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.
Now we come to our next period, that of the Revivalists, from 1920 to 1939. Why the Revivalists? Well, rugby was shut down during the Great War while rugby league and Australian rules football continued unchecked.
When rugby players and fans came home, they found the game had shrunk considerably. In NSW, the game was now played mainly in Sydney and to a lesser extent in Newcastle and not much elsewhere.
Up in Queensland, the game gave a brief jerk of life in 1919 before collapsing again. In 1928, a civil war broke out between the Queensland Rugby League and Brisbane Rugby League, causing players to defect back to rugby in disgust.
New Zealand did their bit by playing the Waratahs (the national team in absence of any rugby in Queensland) every year from 1920 to 1928. The only year the All Blacks didn’t play the Waratahs was in 1927, with the Waratahs due to travel to UK, Ireland and France. By 1929, Queensland was back on board.
The revival of Australian rugby had begun in earnest. Victoria had surprisingly preceded Queensland in its revival, restarting a Melbourne club comp in 1926. During the 1930s, Victoria was a genuine third power in the Australian game, managing to beat both NSW and Queensland on a couple of occasions each.
Unfortunately, the advent of World War Two brought this budding rainbow to a sudden death glow.
The best players of this period are surprisingly good. As is almost always the case, while Australia didn’t produce too many great teams in the past, it did produce many great and fascinating characters.
1. Eddie Thompson
Born 1906, four Tests 1929-30, YMCA and Queensland
Only played four Tests for four wins, but the opposition was top shelf: three against the All Blacks in 1929 and a lone Test against the Lions in 1930. Strong as a bullock, but gave up top rugby to concentrate on his career as a bank official. He was adamant he was a left prop, meaning he was a loosehead.
2. Eddie Bonis
Born 1907, 21 Tests 1929-38, YMCA and Queensland
From an era when hookers were renowned for quick striking with their feet. However, Bonis was supposedly as slow as a turtle around the traps. Was named the prince of hookers following the tour of South Africa in 1933. Great scrum technician and his combination with Thompson and Bill Cerutti, brief as it was, was the finest front-row in our history up to the start of the war.
3. Bill Cerutti
Born 1909, 21 Tests 1928-37, YMCA, Glebe-Balmain, Manly and NSW
Nicknamed Wild Bill, he was barrel chested and squat, hard, tough and crazy as a cut snake. A truly great character and outstanding prop for Australia.
In a Test against NZ, he carried a slab of putrefied meat onto the pitch just to put his opponents off. In a club match for Manly against Randwick, he kept yelling: “hands off the ball, Randwick”. The maul quickly broke up to reveal Cerutti lying on the ground, cradling the ball. Players from both teams, the ref, linesmen and the crowd all broke out laughing for many minutes.
4. Graham Cooke
Born 1912, 13 Tests 1932-48, YMCA, Toowoomba and Queensland
Nicknamed Kiwi as a compliment to his hard, uncompromising play. Enjoyed an exceptionally long career straddling both sides of the war. However, he spent four years outside Australia 1934-38, working as a coal miner in South Africa, as a means of working his way financially out of the Depression. Often named as John Eales’ partner in all-time teams.
5. Bill White
Born 1913, ten Tests 1932-36, UQ, Queensland, SU and NSW
A massive man for his era, he was vital to the Wallabies in the lineouts and scrums, being especially effective in South Africa in 1933. Incredibly, he was a fighter pilot in World War Two. Astounded acquaintances would wonder how he ever fitted into a fighter plane. He would drily quip that they just built the plane around him!
6. Aub Hodgson
Born 1912, 11 Tests 1933-38, Manly and NSW
If his great mate Cerutti was funny crazy, then possibly Hodgson was nasty crazy. He was always looking to scrap an opponent, and if he couldn’t find any suitable targets, he would sometimes harass a teammate.
As the 1939-40 Wallabies steamed to their unfortunate fate, Hodgson unnecessarily needled the new boys until eventually the entire team censured him and told him to pull his head in. Despite his penchant for anti-social behaviour, he was nevertheless a trojan of a player. Pugnacious, aggressive, spirited and an outstanding lineout jumper. A country-born player who was the predecessor to the hard-boned Simon Poidevin model. In retirement, his eccentricity extended to greeting arriving touring teams at the airport in his dressing gown and a glass of champagne in his hand.
