Where are they now: The Tony Melrose Q&A

by Adam Lucius

He was a member of Australian rugby’s most famous schoolboy side and tasted rare success as a Wallaby at Eden Park.

In the first of a ‘Where are they now’ series, RUGBY.com.au talks to former Wallabies flyhalf Tony Melrose.

Melrose, now 60, chats about his six-Test career for the Wallabies, the famous Australian Schoolboys team of 1977 and his switch to rugby league.

Q: What are your first memories of playing rugby union?

A: My parents weren't into footy – they were both tennis players – so my (older) brother Gregg got asked by one of his mates to go to the park because a new club had been formed in the area (Baulkham Hills Rugby Club). I tagged along and said 'I'm playing too'. We played in the U8s and I was five. They put me on the wing because I was useless and I'd build sandcastles most of the time. I had no idea what they were doing and I didn't want to tackle blokes twice my size.

Q: You obviously quickly graduated from building sandcastles to having more involvement?

A: The next year they moved me to breakaway and that woke me up a bit. I now had to do something. I pretty much fell in love with it straight away. The conversation in our household for the next 35 years was football.

Q: At what age did you realise you had some decent ability?

A: I was always very athletic. I was an 800m champion (runner), 100m sprinter, long jumper…I probably should have been a decathlete. As soon as you start running around everyone and scoring 100m tries, you start to think you might have a handle on this game.

Q: But your dad wasn't about to let you get too big headed?

A: That's right. I remember one game when I was 10 and we'd won 65-0 and I'd scored about 10 tries and kicked all the goals. I walked over to the old man and waited for the congratulations and didn't get anything. I'm waiting for him to give me five cents for a lolly and a drink and I'm standing there and standing there and he's not saying anything. I said: 'Reckon I can get a drink?' And he looked straight ahead and said: 'Mate, you've got some work to do on your left-hand defence'.  

Q: You obviously took his advice on board because it was a pretty quick rise from there?

A: They dropped me from the Parramatta (junior rep) team when I was about 14, which devastated me. It was because I hadn't developed physically.  Dad took me down to the park and we'd kick balls to each other all day. I'd practice my left-foot kicking and obviously became pretty good at it, with drop goals and punts. And then we'd go to backyard with (makeshift barbells) and we'd do weights.

Q: You soon made up for lost time in 1977

A: I had a growth spurt when I was about 15 and things changed. I went into grade from Colts when I was in sixth form (Year 12). I'd just turned 17. By the fourth round I was first grade five-eighth and stayed there the rest of the year. We won the comp (Parramatta's first) after beating Randwick at the SCG. I was underage but they smuggled me into the pubs and clubs to celebrate the win. It was a great time.

Q: And that first season in first grade put your name on the representative radar?

A: Yep, the famous Australian Schoolboys tour of 1977. Someone rang my school and said: 'I've been at the trials and haven’t see Melrose anywhere. Where is he?'. They said: 'What are you talking about, what trials?' I think the attitude was, 'he's a Westie, don’t worry about him'. I ended up doing  a 10-minute trial and got picked in the state side. From there we had further trials and I ended up getting picked as captain of the tour.

Q: So you go from not trialling to being named skipper of one of our most celebrated rugby teams ever? Undefeated in 16 games.

A: Yep, try working that out. I was chuffed. It was a great tour. We're 18 and on tour for the first time. I made a lot of mates and we are still very tight to this day, 40 or so years later.

Q: That team featured yourself, Wally Lewis, the Ella brothers, Michael O'Connor…did you know something special was brewing?

A: Absolutely. I was sitting there thinking ' this team is astronomically good'. I knew it was very talented. 'Mouldy' (coach Geoff Mould) said we're going to play running rugby and I said 'fine'. They were all great players. The rest is history.

Q: Your meteoric rise continues in 1978 when you're unexpectedly called up to make your Wallabies debut in New Zealand?

A: I didn't initially get picked for the tour and I was pissed off.  They left and I went skiing with my girlfriend. I'm on the ski fields and I hear over the PA 'would Tony Melrose come to the police office'. The ARU had contacted my father. He was a policeman and the only way he knew to get me was by ringing the local police station at Thredbo. I go to the police station shitting blue lights thinking someone's dead. The sergeant told me I’d just been picked for the Wallabies team and had to get there by the next morning. They'd lost a couple of players to injury and needed me.

Q: But the drama didn’t end there, right?

A: That's right. Coach Daryl Harbrecht had had a heart attack and his wife came over on the same flight as me and sat next to me. He was pretty crook and could have died. I'm an 18-year-old with no experience of death and I've got to sit next to his wife for three and a half hours. I was petrified about what to talk to her about.        

Q: You played the rest of the tour games and then came a memorable Test debut – aged 18 - against the All Blacks at Eden Park?

A: I thought at best I might get a reserve spot because Kenny Wright was five-eighth and playing pretty well.  They read out the team on the bus and I'm waiting to hear my name at number 16 and they read me out at 10. I had to check if they'd got it right. Kenny told me 'you're better suited to five-eighth so I'm moving to 12'.  We'd lost the first two Tests so decided to run the ball and have crack in the last Test. We took the game to them and I don't think they expected that. Greg Cornelsen scored four tries and I remember thinking 'this is a big score we're putting on here'. Everything clicked for us that day (Australia won 30-16).

Q: How were the post-match celebrations?

A: I don't remember much. I was drunk one hour into the official post-match dinner and was back in the hotel within an hour!

Q: You played six Tests for the Wallabies and then switched to rugby league for the next 10 years? Any regrets?

A: All I wanted from rugby was an assurance that I'd get a job down the track. They couldn't do that so Parramatta (rugby league) kept coming at me and I thought it was time for another challenge. I don't regret it but I don't think I would have gone to league as early – if at all – if there was a job there for me. I probably would have ended up being Wallabies captain if I'd stayed. After league I ended up finishing in rugby with Gordon and won two premierships after a long and expensive fight (to reclaim amateur status).

Q: Finally, how is life treating you now and do you see much rugby these days?

A: Life is pretty good. I'm now retired after running my own (accountancy) business. My brother (Brian) was coach at Manly and I live down that way, so I go and watch every second game or so. I have a beer and catch up with some old teammates. I still watch the game on TV when I can. The game will always be in the blood.

Fact file

Name: Tony Melrose

Position: Fly-half/inside centre

Tests: 6 (1978-9)

Cap No: 601