Oldest living Wallaby keeps a keen rugby eye
Greg Growden
April 8, 2015
Australia's oldest living Wallaby, Eric Tweedale, shows off his 1946 NZ tour photo, March 28, 2015
Australia's oldest living Wallaby, Eric Tweedale © Supplied

World War II had been over less than a year. Eric Tweedale had just finished work and for something to read on the train home bought an afternoon newspaper for tuppence. He went straight to the sports section and discovered he was an Australian rugby representative. No pomp. No ceremony. Just "E Tweedale" in small print.

He read further, discovered who his Test team-mates would be, and that he was required to attend training at Sydney Cricket Ground No.2 ground. He had to scour the article several times to convince himself he had read it right, and then work out how he could get to the SCG in time for the next chapter in his already rich and varied life.

Thus begun a long connection with Australian rugby that flourishes to this day as Tweedale, heading towards his 94th birthday, proudly holds the title of being the Wallabies' oldest living player. Tweedale was a mighty front-row forward, playing 10 Tests in such style that team-mate Sir Nicholas Shehadie in his autobiography A Life Worth Living picked him in his "ideal Australian XV".

As in 1946, Tweedale is still in high demand, attending player reunions, speaking at the Rugby Club in Sydney in a few weeks, doing whatever he can for his old team - Parramatta - where he is the club patron, and being part of Anzac Day ceremonies as one of the few remaining WWII Wallabies.

One of just four survivors of the famous 1947-1948 Wallabies touring team that did not have its try line crossed during four Tests against the Home Countries, his interest in the game remains intense. Each weekend he ensures that he watches Super Rugby matches, internationals when they are on, and scours the Sunday papers looking for the Shute Shield scores to see how Parramatta had fared the previous day.

Health wise, there would be countless current-day Wallabies delighted to boast the same level of boundless energy and enthusiasm as Eric Tweedale, 93 years young.

Residing on the New South Wales Central Coast, he continues to be sighted on the Ettalong lawn bowls green and is involved in numerous activities, which includes a weekly lunchtime rendezvous with another notable Wallabies player - Jim Phipps - and their partners. As Phipps, the masterful Test centre of the 1950s is the second cousin of the current Wallabies scrum-half- Nick Phipps, their conversations invariably includes analysis of the modern game. No-one can dispute they know what they're talking about, as between them boast more than 140 years of close involvement with the code.

Tweedale's rugby link stretches well into the 1930s, with his introduction to the game as abrupt as when he found out a decade later he was a Wallabies player.

"When I was 15, I'd hardly heard of the game of rugby," Tweedale recalls.

Then he met 'Wild Bill' Cerutti - one of Australian rugby's most extravagant characters. The son of Italian immigrants, Cerutti reveled in rugby's physicality. In one of his earliest representative games, Cerutti decided the only way to be noticed was by chasing countless notable players around the field and belting them whenever he got close. In the press box one scribe asked: "Who's that wild bastard running around out there?" That wild bastard became 'Wild Bill' in the next morning's newspaper.

Wild Bill then made the NSW and Australia teams, and the forward became even punchier - feuding with numerous players including All Blacks rivals Bubs Knight. After several scuffles, Knight, a butcher, decided on a truce before a Test match and sent Cerutti 10 pounds of prime beef as an act of goodwill. The Australian team ate nine pounds, and left the final pound sitting in the sun on the hotel roof for several days. By game day, the meat was putrid. When the first scrum was set, Cerutti pulled the meat out of the pocket of his shorts.

"Here's your bloody steak, Knight," Cerutti uttered while ramming it into Knight's eyes. Yet again Knight spent the rest of the game chasing Cerutti around the field.

"In the mid 1930s, Cerutti was a sale representative for Goodyear and worked with a chap who knew my father well," Tweedale tells ESPN. "This chap told me that Cerutti, who was the Parramatta captain and lived just around the corner from us in Merrylands, wanted to see me.

"So I went around to see him. He was an ugly looking character. His first words were: 'I've been expecting you. Have you ever played rugby union?'

"I'm sorry Mr Cerutti. I've never played a game of football in my life."

"He said: 'Well let's have a look at you. You're big and ugly enough. What say I take you over to Cumberland Oval on Tuesday, and we'll see what you're made of.'"

Within two years, Tweedale, then 17, was a regular member of the Parramatta first-grade team, starting as a second-rower and then becoming a prop.

"Those days were tough. In the club ranks were quite a few who imitated Bill Cerutti. Scrummaging was different, too. It was all about getting your head down, keeping your back straight and bash in. There wasn't any finery."

