Anzac Day: The champion team of war-weary soldiers that \"saved\" Australian rugby in 1919

Thu, Apr 25, 2019, 2:00 AM
Iain Payten
by Iain Payten
The Australian Imperial Force XV in London in March 1919, ahead of the King's Cup tournament. Photo: Australian War Memorial
The Australian Imperial Force XV in London in March 1919, ahead of the King's Cup tournament. Photo: Australian War Memorial

Throughout his childhood years, Bill Matthews would see visitors arrive at his house and pause by an old photo on the wall.

They’d pick out Wally, Bill’s grandfather, and tell a tale or two.

"He died when I was a toddler so I never knew him but all through my childhood, these people kept turning up who’d known my grandfather,” Bill recalls.

“My grandmother lived upstairs in our house and she had that photo on the wall, where my grandfather had displayed it, along with a whole lot of other stuff. There was a springbok head and all sorts of things there too.

"My father, who was also a rugby player and is in that photo on someone’s knee, would explain to me later: ‘Oh he was from the 1919 team’.”

The '1919 team' was the 1919 Australian Imperial Force XV and as Bill would come to realise as he grew older, the men captured in the photo represented one of the most significant Australian rugby teams to have ever been assembled.

They were a team who had not only survived the horrors of the First World War but played in a forerunner to the Rugby World Cup almost 60 years before such a tournament was created.

But above all, it is argued “the 1919 team” were - when they got back home, 100 years ago - largely responsible for preventing rugby in Australia itself from becoming yet another casualty of war.

“There is a strong case to be made that, without the post-war tour of Australia by this champion team, rugby union may indeed have died as a sport with the Great War,” eminent Australian rugby historian John Mulford wrote in a 2003 monograph on the 1919 AIF team.


The arrival of war in Europe in 1914 meant the sharp - and willing - decline of rugby in Australia.

State unions and clubs encouraged their players to enlist and do their duty for the Mother Country on the battlefields of Europe. 

All competitions outside juniors and social competitions ceased.

Rugby league, which was still in relative infancy, elected to not shut down; believing a war-weary public needed the distraction of sport. 

The 13-man duly took a popular foothold in the war years, and kicked on. The respective choices of the two codes has been a heated source of debate since, but many leading rugby league players also enlisted and were killed or wounded.

As it with everything it touched, war took a horrific toll on the Australian rugby community.

It’s been estimated 5000 rugby players enlisted and 500 were killed, including ten Wallabies, 17 NSW Waratahs and three Queensland players.

It was reported in 1915 that up to 90 per cent of Sydney grade rugby players were on active duty and such were the losses suffered by some clubs, they never started back up again.

Glebe - a foundation club in Sydney dating back to 1883 - was one such institution; of the 67 men who enlisted, 27 were killed and 26 were severely wounded.


The silencing of guns in November, 1918, was a cause of great celebration; not least for the 200,000-odd Australia soldiers who now got to go home.

But with long delays expected before all the troops from all Commonwealth nations could be shipped home, British commanders realised they had to keep all these young men occupied.

Sport was the obvious choice, given ball games of all types were played throughout the war behind the lines to keep up morale.

Along with competitions in other sports, the idea of an Inter-Forces Rugby Tournament for Commonwealth nations arose and was quickly put into planning. 

Rugby was a popular choice for NSW and Queensland troops, and in January 1919, the French Army XV invited the AIF to a game in Paris.

With little time to prepare a team, the four best players from each Australian division were sent forward and a two-week training camp followed in Belgium. 

The AIF side, who were known as the “Trench team”, were too strong and prevailed 6-3.

A strong Divisional Rugby Competition continued on in France, but the Trench team then travelled to England to link up with the AIF Headquarters team; and after some training and trial games, an AIF XV was selected to compete for the Inter-Forces Rugby Tournament.

With King George V providing a trophy for the winner, it became known as the Kings Cup.

A huge inter-allied sports tournament (involving the US and France) was later held for 1500 participants in June 1919 outside of Paris, featuring a range of Olympic-related events and even “hand grenade throwing”.


Six decades before the IRB would launch the Rugby World Cup, the Kings Cup was the first time teams from the northern and Southern Hemispheres had played in a round-robin tournament. 

The six-week competition had troop teams from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Imperial Army (who were known as Mother Country) and the Royal Air Force, and beginning on March 1, 1919.

With Major Walter “Wally" Matthews - a pre-war Waratah and Bill’s grandfather - acting as manager, the AIF put together a strong outfit, containing eight internationals. 

They included celebrated captain Bill Watson and centre Dan Carroll, who is now more famously known as the only two-time Olympic rugby gold medallist (in 1908 for Australia and in 1924 for the USA).

Carroll had emigrated to the US after the 1908 Olympics and as an active serviceman in the US Army, had been given permission to return and play for the AIF in the Kings Cup.

The opening game saw the AIF lose to the “Mother Country” in a tight 6-3 tussle but they bounced back in their next fixture and, in what would become a signature of the team, used their forward back to secure an 8-5 win over South Africa.

The RAF sprung a major shock by beating the AIF in Gloucester next but a 38-0 thrashing of Canada at Twickenham followed.

That left only a snow-delayed game against New Zealand to make up.

The Kiwis, with a good number of All Blacks in their ranks, were unbeaten and only had to beat Australia to secure the Kings Cup.

As Mulford notes, however, “the fast improving Australian Fifteen were destined to be the fly in the NZ ointment.”

Over 7000 people watched the AIF XV upset the New Zealanders 6-5, with the forward pack again earning rave reviews.

Jim Clarken, the AIF hooker on the day, was a spritely 43 years old and reports note the former Wallaby was one of the best on field .

