written by Sean Fagan

Wallabies 1908
The 1908-09 Wallabies war-cry.

The All Blacks have their haka, but long ago the Wallabies too had a war cry.

On board the Orient liner Omrah somewhere in The Red Sea on the team’s way to England, 1908 Wallabies captain Herbert Moran wrote home,

We have decided to appropriate the Newtown war-cry, and have been practising it assiduously.

From their international debut at Parramatta in 1884, where their Kia Kaha battle-yell struck fear into the hearts of their opponents, the New Zealanders have had their pre-game ritual.

The Timaru Herald reported that at a dinner to welcome the 1884 team home it was said:

The New South Wales men declared it was hardly fair for the visitors to frighten them out of their wits before the game began.

The 1905 All Blacks were the first official NZRU team to tour Britain, and their Ka Mate haka proved to be hugely popular.

The concept became so ingrained with Britons that Northern winter that subsequent tours from the other (former) colonies were expected to have and perform their ‘native cry’ too.

The 1906 Springboks had a Zulu-infused Ghee gammilio gshee battle-shout, and two years later the Wallabies arrived armed with their Aboriginal inspired war-dance too.

In the wake of regular cross-Tasman visits of New Zealand teams, many club and rep teams in Australia were in the decade or so leading up to the First World War indulging in the war cry mania, but to suggest any had a comparable cultural basis to that of the haka would be going too far.

Sydney’s Sunday Times explained the phenomena:

No touring Australian or New Zealand team would consider its repertoire complete without the theatrical display that precedes each game … though no one would claim that it does any good, other than provide the comic element.

1908 Wallabies perform their war cry in Wales (image courtesy National Library of Wales)
1908 Wallabies perform their war cry in Wales (image courtesy National Library of Wales)

During their 1896 tour of New Zealand the Queensland Reds had “emitted some meaningless jargon” based on towns and places that began with “Woolloongabba! Woolloongabba!” This triggered waggish suggestions that NSW should reply with “Wagga Wagga, Murrumbidgee, Yass! Yass! Yass!”

Thankfully the Waratahs left that alone, but the craze got too much for them on a 1901 tour of New Zealand, startling everyone with a Maori war cry before a match against Wanganui.

The first combined Australian team to leave our shores devised a mock war-cry on the voyage across the Tasman in 1905, but, wisely perhaps, it was never brought out on New Zealand soil.

The 1908 Wallabies pre-game ritual bares traces of legitimate Aboriginal origins, but at best it was a composed piece by the president of the Newtown club inspired by “the Illawarra tribe”, rather than a direct representation. It was reported that he “visited the aboriginal camp at La Perouse and got the basis of a (war) cry” and it was turned “into rhythmic form”.

The Newtown first grade team had begun using the war-cry in mid-1908, starting with a match against Newcastle.  A year on they were still performing it before games, including on their tour of far north Queensland.

Wallabies 1908 tour
Wallabies perform their war-cry in Britain during 1908-09 tour


Gau Gau [add opponent’s name and the venue]
Whir-r-r! Win-nang-a lang (Thur)
Bu rang-a-lang (Yang)
Yai!Yai! Gun-yil-lang-yang-yah!
Greetings to [opponent] in [place]
You are great men We are pleased to meet you
We think we can beat you
Come! Let us try!
[translation / war-cry was not performed in English]

Though it was Moran as captain who communicated the news home that the team had adopted the Newtown war cry, he revealed later in his autobiography that he had wanted nothing to do with it during the tour.

Moran explained that he saw the All Blacks’ haka justified as “after all it was in Maori tradition,” but he had no time for the Wallabies tribal dance, writing:

The memory of that war-cry provokes anger in me even after all these years … We were officially expected to leap up in the air and make foolish gestures which somebody thought Australian natives might have used in similar circumstances, and we were also given meaningless words which we were to utter savagely during the pantomime.

I refused to lead the wretched caricature of a native corroboree, and regularly hid myself among the team, a conscientious objector. None of the men liked it … as soon as the business was over some of us rushed to hide our heads in the first available scrum.

The final argument used by the Rugby Union [NSWRU] was that it had box-office value. The people in England expected it, they said.

They might just as reasonably have expected us to wear the broad arrow [of convict uniforms] on our left arms as a respectful tribute to our first families. 

Moran’s former team mate from Sydney University, Garnet ‘Jerry’ Portus, saw the Wallabies play at Oxford University where he was studying. Portus, who had twice been selected for the England team earlier in the year, thought little of the war cry too: 

After the usual photograph of both teams in front of the stand, McKivat led his men on the field, and cultured Oxford round the ground watched, with a superior smile and a nervous expression, the performance of the war-cry.

This appears to me to be a species of antic that might well be cut out. The men look foolish when they are doing it, and the other team look more foolish. Besides, what does it mean? I have lived in Australia all my life, and have never seen anything like it.

No, the whole business is quite meaningless, and I don’t think the team would suffer by cutting it right out.

In the English newspapers London’s Truth “sneers at the practice as a piece of affectation”, while long-serving cricket and Rugby critic Major Philip Trevor suggested in the Daily Telegraph the war cry was:

 a music-hall prelude … As the practice in question has been rather severely condemned, it is only fair to the Australians to say that, while being very good-natured in this matter, there is not the slightest reason to believe that they care for lining up in front of the grandstand and carrying out this quaint instance of pleasantry.

