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.
1 – JC (Jimmy) CLARKEN, b.1876, four Tests 1905-10; Glebe and NSW. One of the most fascinating characters from the dawn of Australian rugby, this Kiwi born prop-hooker was sneakier than a sackful of slippery eels.
He was renowned for his mobility, craftiness and excellent off-field sense of humour.
And gutsy too. In 1911, he helped Harry Baker (also mentioned in this despatch) during a mass rescue at Coogee Beach. For this he received the gold medal, for peace time bravery.
In 1919, the New Zealand army lost only won game on their way to winning the Kings Cup for rugby. This was to the Aussies. Although now 43 at the time, Clarken implored the selectors to pick him for the game, as he knew how to beat the Kiwis.
Back in those days (in fact until the early 1930s), New Zealand only employed a two man front row. Clarken’s plan was deceptively simple. He would stick his head in between the two front-rowers ensuring Australia got the loosehead, irrespective of whose ball it was to feed the scrum.
Deprived of ball, the Kiwis spent much of the match tackling to go down narrowly 5-6.
2 – AM (Allen) OXLADE, b.1882, four Tests 1904-07; Brisbane Norths, Past Grammar and Qld. Nicknamed ‘Butcher’, because that was both his profession and playing style, Oxlade wasn’t pretty to look at or watch, but he was pretty effective.
A gnarled, ornery forward who didn’t have too many subtleties in his game, he was nevertheless one of the toughest and most courageous players of his era. A Brisbane newspaper once opined that he was built like a pony, but was as strong as a horse.
His son flanker Boyd, was one of four sons of three ex-Wallabies selected for the ill-feted tour of 1939/40.
3 – TJ (Tom) BARNETT, b.1881, five Tests 1907-09; Newtown and NSW. Nicknamed ‘Tosser’, Barnett was a working class hero from Newtown who worked on the docks. He was tough and relentless. He was a rock for the Wallabies on their ground breaking tour in 1908-09, before becoming one of 13 members of the touring party to turn professional in 1909.
4 – P (Paddy) MURPHY, b.1879, nine Tests 1910-14; Brothers and Qld. Murphy came late to rugby, being 31 when he won Wallaby selection in 1910. But he gave grand service to whichever team he played for, possessing the flexibility to move between the second and back rows.
5 – PA (Paddy) McCUE, b.1883, five Tests 1907-09; Newtown and NSW. A powerful scrummager, excellent in line outs and clever in open play. Was perhaps the leading agitator in convincing 13 of his fellow Wallabies to defect to rugby league when the team returned to Australia in 1909.
6 – EA (Ernst) CODY, b.1892, three Tests 1913; Sydney Easts, Randwick and NSW. Nicknamed ‘Bill’ after the famous American frontiersman of the same surname, ‘Buffalo Bill’. Cody was by all accounts, a precursor to the Rocky Elsom style of flanker – tough, rugged and very good. He also played for the AIF.
7 – HA (Harald) BAKER, b.1887, 3 Tests 1914; Sydney Easts, Randwick and NSW. Baker had a hugely famous older brother, Reg ‘Snowy’ Baker, who played for the Wallabies in 1904, represented Australia in boxing at the 1908 London Olympics, and excelled at numerous other sports.
Harry Baker himself had an extraordinary life. As a rugby player, he was a forward of indomitable spirit and courage. He was instrumental in saving eight surfers caught in a rip off Coogee in January 1911, assisted by another Wallaby, Jimmy Clarken.
Like Clarken, Baker was awarded the gold medal for peace time bravery in this mass rescue. After WW1, he became the leading coach in Queensland on their revival. He held swimming, boxing, wrestling and weightlifting titles in his youth.
On his return to NSW, he became a leading boxing referee at the former Sydney Stadium.
8 – F (Fred) THOMPSON, b.1890, five Tests 1913-14; Sydney Easts and NSW. Thompson was sadly one of many ex-Wallabies to lose their life in the Great War. He was one of three Easts teammates, along with the aforementioned George and Wallach to pay the ultimate sacrifice.
He was considered an outstanding loose forward of the period. He was shot in the head and died immediately just three weeks after George died, and five weeks after the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli.
9 – F (Fred) WOOD, b.1884, 12 Tests 1907-14; Glebe and NSW. Nicknamed Possum for his diminutive size, Wood would have been the pre-eminent halfback of this era, bar for that other guy named McKivat. Despite his bantamweight size, he was solid and neat in all his actions. Also a recognised leader.
10 – WG (Bill) TASKER, b.1892, six Tests 1913-14; Sydney Easts and NSW. Nicknamed ‘Twit’, Tasker was perhaps the best genuine #10 of the period, bar for the utility player Prentice. There wasn’t anything much fancy in his play, but he was highly efficient in everything he did. His playing style was described as ‘classy’.
Tasker was killed in the last months of WW1, in August 1918.
