Blair Inskip Swannell
- 72Wallaby Number
Blair Swannell was a controversial character both on and off the field. He was both praised and despised during his lifetime. His introduction to Australia came with the visiting Great Britain side of 1899, led by the hyper-critical and highly opinionated Reverend Mathew Mullineux, whose utterances on refereeing, rule interpretation and bogus amateurism caused Australian rugby advocates to rise in anger. Blair Swannell, a tough, no-nonsense, vigorous, at times dirty forward was one of the team. Born in Olney, Buckinghamshire in England, it was said of him:” He is an old Rapton boy, and is one of the best forwards in the East Midlands, for whom he has attained his cap.” He would play in 17 of the 21 tour matches. The tour was an especially historic one, as Tests were played for the first time in Australia. There were four Tests in total. Swannell did not play in the first two matches in Australia, but appeared in the third, against the Metropolis, won by 8 to 5. Before the match, Mullineux insisted on a conference on rule interpretations.
In the next match, the first Test ever in Australia, Swannell was not selected. He was, however, picked for the next three Tests. In all his games, he showed that he was a pugnacious character who would meet fire with fire. In 1904 Great Britain toured again, with captain David Bedell-Sivright. Swannell was the only one of the 1899 tour to return. On the tour he would play in 11 of the possible 14 games, again demonstrating that he was somewhat of an iron man. He would play in all three Tests. The team then travelled to New Zealand after the Australian section of the tour, and Swannell played in the only Test, therefore he would play seven matches in total in New Zealand. In his last game in Australia, he scored a try in the Test. He was described as “ a man of independent means”, and he returned to Australia after the 1904 tour. He would have been 30 –years- of -age at the time. He almost immediately went into the NSW team against the 1905 New Zealand team, who were touring as a warm-up before going to Britain for their first tour there. NSW lost the first encounter 0-19, but in the return match it was an 8-all draw. Only three games were played by the tourists, and no Tests. Allying himself with North Sydney, Swannell was selected, in August 1905, as a member of the first Australian team to travel overseas, to New Zealand. Some 23 players were selected for the seven-match tour, 14 from NSW and nine from Queensland.
There would be one Test, the first between the two countries. By this time New Zealand had left to play in the British Isles, so the Australians were playing what amounted to a third NZ team. Swannell played in six of the seven games, against Wellington- Wairarapa- Horowhenua ( lost 7-23), Marlborough- Nelson- Buller- West Coast ( lost 3-12), Canterbury-South Canterbury ( lost 3-8), New Zealand ( lost 3-14), Manawatu- Hawkes Bay ( won 7-5) and Wanganui-Taranaki (won 18-13). Chester and McMillan in The Visitors wrote about the Test:” Judd, Oxlade, Lucas and Swannell were the pick of the Australian forwards”. Against Manawatu-Hawkes Bay :”It was the Australians, however, who generally held control, with Murnin, Swannell and Lucas playing dominant roles.” These authors also summarised the 1905 tour:” The Australians had proved a most popular and well-behaved team throughout their tour,. Although handicapped by their lack of weight in the forwards, they often had the advantage in the scrimmages and loose play. There is no doubt the team improved as the tour went on, and they showed they were keen learners.” This marked the end of Swannell’s representative career. A dual international, he played seven Tests for Britain and one for Australia.Swannell started to coach in Sydney while still playing, and at St. Joseph’s College.
James Gray, in The Tradition: 100 Years of Rugby at St. Joseph’s College had this to say: “Br Evangelist was at the helm of the Football Club again in 1905, and Dan Smith was on hand as trainer. Blair Swannell, the English forward who had played against Australia in 1899 and 1904 and after settling in Sydney, was to play for NSW and Australia (against the All Blacks in 1905), took over as coach. He had been recommended by W.S.Howe, the Old Boy who was Secretary of the Metropolitan Rugby Union at the time. “Blair Inskip Swannell, popularly known as ‘Blair I’, was an extraordinarily colourful character, whose play would be described today as being habitually ‘over-vigorous’. Schoolboys would watch in awe as he ran out to referee their games, wearing his British Isles blazer and honour cap.
