The Hunter Valley footballer who revolutionised rugby
Schoolboy William Webb Ellis ran with the football, but it took a young man from the Hunter Valley to show the rugby world how to make spectacular use of it.
Over 60 years before a fully representative Wallabies team first met Scotland (1947 at Murrayfield), Singleton-born Charles Gregory Wade was not only wreaking havoc on the rugby field against the Scots and the other Home Nations, but revolutionising the way the game would forever be played.
Given the acclaim he was awarded, and the lasting influence his play would have over modern rugby, it is remarkable that Wade and his story have long been forgotten.
Wade was born in 1863 at Singleton in the Hunter Valley on Australia Day (then called “Anniversary Day”), living with his family in their home on the corner of Gipp and Bishopgate streets.
The son of a relatively wealthy civil engineer, Wade was educated at the newly opened All Saints’ College (Bathurst), The King’s School (Parramatta) and Sydney University.
Rugby football took a prominent place at all three.
Seeking a career in the law, Wade sailed to England in 1881 to complete his education at Oxford University.
Letters talking up the Australian’s prowess as a footballer reached the eyes of the senior rugby players at Oxford. But as Wade had not ventured anywhere near the rugby field, most dismissed the claims as colonial swagger.
It seems that Wade was of a shy nature, waiting upon an invitation to join with the Oxford ruggers. A year went by.
Finally, after he came to prominence in the rowing team, he was approached to take up rugby and he accepted the opportunity.
Rugby of this era was predominantly a scrummaging and hard-shoving game, carrying or kicking the ball towards the opposing goal.
The notion that advantage could be gained by hand-passing the ball from player to player had yet to be realised.
Each team had ten forwards, two half-backs, a fullback and two “three quarter backs” (one on each side of the field).
The latter was Wade’s position and he made an immediate impact.
One of Oxford and England’s greatest players of the early 1880s Harry Vassall, writing in the 1923 RFU Annual, said Wade “was the best three-quarter we ever had in England”.
“At Oxford they were slow to find him, but when at last they discovered he could play rugger, they soon learnt that he was an extraordinary man,” Vassall continued.
“At times it was practically impossible to stop him.”
“Wade was the most robust runner of his time, and perhaps of any time. He simply ploughed through his foes, throwing them off his hips by a sort of shift or shuffle.”
“He ran very fast and straight, and had a wonderful swerve when going at full pace, by which he foiled the tackler, who only received a nasty one from his iron thigh.”
Wade remained fiercely patriotic to his home, adorning his Oxford blue rugby jersey with a kangaroo badge.
Still, he did not reject invitations to play in representative teams, and ultimately played eight times for England in matches against the other Home Nations between 1882-86, including two against Scotland.
At the time of his last game for England he was the holder of the team record for the most career tries.
In one match against Wales he crossed for three tries – an astonishing number given their rarity in 1880s rugby.
“We are rather inclined to think that Wade, the Oxonian, was the best three-quarter we have seen,” the respected Montague Shearman wrote at the end of the decade.
There is more to Wade’s story though.
His stunning arrival into Oxford rugby triggered a series of events that transformed the code.
It evolved from the forward-dominated game into the modern version, whereby forwards fight for possession of the ball to feed a co-ordinated backline to exploit the open field by running and passing.
In the 1882 North v South trial game for England selection, one of the South’s forwards pulled out of the game at the last moment.
After news spread of his deeds at Oxford, Wade was the preferred man to come into the team. But since Wade was not a forward, the selection seemed impractical.
The solution devised was to play with one less forward and for Wade to become the team’s third three-quarter back.
It proved an instant success, with Wade gaining far more opportunities to take advantage of the available space outside of the scrums.
Almost immediately after Wade’s example it became the norm to have three three-quarters, which very quickly led to the backs passing the ball to each other instead of running alone or kicking the ball away.
Within a few years a fourth three-quarter was added, giving us what is now the conventional rugby backline.
Wade returned to Sydney to commence work as a lawyer. He continued to play club rugby and appeared for the Waratahs against Queensland and Victoria. In 1888 he played against the visiting British Lions.
He soon became a respected barrister and then crown prosecutor.
Seemingly long over his shyness, Wade entered state parliament in 1903 as the Liberal member for Willoughby. Within four years he was the NSW state premier. He was knighted in 1918.
Wade credited rugby for the influence it had upon his personal development, saying he had “played all three games of football – Rugby, Australian and British Association.
There is no doubt that rugby was the greater game, more especially in its educational influence. It built up the physique, masculinity and character in young men.
Let’s hope the Wallabies and Scotland three-quarter lines are in full cry on Tuesday evening in Newcastle.
It would be a fitting tribute to the young man from the Hunter, who lit the flame of modern rugby so long ago.