From The Vaults

17 January 2022
The First Golden Age Of Australian Rugby

Rugby union in Australia suffered hugely in the aftermath of the First World War. Rugby League had encroached on its territory to devastating effect in the years before 1914 and many leading amateur players had turned professional after winning their spurs in Wallaby sides, including such luminaries as the great three-quarters Dally Messenger and Herb Gilbert.

Rugby league achieved a stranglehold in Queensland after the war and the union game was maintained for nearly ten years almost solely in the state of New South Wales. The NSW state team, known as the Waratahs, played 39 representative matches against the Springboks, the All Blacks, the New Zealand Maoris, the UK countries and France from 1920 through to 1928, matches that were retrospectively granted full international status in 1986 with the players involved being awarded caps.

As the 1920s progressed, rugby union gradually re-established its foothold although it was not, and arguably never has been, able to match the appeal of rugby league in the national consciousness. The state of Victoria resumed rugby union inter-state matches in 1927 and Queensland followed a year later. Meanwhile the Waratahs embarked on a highly successful tour of the UK and France in 1927-28. Although their results in the five internationals were varied with defeats to both Scotland at Murrayfield and England at Twickenham, their open style of play was much admired and set the tone for some distinguished performances by successive Australian sides when internationals against major rugby union playing countries resumed in 1929.

When a full representative New Zealand side visited Australia for a ten-match tour in the summer of 1929, the experienced combination of players from New South Wales and Queensland that faced them in the first test at Sydney contained many veterans of the Waratahs tour to the UK two years earlier - full back Alex Ross; winger Eric Ford; centres, Cyril Towers and Syd King; veteran fly half and Oxford blue Tommy Lawton as captain; scrum half Syd Malcolm; Arthur 'Huck' Finlay in the second row; and Wylie Breckenridge in the back row. The addition of two formidable front row forwards, prop Bill Cerutti and hooker Eddie Bonis, made this an Australian team to be feared.

Some established All Blacks were unavailable for the 1929 tour. Additionally their captain and wing forward Cliff Porter, UK tour captain in 1924-25, was injured and unable to play in the first test. The great fullback, George Nepia, was still available and the selectors surrounded him with no less than 11 new caps and passed the captaincy to their fly half Herb Lilburne in only his third test. The inexperience of the All Black team was ultimately the deciding factor in their defeat. Although the All Blacks led 8-6 at half-time thanks to a try from centre Charlie Oliver converted by Nepia who added a penalty, Tommy Lawton kept Australia in touch with two penalty goals. The sole score in the second half was a debut try scored by Waratahs winger, George Gordon, in his only international appearance. Lawton missed the conversion and, although the All Blacks attacked vigorously for the remainder of the match, Australia emerged the winners by just the one point.

The Wallabies were forced to make a change in their team for the second test. The centre Gordon Sturtridge became the first player from the state of Victoria to play in a test match when he replaced the injured Cyril Towers. For the All Blacks, Porter had recovered and resumed the captaincy but Nepia who had left the field at half-time in the first test, would play no further part on the tour. There were six changes to their side in all but, after holding the Wallabies to a 3-3 draw at half-time, the All Blacks were swept away in the second half with the Wallabies expertly marshalled by Tommy Lawton scoring three tries to secure a 17-9 victory.

The All Blacks, desperate to retrieve their honour, began the third test strongly and scored three tries, two converted, to give them a 13-9 half-time lead. But the 1929 Wallabies were a formidable outfit and they overhauled the All Blacks in the second half with two outstanding tries. The first was the result of a sweeping run from Towers supported by his number 8 Jack Ford who ignored the claims of his speedier brother, winger Eric, and crashed over in the right-hand corner to score himself. Lawton missed the conversion which might have been critical if his back-line had not conjured up yet another magnificent try with twelve minutes to go. This time it was Syd King who started and finished a move in which numerous Wallabies handled before giving King the final try-scoring pass. Lawton again missed the conversion but the All Blacks could not reply and the Wallabies survived to record their first-ever clean sweep in a three-test series against the all Blacks.

One year later, the British Isles touring side came to Australia after taking part in a four-test series against New Zealand. Eleven of the victorious Wallabies from the previous year took the field against the Lions at the Sydney Cricket Ground on August 30th 1930 in front of an enthusiastic crowd of just under 31,000 spectators. The battle-hardened Lions contained some great players and the Australians were severely tested. A sniping break by scrum half Sid Malcolm who sold a dummy and ignored Lawton outside him was the only score of the first half and Australia went further ahead when the diminutive Queensland speedster Gordon McGhie scored in the left-hand corner ten minutes into the second half. An immediate riposte saw the Lions centre Tony Novis score a try converted by the Lions captain Doug Prentice and there was just one point in it.

Although the Australian forwards were dominant in the scrum, the Lions threw everything into attack in the final minutes. It was only a desperate tackle by full back Alex Ross on the Lions back row forward, Welshman Ivor Jones, in support of a break by his fly half Roger Spong that saved a certain try and the Wallabies held on to win by the one point. It was a great victory but almost the end of an era for this outstanding Wallaby team.

In 1931 the Wallabies touring team captained by Syd Malcolm beat the New Zealand Maoris but lost a single test to New Zealand at Eden Park. A year later, they won their first test at home on the All Blacks 1932 tour of Australia with 33-year old Tom Lawton as captain, but they were unable to continue their winning run in the remaining two tests and secure the series. Lawton played his 14th and final international in the second test, twelve years after his debut in 1920, and retired as the most capped fly half in Australian rugby union history. Full back Alex Ross and scrum half Syd Malcolm would both end their illustrious careers with 20 and 18 caps respectively at the end of the victorious 1934 two-test series against the All Blacks.


  • Centenary - Chester & McMillan (Blandford Press Ltd, Poole 1984)
  • For the sake of the Game - Peter Fenton (Little Hills Press Pty Ltd, NSW 1996)
  • Men in Black (5th edition) - Chester, McMillan and Palenski (Hodder Moa Beckett Publishers 2000)
  • The Wallabies - Maxwell Howell, Xie and Wilkes (GAP Publishing 2000)
  • Wallaby Gold (2nd edition) - Peter Jenkins (Random House Australia 2003)

About the Author

A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005 and is the co-author of the RFU's 150th anniversary book England Rugby 150 Years.