In 1907, when the Rugby League was being formed in Australia, he wrote a scathing article in The Australian Star, attacking the Rugby administration for not appreciating the players’ needs. Entitled ‘Not Even A Bag of Peanuts’, it appeared on the front page of Sydney’s evening paper. He enlisted with the AIF when World War 1 broke out, and became a major in command of a battalion. He was killed leading a fearless charge, on Anzac Day, 25 April, 1915.
“Dr Paddy Moran, the Old Boy who was the first Wallabies’ captain, did not like Swannell at all: ‘His conception of football was one of trained violence. He kept himself in perfect condition, and this alone enabled him to conceal his slowness on the field. He used to teach schoolboys all sorts of tricks and tactics that were highly objectionable.’ “St. Joseph’s College did not feel this way about him. He was their coach in the very successful years of 1905-07, and again in the dismal year that was 1912.’His life indeed was a fitful fever’ proclaimed the College’s obituary notice in the 1915 magazine. ”’Swannell was such a strong straight character that he made a distinct impression on all those he met; he was blunt and open...no opposition daunted him... His bluntness estranged many, but even those could not help admiring the man’s courage and sincerity...Though not belonging to any church...he had a strong sympathy for our faith, which he displayed upon a notable occasion when it was attacked in public. He fearlessly arose, reminded the speaker of the proper business of the meeting and refused to listen to further attacks on the Catholic Church’ “In 1904 and 1905 St,Joseph’s won the right to retain the Rawson Cup permanently through its victories, though another Rawson Cup was made.
In 1905 the Second XV at Joeys were also Premiers, and as a consequence a victory celebration was held in the College Hall in late September. Grant noted in The Tradition:” The speakers, Mr P.H.Louis of the Old Boys and Mr L. Abrahams, treasurer of the Metropolitan Rugby Union, both emphasised their awareness that the boys’ studies and training were not suffering because of football. A gold medal was presented to Blair Swannell by way of thanks. “’Mr Swannell, in reply, said that the surprise presentation rather broke him up...he said that he had never had anything to do with a team that gave more satisfaction to him as a coach or to the spectators by their splendid behaviour on the field. There was no self-sufficiency, no uppishness seen, and not a man amongst us suffered from a swelled head.’ “This does not sound at all like Dr Paddy Moran’s ‘man of trained violence.’” Br Sebastion in 1906, previously the Sportsmaster, took charge of the team in 1906, and he and Blair Swannell ‘were to become a very formidable coaching duo, long remembered by players of the era.” Swannell’s coaching at Joeys ended in 1907 due to business reasons. So what was it that the 1908 Wallaby captain, “Paddy’ Moran, had to say about Swannell in Viewless Winds? “ Swannell was unpopular in Queensland [he was sent off playing for New South Wales] because of some articles he had written about Queenslanders while touring with an English side. He had a reputation for using methods both vigorous and doubtful. On this occasion, however, he was quite innocent. The spectators were so enraged against him that it was thought safer for Swannell to remain on the side line for the rest of the game, and not to enter the pavilion.
A month later, when the Queenslanders came to pay their return visit to Sydney, a court of investigation was set up. Many witnesses were called and cross-examined about the incident. Now, we New South Welshmen all knew who had struck the blow, but while seeking to exonerate Swannell we were not willing to denounce the offender, The guilty man himself hated Swannell, and not having any fine sensibilities, did not come forward. The result was that Swannell was ‘sent out’ for a month. Even his friends were not perturbed over this. They argued that it had been coming to him! He had well earned it in previous games. A rude sort of justice, but I honestly believe that this was how the judge had viewed it, too. “ Blair Swannell was, for a number of years, a bad influence in Sydney football, and also incidentally a greatly overestimated player .
