1908–09 Australia rugby union tour of Britain

1908–09 Australia rugby union tour of Britain

Not to be confused with the 1908–09 Kangaroo tour of Great Britain

The 1908–09 Australia rugby union tour of the British Isles was a collection of friendly rugby union games undertaken by the Australia national rugby union team against invitational and national teams from England and Wales, as well as several games against sides from North America. This was the first Australian tour of the Northern Hemisphere and the side is sometimes referred to as the "First Wallabies".

Both the New Zealand and South African teams had toured Europe in 1905 and 1906 respectively, both achieving unexpected but deserved success against club and international opposition. Despite the success of these two touring teams, Australia suffered poor press[1] and with only a single win after the teams' first twelve international matches in its history to that point,[2] few people suggested the team would do well.[1] Against low expectations the Australians played well, winning 25 of 31 matches played on the tour and with some commentators writing that the team would have achieved better results if they had not picked up so many injuries.[1][3]

Australia took in two recognised international games, against Wales and England, but failed to play any games in Scotland or Ireland due to the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Scottish Rugby Union resenting the International Rugby Board's attitude regarding the Australian invitation.[3]

The squad's leadership

Tour manager, who performed the role of coach was New South Wales state selector James McMahon, a veteran of the early NSWRU representative fixtures of 1889 and 1894 against New Zealand. He was assisted by Stan Wickham who had captained the Wallabies on 10 occasions between 1904 and 1905. Tour captain was Dr. Herbert 'Paddy' Moran. The team was also captained in matches during the tour by Chris McKivat and by Fred Wood, the tour vice-captain. They played in blue shirts, emblazoned with the Waratah. Players were paid 3 shillings a day in expenses.[4]

Moran writes in Viewless Winds that when the touring squad first arrived at Plymouth a pack of journalists were there who were anxious to give the team some distinctive name. The "Rabbits" was instantaneously rejected and soon after the team adopted the moniker of "The Wallabies" which for many years was used to describe the Australia national rugby union team when touring to Britain. These days the national side are the Wallabies whether playing at home or anywhere abroad.[5]

Moran also describes as "an affliction" the war-cry which the parent Union in Australia had suggested the team should use for its "box-office value". Moran wrote:
The memory of that war cry provokes anger in me even after all these years.....We were expected to leap up in the air and make foolish gestures which somebody thought Australian natives might have used in similar circumstances and we were give meaningless words which we were to utter savagely during the pantomine [sic].....I refused to lead the wretched caricature of a native corroboree and regularly hid myself among the team, a conscientous objector.
—Herbert Moran, The Spirit of Rugby[5]
Echoing the feelings of the Australian team towards the war-cry, there was little respect shown from their opponents towards it either. In the encounter with Cardiff at the Cardiff Arms Park, Percy Bush responded to the cry by charging onto the pitch brandishing a sword and shield, in what was intended to be an amusing riposte.[6]

Tour itinerary

The squad left Sydney on 8 August 1908 on board the SS Omrah bound for Melbourne. The ship contained 116 passengers, 1579 bales of wool, 2729 carcases of mutton, 4650 carcases of lamb, 2000 quarters of beef, 4800 crates of frozen rabbits and 200 tones of lead and copper. They played a game at the MCG against a Victorian XV which was won 26–6. They docked in Fremantle and played and won a fixture against a Western Australian XV 58–6.

On the long voyage Moran introduced the practice of team meetings that were part lecture and part brain–storming with players encouraged to voice their ideas on improving team performance. Moran stood at a blackboard and while his lecturing style was initially derided by the players he managed to instill a sense of cleverness and skill in players, creating thoughts of rugby as similar to a game of chess.[7] The Sydney forward Cecil Murnin became ill on the voyage and left the tour in Naples to return to Australia.[8]

The first tour match in England was against Devon. Peter Burge broke a leg in that match and did not play again on the tour.[9] Australia won the match with fourteen men. Bob Craig had brought a carpet snake in his luggage as a tour mascot and the snake died that same day.[5] The fourth tour match saw the Wallabies pitted against the best players from Cardiff and Swansea playing as Glamorgan County. The match at Pontypridd drew a crowd of 20,000 who gave the visitors a standing ovation. In that match another player was lost to a broken leg – this time from the sideline. The Queensland forward Flanagan was running the flag as line–umpire and collided with the winger “Boxer” Russell.[10] Australia's first loss was the ninth match, against Llanelli RFC – a spirited encounter which saw the Llanelli side win the match 8–3 and themselves a place in local sporting folklore.

