When England Rugby comes to Australia, drama is never far behind. It has been like that since their very first visit in 1963, when recently introduced jet aircraft opened up the world, and allowed them to be the first British nation to visit.
The match was a one-off affair on the old Sydney Sports Ground, played on a Wednesday, a day or two before John Thornett’s Wallabies left for South Africa.
An east coast low hung off the coast, and driving rain over a couple of days left the ground under enough water to make it almost unplayable.
Yet Australia, battling an additional handicap of overnight food poisoning, threw the ball around to run in four blistering first half tries. They finished up 18-9 winners. It was the first Australian home win against a major Rugby nation in 34 years, and I can still feel the excitement of it.
Move on 35 years to a similarly dramatic Australian win, this time in Brisbane. The professional era was in its infancy, and England had spent so much time trying to resist the change that the big English clubs got under their guard and signed up all the players.
Thus 14 of their best were not available to tour, and Australia duly capitalised, running in 11 tries in a 76-0 avalanche in 1998. This was the game that launched Stephen Larkham as a flyhalf, setting up a second Rugby World Cup win and a long period of Australian excellence.
But memorable as they were, those games pale against the most dramatic of all Australia-England contests, played out in Brisbane in 1975.
This was the ‘Battle of Ballymore’, and it was a scene of such violent confrontation that it threatened the most serious rift in Anglo-Australian sporting relations since Douglas Jardine asked Harold Larwood to bowl ‘Bodyline’ at Don Bradman and his mates back in 1932.
At the first ruck wild kicking of men on the ground drew instant reprisal. Australia’s Stu Macdougall was perhaps the instigator, but only because he got in first. In an instant they were all in it.
At the next lineout England’s Mike Burton suggested to Macdougall that his indiscretions would bear some consequence, and when they did they were all in it again. Elbows, sustained punching, flying feet . . . it was hardly Marquis of Queensberry.
Moments later Burton, no doubt caught up in the excitement of the moment, arrived high and late as Wallaby winger Doug Osborne completed a clearing kick.
Burton contended later he could not waste that effort so he flattened Osborne anyway, and was sent off.
Australia, having won a tense first Test in Sydney, duly went on to win this one 30-21, and played some pretty good Rugby in the process. It was hailed as a significant turnaround for the Australian game after a decade of disappointing results.
One of the reasons for the turn in Wallaby fortunes was the attitude of the coach David Brockhoff, who launched a “step forward” plan as a means of hardening his forwards, and providing a driving platform that had long been missing. This motivated his players to a sort of mild frenzy as they took the field at Ballymore that day.
“It was not pre-meditated, but we certainly were not going to cop anything,” mused their big second-rower Reg Smith. “We were stirred up and it just happened.”
Tony Shaw and Ray Price were quite happy to be in the thick of it. Both agreed Australian forwards had been too passive in the past, that they had copped enough.
From now on they would not take a backward step. It changed the game.
The English though, especially their administration, were up in arms, and they needed someone to blame.
They zeroed in on Brockhoff, going so far as to suggest an upcoming Wallaby tour of Britain was in jeopardy unless guarantees could be given that violent play would be exorcised from the Wallaby game.
The result was that Brockhoff was gagged, he was told not use the “step forward” mantra, and warned the team in Britain would be under heavy scrutiny. Australian administrators had yielded to English administrative intimidation, and the Wallabies in Britain suffered. They played under tight rein, and won only one of four Tests.
Ken Wright, Australia’s flyhalf in the Battle of Ballymore, was 19 and in only his second Test when the furore erupted in front of him. He conceded that it was fairly wild but, young and new as he was, he was nowhere near as fazed by it all as the whirlwind that followed suggested he should have been.
“I remember at the after-match function I was standing near the English manager, and he was furious about the whole thing . . . how bad it all was and how Australia had done all these terrible things,” Wright recalled.
“Well, some of it was pretty bad I guess, but it was nothing out of the ordinary in those days.
“I had seen Steve Finnane flatten Bill Beaumont in the Sydney game, and the first Test had a string of pretty toey brawls as well.
“I had played Colts (Under 20s) for Randwick the previous season, and that was wild too.
“Most of the Rugby was in those days, even at junior level. I remember we played the Colts grand final against Wests, and it was just a series of wild melees.
“It was so bad one bloke got sent off for his part in one brawl, but when the next one erupted he just ran back on to the field and hopped into that too.
“The Battle of Ballymore was a nasty game I guess, but we played some mighty Rugby to win the series, we scored some great tries, and all of that was somewhat overshadowed.”
The sort of Rugby that dominated the ‘Battle of Ballymore’ of course doesn’t happen these days.
Digital television coverage from multiple camera angles, TMOs and a severe clampdown on foul play that has made punching a cardinal sin have seen to that.
But there was a certain charm to the ways of nearly half a century ago, when the game saw passion expressed more freely, when forwards had to concentrate so much on contesting the ball they couldn’t afford to get mixed up in the backs.
It was a different game . . . less structured, less constrained, less based on power and collision, and with abundant space for backs to run. Sure, there was a bit more fighting. But gee it was fun.