It is not unheard of for a sporting team to be accompanied by a live mascot – College Football in the USA has made it a tradition. The first Australian Wallabies rugby team to visit Great Britain had one of the more unusual zoological companions….a snake!
Fearing their slithery comrade would be nabbed by the English port authorities, the players conspired to smuggle the Australian python through the Customs search.
The ”carpet snake” [ Morelia spilota variegata] had been brought to England with the 1908 Australian team by Bob ‘Boneta’ Craig, a second row forward from the Balmain rugby club in Sydney.
Nicknamed ‘Bertie’, the python apparently had little difficulty getting through the six week sea voyage from Australia. Craig often strolled about with the snake sitting around his neck.
Despite their imposing presence (carpet snakes can be anything up to 2m long) they are not a venomous snake, usually killing their prey of small birds and mammals by constriction.
When the Aussies arrived in Plymouth, Craig convinced a team mate, Queensland forward Tom Richards, to help him smuggle the snake through Customs and the dock-side official welcome put on by the RFU.
Elaborating on the incident in ‘Rusty’ Richards’ biography Gold, Mud ‘n’ Guts, journalist Greg Growden wrote:
“‘Rusty’ agreed to sling ‘Bertie’ inside his singlet, tied it loosely around his stomach, stuck its head inside a sock, and its tail down the front of his pants. A large overcoat hid any bulge. The plan worked, even though ’Rusty’ grew exceedingly uncomfortable when ‘Bertie’ started to wriggle during the official speeches.”
The Australians then moved on via steam train to nearby Newton Abbot, where they had a week to ready themselves for their first tour match – against the Devon County side at the Rectory ground in Devonport.
In some good publicity for the team, Craig had been photographed by newspapers with ‘Bertie’ slung around his neck. It was a brief moment of celebrity…
“On the day of our first match against Devon, the unfortunate carpet snake which Craig had brought as a mascot, came to an untimely end,” later explained Herbert Moran, the team’s captain.
“The superstitious among the reporters marked it down as a bad omen. As it was, in the first half of this match one of our best forwards [Peter Burge] broke his leg.”
The Western Daily Mercury is published a photograph of a limp and lifeless ‘Bertie’ alongside one of Burge being carried from the field…
Later in the tour Craig – in a particularly waggish mood – wrote in a newspaper of his pet snake’s demise…
“I think it [England] an exceedingly poor country, considering that my esteemed snake ‘Bertie’ died after taking the risk of eating an English mouse for his first meal here. He had survived such ordeals as bushfires, drought and starvation. To a great extent, if it had been his good fortune to have survived until the Australian-Llanelli match, it would have benefitted him greatly, as the wild, cannibalistic conditions which prevail there [in games of rugby] would no doubt have revived him. ”
Craig’s mention of the Llanelli match in Wales was a passing shot at the home team and its supporters. Richards wrote later of the Stradey Park fans as possessed of ”primitive impulse”, while the game itself – won by Llanelli 8-5 – was especially spiteful.
Feelings had run so high between the teams that, after reflecting on the state of affairs, the Aussie manager felt compelled to write a letter of apology to the Llanelli RU and the town itself.
Craig’s sole Test appearance came in Australia’s first match against Wales in December 1908. Played at Cardiff Arms Park, unfortunately for Craig it was a goal from a penalty awarded against him for off-side play at the scrum that gave the Welsh the winning margin in their 9-6 victory.
While the 1908/09 Australians are remembered as the team that adopted the wallaby as the national team’s now famous nickname, its long been forgotten that their first mascot was ‘Bertie’ the carpet snake.
© Sean Fagan