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John O’Neill was not long in the job of CEO of the ARU in 1997 when he signed up Reebok to a lucrative (for the times) Wallaby jersey sponsorship.
When the new jersey, a mish-mash of colliding colours of green, white and gold, in swirls and diagonals, was unveiled, a fire storm descended on him.
Peter FitzSimons described the jersey as “dog’s vomit”. The Sydney Morning Herald went big on the story and O’Neill felt obliged to hold a media conference to settle things down.
At the conference, the SMH’s star columnist Paul Sheehan was unleashed as an attack dog. He took over the conference with a series of savage interjections. His main point was that the famous Wallaby gold jersey was being desecrated on the altar of commercialism.
He was right, of course, from an aesthetic point of view. The new jersey was easily the most nauseating Wallaby outfit ever inflicted on the players and supporters.
But he was wrong to insist that the Wallaby gold jersey was the classic jersey for Australia’s national rugby team. I wrote an article at the time pointing out that while the All Blacks have remained loyal or staunch with their iconic black jersey, the Wallabies have had about nine different colours and formats.
From 1899 on, the Wallabies tended to play in the colours of the state they were playing in, the Waratahs’ light blue when playing in Sydney and the Queensland maroon when playing at Brisbane. From the late 1930s through to the 1960s the Wallabies generally played in a green jersey. The gold jersey was introduced in 1961 on the tour to South Africa to avoid the clash with the green Springboks jerseys.
But even after 1961 (as the 1997 furore indicates) the Wallabies played in different shadings of gold, ranging from urine yellow to a rich pumpkin red/gold, generally depending upon the company which held the sponsorship.
It is a little-known fact that the first commercial sponsor of the Wallaby jersey was Adidas. One of the first acts of the Fraser Government after its victory in the 1975 was to cut its traditional grant to the ARU for outfitting touring sides. The ARU, which had virtually no funds, could not afford to pay these outfitting costs.
To make up for the shortfall, the ARU signed its first jersey sponsorship with Adidas.
So a generation of some of the greatest of all the Wallabies, the Ellas, David Campese, Simon Poidevin, Nick Farr-Jones, Roger Gould and Michael Lynagh played with the three green Adidas stripes running across the shoulders of their gold jersey.
The three stripes disappeared in 1989, the year of the tour by the British and Irish Lions.
To return to the beginning, though, the early Australian sides playing in Australia played with the colours of the state the Test was being presented. I have in front of me as I write this Peter Jenkins’ excellent, magisterial Wallaby Gold: 100 Years Of Australian Test Rugby (Random House 1999).
The first photo in the book shows Australia’s first rugby team in 1899 (before there was a political Australia!) posing before their Test against Britain at the SCG on 4 June 1899 in their NSW blue jerseys and dark blue shorts, with a big Australia coat of arms on their chest.
For the second Test at Brisbane, the Australian outfit had become a maroon jersey and white shorts.
By 1904, again against Britain, the coat of arms had been replaced with what appears to be a stylised Waratah flower.
In 1907 against the All Blacks, the Australian outfit was a blue and maroon striped jersey with dark blue shorts.
The first Wallabies on their tour of the UK in 1908 wore the light blue NSW jersey with a big A on the chest and dark blue shorts.
Jack Pollard points out in his mammoth history Australian Rugby Union: The Game and the Players (Angus and Robertson 1984) that this outfit was generally the touring kit until 1947-1948 when, for some “obscure reason”, the Wallabies touring the UK wore green and gold – a green jersey with the Australian coat of arms on the chest, white shorts and green and gold socks.
The use of the word “obscure” was justified by Pollard, when he pointed out that Australia’s national colours are actually blue and gold.
He surmised that the green and gold was adopted because there was a “mistaken belief” among cricket officials at the time that the official national colours were green and gold. But colour photos of Test cricketers in the era of Victor Trumper, Pollard pointed out, clearly show them “garbed in blue and gold”.
In 1978, however, the sports bodies in Australia decided that the Australian amateur representative colours were green and gold.
In the 1929 series against the All Blacks, when the Wallabies had Queensland players for the first time since the First World War when the Queensland Rugby Union went out of existence, the Wallabies played in a green jersey and white shorts. This series was won 3 – 0 by the Wallabies. It was the first Test series ever lost by the All Blacks.
The green jersey was kept for Tests against the All Blacks, away and at home, in 1931 and 1932. But for the tour of South Africa in 1933, the NSW blue was restored, and also for tours of New Zealand in 1936 and 1946.
In the home series against the Springboks in 1937, the blue and maroon striped jersey returned. You can buy this ‘Australian Wallabies Retro 1937 Jersey’ on Sports Box.
Generally before Rugby World Cup tournaments, the ARU will unveil its ‘new’ jersey. Aside from the 1997 edition, no unveiling has been as controversial as the 2007 model.
That year Canterbury produced a ‘slimfit’ jersey that had been under development for three years with Loughborough University in the UK. The intention of the makers was to give the Wallabies a ‘performance’ edge. For the first time, the props were given a ‘cap sleeve’ that made binding on their jersey almost impossible.
This notion of the jersey providing more than the showing of the colours and being part of the team’s winning arsenal of tricks and ploys is not new.
The 1905 All Blacks, one of rugby’s smartest teams, used to loosen the threads holding the jersey intact so that if an All Black was grabbed by the jersey trying to make a break, a panel from his jersey was left in the hands of the would-be tackler as the player raced ahead.
The main highlight or lowlight as far as the public was concerned of the 2007 model were the brown lines running across the front of the jersey, the slim lines, which were intended to define the abs and muscles of the trim Wallabies but, in fact, looked like giving them a man-bra shape.
To my mind, this is the worst Wallaby jersey, even more disagreeable than the 1997 model that David Wilson attacked as “an SBS test pattern” and a “girl’s blouse”.
The best Wallaby outfit in the modern era? The 1985 model, which consisted of a rich-coloured gold jersey with a dark green collar, dark green shorts and green socks with one wide band of gold. To my mind, the simplicity of the outfit and the richness of the colours make it as stand-out.
The 2012 version looks sort of OK, too. But it loses me when the dark green shorts have a thick gold trim at the bottom. Too fussy.
All of which raises the question: What ideas do Roarers have for their ideal Wallaby outfit?