Then the War intervened. Tweedale joined the Navy, working on merchant ships in convoy along the Australian east coast and the Islands. Even though missing out on five full seasons when he would have been at his prime, rugby was not entirely ignored.

Eric Tweedale (R) was a Wallabies Statesman in 2011 © Getty Images

"Whilst on the coast during the war, I used to get the odd time at home so I would go back to Parramatta and play. When I finally returned from New Guinea in July 1945, Parramatta and Randwick were the two leading teams, and I was soon back amongst it."

He was immediately in form, prompting selection for the first post-war Test series against New Zealand during September 1946.

Tweedale found his way to training, and the next problem was making certain he got on the flight to New Zealand. Tweedale lived in Sydney's outer-western suburbs, and the flight left from one of the city's posh harbourside suburbs, Rose Bay.

"I was told I had to be there at 6am to catch the flying boat to Auckland. How was I going to do that? Cars were out, because very few people had automobiles in 1946. There was also petrol rationing. So what I had to do was get the last train out of Guildford at 11.30pm. I carried all my gear to the station, hopped off the train at Central, and then caught a Watson's Bay tram out to Rose Bay. When I got there around 1.30am, the whole place was shut up, except for the cleaners.

"I knocked on the door of the small terminal, told the cleaner I was going out on the morning plane. He said: 'You're a bit early.'

"'I know, but I've got no option.' Then I found myself a nice comfortable spot."

A few hours later, he was woken by his Test team-mates and soon they were all on their way to tussle with the likes of Fred Allen, Bob Scott and New Zealand amateur heavyweight boxing champion Morrie McHugh, who was part of the All Blacks squad.

Belted in Dunedin, the Wallabies - in Tweedale's view "just a bunch of kids" - surprised all when defeated by just four points during the Auckland Test; even the All Blacks and New Zealand press conceded the better team lost.

Tweedale's next venture - the nine-month 1947-1948 Wallabies tour that incorporated 41 matches through the British Isles, France, Canada and the United States - was "the pinnacle" of his career. He played against Scotland, Ireland, England and France, missing the Welsh Test through injury. Tweedale played his final international against New Zealand Maori in Sydney in 1949.

Work responsibilities then beckoned. But he was not lost to rugby. Tweedale moved to the bush, where he captained the NSW Country team against the touring British Lions, All Blacks and Fijian sides. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Forbes Rugby Club, where he used the Wild Bill philosophy.

"As I was the Shell company representative, I spent a lot of time going to farms. If I saw a strong young fellow on any of the properties who looked like he could be a footballer I'd grab him right on the spot."

Tweedale returned to Sydney in 1957, when Parramatta immediately put up the distress flare.

"They were in danger of being relegated out of first division, and asked if I would come along and help. I was then 36, and hadn't played for two years."

He captained the team in 1957, and the following year took on the captain/coach role.

"That was a bad decision, because at that age I had to train about three months before every one else started so that I was able to keep up with them. When you're the coach, you're too busy directing things rather than pushing yourself. And halfway through the season, I started getting these brrrrring moments with my heart. So I decided that was enough, as I had had a pretty good go from ages 15 to 37- minus the war."

He was then Parramatta president for several years, "so that tells you they were in deep trouble."

Whenever possible Tweedale still travels to Sydney to watch the Two Blues.

"I do enjoy the modern game, but it's different altogether. During my days, as a front-row forward if I had got caught out in the middle of the backline they would have dropped me the following week.

"In those amateur days, the game was based more on mobility and backing each other up. Today's game is a power game. There's no way in the world that the amateur forward could play against this mob. They'd break their backs in the first scrum.

"I do like the lineouts. They are much more definite. Even though you are now allowed to lift, you have a decision. In the past, there would be a mass of arms going all ways, and it got very untidy."

But there are parts of the game with which Tweedale is underwhelmed.

"We've got bogged down by the laws especially involving forward play. It's got to the stage where you don't know what the whistle has been blown for. It's become too technical.

"The game also has to speed up. We're getting too many stoppages, and these stoppages are taking too long, particularly with penalty goals and conversions. If you're paying $75 to watch a game of football, you've got every reason to complain especially with so much time being wasted watching player preparing shots for goal. Half of what is going on is grandstanding. I find it really frustrating."

It was now time to move on. Throughout the conversation, his home telephone rang constantly. Old colleagues were on the phone, meetings were being arranged, and an Australian Rugby Union official had been in contact. It was time to get back to them all.

Hearty farewells, before ringing the ARU back to ask: "Where were the Parramatta Shute Shield scores in last Sunday's paper?"

There's no idle time in the Tweedale household, especially when rugby is at the heart of the conversation.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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