number ten on this list. Chris McKivat came into strong consideration, while Phil Hawthorne was part of an Australian side in the 60s that thrived on its best players remaining as a close-knit unit.
I considered selecting Arthur Summons, although quite frankly I don’t know enough about him. From all accounts he was a remarkable individualist in a floundering Australian side.
The person I’ve chosen was the man who had the most gaping side-step I have ever seen: Brett Papworth.
Despite being considered susceptible to weak defence early on in his career, by the time he made the Australian side in the mid 80s, Brett Papwroth was a marvellous player. It’s interesting to note he once bore the same wraps that Campese and O’Connor had before coming into the Australian side.
Yet he had to wait many years to gain selection.
The definitive Brett Papworth moment came in 1986 during the third test against the All Blacks when one of his amazing side-steps lead to the first try of the game (scored by Andrew Leeds) and gave Australia the upper-hand early on.
While I’m not inclined towards such an individualist player playing at inside-centre, Papworth was capable of game-breaking brilliance that merits his selection on this list.
9. Brian Smith
By 1987, the tide had turned against Alan Jones. His team mates felt despondent about a promised, but later aborted tour to South Africa, and there appeared to be a virulent press campaign to smear his selection policies.
People accused him of playing favourites, and people looked at Brian Smith as an example of that.
Whatever faults Alan Jones may have had, I think that was somewhat unfair to him to criticise his constant pushing of Brian Smith. Jones was, after all, the man who took Steve Cutler from the scrap-heap and turned him into the best line-out exponent of the 80s. Jones took chances with David Codey and Michael Lynagh (playing at inside centre), and both paid off.
Why should Jones be criticised for trying to polish-up another gem?
People will allude to the fact that Jones preferred Smith to Farr-Jones in Argentina when Farr-Jones was, by proclamation, generally regarded as the best halfback in the world at the time. And frankly I’m inclined to agree, based on reports on that game, that Jones may have made the wrong decision.
But was Smith lacking in natural ability? No.
One of Alan Jones’ greatest strengths was his ability to spot talent. Long before Robbie Deans selected Benn Robinson to play for the Wallabies, Alan Jones had earmarked him as a player for the future.
I think Andrew Slack summed up Brian Smith perfectly in Michael Lynagh’s autobiography, Noddy, when he wrote that, “He was arguably the finest all-round utility player Australian rugby had ever produced, but in terms of specialising there always seemed to be players better equipped for the individual positions.”
So, in what capacity was Brian Smith a terrible loss for Australian rugby?
When Smith finally found a position that he could specialise in at five-eighth, 99 percent of the Australian public were oblivious to it.
In a game against the World XV in 1988, Smith managed to score 26 points. He scored a try, kicked seven goals and two drop-goals. That match is, to me, a vindication of Jones’ selection talents. The only other five-eighth I’ve heard of capable of scoring in such a variety of ways so successfully was Argentina’s Hugo Porta.
Both Dave Brockhoff and Alan Jones (no longer the Australian coach at that point) both called for Smith to play for Australia.
Bob Dwyer’s response to calls for Smith’s selection was very reasonable.
In his autobiography, The Winning Way, he writes, “Michael Lynagh’s position in the team was not earned in a day, and nor should it have been lost in a day.”
Indeed, I’m not suggesting that Lynagh should have been dropped. However, when Lynagh was injured for the second Test against New Zealand in 1988, Dwyer surprisingly selected Lloyd Walker, Randwick’s inside centre who had no previous experience at a five-eighth.
To Walker’s credit, he gave a remarkable account of himself in that game. But after Brian Smith gave such a tremendous performance, he was overlooked for the five-eighth position by a specialist inside-centre.
8. Dally Messenger
I strongly suspect most people would select Dally Messenger as unquestionably Australia’s cruellest defection to league because of what it meant to both rugby codes in Australia.
However, a closer inspection of crowd attendances in the early 1900s indicates that rugby union remained the preferred code for a brief while after Messenger’s defection.
A further case can be argued that Chris McKivat’s defection was more damaging to Australian rugby.
However, I have selected Messenger not only because of his renowned marketability, but because by all accounts he was marvellous rugby union player.
7. Andrew Leeds
Sometimes I wish people would select Roger Gould in their all-time Australian sides. Personally, I think Matthew Burke ever so slightly edges him out, but Gould has become underrated.
The name ‘Matthew Burke’ and ‘fullback’ became so synonymous with Australian sides that even when Burke was moved to outside centre to accommodate Chris Latham, people still called Burke the world’s best fullback.
