ANZAC Legends: Willie Watson

Mon, Apr 24, 2023, 10:00 AM
Nathan Williamson
by Nathan Williamson
The Rebels host the Brumbies to close off Round Nine of Super Rugby AU.

There have been many New Zealanders who have played for Australia but only four of these have captained Australia. The first to do so was Willie Watson.

Willie Watson was born in Nelson, New Zealand, November 10 1887. He came to Australia in 1911 and made an immediate impact in the frontrow for Newtown.

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No touring teams came to Australia in 1911 and 1912, but he made a strong impression on his debut for NSW in 1912, selected on the 1912 tour of the United States and Canada.

The team was overwhelmed with hospitality and lacked strong management, generally staying in fraternity houses in the United States, reveling in the social life and undergraduate antics.

It would show on the field as they ended up with one of the worst record of any Australian touring team, losing all of their matches against Canada.

There was one Test that Watson played in against the United States, a narrow 12-8 victory after the locals had led for most of the game.

Watson was one of the successes of the tour, and played in 11 of the 16 games.

A Wallaby team was then selected to go to New Zealand in 1913, the first tour to do so since 1905. He was not the sole New Zealand-born member of the team, the other being Larry Wogan.

Australian team photograph v New Zealand
Australian team photograph v New Zealand

Five of this team would die in the First World War, five-eighth ‘Twit’ Tasker, forwards ‘Doss’ Wallach, Harold George and Fred Thompson, and back Hubert Jones.

Despite Australia winning only four of the nine games, Watson was hailed as one of the best players on the tour and played in eight of the games, including the three Tests.

Rugby Union players then flocked to join up in the war, ensuring all Sydney Clubs were decimated as a result as the authorities decided it was unpatriotic to hold competitions during the War.

Watson followed the lead and served with the Australian Imperial Forces, winning the DCM, the MC and Bar.

He was later to serve in the Second World War as well, given command of the Papuan Infantry Battalion with the rank of major and was awarded the DSO.

When World War I ended on November 11 1918, there were some 250,000 troops awaiting a return to Australia. In order to boost morale, a system of non-military employment was introduced, as well as a program encompassing a wide variety of sports.

This saw the introduction of the Inter-Allied Games held in Pershing Stadium in Paris from 22 June to 6 July 1919, including sports like boxing, baseball, basketball and football(rugby, American football and soccer).

When the serious competition began for the King’s Cup, Lieutenant Willie Watson was the captain and they played 16 matches, winning 12 of them.

However, only five of them were in the King’s Cup competition, with the AIF team losing to the Royal Air Force and the ‘Mother Country’, but defeated New Zealand, who won the Cup.

A.I.F. team of 1919 - the only team to defeat New Zeland, winners of the Inter-Service competition for the King's Cup
A.I.F. team of 1919 - the only team to defeat New Zeland, winners of the Inter-Service competition for the King's Cup

The AIF would go on to play eight games in Australia, winning all of these games against the likes of NSW, New England, Queensland, Queensland AIF, North-West Union and Australia. Watson played in five of the eight games, all as captain.

Despite these efforts, it was not until 1929 that rugby union would be revived in Queensland, and consequently, NSW matches against touring teams were, much later, deemed as Tests by the ARU.

The 32-year-old Watson, now playing for Glebe-Balmain, was picked as captain for NSW, and therefore, became a Test captain, which he was unaware of at the time.

In total, Watson would play 46 club games for Newtown, 13 for Glebe-Balmain and 20 matches for NSW.

He would play 23 matches for his country (including the three NSW games in 1920), and eight Tests. Three of these Tests were as captain.

A distinguished man in every respect, a war hero, a leader of men, he was a tough front row forward who never shirked his duties, grafting away unspectacularly and bravely for his adopted country.

His leadership and example did much to restore Union’s image after the war. He was made Australian Consul-General in New York, where he passed away in 1961.

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