The Roar
The Roar

A freak wave, a bloody swordsman, a Lebanese coach, a plague of locusts, a number eight who refuses to select a number eight, gold rushes, a judge named de Villiers, and Victorian axe men.

All of it true, or as true as we can guess, and part of the seamless web of Australian rugby. Brew a cup, take a seat, and read a tale of blood, gold, rugby, ambition and the silent sea.

A 500-foot steamship, the SS Waratah, was built and launched in 1908 in Glasgow. ‘Waratah’ is a good name for a flower and a rugby team, but apparently a terrible name for a ship.

In 1848, 1887, and 1897, ships named ‘Waratah’ sank in deep waters. But just as the Titanic (being built as the SS Waratah was launched) the SS Waratah was considered unsinkable.

Three ships in one: a luxury liner with a hundred first class cabins, eight staterooms, a state-of-the-art desalination distillery on deck; her music lounge decorated with crimson waratahs.

She was a cargo ship too, but her holds had a dual purpose: bring hundreds of emigrating British and Irish in adapted ‘dormitories’ to Australia, and return with foodstuffs in those same holds.

The ship was expensive, but underinsured and carried no radio. Still, the captain had sailed for 40 years in blue waters without loss.

‘Waratah’ is a good name for a flower and a rugby team, but apparently a terrible name for a ship. In 1848, 1887, and 1897, ships named ‘Waratah’ sank in deep waters.

On its second voyage, in 1909, everything went smoothly for 222 passengers starting a new life Down Under. The passage from London to Cape Town, then to Sydney, was uneventful.

After Sydney, the SS Waratah took on more passengers at each Australian port. Oats, tallow, butter, flour and meat (including 8,000 crates of rabbit carcasses) gradually filled the hold.

Temporary Australian capital, Melbourne, welcomed the palatial steamship in style. Two brawny young Tasmanians joined the ship, bound for London by way of Durban and Cape Town.

Size fourteen-booted Alf Clarke and six foot five Jack Calder were champion axe men. Clarke and Calder were to compete at the World Championships hosted by Crystal Palace.

A gold rush will usually generate skilled axe men. In 1851, gold was discovered in Victoria, leading to a doubling of Melbourne’s population in one year.

The boom in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ lasted four decades, but by 1909, the economy was in the doldrums. Almost as many Victorians were returning to the British Isles as were arriving.

When the SS Waratah embarked on the return journey with stops in Adelaide, Durban and Cape Town planned, she was carrying over two hundred passengers and crew, mostly Australian.

The ship left Adelaide on July 7, 1909, docking at Durban 18 days later. Thanks to light winds, most passengers enjoyed the trip. However, English engineer Claude Sawyer did not.

Sawyer dreamed every night of a blood-stained swordsman in strange garb. The swordsman rose from the sea before disappearing beneath towe