People will name Burke in their all-time Australian sides without giving the slightest thought of Roger Gould, and that’s disappointing. Someone suggested to me once that part of the reason Gould’s greatness is underscored was because of the emergence of his heir apparent, Andrew Leeds.
After David Campese had an erratic first two tests in New Zealand in 1986 (a series which Gould didn’t play a part in), Leeds was given the special role of playing fullback for Australia in what was then possibly the most important match in Australian rugby history.
He showed tremendous courage under the high ball and scored a try on debut. Following Gould’s retirement in 1987, Leeds was recalled to the Australian side for the famous tied game of 1988 against New Zealand.
Leeds not only distinguished himself by placing the All Blacks under pressure at vital moments (he made some telling tackles), he also displayed tremendous goal-kicking abilities and possibly could have relieved Michael Lynagh of goal-kicking had he not defected to rugby league.
I nearly fell off my seat talking to a man from Newcastle once.
This man was not a great rugby lover – more of a rugby league man. However, he was much obliged to talking about great Australian rugby union players. I mentioned the name Roger Gould, and he stunned me by saying he didn’t remember Roger Gould.
I figured he simply didn’t follow rugby very closely at all.
He then mentioned a great Australian fullback he did remember from the late 80s – Andrew Leeds. To me that speaks highly of what a strong figure Leeds cut in the short time he played for the Wallabies.
6. John Brass
Reading about John Brass sounds like something similar to watching the Ella brothers play rugby. I was astonished when I saw the three tries each of the Ella brothers scored against Wales for the 77/78 Schoolboys. In my mind those tries aren’t far behind, in terms of sheer brilliance, the Gareth Edwards try of 1972.
What struck me as special about the Ella’s was the speed at which the ball travelled through their hands, as if they never actually grabbed the ball, but rather, it just continued to float along the backline.
Compare that description of the Ella’s to this description of John Brass in Peter Jenkins’ book, Wallaby Gold: “[Brass] had the most velvety hands. The ball never nestled in his palms when his outside men could use it. Brass simply reached and swung, hardly showing the pace of the pass he received before it was on its way.”
It sounds as if Brass was right out of the mould of talented, yet disciplined, Randwick backs whose flair and ability could be mistaken for natural talent when really he was just another gem from Randwick’s production line of splendid backs.
With defections such as those of John Brass and Russell Fairfax, the early 70s were a black vortex of misery for the Wallabies.
5. Rex Mossop
It seems in every Australian generation where Australia has been starved of success there was a player who stood out head and shoulders as a champion.
Despite some considerable success in the 60s, players like Peter Johnson swear that Ken Catchpole was a class above the rest. Players of the 70s often have disappointment in their eyes when discussing the class of John Hipwell, believing that he was as good as any player in his day, but seldom had the opportunity to show it.
Australia was to have Rex Mossop as their shining light in the 50s.
And for a country that seemed starved of great forwards for much of the twentieth century, Mossop surely was shaping to become the most important player for the Australians of the 50s.
Peter Jenkins writes in Wallaby Gold that, “Mossop was hailed as world class. Clearly the best of the Australian pack.”
Unfortunately for Australian rugby afficiandos, frustration over a refereeing decision led to a quick defection to league.
4. Trevor Allen
The man Dave Brockhoff once described as the best Australian rugby player ever. The early 50s saw many Australian players defect to league, but none seemed to rock the Australian rugby-loving public like the defection of Trevor Allen.
It’s often forgotten that the Australian side of the late 40s had considerable success. Aside from the 3-0 thrashing of New Zealand in 1949 (which today remains a polarizing achievement), there was a very successful tour to the UK and France.
Australia managed to beat England, Scotland and Ireland.
Their weakness was found against Wales when Australia were discovered as lacking a world-class goal-kicker to win them games. The final score: 3-6.
Trevor Allen was a man instrumental in all those victories, anecdotes of his punishing defence are still part of Australian rugby folklore, and today Australians still unhesitatingly select him in their all-time greatest Wallaby sides.
There are only two famous defectors to rugby league who still come into contention for sides such as these – Trevor Allen and Michael O’Connor – both centres.
3. Tony D’Arcy
Props don’t grow on trees, and if they did, Australia has infertile soil from which these trees could grow.
Perhaps I’ve rated D’Arcy too highly.
At no time did he distinguish himself as the world’s best prop, where as many of Australia’s cruellest defectors to rugby league were, at the time, the best player in the world in their position.
However, many rugby experts have said he had potential to be great, and his departure came at a bad time for Australian rugby.
Following a thrashing in the scrums in the second Test against New Zealand in 1980, Bob Templeton elected to pick D’Arcy for his second Test at tight-head (he had previously played one game against Fiji).
