In the first of a three-part series, Chris Thau looks back on the first-ever visit by an Australia squad to European shores, 100 years ago.

On 19 September 1908 the SS Omrah landed at the port of Plymouth at the beginning of what history recorded as Australia’s first ever tour of the British Isles.

It was the third touring side to arrive in the 20th century from the far-flung shores of the British Empire after New Zealand in 1905 and South Africa in 1906, but unlike their predecessors, the soon-to-be-called “Wallabies” played only in England and Wales, with the RFU being the host of the tour. The Australian tour was eagerly anticipated, as reports about their prowess had already filtered back home from A.F Harding’s Anglo-Welsh Lions, still in Sydney at the time of their departure, confirming previous reports from Bedell-Sivright’s 1904 British Isles tourists.

The boat departing from Circular Quay in Sydney on the evening of 8 August, the day of the second match of the Anglo-Welsh against an under-strength New South Wales, carried a team, described by its 23-year old captain Paddy Moran as “sturdy and fast. The players are young and keen and play a free, healthy game. The team contains representatives from all parts of Australia, including some really small clubs. It is practically a working class side, and includes bank clerks, railway workers and students.”

There were only four Queensland players in the 29-strong touring party, but with two of them, CE Parkinson and P Flanagan, sidelined with injury for most of the British leg of the tour, the other two, Thomas Richards – arguably one of the best forwards in the game - and full back Philip Carmichael, were among the stars of the tour. Carmichael ended up top scorer with 122 points. Daniel Carroll was the youngest player, while prop forward John Barnett was the oldest at 27.

Staying sharp

On the way to Britain, the boat stopped first at Melbourne, where the tourists beat Victoria 26-6 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and then at Fremantle where the fired-up Wallabies put Western Australian to the sword 58-6. During the crossing the players trained daily under the supervision of captain Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran, vice captain Fred Wood, manager James McMahon and assistant manager Stanley Wickham, so when they arrived at Plymouth they were in peak physical condition.

The importance of the trio – the manager Captain James McMahon, a former NSW full back, the assistant manager Stan Wickham, a former Australia skipper and the 23-year old skipper Dr Herbert Michael ‘Paddy’ Moran – in the success of tour would be difficult to underestimate.

During the voyage the team was reduced to 28 players as they lost 25-year-old loose-forward Cecil Murnin, who captained NSW to a stunning 14-0 win against the 1907 All Blacks. During a stop in Naples, Murnin, who had been ill since leaving Melbourne, was transferred to SS Oroya, which took him back to Sydney, where the doctors found not only that he had injured his spine, but also diagnosed him with a kidney infection and peritonitis. The team had lost a valuable player, at 6ft 2 inch the tallest man in the touring party.

Australia’s ‘Haka’

The tour has also provided a first ever for a so-called aborigine war cry - described by the team management as the “Natives Greetings to Strangers in Peace” and meant to be the Australian equivalent of New Zealand’s “Haka”. The text of the war cry published on the front cover of the match programme against Wales on 12 December 1908 read as follows:

Gau Gau Wales – Gau Gau Wales- Whir-r-r!
Win-nang-a lang (Thur)
Bu rang-a-lang (Yang).
Yai!Yai! Gun-yil-lang-yang-yah!

It meant in translation:
Greetings to Wales, Greetings to Wales
You are great men
We are pleased to meet you
We think we can beat you
Come, let us try

Despite the reluctance of Moran, who wrote about it several year later in his autobiography, the war cry was performed ad nauseam, virtually before each game and every public function: “The gravest affliction we carried was an alleged aboriginal war-cry which the parent Union in Australia had imposed on us. The memory of that war cry provokes anger in me after all these years… I refused to lead the wretched caricature of a native corroboree, and regularly hid myself among the team, a conscientious objector…”

Tour record

During their 5 ½ months tour the Wallabies had played a total of 37 matches, two in Australia before they crossed the Pacific, 30* matches in England and Wales, and four matches in the USA (California) and Canada (Vancouver). Their tour record speaks for itself: Played 38, won 32, drawn 1, lost 5. They played an additional match on 5 June 1909 against New South Wales, which they won 26-16.

The second Australian tour to the UK in 1926-27, was called the Waratahs, because 28 of the 29 players came from Sydney clubs, with the exception of Syd Malcolm, who was playing in Newcastle. Tommy Lawton, the Queensland-born fly-half, was also playing for a Sydney club at the time.

The Waratahs were the first Australian representative team to play against all four Home Unions and France and while all their hosts awarded international caps against them, it took the ARU 57 years before doing the same. The second Wallabies, who arrived in Britain on the day the Second World War broke out, did not play any game, while the Third Wallabies won 29 of their 35 matches in the UK, Ireland, France, US and Canada, including the tests against England, Scotland and Ireland during their tour in 1947-48.

* The match (won 13-5) against North Glamorganshire in Merthyr-Tydfill has not been included.

** image: The 1908 Australia squad

Source: IRB