Australian Geographic - - Wild Australia -

in­ter­na­tional rugby com­pe­ti­tion be­tween mul­ti­ple na­tions, and prob­a­bly the f irst in any team sport. It pre­dated the Rugby World Cup by nearly seven decades.

The Aus­tralians man­aged to nar­rowly de­feat New Zealand in the round-robin com­pe­ti­tion but came up short against the Mother Coun­try and suf­fered what was de­scribed as an “al­most in­ex­pli­ca­ble” loss to the RAF. New Zealand and the Mother Coun­try played off for the cup in front of the King at a resur­gent Twick­en­ham Sta­dium, the Lon­don home of rugby. Idle since 1914, the hal­lowed Twick­en­ham turf had been given over to graz­ing live­stock for the du­ra­tion of the war. New Zealand won the fi­nal 9 to 3.

About 5000 known Aus­tralian rugby play­ers had en­listed, with per­haps 500 killed dur­ing the war. That peace­time play­ers now took en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to the sym­bolic bat­tle­ground of the rugby f ield af­ter four years of bad food, mor­tal dan­ger, and men­tal and phys­i­cal ex­haus­tion was tes­ta­ment to their har­di­ness and en­durance.

Per­haps no Aus­tralian sports­man was a greater sur­vivor, nor showed more of a spirit of re­silience, than the AIF First XV front-row for­ward, Lieu­tenant Wil­liam ‘Billy’ Wat­son MC and bar DCM. Wat­son had al­ready toured North Amer­ica with an Aus­tralian team in 1912, and had faced the New Zealand All Blacks on the eve of war. Then, from the rugby f ield to the bat­tlef ield, Wat­son con­tin­ued to dis­tin­guish him­self. He was dec­o­rated for gal­lantry on three oc­ca­sions, wounded in ac­tion and se­verely gassed. Wat­son fought, how­ever, right through the war – from Aus­tralia’s first ac­tions in Ger­man New Guinea to the last days of fight­ing on the Western Front.

For the post-war rugby com­pe­ti­tion, Wat­son was made cap­tain of the AIF First XV. But tak­ing to the f ield for Wat­son was not as sim­ple as just pulling on his shorts and jer­sey and lac­ing his boots. His body was still cov­ered with sup­pu­rat­ing sores from ex­po­sure to mus­tard gas on the Somme bat­tle­field. These were duly lanced with a ster­ilised pock­etknife and ban­daged be­fore each match. Blood seeped through the ban­dages even be­fore Wat­son took to the field and, as a prop-for­ward in fre­quent heavy body con­tact dur­ing scrums and rucks, the pain must have been ex­cru­ci­at­ing. But com­pared with the hor­rors of trench war­fare, such ag­o­nies were of lit­tle con­se­quence to sur­vivors such as Billy Wat­son.

SINCE 1921, THE KING’S CUP has also been a tro­phy syn­ony­mous with the premier com­pe­ti­tion for men’s row­ing eights in Aus­tralia. But the cup it­self was first awarded at the Hen­ley Peace Re­gatta in Lon­don in July 1919, where an AIF VIII beat Ox­ford Univer­sity by a boat length in the f inal.

The Vic­to­rian Row­ing As­so­ci­a­tion later pe­ti­tioned King Ge­orge V, and he read­ily ac­ceded to the re­quest, that the cup be­come a per­pet­ual men’s tro­phy for com­pe­ti­tion be­tween state crews, pre­sented an­nu­ally at the Aus­tralian Row­ing Cham­pi­onships.

On a broader stage, ath­letes from 18 na­tions com­peted in the In­ter-Al­lied Games, a one-off, multi-sports event


The AIF First XV vs Canada at Twick­en­ham, Lon­don, 5 April 1919. Ed­ward, Prince of Wales (the fu­ture King Ed­ward VIII), and his brother, Prince Al­bert, at­tended the match. The Aus­tralians won 38 to nil.

King Ge­orge V presents the King’s Cup to James Ryan, cap­tain of the vic­to­ri­ous NZ side, at Twick­en­ham, 19 April 1919. The NZ team in­cluded six All Blacks and won the fi­nal 9 to 3 against the ‘Mother Coun­try’.

Com­pe­ti­tion took place at all AIF lev­els. Pic­tured is the 10th Bat­tal­ion rugby team. Among the first raised in Aus­tralia, the 10th Bat­tal­ion fought at Gal­lipoli and on the Western Front.

The Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer of theAIF Ri­fle Team, Lieu­tenant-Colonel R.H. Beardsmore DSO VD, shoot­ing in the King’s Prize at Bis­ley Ri­fle Range, 18 July 1919. Beardsmore won his Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Or­der at the Bat­tle of Fromelles.

Lieu­tenant Wil­liam ‘Billy’ Wat­son MC and bar DCM (be­low), cap­tain of the AIF First XV (left). He also played eight tests for Aus­tralia (1912–1920), and rep­re­sented NSW 22 times.

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