Australia gained parity in the scrums against New Zealand that day (some might say it was food poisoning), and the Australian backs ran riot over the All Blacks to score a stunning win.
D’Arcy was a member of the 81/82 Australian side that had such high hopes leaving Australian shores.
However, Australia was unfortunately found out in the set-pieces. Was D’Arcy still capable of being one of the world’s best props?
Then Australian coach Bob Templeton felt there wasn’t enough bulk in the second row in that tour, and dropped Tony Shaw before the final Test against England for Steve Williams, who could provide a bit more shove and bulk to the pack.
I think its likely D’Arcy was still a fine player. That Australian side just lacked the right balance of talent all tour.
Australia was badly exposed in the 1982 tour to New Zealand in the forwards.
In the very first Test of that tour, not one member of the Australian front-row had played a Test match before. Shocking!
D’Arcy would have been called upon to play a leading role in the forwards in the same manner that Duncan Hall did on that tour.
He was sadly missed.
2. Michael O’Connor
How many times have I read former rugby players say of defectors to rugby league write, “He was the best young talent I had seen since Michael O’Connor?”
It seems to me that when a fresh new talent arrived on the scene, they’d compare him to Michael O’Connor. Despite seeing a microscopic amount of O’Connor play rugby union, I can say I got the same feeling watching him as I do watching the likes of Campese, Blanco and the Ella brothers – one of those instinctual players whose natural abilities allow him to express himself in a manner few rugby players can.
Anybody who’s seen highlights of what David Campese did in the under 21s game against New Zealand in 1982 knew he was something special.
But what did people say about the great Campese after that game? “He’s the best young talent to come out of the Canberra area since Michael O’Connor.”
Even the great David Campese was only the best ‘since’ Michael O’Connor.
They were apt comparisons, however, and in fact O’Connor played outside centre in the same manner I think Campese would have.
O’Connor had the same confidence and flair, and his footwork was magical. In fact, Campese admitted himself in his tribute book David Campese that, “As a young player in 1981 or 1982 I remember seeing Michael O’Connor step twice before he beat his man. It seemed like a smart idea, so I practiced it, tried it, and it worked.”
It’s perhaps the greatest testament to his ability that people still accord O’Connor a place in their all-time Wallabies side.
Bob Dwyer unhesitatingly placed O’Connor into his best Wallabies side from 1982-2003 and because of O’Connor’s ability to play outside centre, wing and fullback, he commonly finds a place in all-time Wallabies sides on the bench.
1. Russell Fairfax
Fairfax might seem like a strange choice considering he only played eight Tests, but those who saw what little he contributed to rugby union were astonished by his abilities.
Geoff Mould, who coached famous 77/78 Australian Schoolboys side, as well as the Ellas at Matraville High, said that Fairfax was the most talented rugby player he ever taught.
When I think of the three astonishing tries the three Ella brothers scored against Wales while playing for the 77/78 Schoolboys, that’s an amazing endorsement.
Bob Dwyer was another person who was able to assess Fairfax’s potential as a rugby player by virtue of his time spent playing for the Randwick club in Sydney.
Dwyer’s assessment of Fairfax’s ability led him to pronounce him, in his first autobiography The Winning Way, as one of the five most accomplished Australian rugby players he’d ever seen, along with Campese, Catchpole, Ella and Lynagh.
Clearly the Wallaby selectors of the time realised Fairfax was an attacking genius because they rushed him into the Wallaby squad for the 1971 tour of France.
By 1972, the entire strategy of the Wallabies revolved around getting the ball to Fairfax to see if he could produce some mercurial genius moments.
However, the tour was a complete disaster for Australia, primarily, reports say, because the Aussie pack was run over like grass under a Victor lawnmower.
Fairfax’s defection to league reportedly had a devastating effect in the promotion of rugby union in Australia. Fairfax was seen as a crowd-pleaser, somebody who enjoyed attacking with the ball in hand, and added to this were his Aussie surfer boy looks that provided Australian rugby with a fresh marketable face.
When I consider that Geoff Mould and Bob Dwyer have been fully exposed to the stunning brilliance of the likes of Mark Ella playing in full flight, and that they have called Fairfax either his equal or superior, I think he is a safe pick for the most devastating defection to league in Australia’s history.
Added to this is the fact that from day one, the entire hopes of Australia hinged of his attacking genius.
Has there ever been somebody who, from day one, held the hopes of Australian rugby in his hands as age 19?
I’d like to acknowledge the written work of Peter Jenkins and his wonderful text Wallaby Gold, Michael Lynagh’s autobiography written by Andrew Slack, and Bob Dwyer’s The Winning Way, as helpful references in writing this column.