In these tumultuous and uncertain times, I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at 121 years of the Wallabies playing Test rugby, and pick a first XV and second XV from each 20-year period.
There are six 20-year periods, bar the first era, which is 21 years. Further, I’ve given each era a name: 1899-1919 are the Pioneers, 1920-39 are the Revivalists, 1940-59 are the Diehards, 1960-79 are the Reformists, 1980-99 are the Entertainers and 2000-19 are the Professionals.
I will explain the proposed name for each era as I approach them in turn, but the first era – the Pioneers – is self-explanatory.
Although this era covers 21 years, there was no Test rugby at all between 1915-19, as the world was engulfed in a global war and its immediate after-effects.
Only 24 Tests were played by the Wallabies in this ground-breaking era and only one player – the Sydney scrumhalf Fred ‘Possum’ Wood – reached double figures, playing in half this total, with 12 Tests.
The most capped forward was Queensland utility Paddy Murphy, who alternated between the second row and back row.
So let’s look at the first XV from the Pioneers era.
1. Harry George
Born 1885, eight Tests, 1910-14, Sydney Easts and NSW
This is a name as outstanding as any to start our process. George was a tireless, grafting, extremely courageous forward who rarely played a bad game.
Indeed, such was his courage and love of country that he was one of the first Wallabies to die in World War One, being killed at Gallipoli just two weeks after the first landings.
George went out into no man’s land to retrieve a wounded comrade. He was able to get him back safely to the trenches, but before he could himself find the safety of the dugout, he was shot and killed.
2. Tom Griffin
Born 1884, six Tests, 1908-12, Glebe and NSW
Clearly our best hooker in this period, Griffin was first-choice hooker on the 1908-09 tour of the UK. He was benign off the field but fearless when playing.
Griffin went into coaching and administration after the war, and was chairman of selectors for the 1927-28 Waratahs tour of the UK, Ireland and France.
3. Bill Watson
Born 1887, eight Tests 1912-20, Glebe and NSW
While he may have been the third member to come along of our first great front-row combination, Watson’s feats, both on and off the field, were the stuff of legend.
There should be some kind of perpetual award, perhaps for combined contributions to rugby, leadership and community, named after Bill Watson.
He was also the Wallabies’ first post-war captain, although this honour was retrospectively given in 1986, having also led the AIF team in both Europe and Australia in 1919.
In World War One, he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) twice for bravery as well as the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) before winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in World War Two.
Watson’s DSO was awarded during the early stages of the Kokoda Track campaign in Papua New Guinea, when he took over temporary command of the besieged Australian defenders, who were in danger of being overrun because they were so undermanned.
4. Syd Middleton
Born 1884, four Tests, 1908-10, Glebe and NSW
Middleton was a robust, imposing, very tough forward of his time, who led the Wallabies in 1910. He was a big man for his time, possessing an aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude.
After the war he was given the extremely prominent job of kick-starting as many sports comps as possible to keep soldiers occupied before they were repatriated home.
Middleton personally preferred to concentrate on rowing eights, and his team was successful in winning the Henley regatta in 1919. He represented Australia in the eights at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, finishing fourth.
He won the Distinguished Shrive Order (DSO) for gallantry in action in May of 1918.
5. Clarrie Wallach
Born 1889, five Tests 1913-14, Sydney Easts and NSW
Nicknamed ‘Doss’, Wallach was an enterprising and vigorous scrummager and mauler who epitomised the early spirit and soul of our teams.
He sadly died in the last months of World War One in 1918, after shrapnel from an explosion that went into his legs became gangrenous, and he had both legs amputated.
The loss of blood and shock was too much for his battered body.
6. Tom Richards
Born 1883, three Tests 1908-12, Charters Towers, Manly and Queensland
Nicknamed ‘Rusty’ for his red hair, Richards was the most acclaimed Wallabies forward before the war.
In fact, he is worth a book all to himself. A great traveller, he criss-crossed the globe both for work and sporting pleasure.
Richards came from a family of coal and gold miners. His travels took him to the Transvaal in South Africa, Bristol in England and Toulouse in France.
While in SA in 1910, he was co-opted by the touring Lions for two Tests, courtesy of previously playing with Bristol. Consequently, the trophy for Wallabies-Lions Tests is known as the Tom Richards Cup.
As a player, he was renowned for being scrupulously fair, possessing tremendous speed, prodigious strength, masterly ball skills and a fine tactical brain.
