There we were, the reptiles of the media at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Coogee, listening to the CEO of the ARU, John O’Neill, outlining what is going to be a classic Wallabies Test series against Wales this June.
But before the Wallabies come into the sights of Wales, they play Scotland at Newcastle on Tuesday June 5.
As O’Neill pointed out, this will be the first rugby Test at Newcastle. As one of the great breeding grounds of Australian rugby (remember Chris McKivat and Phil Hawthorne of blessed memory), the Newcastle region deserves to have this honour. It is about time.
The game will be a sell-out as locals and out of town visitors get their first look, at the ground, of what will be a new-look Wallaby side looking to re-group after the third place performance at the Rugby World Cup 2011 (a good result in my opinion).
This new team are also looking towards the new Rugby Championship tournament with South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand as the reigning, and last, Tri Nations champions.
O’Neill also pointed out that the SFS comes back as a rugby Test ground this season for the first time since 1998. The third Test in the series against Wales will be an afternoon contest at the SFS (which is great news for supporters with families). The second Test is at Melbourne at Etihad Stadium on June 16.
For the first time in the professional era, a northern hemisphere rugby power will play a three-Test series in the June season.
In time I believe the visiting teams for the June Test series will bring out enough players to play mid-week matches. This, in turn, will bring back the tour to the southern hemisphere rugby nations, aside from the British and Irish Lions which tour a SANZAR country every four years.
With a happy and not coincidental sense of timing, John O’Neill’s presentation was book-marked by the announcement of the latest series of ARU Classic Wallabies Statesmen. This program has been in place since 2008 and works by selecting former great players from each of the decades since the 1940s. These giants of Australian rugby hand out jerseys before Tests and generally work in the rugby community spreading the goodwill gospel of the game.
This cohort of Wallabies Statesmen was: 1940s Max Howell (centre 1946 – 1948), 1950s Dick Tooth (flyhalf 1951-1957), 1960s winger Lloyd McDermott (winger and the first Indigenous Australian to play for the Wallabies in 1962), 1970s Tony Shaw (flanker 1973 – 1982), 1980s Brendan Moon (wing 1978 – 1986), 1990s Richard Harry (prop 1996 – 2000), George Gregan (scrumhalf with a record 139 Test caps 1994 – 2007).
Peter Jenkins of the ARU (the author with statistician Matthew Alverez of the definitive ‘Wallaby Gold’ history) interviewed six of the Wallabies Statesmen present. There were nuggets of gold in what they had to say.
Max Howell, who became an academic and a leading historian of Australian rugby, revealed that he was 58kgs when he first represented Australia against New Zealand at the age of 19. The ball-boys now are much bigger than this! On his debut at Dunedin in 1946 he became the first player in Test history to be substituted.
Howell’s top three players, reluctantly offered because of the many, many players he admired over the decades including Geoff Cooke, the burly Queensland second-rower of the 1940s, were Tom Lawton snr, the incomparable Ken Catchpole and Tony Shaw.
Dick Tooth revealed that he was educated at Newcastle Boys High, which was a rugby league school. He played grade league with Clive Churchill. He only started playing rugby when he attended Sydney University as a medical student. He was captain of the Wallabies when he was controversially left out of the 1957/58 team that toured Europe.
My colleague Greg Growden, who has written a number of excellent books on the history of Australian rugby, suggested to me that Tooth had fallen out with the manager and in the age-old rugby tradition the official won out against the player.
While the Wallabies were in the UK, Tooth was in London doing post-graduate medical studies. He performed the first cruciate ligament operation on an athlete and had a sterling career as a sports doctor.
Lloyd McDermott gave up his short but brilliant rugby career to become a leading lawyer. Just as he was the first Indigenous Australian to become a Wallaby, he was as well the first Indigenous barrister in Australia.
McDermott revealed that 20 years ago he was struck by the fact that only five Indigenous Australians had represented in the Wallabies (himself, the three Ella brothers and Lloyd Walker). He realised that Aboriginal families couldn’t get their kids to where rugby was played. So he set up the Lloyd McDermott Foundation to bring rugby and its values to the kids. The Foundation is a great success story. And, as Peter Jenkins pointed out, there were five Indigenous Australians in last year’s Wallabies squad.
Tony Shaw reckoned the highlight of his rugby career was winning the Bledisloe Cup in 1978 and retaining it in 1980. He looked at Robbie Deans who was sitting in the front row and told him in that forthright manner that was such a mark of his rugby, “I don’t want to put too much pressure on you but it’s time we got the Bledisloe Cup back.”
Brendan Moon startled me by being so tall. We tend to think in this era of the professional giants that past players would just be too small to compete against them. But as I said to Greg Growden when Moon took his place at the microphone, “He’s still a big chap.” Moon (who was the Wallaby record try-scorer for 15 years until David Campese smashed his record) said he admired the determination of Digby Ioane to be involved. He also said he believed Dom Shipperley could be the finisher the Wallabies need if he takes his chances.
George Gregan looks so fit and trim that it is amazing he played so many Tests without incurring serious injuries. He said he was pleased that rugby was coming back to the SFS. He made his famous tackle there on Jeff Wilson, in the first night rugby Test in Australia (which, like next week’s Test against Scotland, was played on a Tuesday). He also played in the last Test at the SFS in 1998. In this series the Wallabies defeated the All Blacks 3 – 0 to retain the Bledisloe Cup.
And in a nice rounding out of the memories, Gregan recounted that the Wallaby who made the speech before the final Test in Christchurch was – Tony Shaw, who told them to go and take the game to the All Blacks – which they did so successfully.
After the formal events of the launch of the Classic Wallabies Statesmen cohort of 2012 I wandered out into the weak sunshine. I caught a glimpse of Lloyd McDermott giving a bear-hug to a smiling Saia Faingna’a.
The poignant thought came to me.
Which players in the current squad will be honoured in years to come as Classic Wallabies?