THE KING’S CUP
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
ABOUT 5000 AUSTRALIAN KNOWN RUGBY PLAYERS HAD ENLISTED, WITH PERHAPS 500 KILLED DURING THE WAR.
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.