Troubled 1930s was good for Aussie rugby
Many younger rugby fans might think that it wasn’t until 1996 and the creation of the ACT Brumbies that Australian rugby had three provinces. Many younger rugby fans might also think that Victoria’s push for the fifteenth Super license is a push into unexplored territory.
Yet, what rugby fans of most ages might not appreciate is that in the 1930s Victoria presented itself as a genuine third rugby state. Sadly, the onset of World War 2 arrested the development of rugby in Victoria, and they were never able to regain their pre-eminence of the 30s.
Why was Victorian rugby so strong in the 30s?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that Melbourne was still the economic and business capital of Australia at that time.
This was still the age of sea travel, and ships traveling from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian ocean, stopped at Melbourne before Sydney.
Because Melbourne was the business capital of Australia, some good players from Sydney, Brisbane and New Zealand gravitated there for work, and ended up injecting their quality into the local competition and state team.
The Victorians played against both the All Blacks and Springboks in the 30s, and beat NSW and Queensland at least once.
Let’s look at composite best teams for Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland in the 1930s.
15-Bob Westfield, 14-Max Carpenter, 13-Gordon Sturtridge, 12-Dave Cowper(c), 11-Roo Dorr, 10-Bill Hammon, 9-Toby Cumming, 8-Fred Kerr, 7-Owen Bridle, 6-Moey Blundell, 5-Weary Dunlop, 4-Stan Bissett, 3-George Pearson, 2-Nicky Barr, 1-Ted Jessep.
15-Alec Ross(c), 14-Owen Crossman, 13-Cyril Towers, 12-Syd King, 11-Jockey Kelaher, 10-Bill Richards, 9-Syd Malcolm, 8-Jack Ford, 7-Keith Windon, 6-Aub Hodgson, 5-Bill White, 4-Huck Finlay, 3-Wild Bill Cerutti, 2-Alby Stone, 1-Ron Walden.
15-Jack Steggall, 14-Doug McLean, 13-Winston Ide, 12-Dooney Hayes, 11-Gordon McGhie, 10-Welly Lewis, 9-Gordon Bennett, 8-Boyd Oxlade, 7-Jim Clark, 6-John McDonald, 5-Bill McLean, 4-Graham Cooke, 3-Vay Wilson(c), 2-Eddie Bonis, 1-Eddie Thompson.
All the players who appeared for NSW and Queensland were Test players, while only numbers 9 and 6 for Victoria were never selected for an Australian team.
Nicky Barr, Stan Bissett and George Pearson were selected for the tour of Britain and Ireland in 1939/40, but war was declared the day after they arrived in England and the tour was cancelled without a game being played.
Although on the return trip, these three guys had their one opportunity to wear the Wallaby jersey in a match against a British Army XV in Bombay (now Mumbai).
Three of the Victorians – Dunlop, Barr and Bissett – became highly decorated for their achievements in WW2. Weary Dunlop was knighted and awarded the OBE for saving hundreds of Allied lives in his capacity as a surgeon in prisoner of war camps in South-East Asia.
Nicky Barr was a fighter pilot ace in North Africa before being shot down and captured, but then escaping to become a guerilla fighter in Italy. He was awarded both the Military Cross and DFC, plus bar (won twice).
Stan Bissett fought on the gruelling Kokoda track and had the distressing experience of holding his brother in his arms as he slowly died. He was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery in battle, and at 96 remains the oldest living Wallaby.
Dave Cowper, NSW born but achieving his greatest fame while in Victoria, remains the only Victorian to either captain (1933) or coach (1957/58) the Wallabies. He was also father of test cricket batsman Bob (1964-68).
There is so much more I could say about so many more of the players mentioned above, but there isn’t the space.
Those who continue to argue there is no place in Australian rugby for a national competition simply don’t realise how close we’ve come to having one in the past.
Perhaps this time, when Victoria wins the fifteenth super license, we can finally move towards making Australian rugby a truly national game. Perhaps this time, Victorian rugby will be here to stay!
I used to think I was a pretty good rugby lock, but now realise I was deluded. My nickname is a truncation of my surname, so I'm not Arabic - phew! However, sometimes I imagine myself as a Beau Geste in the French Foreign Legion, fighting evil, righting wrongs, promoting good and rescuing damsels in distress.