How the battles, and the beasts, have changed since Australia first played Scotland


When was the first Test between New South Wales and Scotland and how many Queenslanders played? 1928 and one. Now you are ready for the bonus round in trivia night at the pub.

When Michael Cheika was Australia’s national coach, it only seemed being a Wallaby and a Waratah were synonymous. In the Roaring Twenties, being a Waratah was in fact to be a national rugby representative of Australia.

In 1927 and 1928, at the invitation of the International Rugby Board, 28 Waratahs and one Sydney-based Queenslander — playmaker Tom Lawton – went on a tour to Ceylon, Great Britain, France, and Canada, playing five Tests and more than 20 other matches.

Why only one Queenslander? The QRU was on hiatus during that time, as it waged war with an ascendent League.

Who was that Queenslander? All-round sportsman from Brisbane Grammar School (a first team star in rowing, swimming, running, cricket, and tennis), and a gunner in France in the Great War, Lawton studied medicine at St. Andrews College in Sydney, where he played his preferred rugby union, won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and even played for the Leicester Tigers.

Upon his return, he was made captain of New South Wales for the 1925 tour to New Zealand, on which he scored 49 points.

On the 1927-28 tour, he was again top point scorer (124 points). The Aussies won 24, lost 5 and drew 2 and made a name for playing attacking rugby.

His grandsons (Tom and Rob) both became Wallabies in the 1980s.

Lawton did not captain the 1927-28 tour; the leader was Arthur Cooper “Johnnie” Wallace, who had represented Scotland in nine Tests while attending Oxford from 1923 to 1926 and was highly influential in making tactical game plans.

His acumen was on display later, in 1937, when he coached a NSW win over the Springboks.
A tour in those days was really a tour.

The route was Sydney to Melbourne by train, then by ship to Melbourne to Adelaide to Colombo (playing the Ceylon XV) to the Suez to Naples to Toulon to Gibraltar, and finally Plymouth, almost six weeks later.

Australian rugby has plenty to be happy about – especially considering recent events. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Two weeks of practice in Devon ensued, and then the matches began, in Newport, Swansea, Cardiff, Oxford (an 0-3 loss), Cambridge, Liverpool, Newcastle and Coventry, before crossing the Irish Sea to Dublin (a 5-3 Test win over Ireland in front of a 25,000 crowd).

The unofficial Waratah-Wallabies beat Wales two weeks later (18-8) in Cardiff in front of 35,000, before going to Scotland.

They lost the Test in Edinburgh, 8-10, with 50,000 spectators, after several club matches. The Murrayfield pitch was covered in straw until just before kickoff, to protect it from frost.
Renowned rugby diarist Cyril Towers reported it thus:

“The tactical keynote both in attack and defence of each of those evenly matched sides was speed.

“With 20 minutes left to play, both sides had scored two tries each, but the local side had converted twice, while the Waratahs had only been successful in this respect once.

“The spectators were mad with excitement during the last 10 minutes, as a NSW forward crossed the line twice but was recalled for infringements while the Waratah captain, after having beaten the opposition lost his footing on the partly frozen surface.

“A draw would have been a better ending to the game instead of the 10–8 victory for Scotland, as it did not seem fitting that such an even and thrilling contest should be decided by a kick. It will suffice to say that the match will live long in the memory of those who witnessed as well as participated in it.”

The team was shown to the Houses of Parliament, presented to the Prince of Wales and the King, and even went shooting with His Majesty at Sandringham. The infant Princess Elizabeth was introducted to the team at Piccadilly by her parents.

Perhaps all the social events distracted because Australia lost to England at Twickenham.

The route back went through Paris, then Liverpool, Montreal, Toronto, Banff, Vancouver, Honolulu, Suva, and Auckland, before return to Sydney after a nine-month tour.

The party had four Randwick men, six from Sydney University, three from the Eastern Suburbs, five from the Western Suburbs, three Manly players, one Glebe-Balmain man (Eric Excell Ford, who scored 15 tries in 21 matches), and several from Newcastle YMCA.

These tough men were not large. For example, fullback Alec Ross was listed as 5 foot 8 and 66 kg, perhaps too small for scrumhalf now. I cannot find the dimensions of the actual scrumhalf, Syd Malcolm, but he must have been tiny.

In a century, Australian men have grown steadily from an average of 1.7 metres to 1.8 metres plus and are still going up. Factors like purer water supplies, sewerage, infant nutrition, a better milk supply are often cited.

Even in the time since rugby has gone professional, the average height of players has gone by four inches. Welsh backs in the 2015 Rugby World Cup were heavier, on average, than the average All Black forward in the 1987 tournament.

Across the board, Test players have increased their mean body mass by over 25 percent from 1995 to now; a staggering rise in a quarter century.

The 2020 French pack for the Six Nations was the heaviest test pack in history: 950 kg.

Scotland has been beefing up, too. Winger Duhan van der Merwe would have been a lock or prop in the 1920s, and one of the biggest ones in the world. Stuart Hogg looks like he could squat a car.

But this Test at Murrayfield will not be decided by a weight advantage. There will probably be no advantage in strength or bulk.

Those differences have eroded as the sport has become more professional. Every nation can find two or three giraffes, a few buffalo, and a rhino, and everyone knows how to feed and train a battalion of superhero athletes.

Australia’s opening Test on this tour will be won or lost by speed of thought. It is the speed of thought that allows panic to recede. Intercepts and cards are avoided when the brain is working well and fast.

The last time these two teams played in 2017, Scotland thumped Australia. The Scots scored eight tries, with seven of them scored after Wallabies prop Sekope Kepu was sent off for illegal contact to the head of Hamish Watson. The Wallabies scored four tries of their own.

But Scotland set their new record for margin of victory over Australia, even after losing Hogg in warmups. They did so despite big errors. Finn Russell missed touch. Tommy Seymour spilled the pill. Both mistakes led to Wallaby tries. Then, Kepu lost his head, and the rest is infamy.

Who played for the Wallabies on that dark day? Beale, Koroibete, Kuridrani, Kerevi, Hodge, Foley, Genia, Sio, Moore, Kepu, Simmons, Enever, McCalman, Hooper, and McMahon. Off the bench came Polota-Nau, Faulkner, Tupou, Tui, Timani, Phipps, Hunt, and Speight.

What’s striking is how few of those men will take the field this weekend for Australia. The spine of Scotland is still in place: Hogg and Russell and Price and Gray and Fagerson and Watson. But only Hooper and possibly Beale remain from the 2017 shellacking.

This is Dave Rennie’s team.

My suspicion is Scotland will once again not be able to hold the Wallabies under four tries. So, the question is if the Wallabies can put the clamp on Gregor Townsend’s multiangled attack, led by his three playmaking Lions. Townsend’s Scotland has not lost to Australia yet: in addition to the Edinburgh massacre, the Wallabies lost to Scotland in Sydney.

But the Wallabies will be the favourites to win a close one. Perhaps like in their first ever Test, it will come down to a late kick.





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