Here’s cheers to all you cobbers out there!
Welcome to Episode 20 of the Chewsday Chew. I hope you’re all well, fit, healthy, a touch fat and wallowing in the good things in life.
I confess I was scratching about for something to write about this week. I was beginning to feel a little panicked by my distinctly uninspired palette of topics on about Friday or so. However, I was saved when I caught a bit of the Garma Festival via the ABC and SBS over the weekend as that then got me thinking about the impact that First Nations players have had on our fantastic game.
But all that said, the Aussie lads 7s will be ruing opportunities missed in Birmingham while a massive well done goes to the lasses on a fantastic gold medal win.
Now as far as I can work out, there have been about twenty First Nations players who have represented our nation in rugby over the years, depending on how you define both ‘representing Australia’ and also ‘identifying as’. So without getting too ‘down and dirty’ in the granularity and inevitably the politics of it all, I thought to just jot a line or two about some of the more notable representatives and, if nothing else, recognise and remind the erstwhile reader of their names and contributions to our sweet addiction.
To that end, I’m not going to cover the Fainga’as (Anthony, Colby, Saia & Vili), the Ellas (Gary, Glen and Mark) or Kurtley Beale. Beale is still a current player and so his story isn’t over. And the Ellas and Fainga’a clans have had plenty written of them. Plus all of them have been written, dissected and commented on far more extensively than I could hope to do justice to. So I’ll stick with those perhaps less well-known to the general reader of 2022.
Plus I should acknowledge that the material below is not my original work or research. It comes from all manner of sources around the interwebs and thus I make no claim to being the original author of any of it.
Firstly, I should acknowledge Frank Ivory. The ‘Maryborough Miracle’ was born in 1871. He played for Queensland in 1893-4 and as far as I can tell was the first Aboriginal to represent in rugby at such a level. So while not a Wobbly, the Wobblies weren’t around when he was around. So fair’s fair – it was the highest rugby honour he could attain. Details on the chap are scarce. But my Dr Google poodling did find some references.
Frank Ivory was the son of Francis Ivory whose dad (Frank’s grandad) was a well respected judge and lord in Scotland. Francis, with his brother Alec, had established Eidsvold station on the Burnett River west of Brisbane and was so well regarded in the district that in 1873 he was elected to Queensland’s parliament as the Member for Burnett. Francis had three children with Caroline, a Goreng Goreng woman working at Eidsvold station, and their second child, Frank, was born in 1871. Frank went to Maryborough Boys Grammar School in 1887 and became immediately renown for his sporting prowess particularly in rugby. By all reports, Frank was a gifted centre but was often pushed to fullback where his prodigious kicking game, developed in the early version of AFL, was deemed better employed.
In 1894 Frank was selected for Queensland and was part of the very first intercolonial match played on the hallowed turf of the Sydney Cricket Ground on 21 July 1894 in front of (apparently) some 25-30,000 spectators. Queensland lost 4-3, but newspaper commentary spoke in glowing terms of Frank’s elusive running and kicking ability. Sydney’s Truth newspaper said ‘he’s about the best back we’ve seen here since the Maoriland visitors. from New Zealand’ while The Sydney Morning Herald said that Frank ‘played a sound game at full-back, the Queensland Backs were superior to the local team in many respects and his quick returns and good tackling helped his side very much.’
There are conflicting accounts of what happened to Frank’s career after that. He did go into business and established his own saddlery and other interests. However, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 soon arrived and greatly hampered what Frank was legally permitted to do and own within society. The Act gave a government official – the Protector of Aborigines – power over people’s free movement, labour and custody of children while people with one European parent (‘half-castes’) were not legally permitted to even associate with other Indigenous people. This, of course, fractured Frank’s extended family support network (which of course was entirely what the Act was designed to do). To avoid these restrictions, such ‘half castes’ could apply for a document known as an exemption certificate (also known as the ‘Dog Licence’) and records show Frank, grandson of a Scottish Lord and son of a Queensland MP, applied and was granted such a document in 1924 and renewed periodically thereafter. He died in 1957 and is buried in Mount Perry, Queensland.