New Zealand dusted themselves down and went on to beat 'Mother Country' to claim the Kings Cup.

They later represented the Armies of the British Empire in a match against the French Army XV - and won that too. King George presented his trophy to New Zealand captain James Ryan.

The Kings Cup was not the only rugby being played, however. The AIF First XV also played some 11 tour matches around England and Wales, and a successful AIF Reserve XV also toured extensively, playing a dozen matches and beating strong Welsh province Llanelli.

The successes of these Aussie troop teams was covered "avidly” by Australian press  and soon there was pressure for them to play back home as well.


Rugby was attempting to get back on its feet in Australia in 1919, and doing so slowly, when news of the achievements of the AIF First XV reached home - particularly beating 'world' champions New Zealand.

In the realm of rugby, the Kiwis were as fearsome then as they are now and the Aussie public wanted to see the AIF men who’d beaten the New Zealanders on foreign shores.

In what would prove a criticial decision for rugby's future, the AIF team was kept together and sent home.

After stopping in South Africa on the way home and downing the famous Natal team in Durban, the soldier's team arrived home to a great reception.

A schedule of eight exhibition matches was put together: a few regional matches, clashes against NSW and Queensland and three games against the Australian team.

In the first game, which saw the NSW team oddly wearing maroon to not clash with the AIF in light blue, a crowd of 10,000 watched the AIF forward pack dominate in a 42-14 win.

The Sydney Morning Herald report of the match said: "Bringing from overseas a set of forwards with a reputation for unusual strength and brilliance, the A.I.F. Rugby Union team quite realised expectations at the Sydney Sports Ground on Saturday. The attendance numbered 10,000, which is surely an indication that rugger has not lost its 'kick'. Great enthusiasm prevailed throughout the game, and the soldier team had a hearty welcome.”

The SMH also reported '…the Diggers thoroughly deserved the high reputation that had preceded them’ and that ‘the fifteen stands out as one of the greatest seen on Sydney grounds’.

To great acclaim and good crowds around the country, the AIF won all eight games on their exhibition tour - sweeping a young Australian side - and scoring 268 points and with only 78 scored against them. 

It was regarded as the perfect “morale booster for for rugby union in Australia in the immediate post-war period.”

Colonel Marcus Fielding, a military historian and Australian Army Rugby Union vice-president, wrote a book about the 1919 AIF team: "Comrades in Arms and Rugby". 

He told the achievements of the team were all the more remarkable given all players had been at war for many years prior.

"In the general mood of welcoming home everybody from the war, they were obviously representative of that, and despite the war and all the privations and stresses of that, were still capable of playing good quality rugby,” Fielding said.

"In broad terms, all of them were quite accomplished rugby players before the war. But the Unions across Australia encouraged enlistment and as a result of the game of rugby union took a dip in those war years.

"The key thing there is that the players' war time experience was obviously significant, so they had the bond of not only being rugby players, but obviously veterans. Their shared experience came from having been at war. 

"Not that any of them necessarily served together, but I think that really contributed to them developing a very, very strong bond and sense of teamwork that perhaps are perhaps absent in civilian clubs these days.”

In his writings, Mulford strongly asserts the 1919 AIF team and the exhibition tour was critical in putting rugby in Australia back on its feet, both in an organisational sense and in the hearts and minds of the public.

“The impact of this grand tour in Australia did much to diminish the substantial advantages enjoyed by the game of rugby league, which had continued its competitions throughout the War,” he wrote.

“Enthusiasm to restart the Rugby Union game after the devastation of the war was, in NSW, undoubtedly a direct result if the public’s enjoyment of the AIF’s performances on return, as it was in the country.”

Though they played the game as far back as the 19th century, the Australian Army Rugby Union regard the 1919 team as their first side, and they'll celebrate their centenary this year.

Rugby remains a very popular game in the Armed Forces, and still routinely supply a couple of Wallaroos. The Divisional competition first played in France in 1919 continues to this day.

"Army rugby goes back to the earliest days of settlement in Australia, playing in Victoria Barracks,” Fielding says.

"But prior to 1911, it was a small force and it didn’t have the mechanism to generate a team.

"We don’t say there was an army team prior to 1919, because we regard the selection process that was done in 1919 as being the first truly representative Australian army rugby team."


In 1919, a six-team district grade competition was re-commenced in NSW and the slow process of re-building began.

It took much longer in Queensland, and several clubs like Brothers and University of Queensland switched to league, along with many leading players.

It wasn’t until 1929 that the QRU were able to re-form, and schoolboy and club rugby competitions returned.

Australia were effectively represented by NSW, then, for most of the 1920s and in early tours by South Africa and to New Zealand, it was little surprise to see - on both sides - many veterans, and former Kings Cup rivals, in the team lists.

“That Australia was able to re-enter the international scene again immediately after the war was simply because the AIF supplied the bulk of the NSW and Australian teams,” Mulford wrote.

“If we had not been able to compete internationally then the game of rugby union in Australia would have lost its status for many years, if not forever.”

With Queensland back up and running, in 1929 the sky blue of NSW was ditched and the Wallabies began wearing the green and gold colours of Australia.


In 1933, fourteen years after he'd stopped off there with the AIF, Wally Matthews took the Wallabies back to South Africa for their first tour in the colours. The photo sat proudly on the wall, too.

Matthews later took the ill-fated 1939 Wallabies on their tour of the United Kingdom; a group that never played a game.

When they arrived in London after a long boat trip, Matthews was summoned to Twickenham to hear that England would be declaring war on Germany, immediately cancelling the tour.

Matthews noted in his diary: “What a disappointment it will be to the boys.”

War was on the doorstep again.