His conception of rugby was one of trained violence. He himself kept in perfect condition; this alone enabled him to conceal his slowness on the field. He was an expert, however, in the art when and how to wheel or screw a scrum; a manoeuvre in which few Australian forwards have much experience. But he had no enlightened ideas about sport and used to teach schoolboys all sorts of tricks and tactics which were highly objectionable. In appearance he was extremely ugly but, like Wilkes in the eighteenth century, he could talk his face away in half an hour. He was popular with the fair sex; men, generally, disliked him. “ I played against him on a number of occasions. The last time we were in opposition was on the Sydney Cricket Ground. Although we were friendly, he persisted in screwing the scrum towards my side. I, as a breakaway, had then to go down on the ball, whereupon he would kick me on any exposed part of my back. This was his conception of the correct game. Subsequently when he had taken a ball in the line-out ( a rare thing for him for he was not proficient in this branch of play) I tackled him very hard and he resented it. He was off his balance at the time and hit the ground violently. For the rest of the game after that he continued to screw the scrum to my side even when it seemed to be the wrong manoeuvre for his own team. My back was black and blue from his attentions. At the end of the game, as we all walked off the field, he looked across to me, a much younger player, to see how I had taken it all. Then he called out ‘Are you satisfied/’ ‘Perfectly,’ I replied After which he invited me to have a glass of beer with him; a signal honour, for he was not given to treating. “ In life, as on the football field, Swannell gave no quarter, and asked for none. We, less mature men, stood somewhat in awe of him.
There were quite a number of players in those matches who terrorised us somewhat; they were much older, harder types... In a similar way most of us feared Swannell. He went in 1905 to New Zealand with an Australian Rugby team, and in that land of vigorous football his unpleasing face suffered casualty from a foeman’s boot .He got there what he had given elsewhere. There was no preciosity in his workmanship. He was a hard, virile, unsympathetic type, but a man. “ In the end he wore an Australian uniform as stubbornly as he had worn an Australian jersey. He was early in the field, and found his end storming the goal on that April morning at Gallipoli. I can imagine him rushing forward with a frown on that ugly face with its scar from a New Zealand boot. He is still there holding on. When his death became known to the troops, it was rumoured that his own men had shot him down. They did not like his domineering English manner or the way that, in speaking, he clipped off the end of his words. But the story of his being shot from behind was just somebody’s canard. “It was always expected of a Roman Emperor that he should die on his feet.
Swannell, no doubt, thought a footballer should perish, following on. His hard-visaged comrades said he died with a ruling passion upon him: still putting in the boot. Be that as it may: through sacrifice he passed to transfiguration. The hard porcelain of his spirit had a richer glaze than we had previously perceived; it was the love of country. For me who knew him well this is his epitaph: He never hung out of a ruck.” This damning analysis of Blair Swannell paints a grim picture of Swannell the man, at considerable variance to how he was perceived at St. Joseph’s. The period in which Swannell played saw the seeds of professionalism being sewn. Swannell’s views on this subject were written about In Sean Fagan’s The Rugby Rebellion:” A few months later Blair summarised in the Australian Star the situation the players were in most of the time. Swannell was a staunch supporter of amateurism, but, unlike many he recognised the practices of the MRU and NSWRU as dangerous in a city with such a vast working-class population. “‘It is of course admitted that there are many honestly hard-working officials on the NSWRU’,, ‘wrote Swannell, ”but how many are there who care not one jot for the game, but are simply on the NSWRU in order that they may drink beer and sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ at the reception of visiting teams they neither know nor care about. They certainly attend some matches, and they may also be found at shivoos and dinners to interstate teams. It is after all the player who pays for officials’ enjoyment, and it is the player to say if funds he provided are being spent legitimately, if not to find the remedy.”
Though an amateur through and through, Swannell could see the injustice of the system at the time, and he was not averse to presenting his views. A straight shooter, he seemed to be an individual who people liked or vehemently opposed . There seemed to have been no middle ground.