- 50Wallaby Number
Born on 12 February 1880 at Kempsey in New South Wales, the son of Austral Verge, a banker, ‘Johnny’ Verge attended The King’s School, Parramatta, and after leaving school, studied medicine at Sydney University where he joined the rugby club. In 1900, he tried out for the Sydney University first grade team but was considered too light at 158lbs (72kgs). Fair-haired, blue-eyed and a fair complexion, Verge stood 5ft 9ins tall. Next season, he played fullback in the University Second team that won the premiership. His chance in first grade did come in 1902 when he beat ‘Joe’ McKenzie for the post. He made an immediate impression in club football and was selected to represent New South Wales in three matches against Queensland.
He generally had a sound series, although, in the first Brisbane game, Verge was criticised for some weak tackling by the NSW Manager and Selector, Jim Henderson. In the same year, his younger brother, Cuthbert Arnold Verge, played in the sensational King’s team with Bede Smith and Machattie Smith that went through the season undefeated. In 1903, the All Blacks toured but John Maund of Eastern Suburbs supplanted Verge as NSW fullback and played for Australia in the sole Test match. However, when the British team toured in 1904, Verge came to the fore with some excellent performances for University. He was the first choice fullback for New South Wales when Queensland came south for the annual interstate clash. In the first game, the home side was victorious by 11-6. In the return clash, Verge had an outstanding game, kicking a penalty goal and an excellent dropped goal- worth four points then, but Queensland turned the tables, winning by 11 points to 7. Verge had scored all of his side’s points.
Meanwhile, the British team, led by David Bedell-Sivright, (better known as ‘Darkie’ Sivright because of his sometimes over- robust play) had arrived on a long tour of Australia and New Zealand. Their first match was against New South Wales. Verge played fullback in both games against the British and must have been in awe of the precision passing of the famous Welsh backs – Percy Bush, Rhys Gabe, Willie Llewellyn and Teddy Morgan. To complicate matters for Verge, Morgan introduced the attacking centre kick. After flying down the left wing, Morgan, when confronted by the defence, changed the point of attack by centre kicking for his fast following confreres. Over 35,000 people had flocked to see the opening match and loved what they saw from the visitors but were unfavourably impressed by the home side. There followed a second NSW defeat just prior to the first Test match.
After the tourists had soundly defeated New South Wales in both games, the Australian selectors named seven Queenslanders in the first Test team. Verge made his Test debut in this game at the Sydney Cricket Ground. With four Queenslanders in the pack, the Australian forwards led by Frank Nicholson, Harold Judd, Bill Richards and ‘Nimmo’ Walsh took command in the first half and had the better of the forward exchanges, particularly in the lineout where Judd and Richards ruled supreme to the extent that Sivright elected for scrums instead of lineouts when it was his call. But for a serious rib injury to the hard running left-winger, Charlie White that forced him off the field in the first half, the Australians may have had the better of the contest. As it was, there was no score before halftime. In the second half, Bush ignited the visitors and they were able to win 17-0.
Since Australia did rather better than expected in the first Test, critics assumed that the selectors would retain the majority of the players for the second Test in Brisbane. However, the selectors made six changes plus positional changes. In the backs, Verge was retained but Wickham shifted to White’s wing, Carmichael and McLean were the new centres and Sydney University’s Jack Manning was the new five-eighth. Verge and Manning were prevented by University studies from coming up earlier with the Sydney contingent and only arrived at 9.00pm on the Friday night before the game. Without so much as a run together, the Australians’ lack of combination plus injuries to Burdon and Carmichael ruined their chances and the British team, captained by Teddy Morgan after the injury to ‘Darkie’ Sivright, won comfortably by 17 points to 3.
After the match, the Australian selectors immediately named their team for the third Test in Sydney and omitted Verge and Manning. Newcastle’s fullback Charlie Hedley replaced Verge in the NSW team for the return matches against Queensland in Brisbane and for the final game against the British side on their return from New Zealand. Verge played no further representative rugby that season but shared in the first grade premiership with Sydney University. During the year, he was also Treasurer of the club. In 1902, 1903 and 1904, he won sporting Blues for Sydney University. After 1904, Verge played spasmodically for University. When the Sydney University Football Club became the first Australia team of any code to visit New Zealand in 1906, Verge was in the team along with his younger brother, Cuthbert Arnold Verge. During the team’s stay in Dunedin, Otago University avenged its defeat in Sydney, winning 21-0 and 3-0. Various rugby historians have confused the two Verges and mistakenly credited CA Verge with playing for Australia in 1904. Thereafter, the younger Verge took centre stage and played for Sydney Metropolitan against the Anglo/Welsh side in 1908 in two hard -fought matches after the Wallabies had left for Britain.
After his life in football, Johnny Verge never married but practiced as a medical practitioner until war was declared in 1914. On 10 December 1914, Verge enlisted in the army at Holdsworthy, NSW, and attained the rank of Captain in the 6th Australian Light Horse. He had spent seven years in the cadets at The King’s School. CA Verge also enlisted in the Medical Corps with the rank of Captain. Posted to Anzac Cove in 1915, Johnny Verge became ill in August 1915 with serious dysentery and was admitted on the hospital ship Clacton. When his illness could not be contained, he was transferred to HS Canada and taken to Alexandria in Egypt. He died of dysentery on 8 September 1915 at the General Hospital Alexandria and was buried at Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria. His brother survived the War and practised for some years as an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist in Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital. In all, Johnny Verge played seven matches for New South Wales and two Test matches in 1904, thus becoming the first of the medical doctors to play fullback for Australia.