Archie John "Tarakan Jack" Baxter
- 356Wallaby Number
‘Jack’ Baxter was a tough as teak front row forward who survived a near death experience to make a stunning return to Test match rugby.
Rugged and hard-nosed, Baxter was born in Sydney where he played rugby league during his time at Kogarah Marist Brothers College. Later, when at school in Melbourne, he played Australian Rules before a transition to rugby with the Kiwis club.
Baxter returned to Sydney, played Kentwell Cup with Bondi Surf Club and then, in 1938, joined the Royal Australian Navy. In 1948 Baxter joined Eastern Suburbs from where, as a virtual unknown was selected to debut for New South Wales against Queensland only then to be unavailable in rather extraordinary circumstances. Easts, as reigning premiers, had to defeat Drummoyne in the antepenultimate round in order to have a chance to qualify for the semi-finals. Officially, the club informed NSW selector Jack Ford that none of its three players - Baxter, Perc Newton and Murray Tate - were available for the Queensland tour. To describe Ford as unimpressed was a gross understatement. New South Wales split the two games and Easts made the finals.
The following year Baxter played for both South Harbour and City and on the back of those performances was considered an “excellent prospect” of visiting New Zealand with the national team. He went on to make an impressive debut for New South Wales from where he earned selection for the opening Test against the Maori. During the subsequent tour of New Zealand Baxter lost much blood from a cut over his left eye in the uncapped match against Canterbury. After three stitches were placed in the wound Baxter asked that the manager, Ron Walden, be told that only one stitch had been inserted so that it would appear his injury had brighter prospects of healing before the second Test that coming weekend.
Baxter’s life changed forever in January, 1950 following an explosion in the seamen's mess deck of the supply ship H.M.A.S. Tarakan on Sydney Harbour. The press of the day wrote: ‘The violent blast buckled the decks, lifted the stern of the 2,300-ton ship out of the water and entombed the men in a gas-filled, inferno-like messroom’. In endeavoring to escape from the flames Baxter pushed his head out a porthole and rescuers played hoses on him to relieve the intense heat until he was carried unconscious from the blazing hold with all the skin burnt from his legs and back. Unconscious for almost a week, Baxter lingered between life and death for 10 days. Not surprisingly doctors told him he would never play rugby again however Baxter declared he would not only play but also represent Australia. Though due to leave the Navy in August, Baxter was not released from hospital until October and he was still in plaster. An ankle, which could not be set because it had been too badly burnt, had to be rebroken.
In 1951 Baxter played rugby again. His reappearance with Eastern Suburbs in a early season trial game was said to be a triumph of stoicism and remarkably in June he ran out for Australia against New Zealand. In 1953 he joined the Army and three years later, as a sergeant with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, spent seven weeks in Korea with one of the last few Australian units in the country. ‘Tarakan Jack’ Baxter played nine Tests for Australia in a three-year international career.
Baxter won his first Test cap alongside fellow debutant Nev Cottrell and Victoria’s Eric Davis in the 3-12 loss to the Maori at the S.C.G. Baxter started each of the final two Tests of that Maori series and then with Cottrell and Bevan Wilson formed the front row that won the two Test away series against New Zealand.
Baxter was capped in the first two home Tests against New Zealand before a shin injury picked up in the second S.C.G. match ruled him out of the third Test.
Baxter was surprisingly omitted from the Australian team to play the one-off Test against Fiji after he had starred for New South Wales against Queensland. Following the match the ARU decided a second Test against the money-spinning Fijians was to be played two weeks later, the day before the team departed on a tour to New Zealand. Given Queensland’s Ian ‘Lou’ Hatherell had already declared himself unavailable for the tour due to his study commitments the selectors agreed to bring in Baxter as his replacement. Despite that agreement Hatherell, not Baxter, was surprisingly named to face the tourists. Baxter did tour New Zealand and won caps in each match of the split 1-1 series.