7. Wylie Breckenridge
Born 1903, 11 Tests 1925-30, Glebe-Balmain and NSW
Probably the complete opposite to Hodgson, a pillar of society. Noted for his speed to the breakdown and ferocious tackling, it appears Breckenridge could play both the openside and blindside styles equally well. After retirement, he became a revered figure as tour manager, Test selector and president of the ARU.
8. Jack Ford
Born 1906, 11 Tests 1926-30, Glebe-Balmain and NSW
According to one story, while Ford was brilliant as an attacking weapon, he wasn’t too fussed on tackling. A huge and mobile man for his day, Ford was devastating in attack with ball in hand. A great, rampaging back-rower. Often regarded as the best eightman Australia had produced until Mark Loane came along in the 1970s.
9. Syd Malcolm
Born 1903, 19 Tests 1927-34, Newcastle, Glebe-Balmain, Manly and NSW
Strong, mercurial, gutsy, able to read a game at a glance, and possessing great tactical vision. Another early legend in the great line of Wallabies scrumhalves. Brought the soul of the country-born player to the Wallabies team.
10. Tom Lawton
Born 1899, 14 Tests 1920-32, UQ, GPS, Queensland, SU and NSW
Think Steve Larkham back in the 1930s and you begin to get a picture of Lawton. Like Larkham, he was tall, lean, raw-boned and tremendously tough. He was nicknamed the loping ghost for his ability to glide through the tightest defences.
He was a magnificent handler and passer, long strider and deft body mover, with a calm temperament, fast reflexes, lovely balance, strong defence, robust constitution and could kick goals. He is possibly the best flyhalf we have produced, but unfortunately there was no mass social media or TV back then to properly document his achievements.
He was the grandfather of 1980s Wallabies Tom Junior and Rob Lawton.
11. Jack Kelaher
Born 1912, 13 Tests 1933-38, Drummoyne, Manly and NSW
Being a dapper dresser, a teammate said he looked like the famous British jockey of long ago, Steve Donohoe, giving rise to his nickname Jockey. One of the most accomplished wingers in our history, a finisher of exceptional pace and extremely clever footwork, a sound defender and possessing a very effective swerve. Received rave reviews on his tours of South Africa in 1933 and NZ in 1936.
12. Ron Stanley
Born 1901, 14 Tests 1921-24, SU and NSW
According to author Jack Pollard, Stanley was “a centre or winger of exceptional pace whom many regard as the greatest outside back Australia has produced”. Lean but robust, tough and wiry, gifted with tremendous acceleration, he was Australia’s leading point-scorer at the time of his retirement, with 53 points.
13. Cyril Towers
Born 1906, 19 Tests 1926-37, Randwick and NSW
A champion centre with an acerbic tongue. Fast, tough, sportsmanlike, possessing a fierce blend of aggression and bravado. One of the greatest exponents of back line play from any country. A forthright and outspoken man, he had a massive personality problem, and an ongoing feud with NSW official and tour manager Wally Matthews.
Matthews flatly refused to countenance the selection of Towers for both the 1933 tour to SA and 1939-40 tour of the UK, each of which he was manager. While Towers’ omission from the 1939-40 tour was understandable considering his age of 33, there is no excuse whatsoever for his omission from the 1933 tour.
14. Roly Raymond
Born 1899, 13 Tests 1920-23, SU, Glebe-Balmain and NSW
Possessed a powerful physique generating surprising speed. He was known for his pace, flair, ingenuity and imagination. After legendary Maori fullback George Nepia had seen Raymond play, he declared him the best winger he had seen.
While extending his medical studies at Oxford, he was called into the England team in 1925, but sadly had to withdraw due to a shoulder injury.
During the Italian campaign in World War Two, as chief medical officer he devised a flying-fox style stretcher to haul wounded soldiers between hilltops, rather than have them transported down valley and up hill. For this he was awarded the OBE.
15. Alec Ross
Born 1905, 20 Tests 1925-34, SU, Sydney Easts and NSW
Nicknamed Ross of Gibralter for his utter reliability at the back of the team. Our greatest fullback until the arrival of Roger Gould and Matt Burke. Typical of fullbacks of his day, as defender or guardian of the last line. Excellent positional play with great anticipation. Safe tackler, catcher and punter, although not particularly fast. Clever tactician.