During World War One on the Western front, he was an ambulance-man, winning the Military Cross (MC) for bravery.
7. Jim Hughes
Born 1885, two Tests 1907, Sydney University and NSW
Hughes came from a family of outstanding rugby players, which also saw a younger brother Bryan represent the Wallabies.
Hughes was considered the outstanding Sydney forward around 1906-08, but was unable to tour in 1908-09 due his medical studies.
His strengths were his speed to the breakdown and clever support play.
8. Harry Judd
Born 1880, five Tests 1903-05, Randwick, Newtown, St George and NSW
In the period about 1903-05, Judd was considered the finest forward in Sydney rugby.
He was also the front-runner for the captaincy of the 1908-09 touring team, before he broke his leg in an interstate match in 1906, and promptly retired to concentrate on his medial practice.
9. Chris McKivat
Born 1879, four Tests 1907-09, Glebe and NSW
The only man to this day to captain both the Wallabies and Kangaroos, McKivat was originally chosen at flyhallf and with no leadership duties for the 1908-09 tour.
However, when vice-captain Fred Wood went sick early in the tour, McKivat took over the scrumhalf position with aplomb.
Then when tour captain Paddy Moran also struggled with injury, lost form and was dropped from the Test team, McKivat became the new Wallabies leader.
McKivat’s key characteristics were a willingness to attack from all set pieces and broken-field positions, and as well as tremendous torpedo punts to gain territory.
10. Ward Prentice
Born 1886, six Tests 1908-12, Sydney Wests and NSW
There was nothing flashy about Prentice, but he was the master of efficiency in everything he did.
Prentice also played inside centre, and he was one of seven brothers who at one time or another played for Parramatta before the war.
A younger brother and prop Clarrie played for the Wallabies immediately before the war, and for the Kangaroos immediately after the war.
Being skilful with exceptional hands and being an occasional goal-kicker were his main traits.
11. Herbert Messenger
Born 1883, two Tests 1907, Sydney Easts and NSW
Nicknamed Dally, it’s hard to believe a man who only played twice for the Wallabies could have had such a massive effect on the future progress of two codes: rugby union and rugby league.
But such was Dally’s stature in 1907 that he was considered the greatest ever rugby player produced by this country in the first decade of the game.
Even New Zealanders agreed with this view. The professional NZ rugby league team, derisively referred to as All Golds, even invited Messenger to tour the UK with them in 1907-08, which he did.
Having just played his only two Tests against the All Blacks, Messenger declared himself a professional during clandestine talks with league officials, before steaming off with the Kiwis.
Dally was effectively the David Campese of his day, doing the kind of things mere mortals wouldn’t think of, like running over the top of a pack to score a try.
12. Jimmy Flynn
Born 1894, two Tests 1914, Brothers and Queensland
Flynn to this day remains the youngest player to captain the Wallabies, given this great honour in the second Test against the All Blacks at age 20 in 1914.
Short and nuggetty, Flynn was the prototype for Matt Giteau nearly 100 years later. Flynn started as a scrumhalf before finding his true position at inside centre.
Like Giteau much later, he flirted with flyhallf as he passed from one position to the other.
Despite his small stature, he was considered to be one of the best and most rugged defenders of his time. He was later instrumental in the revival of rugby in Queensland in 1929.
13. Larry Wogan
Born 1890, 22 Tests, 1912-24, Glebe, Sydney Wests and NSW
Although Wogan played the majority of his Tests post-war, I consider him as belonging more to this first era.
He was powerful in the lower body, providing a prodigious swerve in either direction, a tough defender and sure-footed attacker.
14. Herb Gilbert
Born 1888, three Tests, 1910, Sydney Souths and NSW
Like Messenger, Gilbert became a great centre in rugby league.
Indeed, it’s largely on the assertion of some league experts who considered Gilbert to be superior in skill to Messenger that I have him occupying the other Wallabies flank in this team.
Gilbert was known for his hard, strong running and excellent positioning skills.
15. Larry Dwyer
Born 1886, eight Tests 1910-14, Orange and NSW
Think Matt Burke in the 1990s, and Dwyer was pretty much the same in the 1910s.
Like Burke, Dwyer could play centre and wing, as well as fullback. And also like Burke, he was a competent goal-kicker.
Furthermore, again like Burke, it seems Dwyer was willing to play a more adventurous role from the back the was considered the norm at the time.
My next article will cover this era’s second XV.