Charles Joseph 'Boxer' Russell
- 83Wallaby Number
Each of the three pioneering teams from the southern hemisphere that toured Britain in the Edwardian era had at least one high-scoring winger – the 1905-06 All Blacks had several – and Australia’s try-scoring machine on the 1908-09 tour was a well-established Newtown star, Charles (‘Boxer’) Russell. Russell had been prominent in club rugby since 1904 and his great speed and determination were bywords around the Sydney circuit. He was fearless going for the corner and thought nothing of charging through a wall of defenders or leaping would-be tacklers guarding the line in tight situations.
His tackling, especially front-on, could be devastating and he was always a fine defensive winger or centre. On occasion he played in the forwards but not at the top level, where his skills were far more use in a backline. Although famed for his scoring exploits in Britain, Russell was one of Australia’s best players well before that tour and his deeds ‘at Home’ were simply a continuation of several years’ good work. He made his debut in the big time against the 1905 All Blacks, who made a brief tour to Sydney before leaving for Britain. Russell’s displays, first for Metropolitan and then New South Wales, were sound and his place on the tour to New Zealand was secure. This team, although expected to do well, really battled and only managed one try in the three matches leading up to the Test – a continuation of worrying form at home when the three Australian sides that encountered the New Zealanders had not scored a try between them.
Clearly the outside backs were little more than observers and defenders in these circumstances and Russell had few chances to shine. The Test, which was the tour’s fourth match of seven, saw Doug McLean (who scored five of the team’s nine tries on tour) and Stan Wickham, the captain and goal-kicker, fill the wing spots. Russell played three of his four matches at centre on this trip but in the international Frank and Machattie Smith, an established pair, took those positions. Russell’s only tour points came in the last match, against Ranfurly Shield holders Auckland, when he snapped over a dropped goal shortly after Harold Judd had been ordered off. That goal, which cut Auckland’s lead to 6-4, gave fresh heart to his team-mates and Australia secured a meritorious win, by far their best result on tour. Russell was a sure selection against the 1907 All Blacks, a tour that was made under the cloud of threatening professionalism. At the time the big worry was over the New Zealanders, as it was believed a professional ‘All Black’ team had been organised to tour Britain (as was indeed the case) and there were concerns in Sydney that local players, who were dissatisfied with the way the game was being run and how they were left to fend for themselves if injured, might be willing to `jump ship’. There was reason for those fears as well and, as we shall see, all the big names were at least approached over the next two or three years.
Russell played both matches for New South Wales, with the tourists winning the first and the home side the second by 14-0. Russell scored one of the State’s three tries that day, taking an Aussie Rules-style hand-ball from Frank Smith and scooting past the startled defence to score, and was a sure selection for the Tests. He was held in check by the tight All Black marking but there was enormous interest in the series – a 50,000 crowd, a record in Australia until 1997, watched the All Blacks win the first easily and smaller, but still satisfactory, crowds watched the next two matches, when Australia, fired by new star Dally Messenger, did rather better.
Messenger turned pro and sailed with the ‘All Golds’, the New Zealand professional team (he replaced one of the All Blacks, probably George Gillett, who pulled out at the 11th hour) but Russell, despite his working-class background, stayed with rugby in 1908. He led Newtown to the championship and played once for New South Wales against the Anglo-Welsh team (there were no Tests) before being one of the first chosen for the pioneering British tour. He was one of the hardest-worked players in the party, turning out 28 times in Britain and a further three in America on the way home. His 25 tour tries (23 in Britain, two in America) has stood as a record by any Wallaby tourist for almost 100 years and, with long tours now a thing of memory, will probably remain so for at least another century.
Like both the All Blacks of 1905-06 and the Springboks of 12 months later, the Wallabies found they had little trouble with the majority of English teams and piled up some good scores. Russell was quickly into scoring stride, bagging two tries against Gloucestershire in the second match and three against Glamorgan in the team’s first foray into Wales. He was in great form throughout November, playing every match that month and, at one stage, scoring ten tries in eight consecutive matches. This haul included a second hat-trick, against Durham, and only one match where he failed to cross the line. He followed that with four tries against the Anglo-Welsh team but harder times were ahead, coinciding with the second visit to Wales.
Leading up to the Wales Test, Australia’s first in Britain, the team’s record was an impressive 21 wins and only two losses, but the international was lost 6-9 and the next five matches produced two wins and a draw. Russell scored Australia’s second try in the Test, powering across with typical determination, but the team could not close the gap further in the last desperate stages. He then suffered a try drought which lasted the rest of the month and he did not get on the score-sheet until the England Test. Then his two tries were vital scores in another tense affair, the first coming as he recovered a kick in the in-goal (a speciality of Russell’s, who chased every kick that colleagues put ahead and often picked up plums if there was a defensive error) and the second on the end of a backline move. These were the killing blows as Australia piled on the pressure in the second spell and claimed a worthy victory.
Russell scored twice in his American debut, at Berkeley, and returned home as one of the star turns in an impressive team. He was also able to claim an Olympic gold medal as part of his reward, as rugby was part of the programme for the London Games that year, although the field was hardly representative. Australia had to defeat English county champion Cornwall to claim the title and did so in style, winning 32-3. Russell returned home to find scouts for the new Northern Union code (as rugby league was then called) particularly active and his own name very high on their lists, which was hardly surprising after his fine tour. He switched codes for a fee of ₤100 and signed with Newtown, for whom he was an early star. He played at fullback in the first Ashes Test, in 1910, but was dropped for the balance of the series after Australia’s close loss. His play with Newtown was one of the main reasons they won the 1910 championship, as he kicked two goals in the drawn final against Souths and Newtown was awarded the title on a countback, as they had been minor premiers.
Russell’s hitherto unknown skill as a goal-kicker was prominent in league, as he scored 556 points for Newtown (22t, 245g) in 82 matches. Russell was selected to tour Britain in 1911-12, where he played two Tests and 22 minor matches in a dominating team led by another former rugby international, Chris McKivat. After the war he played a few matches with Balmain but his long association with club football was otherwise with Newtown; he coached them to their second title (in 1933), as well as becoming a graded referee and a national selector. At the time of his death he was one of the most respected footballing figures in Newtown, an area that prided itself on the number of fine players and lifelong servants it produced for both codes.