Olympic Wallabies

During the tour, the Olympic Games were being held in London. The Australian team entered the rugby tournament and were the only other team alongside Cornwall, who were representing Great Britain. The interest in the Olympic rugby final was only lukewarm with the final being held in the last week of Games that had taken place over six months.[11]

Australia had already beaten Cornwall, the British county champions early in the tour. Scotland and Ireland had turned down the Rugby Football Union's invitation to participate in the Olympic bouts. France were expected to contest the medal, but had withdrawn, leaving just Australia and Cornwall for England team to play for gold and silver medals.

The match was played on an area alongside the Olympic Games swimming pool which measured 110 yards in length with a long line of netting stretched beside to catch flying balls. Large mattresses were spread along the rim of the pool to prevent injuries to falling players.[12] One day was allocated to what was called the Olympic rugby tournament. Neither Moran, nor the tour vice-captain Fred Wood played so Chris McKivat led the Wallabies to an easy 32–3 victory and to Olympic glory, with each Wallaby in that match thereafter an Olympic gold medallist.

Zavos quotes a contemporary newspaper account by Major Trevor in The Daily Telegraph 27 October 1908:
It will be remembered that less than a month ago there was a match played between Australia and Cornwall at Camborne and although the Australians also won on that occasion, the beaten side then played on the whole, a very good game. Yesterday the champion England county was practically at full strength, but from start to finish they were outplayed. The methods by which this victory was gained were even more creditable to the winners than the completeness of the victory itself and it is only fair to the Australians to speak of their play in terms of unqualified praise. The ground was very slippery and very heavy and as a result of several hours of continuous rain the ball was very greasy. The continued excellence of the play of the Australian backs therefore surprised the spectators. They gave a display of football which would have done credit to a Welsh international side, at its best. They scored eight tries and so good was the play leading up to each of them that it would be hard to say which was the best.

Tour statistics

The tour took in 31 games in the British Isles, with the Australians winning 25, losing five and drawing one. Of the Test matches, the team lost against Wales, but beat England. These matches were the first ever encounters between an Australian team and their hosts. A further two matches were played in Australia en route and there were five matches in the USA and Canada.

The Wallabies scored 438 points on tour to 149 against, scoring 104 tries in the process and averaging better than three tries per game with 80 scored by the backs and 24 by the forwards.[14]

Touring party


Full Backs

  • Brothers)
  • William Dix (Armidale)

Three quarters

Half Backs



Date Opponent Location Result Score
Match 1 10 August Victoria Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia Won 26–6
Match 2 17 August Western Australia Fremantle Oval, Australia Won 58–6
Match 3 26 September Devon Rectory Ground, Devonport Won 24–3
Match 4 1 October Gloucestershire Kingsholm, England Won 16–0
Match 5 3 October Cornwall Camborne, Cornwall Won 18–5
Match 6 7 October Glamorgan Taff Vale Park, Pontypridd, Wales Won 16–3
Match 7 10 October Penygraig RFC Athletic Ground, Tonypandy, Wales Won 11–3
Match 8 15 October Neath RFC and Aberavon RFC Neath Football Ground, Neath, Wales Won 15–0
Match 9 17 October Llanelli RFC Stradey Park, Llanelli, Wales Lost 3–8
Match 10 19 October Monmouthshire Football Ground, Pontypool, Wales Cancelled-pitch waterlogged
Match 11 24 October London Richmond, England Won 3–0
Match 12 26 October Cornwall White City Stadium, London Won 3–8
Match 13 28 October Combined Army and Navy Recreation Ground, Portsmouth, England Won 8–6
Match 14 31 October Durham Friarage Ground, Hartlepool, England Won 29–7
Match 15 4 November Northumberland and Cumberland St James' Park, Newcastle, England Won 18–6
Match 16 7 November Cheshire Birkenhead Park, Birkenhead, England Won 37–3
Match 17 11 November London Rectory Field, Blackheath, England Won 24–3
Match 18 14 November Cambridge University Cambridge, England Won 11–9
Match 19 18 November Oxford University Iffley Road, Oxford, England Won 19–3
Match 20 21 November Yorkshire Belle Vue, Wakefield, England Won 24–0
Match 21 21 November Lancashire Fallowfield Stadium, Fallowfield, England Won 12–6
Match 22 28 November Somerset Athletic Grounds, Taunton, England Won 8–0
Match 23 2 December Combined Midlands England Lost 5–16
Match 24 5 December Anglo-Wales XV Richmond, England Won 24–0
Match 25 12 December Wales Cardiff Arms Park, Wales Lost 6–9
Match 26 17 December Glamorgan League XV Taff Vale Park, Pontypridd, Wales Won 9–5
Match 27 19 December Newport RFC Rodney Parade, Newport, Wales Won 5–3
Match 28 22 December Abertillery RFC Abertillery, Wales Draw 3–3
Match 29 [15] 24 December North Glamorgan Penydarren Park, Merthyr, Wales won 13–5
Match 30 26 December Swansea RFC St. Helen's, Swansea, Wales Lost 0–6
Match 31 28 December Cardiff RFC Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff, Wales Lost 8–24
Match 32 9 January England Rectory Field, Blackheath, England Won 9–3
Match 33 13 January Bristol and Clifton Gloucestershire County Ground, England Won 11–3
Match 34 16 January Plymouth Plymouth, England Won 15–6
Match 35 6 February University of California California, USA Won 27–0
Match 36 Stanford University California Won 13–3
Match 37 All California California Won 17–0
Match 38 Vancouver Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Won 23–0
Match 39 Victoria Australia Won 26–3



