From Rugby Heaven to Battlefield Hell

By Spiro Zavos

On August 15, 1914, the touring All Blacks were playing a Metropolitan XV at the old Sydney Sports Ground. During the match, this message was placed on the scoreboard: "WAR DECLARED."

Ironically, part of the gate had been intended for a fund to send Australasian athletes to the 1916 Berlin Olympics. (Australia and New Zealand had sent combined teams to the Olympics up until the 1920s.) The NSWRU noted in its 1915 annual report: "Much activity ... was devoted to the recruitment of members for the Expeditionary Force."

It has been estimated that 5,000 Australian rugby players ultimately went on active war service between 1914 and 1918. This figure represents about 98 per cent of the playing numbers in the game, outside of the schools, in 1914. Many of these players never returned to Australia. The 1916 NSWRU annual report, for instance, lists the loss of 115 former players. At the end of the Gallipoli campaign, seven Wallabies were buried on the Dardanelles Peninsula.

The Referee, a popular sporting magazine of the time, published a series of moving letters from rugby players relating their experiences at Gallipoli. These letters make for haunting reading. The players write about their yearning for the simple pleasures of home life, their loved ones, deeds of heroism and the hope that they would experience again the joy of chasing a rugby ball around a field with their mates. Here is Clarrie Wallach, a Wallaby against the All Blacks in 1913: "We arrived at Hellopolis about three weeks ago. We have been in pretty solid work but expect the real stuff next week. "All the rugby union men are well here, from the Major down to the privates. 'Twit' Tasker told me how Harold George died a death of deaths - a hero's - never beaten until the final whistle."

William "Twit" Tasker died of wounds on the Western Front in France in 1918. The major was Major James McManamey, a leading NSW rugby official. He died at Gallipoli a few weeks after Wallach's letter was written. Clarrie Wallach, too, was killed at Gallipoli. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in action. In the past two decades, especially since the controversial tour of New Zealand by the Springboks in 1981, a group of sports historians in Australia and New Zealand have tried to denigrate rugby union as a code that is racist, elitist, violent, and comes with a militant tendency built into the ethics and conduct of the game that ensures its players emerge from their playing days as brutalised thugs. This disgraceful ideological revisionism has the intent of turning teachers and students off rugby and strangling the code.

It is a mark of the collapse of scholarship and integrity in our universities that this travesty of the culture of rugby union has become conventional academic wisdom. It is totally at variance with reality and the conduct of the players under pressure. As Kelvin Middleton, the Otago Highlanders captain, emerged from the dressing-room on Friday night to take the field against the ACT Brumbies, he turned to his players and said: "Courage!"

Paddy Moran, the shrewd captain of the 1908 Wallabies, revealed in his autobiography that when the scrum was under pressure against Wales, the pack would encourage each other with cries of, "Australia! Australia!".

In the history of rugby, the lives of players and even the behaviour of crowds reveals that the game has a moral core that inculcates integrity, courage, a sense of responsibility and a love of Australia and its values.

Tom Richards, for instance, was rated as one of the greatest loose forwards in the history of rugby. He was among the first to land at Gallipoli and the last to leave. He later served in France, where he was awarded a Military Cross. He survived a gas attack but never played rugby after 1918.

Rugby men such as Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, who insisted on being buried in his Wallaby jersey, have provided examples of the finest qualities of the Australian character and experience.

Lest we forget.