Born on 1 May 1878 at Orange, Charlie McMurtrie was a humorist who struck it lucky in mining and in rugby. As a youth, he travelled to Western Australia to seek his fortune in the gold mining industry. Being keen on rugby, he played for the combined gold fields of Kalgoorlie against Perth and Fremantle in the country week carnival in 1898 at Perth. After several years in the west, McMurtrie returned to the Orange district and was a truck driver for the mines. He took up rugby again and turned out for the Waratah club in the Central Western Union competition.
At the start of the 1908 season, the 30- year- old McMurtrie stood 181cms (5ft 11”) and weighed a hefty 88kgs (13st 12lbs). He played as a lock forward or number eight and used his weight in the scrums and rucks, as well as being useful in the lineout. A forward of his size was invaluable and he was selected in the Central-Western team that took part in the Country Carnival that year. His form was impressive and he was named in the Country Firsts team to meet the Metropolitan Firsts in Sydney along with his fellow Orange representative, Ted McIntyre, the Country prop. This exposure caught the attention of the NSW selectors who were selecting the team to tour Britain at the end of the season.
The selectors released the names of selected players throughout the season to allow them an opportunity to apply for leave to make the tour. By this time, the selectors were aware that several Sydney University players were unable to tour, including the big forwards, Howard Bullock, James Hughes and his brother, John Hughes, who were all medical students. Their unavailability meant that there was a vacancy for a big lock forward. The selectors had an opportunity to study McMurtrie in two further representative games. He played against a Sydney Metropolitan team while the third interstate match was being played and then, four days later, he impressed with a strong performance at Orange for Central West against Queensland who met the Union between their interstate commitments.
Although the day was the coldest Orange had experienced in years, the Queenslanders had a fine time. Maurice Baldwin, the Queensland manager, in discussing the performance of the home team, said, “I thought Ken Gavin and McMurtrie both played very well and, on their showing, should have been in the running for England.”
As it happened, McMurtrie’s performance clinched his selection but Gavin was disappointed. Incidentally, Gavin was so infuriated by his omission that he played a blinder against the Anglo/Welsh team later in the year and was rewarded with selection as a tour replacement for Peter Flanagan.
When selected, McMurtrie was the second heaviest player in the team after Paddy McCue and the oldest, although he put his age back three years. He joined the touring team for the departure from Circular Quay following the second New South Wales match against the Anglo/Welsh. A large crowd of well-wishers saw the team board the Omrah for the long voyage to England.
The Wallabies fielded their strongest team for the early tour matches and McMurtrie did not play until the fifth match against Penygraig at the Mid Rhondda Athletic Ground in Tonypandy. McMurtrie partnered McCue in the second row with Syd Middleton at number eight. In the next game against Neath and Aberavon, Paddy Moran, the captain, played at number eight and Middleton moved up to link with McCue and McMurtrie was omitted. This pattern continued for the next couple of games and McMurtrie may have lingered on the sidelines for longer but for a mishap to Moran, who dislocated his left shoulder against London.
The next fixture was against the United Kingdom for the Olympic Gold Medal. Thus, by the misfortune to his captain, did the miner from Orange play in the Olympic final. Cornwall, as champion County, was nominated to represent the United Kingdom and the Cornishmen invited several past players such as the Anglo/Welsh backs, John Jackett and ‘Maffer’ Davey to play. Once again, McMurtrie partnered McCue in the big match at Shepherd’s Bush, London, and the Wallabies outplayed their opponents on a greasy pitch to win the match by 32 points to 9. Once again, the lucky McMurtrie had struck gold – the Olympic gold medal.
McMurtrie played the next five matches until his luck ran out in the return encounter with London, when he fractured a finger and was christened ‘the unlucky one’ by his teammates. It was a peculiar break, being a long, sinewy fracture. This setback kept McMurtrie on the sidelines for the next five matches and coincided with the arrival of Albert ‘Son’ Burge as a replacement for his brother, Peter, who fractured a leg at Devon in the opening game of the tour.
During his enforced lay-off, McMurtrie was invited by The Football Evening News to give his impression of England and the big miner, who fancied himself as something of a wordsmith wrote: England for green fields and hedges galore. The people are homely, we don’t wish for more; But give me Australia, a beautiful land. Where the gum trees grow skyward and the lassies are grand!
After missing five matches, McMurtrie was rushed back at number eight against the powerful Combined Midlands and East Midlands Counties at Leicester, following the suspension of Syd Middleton. The home side, with Edgar Mobbs and Kenny Woods outstanding, won 16-5.
The Wallabies travelled to Wales to play a series of matches that included the Test match at Cardiff for which McMurtrie was not required – Burge being preferred at lock with Moran captaining the side from number eight. In fact, McMurtrie’s next outing was against the Glamorgan League at the Taff Vale Ground at Pontypridd. Then Middleton’s suspension was lifted and he returned against Newport.
McMurtrie’s only other tour match was the last in England against Plymouth. Leaving Britain, he travelled with the team to New York, then on the Overland Limited Express to San Francisco for matches in California.
McMurtrie played at number eight against Leland Stanford University and backed up against All California. His final tour match was against Victoria in Canada. In all, McMurtrie had proved himself a valuable member of the team and returned a much-improved player. It had been a really big year for him.
Three months after the Wallabies returned, McMurtrie played for the Wallabies against New South Wales. Incredibly, he was one of ten players in the Wallaby side who had secretly signed contracts with the NSW Rugby League to play in three matches against the Kangaroos in September 1909. These secret deals were done by Bill Flegg, a brother of ‘Jersey’ Flegg. For his part, McMurtrie received the princely sum of 100 pounds. But first there was some rugby to be played and McMurtrie finally made his debut for New South Wales, playing number eight against Queensland at Sydney when he was one of ten Wallabies in the home side, whereas Phil Carmichael was Queensland’s sole Wallaby. New South Wales won 37-0.
In the return match, Queensland did rather better, leading 11-5 at halftime before losing 21-11.
McMurtrie travelled to Brisbane for the return matches and was named as a reserve for the opening game. However, ‘Son’ Burge injured his right shoulder after 30 minutes and left the field. McMurtrie replaced him at lock and retained his place for the return encounter. The defecting Wallabies actually played four games against the Kangaroos and were then committed to the new code.
McMurtrie moved to Sydney and played for Balmain, who also had the services of Bob Craig.
In 1911, he became a dual international when he was selected for the Australasian tour of Britain along with four Wallaby compatriots – Chris McKivat (capt.), Paddy McCue (vice-capt.), Peter Burge and Bob Craig.
McMurtrie played in seven games and scored three tries.
In 1912, he was chosen in the Australian team to make its first rugby league tour of New Zealand. This tour completed McMurtrie’s international footballing career. It was certainly a career that blossomed late but it brought him two tours of Britain in different codes, and a tour of New Zealand. Although the historians overlooked his game as a replacement for New South Wales, he did play four rugby games for New South Wales.
After football, McMurtrie’s gold mining paid off and he died a wealthy man in 1951 at seventy-three years of age.