Rugby mourns passing of first WA Wallaby Bob Thompson

by Mark Cashman

Ask anyone who was at Northern Suburbs in the early 1970s and they’ll tell that the club’s Wallaby hooker and raconteur Bob ‘Thommo’ Thompson was never one to be short of words.

But Thompson, who passed last week in New Zealand at the age of 71 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer, was uncharacteristically speechless at least twice in his vibrant and diverse life.

The first was in 1971 when he was pitchforked into the Wallaby side for the third Test against the might of the Springboks in their controversial series in Australia.

Thompson had put himself on the radar by scoring 18 points for Western Australia against the Boks in a tour match - for many years not only the highest score against the Boks in a non-international but also the most points scored by an individual at that time. 

After that he had played for the Junior Wallabies and sat on the bench for the second Test of that 1971 series in Brisbane before being called into the starting side for the third Test at the SCG.

He had left New Zealand in 1968 to travel the world and work and had ended up in Perth where he linked with the Wests Scarborough club.

But because of sluggish communications at that time Thompson didn’t hear of his selection in the Wallaby side for that third Test in 1971 until contacted by the Courier Mail newspaper and not by the men who chose him.

The newspaper had earlier written a story under the headline, ‘Test Hooker Named but Missing’ and it told of the difficulty that the Australian Rugby Union had in contacting him.

Thompson’s reply was simple when contacted by the rugby writer. “You’re joking,” he said.

The second “lost for words moment” came in 2009 when he was asked by former Wallaby teammate Geoff Shaw if he would present the jerseys to the Wallabies before their Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park.

We’re not sure if he uttered the ‘You’re joking’ line to Shaw but he readily accepted Shaw’s invitation and was deeply honoured.

He remains the only player to have played for the NZ Maori and the Wallabies.

After his first Test against the Boks he went on the next two Wallaby tours - the first to North America and France and another the following year to New Zealand and Fiji.

He moved to Sydney with wife Jenny at the end of 1972 to be closer to the rugby action and linked with the Northern Suburbs club to play with good mates Roy Prosser and Reg Smith where he added as much off the field as he did on it.

In 1975 Thompson was captain of Norths reserve grade side (as well as coach of the fours) and a pretty good back up to first grade rake Dennis Turnbull.

He played the final 10 minutes of the 9-6 win Shute Shield grand final win over Parramatta and in the chaos and celebrations after the match at the old Sports Ground said to loose-head prop Geoff Pritchard that they should lift skipper Reg Smith on to their shoulders and chair him off the field.

Thompson’s theory was that would get themselves on to the back page of the Sunday newspapers and that was they way that things turned out.

“His standing as a great club man at Norths was undoubted,” close friend and Wallaby teammate Smith said.

“He always had the guitar at the ready when it was time for a song and was the type of bloke that would give you the shirt off his own back.

“In 1975 ‘Thommo’ played behind Dennis Turnbull at hooker but was captain of the seconds and also coached the fourth grade side.”

A number of years ago Thompson was encouraged to write his memoirs. 

It all came together quickly and a fruity tome titled ‘Bob Each Way’ was launched at a special luncheon that was attended by a range of Rotorua luminaries including Sir Gordon Tietjens, Hika Reid, Ron Preston and long-time friend Alan McNaughton, the 1971 All Black flanker.

In the book Thompson retold many of his great rugby stories including having a beer with Great Train Robber Ronald Biggs and many, many more.

The controversial Keith Murdoch and Sir Colin Meads were close friends as was Smith who flew to New Zealand for the book launch.

Only a couple of weeks ago a group of Norths stalwarts from that era flew to New Zealand to catch up with Thompson.

Smith, Neil Whittaker, Paul ‘Rocket’ Jones and Allen Anderson took with them a Norths jersey and a special honour cap.

His three Tests were against South Africa, France and Fiji as well as numerous Wallaby tour games.