Kicking for touch in rugby history

By Cpl Zenith King

As the inaugural 2011 Defence Rugby Cup gets underway we take a look at the history of Army rugby.

Army rugby can now trace its origins back to World War I when thousands of rugby players enlisted in the 1st Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

Army rugby’s vice-president for support Col Marcus Fielding, who joined the AARU management committee last year, said they originally believed Army rugby began in 1931.

“We had documents that referred to 1931,” he said. “But, we couldn’t work out the significance of that date and decided to look into it.

“We now believe the first representative match was played in England in 1919 when the first AIF team played a five-nation series.

“The team was drawn from across the AIF and played matches in France and England before returning to Australia the same year.”

At the end of the war, while waiting to return to Australia, leaders in the AIF decided to organise sport as a way of keeping the troops occupied and encouraging them to stay out of trouble.

“When the Armistice was signed in 1918 it was going to be a long time before troops could be returned home, so sport became the order of the day,” Col Fielding said.

“Australian soldiers loved their sport and they took the opportunity to play matches whenever they could while deployed.”

Research revealed that the AIF fielded a first XV team and a reserve XV team in 1919 – both went on to represent Australia internationally.

“Both teams played a number of matches throughout England and both won the majority of their matches,” Col Fielding said.

The reserve XV team performed particularly well. Captained by Lt Billy Watson, they went on to win nine of 12 matches and became the first team to defeat Llanelly on its home ground.

“It’s tremendous to learn how well the first representative Australian Army rugby teams performed at the international level.”

Within the two teams, 14 players were former Wallabies; one was a former Waratah and one a former Kangaroo.

“It was not surprising to learn that a lot of talented sportsmen joined the AIF,”
Col Fielding said.

“Sadly, many of them were killed or injured in the war. But there was still an enormous amount of talent to form two tremendous teams in 1919.”

Col Fielding said the research team had discovered all sorts of interesting facts and stories which were being captured in a highlighted history.

“We hope to have the information collected by the research team published sometime next year and make it available on the Army rugby website.”

Army Rugby is looking for anyone with association records, trophies, memorabilia, photos, and history of any kind. It is also trying to locate Jody Connolly.

If you can help, contact Andrew Kilsby on 0408 342 795, email andrewkilsby@cooeehistory.com or go to www.armyrugby.org.au

Some of the first Army rugby players.
Some of the first Army rugby players.

Representatives of some of the teams that played matches at the end of WWI in the UK.
Representatives in the UK WWI end

A ticket to the Australia versus NZ game on Saturday 22 March 1919.
ticket

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