"The Patriotic" Rugby Match During World War I

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(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Before I write the Patriot Match, let me mention that the match, which took place on 21 March 1914—just before the World Cup began—was probably the last international match before WWI, and who knows, it also might have been the last one.

 

On Saturday, 21 March 1914, the Scottish and English rugby teams faced one another in Edinburgh. England won the closely fought match 16–15, but just a few months later the First World War had engulfed Europe—a conflict that both captains, a number of forwards, and the majority of the backs who competed in this particular match would not return from.

 

Rugby players from all over the world gave up everything as they redirected their sporting qualities—passion, dedication, camaraderie—to the war effort. An enormous number died during the two world wars—from within the eight major rugby nations alone, 185 “capped” international players lost their lives.

 

It was not only international players from the rugby superpowers who lost their lives. Germany had a very strong side between the two world wars—beating France on numerous occasions and regularly defeating other continental sides. But the Second World War was to devastate the squad—16 international players were killed.

 

Players from many of the minor rugby nations also joined up, while countless others at club level rushed to enlist but were never to return. Far too many died to be listed here but we can look at some of their representative stories. These men, who came from all the major rugby nations of the time, fought on the land, sea, and in the air. Their tragic deaths are typical of so many, their graves and memorials looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and we will always wonder what they and their comrades would have gone on to achieve had they survived the war.

 

 

Dally Messenger had retired at the end of 1913 and, as well as being part owner of a Queensland banana plantation, had moved to Manilla near Tamworth to operate a hotel. He arrived by train two days before the match, travelling for 24 hours without sleep. Messenger said it was worth the journey to contribute, though. He also looked forward to catching up with old Kangaroos and to once more play before the Sydney crowd.

Those who knew Messenger noticed he was well below the weight of his playing days. Dally though wasn't going to give his opponents cause for taking it easy on him. He quickly offered that he was well fit enough and had in fact been playing for Manilla with a local rugby union club—not all rugby union ceased apparently. The Referee quipped that the rules about professionalism had also seemingly failed to reach rural New South Wales.

 

The first match between "Returned Soldiers" and "No.4 Garrison Hospital" kicked off the patriotic carnival just after midday. In an open affair, the Soldiers won by 20-10. As the crowd began to build, ultimately reaching 13,000, a hard-fought Final of the Catholic Schools A Grade competition was played between St. Benedicts and North Sydney, with the former winning three points to nil.

 

A number of recruitment speeches were then made by the "Sportsmen's Recruiting Committee." New-found recruits were able to enlist there and then at the ground. The New South Wales Rugby League also acceded to a request to include a "recruiting match" between "Australia and Germany."

 

The match of twenty-minutes duration was meant to inspire men to sign up. It featured an Aussie team, fitted out in khaki colours while, according to the Herald, "the other wore German uniforms." You can guess who came out on top! The Australians prevailed over the enemy 12-9.

 

The match apparently produced more hilarity for the patrons than any immediate desire to join the armed forces.

 

Whenever the "Australians" were in trouble defending their line, fresh replacements would enter the fray to save the day and repel the advancing Germans. The Daily Telegraph reported that "roars of laughter followed one after the other," particularly as those players who became "casualties" enjoyed lying on the field as the match continued around them.

 

This put the crowd in good spirits for the main game and the appearance of Messenger brought the loudest applause of the day. The referee recorded that once the match began the crowd took to "cheering whenever anything of special excellence was shown by either side".

 

The scores were locked at 10-all at half time. Kangaroo forward Billy Cann was noted as "portly, quite Falstaffian" by The Daily Telegraph, whose writer perhaps knew more of William Shakespeare than many of his readers. Messenger was not heavily involved and he only entered the play in brief moments, though he did land "one exceptional long range goal from near the sideline".

 

There was some drama after Sid Deane, the Kangaroo centre, and Balmain's Lyall Wall, The Rest's fullback, came together and an ensuing scuffle ended up in a fight spilling over the sideline. Referee Tom McMahon sent them both off. "The Rest" gained the ascendancy in the second half and went on to win by 20-13.

 

In the early 1940s Dally Messenger was asked about his recollections of the match: "It seems astounding that I don't remember a thing about that game. Must be because I was only half-trained and took a month to recover from the effects. Getting old I was."


Kangaroos: Howard Hallett, Dally Messenger, Sid Deane, Herb Gilbert, Charles Fraser, Pony Halloway, Chris McKivat, Tedda Courtney, Bob Williams, Bob Craig, Paddy McCue, Billy Cann. Reserves: Dan Frawley, Charles Boxer Russell, Con Sullivan, Bob Stuart, Webby Neill, Larry O'Malley.

 

Rest of New South Wales: Lyall Wall, Jack ‘Junker' Robinson, Ray Norman, W. Conaghan, R. Proust, Cec Blinkhorn, Alf ‘Smacker' Blair, George McGowan, Bill ‘Changa' Schultz, O. McCarthy, F Ryan, Dick Townsend, Reg Latta and Arthur Oxford.

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