It was a topsy-turvy world in the early days of international rugby – aside from form, residency was all that mattered. All Blacks turned into Wallabies, Wallabies became British Lions, Sydney schoolboys gained fame under England’s red rose, and Australian rules players from Melbourne turned out for Scotland.
Playing rugby for a country other than your own, or even playing for two different countries, was hardly uncommon a century ago. The greatest example of these “Jumping Jacks” came in early 1899, when news broke that the soon to arrive down-under British rugby team would only be visiting Australia.
While there was initially an outpouring of dismay across rugby-mad New Zealand over the decision, many footballers decided to rectify the problem themselves. Tossing aside their jobs, they jumped aboard steamer-ships for the five-day journey to Sydney Harbour.
Barely weeks before the Brits arrived, more than a dozen New Zealand footballers had hooked-up with Sydney rugby clubs. Australian rugby had no residential rules – and the New Zealanders knew it. Once they took to the field, they qualified as Australians, and played in the hope of being selected for the Test team.
By the time Australia’s team for fourth Test was chosen, with the home side desperate to square the series with a victory, the national selectors had no qualms in choosing four New Zealanders, including 1897 All Black Bill Hardcastle.
A decade later Hardcastle crossed to rugby league, becoming the first (and still only) All Black turned Wallaby turned Kangaroo. The “triple feat” was matched by Dally Messenger (Wallabies, Kiwis & Kangaroos), as well as ‘Bolla’ Francis and George Gillett (both were All Blacks then Kiwis & Kangaroos).
The Australian selectors of 1899 were hardly pioneers in the habit though – their British Lions opponents in that series included in the outside backs Alec Timms, former Geelong FC player of the early 1890s. Timms was awarded 14 caps for Scotland (1896-1905), captaining the team in his final appearance. His brother Charles Timms would later be amongst the 1910 British Lions who toured South Africa.
The sons of Australia’s wealthiest gentry in the late 1800s were sent to schools and universities across Great Britain to finish their education, thus becoming available to the national teams and the British Lions. Like the Timms brothers, many went to obtain medical degrees at the Edinburgh University. Herbert Bullmore, Kerry Packer’s grandfather, was in the Scots’ forward pack in 1902.
Another Melbourne footballer who played rugby for Scotland was Reggie Morrison. A contemporary of Charles Brownlow (whom the AFL’s Brownlow Medal is named in honour of) at Geelong in the early 1880s, Morrison got his first look at the rugby code with Edinburgh University’s third XV in 1883. Three seasons later he represented Scotland in matches against England, Ireland and Wales. Just before WW1, Tasmanian born and bred William Allan Stewart won selection for Scotland while studying at the Royal London Hospital (he was of Scottish descent).
Melbourne-born (1858) James Alfred Bevan went on to become the captain of the first Wales rugby union team in 1881. His transfer from Australia to Wales though came when, at the age of seven, both his parents drowned in a shipping disaster – Bevan was sent to live with relatives in Wales. Since 2007 the Wallabies and Wales have played for the James Bevan Trophy.
The RFU in England didn’t miss out on utilising colonial talent, picking Charles Wade while he was at Oxford University in the 1880s. Born in Singleton in the Hunter Valley, the future NSW state premier was capped eight times for England as a wing three-quarter.
In 1885 Sammy Woods of Sydney Grammar School sailed to England to complete his education at Brighton College and then Cambridge University. Woods was a fine rugby footballer (Bridgwater & Albion RFC, Blackheath, Cambridge University & Barbarians) and played 13 internationals as a forward for England from 1890 to 1895 (twice as captain). Woods played three cricket Tests for Australia in 1888 when the team visiting England became severely depleted by injury and illness.
Hobart’s Lyndhurst Giblin played for England three times in the mid 1890s, and Frank Sholl Scott, Perth-born son of the Western Australian city’s mayor, Edward Scott, was a winger in the English team that took on Wales at Swansea in 1907.
Former Sydney University rugby player Garnet Vere Portus (better known as ‘Jerry’ Portus) attended Oxford University in 1908 – unable to break into Oxford’s first XV, Vere took up with the famous Blackheath club, where he gained selection at outside-half for England in matches against France and Ireland.
Queensland prop forward 1908-09 ‘Bruno’ Brown was selected by England when he was studying at Oxford, making his debut against Wales at Swansea in 1911. His try against Scotland at Twickenham in 1913 was the day’s only points, but it secured for England their the first ever ‘Grand Slam’. Brown went on to become one of the few men to play for England either side of WW1, ultimately being awarded 18 caps, his final in 1922 as captain.
AC ‘Johnnie’ Wallace, captain of the famous NSW Waratahs team that toured Britain 1927-28, had earlier played for Scotland nine times while at Oxford (Wallace’s father had been born in Scotland). In 1925 Wallace was in the Scotland three-quarter line that included Melbourne-born Ian Smith (32 Tests, 1924-33) and 1921 All Blacks captain George Aitken.
Vaucluse’s Hector Forsayth, who had moved on to Oxford University after completing high school at the King’s School in Parramatta, played seven times for Scotland at the start of the 1920s (his father donated the Forsayth Shield in 1917 to establish an annual contest between a selected Sydney GPS XV against Duntroon RMC, which continued until 1955).
Just before WW2 another King’s student, David Campbell – a descendant of Fred Campbell who was one of the founders of Sydney’s Wallaroo Rugby club in 1870 – accepted an invitation to play for England while at Cambridge University. In later life he became a noted Australian poet.
After WW2 another Sydney University player studying at Oxford, Basil Travers, played six times for England, including a game against the 1947/48 Wallabies at Twickenham. Doug Keller, a member of that Australian team, remained to study medicine, and turned out for Scotland the following season. Melbourne-born Larry Webb, of whom practically nothing is known, took part in all of England’s games in the Five Nations series of 1959.
Aside from those who happened to be in an opportune place at the right time, there were other footballers who travelled the globe in search of international honours.
Queensland’s Tom Richards, a miner, went to South Africa in early 1906, holding hopes of being selected for the first Springbok tour of Britain. After playing for Transvaal in the Currie Cup, he was told the South Africans had invoked a seven-year residential rule. Unfazed, Richards followed the team to England anyway, and took up with the Bristol club.
After hearing that Australia was to send her first team to Great Britain in 1908, Richards returned home. He duly gained selection in the first Wallabies tour team, and played for Australia in Tests against England and Wales.
Following the tour he again moved to South Africa. Richards’ previous short stint at Bristol was considered to be a sufficient qualification for the touring British Lions to twice call on his services for Tests against the Springboks in South Africa in 1910.
Of all these pioneer footballers who traded national allegiances, arguably England’s Blair Swannell made the ultimate contribution to his adoptive country.
A British Lion to Australia in 1899 and again in 1904 – with service in the Boer War in between – the former Northampton Saints RFC player remained in Sydney after his second tour. Playing for Northern Suburbs in 1905, Swannell’s form (and reputation) was so good that he was selected in a Test for Australia against New Zealand.
Just under a decade later, when the Great War erupted in Europe, the then 39 year old Swannell was one of the first to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. The Boer War veteran was appointed to the rank of Major.
On the morning of 25 April 1915, Swannell led his men on one of the Anzacs’ first charges at Gallipoli. He barely made any ground before being fatally shot through the forehead.
The 1908 Wallabies captain, Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran, wrote of Swannell’s demise: “The hard porcelain of his spirit had richer glaze than we had previously perceived; it was love of country.”
© Sean Fagan