11 – AS (Lonnie) Spragg, b.1879, four Tests 1899; Brisbane Norths and Qld. Played his early rugby with Wallaroos in Sydney. Perhaps our first superstar. Could play both winger and centre with aplomb and kick goals.
In his tome, ‘Australian Rugby: the game and the players (1994)’, author Jack Pollard said, when the first-ever test team was being considered, the excitement machine “Spragg’s name was the first decided upon”.
Died ridiculously young in 1904 at the tender age of 24, from a combination of appendicitis and peritonitis.
12 – WT (Bill) EVANS, b.1876, two Tests, 1899; Past Grammar and Qld. An incredibly versatile sportsman, who also represented his state in cricket and lawn bowls. He became a selector in all three sports, as well as refereeing rugby and umpiring cricket.
He was a splendid handler, passing and catching with impressive dexterity. However, being injury-prone restricted him reaching his true potential. Younger brother Lew also represented Australia in 1904.
13 – SM (Stan) WICKHAM, b.1976, five Tests 1903-05; Wallaroos, Sydney Wests and NSW. Surprisingly omitted in 1899, there is no indication he was injured. Noted for his strength and twinkling feet, he was at home across the entire three-quarter line.
Was named assistant manager and unofficial coach of the 1908-09 Wallabies to the UK. Four Tests as captain.
14 – CJ (Charlie) Russell, b.1884, five Tests, 1907-09; Newtown and NSW. Nicknamed ‘Boxer’ for his exceptional strength and pugnacious attitude, Boxer also had speed to burn. Reading about him suggests he was of similar physique and temperament to bullocky Michael Hancock, the Broncos, Maroons and Kangaroos winger circa 1988-94.
15 – PP (Paddy) CARMICHAEL, b. 1884, four Tests, 1907-09; Brothers and Qld. Was noted for his eccentricity of wearing a cap on the playing field. Was not a spectacular player, but the best goal-kicker of the pre-WW1 period, being the leading points scorer of the 1908-09 tour.
Before we end this section, we will look at “three honourable mentions”.
RL (Reg) BAKER, b.1884, two Tests 1904; Sydney Easts and NSW. Nicknamed ’Snowy’ for his blond hair, Baker was an extraordinary all-round sportsman, marketing spuriker and adventurer. His rugby career was brief, playing both his Tests at halfback, but he could probably have excelled at both flyhallf and centre, just like Flynn and Giteau.
He indeed excelled in a range of sports as diverse as rugby, swimming, diving, rowing, surfing, boxing, wrestling and equestrian.
At the 1908 London Olympics, Baker lost the middleweight gold medal to JWHT Douglas, also a prominent English cricketer and captain, dubbed by Aussie barrackers for his dour play, ‘Johnny Won’t Hit Today’.
The ref was the only judge of the final, and he happened to be Douglas’ father!
In later life, Baker moved to California in the 1920s and settled in Hollywood, where he taught stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Greta Garbo to fence, swim and ride. He ran the Riviera club for years, playing polo with the glamour and elite set. He was the elder brother of Harry Baker.
DB (Dan) CARROLL, b.1887, two Tests 1908-12; St.George and NSW. Carroll had a fascinating career that eventually took him from Australia to USA, where he became a citizen and settled. Carroll, a centre turned winger, was noted for his blistering speed. After school he studied dentistry and was the youngest member of the 1908-09 Wallabies.
He settled in the US after touring there with the Wallabies in 1912, and served in the American army during WW1. He had the unique distinction of winning a gold medal in rugby for Australia at the 1908 London Olympics and again winning another gold medal in rugby for USA at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.
In later life, he changed careers, and was a longtime executive with Standard oil Company.
RJ (Bob) WILLCOCKS, b.1991, Valleys, Past Grammar and Qld. Willcocks, a versatile flyhalf and centre, never played for Australia, but it certainly wasn’t because of a lack of ability.
Indeed, quite the opposite. Willcocks was invited twice to tour with the Wallabies, in 1912 to North America, and in 1913 to New Zealand, but the offer was blocked on both occasions by his overbearing father. Willcocks remains the youngest player to represent Queensland in rugby, playing for the state in 1908, aged just 16.
His parents, who apparently owned a large cattle station in Western Queensland, didn’t want their son “touring with ruffians”, or indulging in trivial pursuits, and his father insisted he should either be studying in Brisbane, or helping out on the farm.
Willcocks probably thought he had time on his side to play Test rugby, but WW1 brought an abrupt end to any such ambitions, and Willcocks was lost to the game.
What is intriguing however, again according to author Jack Pollard, is that when a young Reg Gasnier was chosen to play rugby league for NSW in 1959 in Qld, at just 20 years of age, old-timers flocked to Lang park in Brisbane to see if young Gasnier was as good as Bob Willcocks was all those years ago.