Published in Thirteen in 2005
by Bryce Eulenstein
The third Ashes Test 1914
Australia v Northern Union
Sydney, July 14th 1914
“You are playing in a game of football this afternoon but, more than that, you are playing for England and more, even, you are playing for right versus wrong. You will win because you have to win.” – English Manager Mr I. Clifford
Rugby league was only five seasons old in Australia when the English test side arrived for the Ashes campaign of 1914. The New South Wales Rugby League were keen to make the tour a public-relations winner, in an attempt to continue the rise of the new code over the more established rugby union. When Australia squared the series in the second test, public interest was high. The NSWRL then made a move that was to set up one of the great rugby league stories.
The third Test was not to be played until after the English toured New Zealand. They had amassed considerable injuries in the first two tests, and were looking forward to the opportunity for time to recover. However, they had just boarded the train for a midweek tour game in Bathurst, when the NSWRL cabled the English League for permission to bring the test forward to the following Saturday, to cash in on the public interest. The English League cabled back it’s permission, and the game was organised. Neither party had bothered to consult the touring party, and when they found out about the rescheduling, they were furious. They cabled their objections back home, but the cable may have well had been sent to Lord Kitchener at the War Office. Their reply was a stubborn “England expects every man to do his duty!”
The stirring pre-match speech by their manager Mr. I. Clifford is as well known as any of the game details. “You are playing in a game of football this afternoon,” he said, “but more than that, you are playing for England and more, even, you are playing for right versus wrong. You will win because you have to win. Don’t forget that message from home: England expects every man to do his duty.”
The Englishmen took the field in determined frame of mind. Despite winger Frank Williams twisting his leg before the first scrum, the tourists went up at half time 9-3, thanks to a try by prop Percy Coldrick, and three goals to Alf Wood. Williams had stayed on the field, as there were no replacements allowed back in 1914. Cumbrian second rower Douglas Clark, now a member of the RFL Hall of Fame, had suffered a broken thumb, and had it strapped so he could continue.
Early in the second half, however, Clark broke his collarbone in a tackle. He went off to have it strapped, and returned to the field unsuccessfully. He again went off for more strapping, and returned, before finally going off for good. He left the field with tears in his eyes, as he had left his side with only 12 men on the field.
Soon after Clark’s exit, Williams hurt his leg again, and couldn’t go on. Then, centre Billy Hall was carried off with concussion. With still 30 minutes to go, the English were reduced to 10!
To a man the visitors rallied. Injuries, and the need to cover positions in the backs, meant that the Lions sometimes had only four men in the scrums. However, they began to win their fair share, and despite being camped close to their line, managed to thwart Australia’s repeated attempts to exploit their three-man advantage through some brilliant and desperate tackling. Their determination was growing, and it was from this platform that they launched one of the greatest tries ever seen.
With 20 minutes to go, captain Harold Wagstaff cut through close to his own line. He found ‘John’ Johnson on the wing in support, and passed to him with only the fullback Howard Hallett to beat. However, Johnson was a slow back-rower, playing wide to cover their losses. With Hallett closing in on him, and just short of halfway, he put the ball on the ground and began to dribble it. He dribbled the ball past Hallett, and kept dribbling for the remaining 50 yards to the try line, evading the desperate attempts by the Australians to secure it. Johnson eventually grounded the ball near the posts. Wood converted for a miraculous 14-3 lead.
The sheer tenacity of the Englishmen won the admiration of the vocal crowd, who seemed to cheer them on in the final 20 minutes of the match. With 10 minutes left, Hall returned to the field. It was only with three minutes to go that Australia crossed the line with a try to captain Sid Deane.
The Australian crowd cheered the Englishmen off the field, as they regained the Ashes. It was possibly England’s finest moment in sport. They had held out a full-strength Australian side with only 10 men. The effort brought back memories of the British garrison at Rorke’s Drift, South Africa, where 100 men held off 4000 attacking Zulu tribesman 20 years earlier. With this in mind, the game was therefore tagged “The Rorke’s Drift Test.”
Australia 6 (D Frawley, S Deane tries)
Northern Union 14 (P Coldrick, A Johnson tries, A Wood 4 goals)
AUSTRALIA: Hallett, Tidyman, Messenger, Deane (c), Frawley, Fraser, Holloway, Cann, Craig, Sullivan, Burge, Pearce, Courtney
NORTHERN UNION: Wood, Williams, Wagstaff (c), Hall, Davies, Prosser, Smith, Johnson, Clark, Holland, Coldrick, Ramsdale, Chilcott