Wallabies deliver their war-cry to passengers & crew on board ‘Omrah’ in 1908

Some were prepared to speak in favour of the war cry.

Member of the 1905 All Blacks team Ernie Booth covered the tour for The Referee. His reports of the public’s reception to the war cry were positive, but then again, he did play for Newtown throughout the 1908 season, and some accounts place him as a co-composer and the driving force behind the club having a war cry in the first place. 

After the Wallabies’ opening game in Devon he wrote:

Many Australians have laughed, possibly, in derision of the idea of an Australian war-cry.

Had they been present on the Rectory Grounds [The Rectory Field], Devonport, on Saturday and seen and heard the Wallabies render this item, they must have changed their minds instanter. It was splendid, and made a great and favorable impression, especially amongst the Press men.

The ‘Daily Mail’ [London] outright declares it better than tho ‘Kumati’ [‘Ka Mate’] haka of the 1905-6 New Zealanders. The actions were given with force and quite in time, and roused the spectators to a pitch of enthusiasm.

Perhaps Booth was ‘spinning’ the war cry’s popularity. Two months later at the Test match against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park he observed:

The ‘war cry‘ went off well in the huge enclosure, and then the band started the famous ‘Land of My Fathers,’ Wales’ patriotic song.

At the same venue just after Christmas, the Wallabies were giving their ‘warrior chant’ against Cardiff RFC, when the local team’s captain, Welsh international Percy Bush, “stood opposite them with a real old sword and buckler [shield] in an attitude of defiance, his gestures provoking laughter”.

Having seen the All Blacks, Springboks and now Wallabies war cries, a Welsh newspaper writer summed-up its position:

Was there ever anything more like tomfoolery on the football field than these Colonial war songs?

Heralding the team’s arrival in Canada in mid February 1909, the Vancouver Daily World ran the banner head-line, ‘WALLABIES WILL GIVE FAMOUS WAR CRY’.

The same newspaper wrote after the visitors had beaten the Vancouver men 23-0:

They treated the spectators to the finest exhibition of a team cry, and at the time the weirdest aggregation of sound ever heard on a field. The Wallaby cry is a combination of antipodean native war cries. The yells are accentuated by a series of calisthenic movements of the arms and body, enacted in perfect unison. The effect is striking, and the Australians received a storm of applause as they finished their vocal stunt. Local enthusiasts who were in San Francisco, and heard the much-vaunted ‘All Blacks’ war-cry [early 1906 visit], say the Wallabies have beaten them several blocks.

Wallabies cartoon
“What’s that?” “Hurry!!! Hurry!! You will be killed.” Cartoon from Vancouver newspaper, February 1909 (‘The Referee’ 31.3.09)

The Australian “Waratahs” [Wallabies] team that toured Canada and the west coast of the USA in 1912 also used a war-cry, and it is all but certain it was the same as that of the 1908 Wallabies.

It is unclear whether the Australian team that toured New Zealand in 1913 had a war-cry.

There are mentions of NSW sides of the 1920s (that were later given Wallabies status) pulling out the old war cry. The touring teams to New Zealand (1923 & ’25) performing a war cry before each game.

On home soil, in the first Test against the All Blacks in Sydney in 1924, the NSW team replied to the haka with a rendition of the 1908 Wallabies routine. The 30,000 strong crowd at the old Sydney Showground was the largest attendance at a Rugby match in Australia since before WW1.

The Referee though suggested “The gathering did not take the home team’s effort all together seriously” with the war cry. Arrow reported “The Light Blues raised some laughter with their war cry”, and Country Life Stock colourfully added:

… a call for ‘the war cry,’ and the All Blacks gave it. The silence of the crowd now was intense. There is something about that war cry that appeals to the primitive in us. After it, the Blues responded with a war cry that relieved the intensity and roars of laughter came from all around. Even the All Blacks laughed. Anyway, the Blues showed they could do that sort of thing too.

Sunday Times appeared to observe some cultural merit in the Aboriginal themed war cry. Alluding to why the All Blacks only performed their Maori haka outside of New Zealand, the writer noted “prophets are without honor in their own country, and the effort of the Blues raised more laughter than applause”.

NSW perform Wallabies' war-cry in Sydney in 1924.
NSW reply to All Blacks haka with the Wallabies war-cry at the Sydney Showground in 1924.

Time appears to have tempered the view of ‘Jerry’ Portus on Aussies having a war cry, writing in The Sydney Mail

… to everyone’s amazement Davis (captain) led the Blues in a reply to this dramatic challenge (haka). I saw the Wallabies do this in England, and I believe the NSW teams did it in New Zealand, but I had never before seen a NSW side perform in this fashion before a Sydney crowd. The Sydney crowd quite unaffectedly laughed. It refused to be impressed as it is by the All Blacks’, or Maoris’, or even the Springboks’ war-cries. Perhaps a war-cry has no honour in its own country.

The NSW team again replied to the All Blacks haka during the 1925 series in Sydney, “but the crowd, serious and appreciative when the All Blacks were chanting, treated the local product as comic relief” (The Referee).

It seems the NSWRU were not prepared to take the risk of its players causing a national embarrassment. When it announced in June 1927 that its representative team about to tour Britain would be called the “Waratahs”, it emphatically declared “the war-cry will be barred”.

© Sean Fagan.