Wallaby Gold: 1908 Rugby Olympic champions

(IRB.COM) Friday 31 October 2008
By Chris Thau
 Wallaby Gold: 1908 Rugby Olympic champions
Australian Gold - the only known surviving Gold rugby medal from the 1908 Olympic Games

In Chris Thau’s first two articles on Wallaby history he explored Australia’s first ever tour in 1908, their pioneering challenges of accepted scrummaging convention and the invention of the nickname, the Wallabies. Now in the third and final piece he recounts their victory at the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

The ninth match of the Wallabies’ UK tour in 1908 was played against Cornwall, but it was no ordinary match. It was also an Olympic final against the English county champions, and one that yielded a priceless and unique Gold medal.

The 1908 Games was the second occasion on which rugby had featured in the Olympics after the 1900 Paris edition, when the hosts France had defeated the visiting German side from Frankfurt and Moseley Wanderers from England to claim gold.

Initially the 1908 organisers expected three teams but reigning champions France withdrew, leaving the touring Wallabies to play the Great Britain representatives in a one-off match.

Memories of Stradey Park

The Australians arrived in London steeled by their first defeat, against Llanelli at Stradey Park.

“On arriving at the playing field there was a saucepan on top of each goalpost, and a mighty crowd, delirious with expectancy, singing and working up enthusiasm to a great pitch,” said one Australian forward of the famous Llanelli ground, which hosted its final match last weekend.

“[The atmosphere] filled the heads and hearts of their players with a primitive impulse to tear in and fight with deadly earnest, showing no quarter, giving no respite.”

The Wallabies arrived in London for the first of two clashes with a powerful Metropolitan side expected to provide a stern test, but the tourists battled away in front of a 10,000-strong crowd at Richmond Athletic Field. An interception try by Charles Russell decided the match, while the captain Moran led by example, playing on with his dislocated left arm strapped to his body throughout the entire second half.

Only two days later - and without the injured Moran and vice-captain Fred Wood - the Olympic final was staged at the White City stadium in Shepherd’s Bush, on Monday 26 October.

Cornwall were at full strength, captained by Barney Solomon and with no less than four England internationals in E.J. Jackett, T. Wedge, J. Davey and A. Wilson but still offered scant resistance; the Wallabies scored seven tries on a wet and greasy pitch to record their second biggest winning margin of the tour.

Rightful Olympic champions

“Yesterday, the champion English county were practically at full strength, but from start to finish they were outplayed,” wrote Phillip Trevor in his Daily Telegraph report.

“The methods by which this victory was gained were even more creditable to the winners than the completeness of the victory itself, and it is only fair to the Australians to speak of their play in terms of unqualified praise.

“The ground was very slippery and very heavy and as a result of several hours continuous rain the ball was very greasy. No one present expected to see even a moderately accurate exhibition of football and the continued excellence of the play of the Australian backs therefore surprised the spectators.

“All the men behind the scrummage in the winning team played so well that it would be unfair to mention anyone for special praise.”

There has been a fair amount of debate about the medals awarded to the winning team. According to some reports, every member of the Australian team received a certificate and a “handsome silver medal” and the 15 players who played the match were subsequently presented with a “suitably inscribed gold medal”.

Some of the Olympic certificates have survived and adorn the walls of various clubs and Unions in Australia, but only one gold medal has surfaced.