AUSTRALIA’S WEBB ELLIS

Charles Wade (at The King's School in 1879)
Charles Wade (at The King’s School in 1879)

Schoolboy William Webb Ellis first ran with the football, but it took a young Aussie from the The King’s School in Parramatta to show the Rugby world how to make spectacular use of it.

More than 15 years before the first Wallabies team in 1899, NSW-born Charles Gregory Wade was not only wreaking havoc on the Rugby field for England against the other Home Nations, but revolutionising the way the game would forever be played.

Given the acclaim he was awarded, and the lasting influence his play would have over modern Rugby, it is remarkable that Wade and his story has long been forgotten.

Wade was born in 1863 at Singleton on Australia Day (then called “Anniversary Day”), living with his family in their home on the corner of Gipp and Bishopgate Streets.

The son of relatively wealthy civil engineer, Wade was educated at the newly opened All Saints’ College (Bathurst) 1874-76, and The King’s School (Parramatta) 1877-80. Rugby football took a prominent place at both.

In the 1880 football season Wade played Rugby for not only The King’s School team, but also the Wallaroos, Sydney’s most powerful club along with the University.

The experience of playing Rugby alongside men proved invaluable. The Maitland Weekly Mercury later said of him:

A veritable Hercules in stature, and having trained here in the old Wallaroos.

In July 1880, with talk of a combined Australian ‘football’ team being sent to England from the colonies, the schoolboy Wade was touted by The Australian Town and Country Journal for inclusion.

The King's School rugby team 1888
The King’s School rugby team 1888, in front of the original School building in Parramatta (the school relocated to present site in 1968). Wade played in The King’s School ‘Past and Present’ team in 1888 vs the visiting British Lions at ‘Parramatta Cricket Oval’ (now known as ‘Old King’s Oval’).

“Beneath thy porch of stone once more,
Old school, I stand, and fondly gaze
On scenes that back to memory bring
Those brightened, joyous, bygone days,
When we the rolling football chased
Across these grounds with ringing cheers.”
[— from ‘An Old King’, 1886*]

The football tour never eventuated but Wade, seeking a career in the law, was soon off to England anyway, to complete his education at Oxford University.

Letters talking up the Australian’s prowess as a footballer reached the eyes of the senior Rugby players at Oxford, but as Wade had not ventured anywhere near the Rugby grounds, most dismissed the claims as colonial swagger.

It seems that Wade was of a shy nature, waiting upon an invitation to join with the Oxford ruggers. A year went by. Finally, after he came to prominence in the rowing team , he was approached to take up Rugby and accepted the opportunity.

Charles Wade

Rugby of this era was predominantly a scrummaging and hard-shoving game, carrying or kicking the ball towards the opposing goal.

The notion that advantage could be gained by hand-passing the ball from player to player had yet to be realised.

Each team had ten forwards, two half-backs, a fullback, and two “three quarter backs” (one on each side of the field) – this was Wade’s position, and he made an immediate impact.

One of Oxford’s and England’s greatest players of the early 1880s, Harry Vassall, writing in the 1923 RFU Annual said:

[Wade] was the best three-quarter we ever had in England.

At Oxford they were slow to find him, but when at last they discovered he could play rugger, they soon learnt that he was an extraordinary man. At times it was practically impossible to stop him.

Wade was the most robust runner of his time, and perhaps of any time. He simply ploughed through his foes, throwing them off his hips by a sort of shift or shuffle.

He ran very fast and straight, and had a wonderful swerve when going at full pace, by which he foiled the tackler, who only received a nasty one from his iron thigh.

The Referee in Sydney held a similar view, saying:

He was a tremendously strong man, his contemporaries finding it almost impossible to bring him down. His body twist or hip shuffle proved too difficult for tacklers, who used to fly off him as he sped goalwards with the ball.

Wade remained fiercely patriotic to his home, adorning his Oxford blue Rugby jersey with a kangaroo badge. Still, he did not reject invitations to play in representative teams, and ultimately played eight times for England in matches against the other Home Nations between 1882-86.

With his studies at Oxford completed, Wade continued his club Rugby with the Richmond FC. At the time of his last game for England (1886) he was the holder of the team’s record for the most career tries. In one match against Wales he crossed for three tries – an astonishing number given their rarity in 1880s Rugby. The respected Montague Shearman wrote at the end of the decade:

We are rather inclined to think that Wade, the Oxonian, was the best three-quarter we have seen.

The King's School old boy CG Wade - played Rugby for England in 1880s
Charles Wade (inset) in later life when NSW State Premier, and in the England XV in 1884 (sitting at front. on left).

There is more to Wade’s story though. His stunning arrival into Oxford Rugby triggered a series of events that transformed the code from the forwards-dominated game, into the modern version where the forwards fight for possession of the ball to feed a co-ordinated backline ready to exploit open field by running and passing.

In 1882’s North v South trial game for England selection, at the last moment one of the South’s forwards was unable to play. After news spread of his deeds at Oxford, Wade was the preferred man to next come into the team, but not being a forward, it seemed impractical.

The solution devised was to play with one less forward, and for Wade to become the team’s third three-quarter back.

It proved an instant success, with Wade gaining far more opportunities to take advantage of the available space outside of the scrums.

Almost immediately after Wade’s example it became the norm to have three three-quarters, which very quickly led to the backs passing the ball to each other instead of running alone or kicking the ball away. Within a few years a fourth three-quarter was added, giving us what is now the conventional Rugby backline.

Wade returned to Sydney to commence work as a lawyer. He continued to play club Rugby and appeared for NSW (now Waratahs) against Queensland, Victoria and in 1888 against the visiting British tourists – that same winter Wade also once more donned the blue and white colours of the The King’s School ‘Past and Present’, playing in their team against “the first Lions” at Parramatta.

Wade became a respected barrister and then crown prosecutor. Seemingly long over his shyness, in 1903 he entered state parliament as the Liberal member for Willoughby, and within four years Wade was NSW State Premier. He was knighted in 1918.

Wade credited Rugby for the influence it had upon his personal development, saying he had:

… played all three games of football —Rugby, Australian, and British Association — and there is no doubt whatever in my mind that Rugby was the greatest game, more especially in its educational influence as a builder-up of physique, manliness, and character in young men.

When he passed away in 1922 The Referee wrote:

Wade was one of the greatest Rugby Union footballers ever seen on the field.

© Sean Fagan

* ‘On Revisiting The King’s School Parramatta, by ‘An Old King’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 10 July 1886.
The anonymous poet was later acknowledged as James Francis Thomas, who became a notable lawyer and newspaper proprietor. He saw military action as a captain in the Boer War with the NSW Bushmen’s Contingent. In 1901 Thomas was the appointed defense counsel at the court martial of Lieutenant Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant.
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