...Its Post War Impact on Australia
Following Gallipoli in 1916 J.T. ‘Rusty’ Richards of the 1st Battalion made the following comment:
“Rugby Football matches have now become common amongst the Australian Troops while resting after a spell in the trenches.”
This was now the case, with General Monash and the Australian Command positively encouraging all sporting activities. It was not long before their policy was adopted by the other Allied forces.
The concept of an Inter-Forces Post War Tournament for each major sport quickly arose out of the need to provide physical outlets for the 300,000 young men awaiting for a return home on a limited number of ships to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and India.
Initially, all sporting programmes began in France. In January 1919, an invitation was received by the A.I.F .to play the French Army XV in Paris, which resulted in a 6-3 win for the 1st A.I.F. Team in front of a large excited crowd.
On 28 January 1919, the A.I.F. Team was then sent to England to play the Headquarters Team for selection to play in the prestigious King’s Cup. Fourteen were chosen from NSW, four from Queensland and one from Victoria. The appointed Captain was Lieutenant W.T. Watson of the Glebe-Balmain Club in Sydney (Drummoyne).
The finest game of the King’s Cup Tournament was Australia vs. New Zealand (the eventual tournament winners). There were six All Blacks in the NZ team but Australia surged home for a classic 6-5 win, with the A.I.F forwards outplaying the NZ pack.
The great international concept of the King’s Cup did much to bring Rugby back into popularity around the world. For Australia, up to sixty players had the opportunity to play the game at the highest level, the reserve team being equally successful in their extended tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
So concluded a wonderful period for Rugby Union internationally and for those Australians who had answered their country’s call. The two A.I.F. Teams left England for Australia in the middle of May 1919. Their exploits had been followed avidly in the Australian Press, beginning with their win in Paris over the French Army XV. Extensive pressure soon mounted for them to tour the major Australian Rugby centres on their return, but, the long journey home was not to be without some top level international Rugby. Their troopship called into Port Elizabeth in South Africa; playing and winning against the top South African Province Natal 34-3. The Diggers appreciated the firm South African ground and ran in some spectacular tries.
Such was the demand to see the A.I.F. champions that the NSWRU and QRU made arrangements with a delighted Australian High Command for a series of exhibition matches throughout the States. The triumphant tour which followed was very special because it would not have happened if Rugby had not answered the call and if so many so many Rugby players had not volunteered to enlist. It is interesting to note that of the 60 players making up the total A.I.F. squad, only six were officers. This was no upper echelon outfit.
The story of Rugby in the critical decade of the 1920s begins with the pivotal year of 1919. The massive devastations of the Great War showed for instance that the NSWRU Annual Report of that year listed 388 members, both players and officials who were killed in action.
The only highlights of the first Post War year which re kindled the public’s interest in a code which they thought had disappeared other than in the schools were undoubtedly the matches featuring the triumphant A.I.F. Team on their return home.
To capitalise on that interest, the NSWRU and QRU re-introduced their interstate series, won 3-1 by NSW.
Under the inspiring leadership of Sir Henry Braddon KBE, William Hill and James McMahon of the NSWRU, it was quickly realised by the NSWRU that Rugby in Australia could best restart by remaining on the world stage.
Accordingly, exploiting the international fame of the A.I.F. Team, invitations were extended to both the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and the South African Rugby Football Union to tour in 1920 and 1921 respectively.
William Watson, captain of the A.I.F. Team, was appointed NSW Captain in 1920 and was in the national leadership role for the three Tests against New Zealand that year. These matches are recognised by the ARU as official Tests, as is his Captaincy.
The vision of Braddon and his colleagues was that Rugby must be played at the highest level in Australia or that it would die. They agreed a programme with the New Zealanders of annual exchanges. Then the South Africans agreed to play a series of five matches in 1921 and a development game in Victoria. Both of these Unions had recognised the quality of players which Australia had in the A.I.F. team and the significance of keeping the game strong in Australia.
The first All Black team to visit Australia in 1920 proved to be one of the most brilliant NZ teams for a decade and included seven members of the New Army side beaten by the A.I.F. during the Kings Cup Tournament in 1919 in the UK. They won all seven matches in which they played, including one against NSW Country in Taree. They were just the tonic needed to recreate interest again in Rugby in Australia.
The 1921 season was equally interesting, with the Springboks providing headlines. Their forwards were a huge lot and backs outstandingly fast. They regularly drew crowds of 20,000 to their matches.
That year, it became NSW’s turn to tour New Zealand. This team turned in a remarkable result, losing only one of their 10 tour matches and beating New Zealand in the only Test in Christchurch, 17-3. Otto Nothling, formerly of Queensland, was its star full back, running fearlessly at the All Blacks line.
In 1922, the New Zealanders sent two teams. The Maoris in July and the All Blacks in August. Truly a feast of International Rugby. The Maoris toured NSW Country and drew large mid week crowds of over 10,000. In 1923, the NSWRU were so impressed with the Maori team that they invited them back again.
So, gradually the game of Rugby was put back on its feet, firstly by NSW then with the return of the QRU in 1929. Braddon and his colleagues had seized upon the success of the outstanding A.I.F. Team, the building block which made it all possible.
Throughout July and August 1919, the A.I.F. Team toured Queensland and NSW undefeated, demonstrating their vigour and skill.
Their tour match records are below:
vs. New South Wales at Sydney Sports Ground - won 42-14
vs. Australia at Sydney University Oval - won 25-18
vs. New England at Armidale Sports Ground - won 36-11
vs. Queensland at Brisbane Cricket Ground - won 38-7
vs. Queensland A.I.F. at Brisbane Cricket Ground - won 30-3
vs. Australia at Brisbane Cricket Ground - won 20-13
vs. North West NSW at Inverell Showground - won 52-6
vs. Australia at Sydney Sports Ground - won 22-6
Lieutenant William Watson, DSO, MC & Bar, DCM
Captain of the 1st AIF Team
Captain of New South Wales 1920-1921
Wallaby Cap No.123; Tests: 8 – 1912-1920
Waratah Caps. 22 – 1912-1920