“The original Wallabies that flashed off to England in 1908-9 were not the luckiest lot — but they were tip-top fighters, with great courage,” wrote Sydney’s The Referee looking back at the tour two decades later.
Losing players to long term injuries were the bane of all early touring teams in the era of six week sea journeys between Britain’s ‘Home Nations’ and far away Australia and New Zealand. Calling on a replacement player from home was a last resort.
At the start at least, for the 1908/09 Wallabies it seemed bad luck dogged their footsteps at every turn. Before the squad had even reached England they had already lost breakaway Cecil Murnin.
The man many tipped for the role of tour captain when the SS Omrah sailed from Sydney with the team on 8 August 1908, Murnin was the Eastern Suburbs (Sydney) skipper and one of the tallest men of his time, at over six foot two.
Despite his height, spending long periods of time in the uncomfortable conditions of shipboard life was not new to Murnin. A veteran of The Boxer Rebellion (NSW navy) in China and South Africa’s Boer War (Colonial Light Horse) military conflicts, he was a member of the first Australian team to tour overseas (to New Zealand in 1905).
Murnin’s voyage though to the ‘Old Country’ with the Wallabies proved to be a nightmare — his health condition was so dire when the boat arrived at Italy he had to be carried off to a hospital and then sent back home.
The first real details of what had happened to Murnin were telegraphed to Sydney on 9 October 1908 when he reached port in Western Australia:
C E Murnin, a member of the Rugby Union amateur football team who was on his way to England reached Fremantle to-day by the ‘RMS Orova’ on his return. After leaving Colombo [Sri Lanka] he contracted a cold in the back, and somehow injured his spine [later found to be an abscess]. The doctor on board told him he would have to abandon the idea of continuing the tour and he was put ashore at Naples and taken to the hospital there for some days. He joined tho Orova en route back to Australia and in between Suez and Colombo had two attacks of peritonitis. He is terribly run down and quite a wreck of his former self.
Sydney’s Evening News reported on 23 October 1908:
A week has almost elapsed since Cecil Murnin, the well-known Rugby footballer, returned to Sydney, and was admitted as an inmate of a private hospital at Darlinghurst. He has considerably improved in health, and one who saw him this afternoon stated that Murnin‘s appearance was now vastly different to what it was when he was brought ashore, as he looks a hundred percent better.
It was not until near Christmas that Murnin was out of hospital and returned to full health. His playing days were over though, and he took up the whistle emerging as a first grade referee in Sydney in 1909.
In the first match of the tour, a six tries to one romp over Devon County at Devonport, South Sydney forward Peter Burge was injured, as James McMahon (team manager) explained in a letter home:
Poor Peter Burge, during the last half, was into line to take a pass, and the man who was running with the ball was tackled hard and thrown against Burge, snapping his leg above his boot. He will be laid up for four weeks, and I don’t think will play again during the tour. We have expressions of sympathy from all over the land … Two ladies wanted to take Burge to their homes, but I thought it better to send him to the hospital.
It was awful bad luck for Burge, as he had the earlier misfortune to have been injured in the opening game of Australia’s 1905 tour to New Zealand. Two tours for two games was the entire sum of his career appearances.
Now two forwards down, you couldn’t imagine a more bizarre way for the Wallabies to lose another man from the pack than what happened to Queensland’s Peter Flanagan.
Rugby historian Ian Diehm tells it this way:
Flanagan was not considered for the first three matches and, eager to have some closer contact with the game, undertook the linesman’s duties in the third match against Cornwall.
Unfortunately, with the score at 18-0 in favour of the Wallabies, ‘Boxer’ Russell made a long run down the wing but was bundled into touch as he passed infield. Tragically, for Flanagan, Russell collided with him and Flanagan suffered a fractured left leg.
The tour was over for Flanagan before he had played a game! He joined Peter Burge in hospital in Plymouth and, while they were convalescing there, they received a surprise visit from the famous Australian soprano, Nellie Melba, who deigned to sign Flanagan’s autograph album.
With only twelve forwards left, and a long schedule of matches to come, including all of the Test matches, the brunt of the heavy work was now likely to fall on the lighter forwards and make-shift replacements from the backs. Fearing their campaign would be wrecked by having to play with a quickly wearied and less formidable team, McMahon cabled the NSWRU for replacements.
A meeting was hastily arranged in Sydney, resulting in Kenneth Gavin (from Orange in country NSW) and Albert Burge (South Sydney) leaving almost immediately for England.
The Wallabies were welcomed home at a NSWRU function in late March 1909, each of the players in turn presented with a medal commemorating their involvement. The Referee observed:
And when the chairman called upon Mr. C. E. Murnin to receive his medal the assemblage rose as one man and burst into very hearty cheers.
The health of the team was drunk in bumpers.
© Sean Fagan