Secondly, I’ll bring up Cecil Ramalli. Cecil was born in 1919 in Mungindi NSW. His father was a travelling merchant from Lahore, India and his mother was an Aboriginal Australian woman named Adeline Doyle from near Mungindi. The last of their six children, he attended Hurlstone Ag College from 1934. In 1935, at the age of 15 he had already made the school first XV, where it appeared the greatest challenge facing his considerable talent was in deciding whether ‘the diminutive jack-a-box’ should be a half-back or wing with local Sydney media reporting he “had the finest pass from the scrums seen in many a year, combined with an open-field running elusiveness to make such a natural footballer, and who in his first year has showed real brilliance”.
Cecil joined the Western Suburbs rugby club in Sydney in 1938, was selected for the NSW Waratahs in 1938-39 and played 2 tests for Australia in 1938. His first test was reportedly a brutal encounter in Brisbane against the All Blacks which earned him a broken nose with matching blackened eyes. But despite the 20-6 loss, Ramalli was apparently the standout performer for the Wallabies with The Courier Mail reported gushingly: “Ramalli made such a splendid debut, he should become one of the greatest players the game has produced.”
Unfortunately, Cecil is a bit of a case of ‘what may have been’ as, while the 5ft 9in and 66kg dynamo was named in the 1939 touring team to the UK, the tour was cancelled the very day the squad arrived in Portsmouth given Britain had just declared war on Germany.
On returning home, Ramalli enlisted in the AIF and as a lance corporal with the 8th Division (Signallers) and was mobilised to Malaya where he continued to play a bit of rugby and even captained the AIF in an unofficial ‘Test’ against the British Army in Singapore (which we won). As the war progressed, Ramalli became a POW, firstly in the Changi camp and later on the notorious Burma railway. Remarkably he survived where countless others fell and, believe it or not, was literally in a mine-shaft under Nagasaki Harbour on the 9 August 1945 when the A bomb was dropped. Again, he survived and somehow made it back to Sydney at a hefty 38kgs.
He lived in Sydney after the war and in later years became heavily involved in both West Pymble Rugby and Norths Rugby. Cecil died in 1998.
Further, I feel compelled to mention Lloyd Clive McDermott who is seen on the banner pic above, middle row, far right side. Lloyd was born in 1939 and was truly a remarkable person. As the only child of Clive and Violet McDermott, both First Nations people of few resources, he attended Churchie on a scholarship and was both a sportsman and student of great repute.
As a winger who reportedly possessed ‘electrifying’ pace, a ‘mesmerising’ swerve and a ‘baffling’ side step, he entered the University of Queensland to study law and in 1961 made his debut for Queensland against Fiji. Soon thereafter he played two tests for the Wallabies – as the first full blood First Nations man to do so – against the All Blacks of 1962 before, in 1963, making a principled decision to withdraw from the squad to tour South Africa, rather than play as an ‘honorary white’ in order to be legally allowed to travel with, eat with, stay in the hotels and play on the same grounds as the whites on tour.
In 1972 he graduated law and shortly thereafter was admitted as a barrister in New South Wales, thereby also becoming Australia’s first indigenous barrister. Along the way he also earned degrees in criminology and science (because, you know, he was bored). And in 2009, The Bar Association of Queensland created the Mullenjaiwakka Trust for Indigenous Legal Students, named in honour of McDermott (his tribal/natural name being Mullenjaiwakka). I would invite you to do your own reading on Lloyd as I feel I wouldn’t do him justice if I ramble on. He died in April 2019.