12 December 1908
 Wales 9–6  Australia
Try: Phil Hopkins
Con: Winfield
Try: Richards
Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff
Attendance: 30,000
Referee: G Evans England(England)

Wales Bert Winfield, Johnnie Williams, Jack Jones, Billy Trew captain, Phil Hopkins, Dick Jones, Dicky Owen, James Watts, George Travers, George Hayward, Jim Webb, Phil Waller, Tom Evans, Ivor Morgan, David John Thomas

Australia Phil Carmichael, Charles Russell, John Hickey, Edward Mandible, Daniel Carroll, Ward Prentice, Christopher McKivatt, Thomas Griffen, Robert Craig, Jumbo Barnett, Peter Burge, Charles Hammand, Patrick McCue, Tom Richards, Herbert Moran captain

After the tours by the New Zealand and South African teams, the Welsh crowds were beginning to become fatigued at greeting another 'colonial' team,[16] and the crowd of 30,000 at the Cardiff Arms Park was smaller than previous in tours. Those that attended were repaid with an exciting and close encounter, with two tries from both sides and Wales winning by just a single penalty goal. The contest between the forwards was described as 'tremendous',[17] and at the end of the match Moran was chaired from the ground by the Welsh supporters.[18] Moran was later quoted as saying: "It was a very gruelling game; in fact, I think it was one of the hardest games I had ever played in."[17]

Moran describes the last fifteen minutes as tremendously hard. Twice or three times the Australian backs either crossed the line or knocked down a corner post without being able to score. In the dying moments one of the Australian wingers made a break with just Bert Winfield to beat. Instead of stepping or fending him the Wallaby three-quarter attempted to barge through and both players collapsed to the ground. The whistle blew and the Test was Wales'.


9 January 1909
 England 3–9  Australia
Try: Mobbs Try: Row
Russell (2)
Rectory Field, Blackheath
Attendance: 18,000
Referee: J Games Wales(Wales)

England George Lyon captain, Edgar Mobbs, FN Tarr, EW Assinder, BB Bennetts, AH Ashcroft, RH Williamson, JG Cooper, R Dibble, AL Kewney, SH Penny, AD Warrington-Morris, FP Knight, Percy Down, WL Oldham

Australia Phil Carmichael, Charles Russell, John Hickey, Ward Prentice, William Dix, Arthur McCabe, Christopher McKivatt captain Ken Gavin, Norm Row, Jumbo Barnett, Patrick McCue, Charles Hammand, Malcolm McArthur, Tom Richards, Sydney Middleton

The match was to have been played at Twickenham but bad weather had delayed the construction of the stand and it was moved to Blackheath.

England had ten new caps, including all four three-quarters. England started well and Edgar Mobbs scored. Wallaby Norman Row kicked an up-and-under, followed up and scored to level the scores. Half-time came at 3-all. Australia dominated the second half. Boxer Russell scored the Wallabies' second and third tries.[19]

Although the Australian team won by three tries to one, sections of the British press reported that the tourists were fortunate to win.[6] This was typical of the press, which had unfairly compared the Australians to the All Black and Springbok teams throughout the tour.[6] Moran had suffered an Achilles-tendon injury[18] in a prior match and missed the England encounter, so the captaincy was given to McKivat.




  • Collection (1995) Gordon Bray presents The Spirit of Rugby, Harper Collins Publishers Sydney
  • Davis, JC (1934) Every Man for the Ship (NSWRU Souvenir Publication, 1934 reproduced in The Spirit of Rugby, 1995)
  • Howell, Max (2005) Born to Lead – Wallaby Test Captains, Celebrity Books, Auckland NZ
  • Moran, Herbert (1939) Viewless Winds – the recollections and digressions of an Australian surgeon P Davies, London
  • Zavos, Spiro (2000) Golden Wallabies Penguin Sydney


  • Eng v Aust match report at Planet-Rugby.com