A couple of later First Nations players also spring to mind who are worthy of a mention in passing;
Lloyd Walker was born in April of 1959, was a Bidgigal man and grew up around La Perouse. He attended Matraville High with the Ellas which was where he took up rugby. Apparently he made his debut for Randwick at 19, retired at 35yrs and played over 270 grade games in between including 10 Shute Shield Grand Finals between 1981 and 1994. He didn’t play for NSW until 1985 (v Queensland) and was selected for the Wobblies in 1988 at No10 against the All Blacks in Brisbane. To give some context, in the first Test of the series two weeks earlier, Australia were walloped 32-7. In response, Walker and Tim Gavin were brought into the side for the second Test and the Wallabies earned a more than respectable 19-19 draw against a team that was widely described as the best ever All Black team of the pre-professional era.
Lloyd Walker went on to play 8 tests over the next 2yrs, including the Lions series, before being squeezed out by the emergence of Tim Horan and Jason Little alongside Michael Lynagh. If anyone needs convincing of Walker’s ability, I would invite you to find and watch footage of the Wicks/Tarts/Wobbs when he played at either 12 or 10. He was once described as ‘deceptively slow’ and his ability to nonchalantly ‘poodle’ across field, draw every defender within cooee and then slide off an inside ball to an unmarked teammate was mercurial. And if you need more convincing, besides being a Wobbly assistant coach for 2yrs, Mark Ella wrote almost an entire chapter in his book about the guy. ‘Nuff said.
Jim Williams was a powerful backrower born in Young, NSW in 1968. He learnt his rugby in the Army apparently, but did regularly turn out for the Young Yabbies until the early 1990s, after which he moved to Brisbane and commenced playing with the Wests club. After a stint in the green, red and white of West Hartlepool RFC near Middlesbough in 1994-95, he landed a contract with the NSW Waratahs in 1996 before moving to the Brumbies in 1998. At 6ft 4in and approx 115kg he played for the Wallabies in 1999-2000, was part of the 1999 World Cup squad and made 14 appearances for the Wobblies all up. He was also a Wobbly assistant coach from 2008-2011.
Andrew Walker was born in 1973 in Shoalhaven NSW. He played for Shoalhaven Rugby club as a junior, before moving to Randwick where he played alongside Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika in their 1991 premiership-winning season when he was aged 18yrs. He moved to rugby league thereafter. He returned to rugby in 1998 and at 5ft 10in and a hefty 85kg, he ‘made his name’ in the wider rugby circles largely with the ACT Brumbies scoring thirteen tries, including two hat-tricks, in the 2000 season and was a general Wobbly squad member from 2000 through to 2002. A prodigious talent at wing or fullback, remarkably he only actually played 7 tests (I had always thought he played more) and will always be remembered by those who saw him play as nothing short of magical with the ball both in hand and off the foot.
And lastly for today, Timana Tahu was born in Melbourne of a New Zealand Māori father and an Australian Aboriginal mother in 1980. He grew up in St Kilda before moving with his mother to Bourke around the age of 12. He came to prominence in rugby league, first playing for Newcastle in 2000 and in 2001 was part of their premiership side. He moved to rugby in 2008, joining Lote Tuqiri at West Harbour in the Shute Shield. Contracted to the NSW Waratahs, in July 2008 the 6ft 1in 100kg centre/winger made his first appearance as a substitute for the Wallabies against New Zealand and in doing so became Australia’s 46th Dual-International. All up, Tahu played 4 tests and made a further 5 appearances for Australia A before returning to rugby league in 2009 after never really seeming to fulfill his potential in rugby. He did return to rugby in 2016, playing for the Denver Stampede for one season.
So there you have it boys and girls. There are a few of the First Nations folk who have worn our nations jersey with pride. I hope my notes do them some justice. And I hope to see many others follow in their footsteps.
Have I forgotten to note anyone of note? Of course I have. And I welcome you all to add/correct/argue the record in the Comments section…
And in recognition of true skill, I can’t mention the Garma Festival of First Nations Peoples without also acknowledging the death Archie Roach over the weekend. He qualifies for this article as he played some footy at school although never quite made the Wobblies. We are the poorer for his passing.