Christopher Hobart McKivat
- 80Wallaby Number
As the years roll on we increasingly lose any memory of past great players, and this is certainly the case with Christopher Hobart McKivat. Peter Sharpham states unequivocally in The First Wallabies: “Chris McKivat is considered by many students of both codes to be possibly the greatest Australian Test football skipper of all time, ranking with the likes of Andrew Slack, Nick Farr-Jones, John Thornett, Cyril Towers, Trevor Allen [sic], Clive Churchill, Arthur Summons and Mal Meninga.” What do some of the experts say of Chris McKivat? Malcolm Andrews wrote in ABC Rugby League: “Not only was Chris McKivat one of Australia’s greatest halfbacks, but he was also one of his country’s finest captains.” Johnny Quinlan, quoted in Ian Heads, The Kangaroos: “Chris McKivat was the ideal captain.
Chris was one of those commendable generals who do not expect his men to make sacrifices they themselves are not prepared and willing to take. His was a genial disposition which, assisted by extraordinary tact and judgement, but balanced by quick and unhesitating decision, made him a natural leader. He always set an example in conduct and training." Ian Heads, True Blue: “Imbued with striking leadership qualities, Chris McKivat – known variously as ‘The boy from the bush’ and ‘The hairy bloke’ – was a towering figure in rugby league in NSW.” Jack Pollard, The Australian Game: “McKivat, cool and composed under the heaviest pressure, developed into a masterful tactician, partly because he was coached early by the New Zealand rugby star Bob Whiteside, and because he was observant, thoughtful and studious.” Peter Sharpham, The First Wallabies: “He was a tough and crafty scrum-half or five-eighth who could read the game superbly.”
Chris McKivat was born on 27 November 1882 at Cumnock, a small town between Orange and Dubbo in central New South Wales. A boy from the bush, he first came to the notice of rugby pundits when he appeared for Western NSW against Great Britain in their 1904 tour of Australia. There were a number of very fine players in the country team: Machattie Smith, Frank Bede Smith, George Anlezark, Norm Street and Ken Gavin among them. Though the team was beaten 21 to 6, enough people were impressed with the 22-year-old that he was inveigled into going to Sydney, and playing for Glebe. The Glebe club was star-studded in those days, with such players as Alex Burdon, Jimmy Clarken, Charlie Hedley, Fred Wood, Tom Griffin, Darb Hickey and Syd Middleton. The only problem at Glebe, and it persevered throughout the British tour, was that the resident halfback was one Fred Wood, and so McKivat more often than not was forced to play five-eighth.
Of solid build, 5’8” and 12 stone, McKivat came to the fore on the national scene in 1907 during the visit to Australia of the All Blacks. The time period is interesting as word was circulating that a professional rugby league team, the ‘All Golds’ as they were to be known, would tour Australia and the British Isles. This rumour became a reality, and ‘Dally’ Messenger was signed up by them, arguably Australia’s best rugby player. Eight All Blacks were in the All Golds party. This was the first wave of professionalism to hit Australia, and rugby league clubs were formed the next year and competition began.
McKivat’s entry into the big-time was in the second NSW match against the 1907 All Blacks. There were some mighty players on the State team: Billy Dix, Messenger, ‘Boxer’ Russell, Frank Bede Smith, Ed Mandible, Fred Wood, Tom Griffin, Paddy McCue, Peter Burge and Norm Row. The strength of the All Blacks was demonstrated by their 14-0 victory. McKivat played five-eighth to his team-mate Fred Wood, and this was repeated in his first Test at the SCG, Australia going down 6-26. He was not on the Test team for the second encounter, but was in the centre for the third Test, a hard-fought draw. So he had now played for his State against an international team and twice for his State. With a tour to the British Isles, France and North America in the offing, players endeavoured to impress the selection against an Anglo-Welsh team. McKivat made the NSW team (as five-eighth), but no Tests were played. Chris McKivat was selected for the grand tour, the first to the northern hemisphere ever taken by Australia. ‘Paddy’ Moran was the captain, and halfback Fred Wood the vice-captain. There was another halfback on tour, Joshua Stevenson. McKivat was picked as a five-eighth, along with Ward Prentice. Stevenson was to be injured near the end of his only match on tour, against Penygraig.
The general legend that has been passed down to the modern aficionado is that Fred Wood, the vice-captain, kept McKivat out of his preferred halfback position. This was reinforced by Moran in Viewless Winds: “I took care, however, though captain and a selector, never to pick myself. When it came to selecting the back row I left the room, after stating my own preferences... The vice-captain [Fred Wood] was a great little player who never found his form in England. It used to be unpleasant for us when, in the face of this, he insisted for a long time on his own selection. We did not want unfriendliness, but for nine matches in succession he kept McKivat] out of his proper position.” In the opinion of the author these comments with respect to Wood are grossly unfair.
The simple fact is that McKivat was picked for the tour as a five-eighth. The selected halves were Wood and Stephenson. In club rugby for Glebe Wood was the halfback and McKivat the five-eighth, and McKivat was five-eighth and centre in his only two games for Australia, and he was five-eighth and Wood halfback for the NSW game against the Anglo-Welsh. McKivat had not played halfback in club or representative rugby. In unravelling this intriguing piece of rugby folklore, there is no doubt that Wood was not at his best on the tour. As Sharpham put it in The First Wallabies: “For most of the 1908-09 tour he [Wood] played with the extreme pain of recurrent lumbago caused by his hip injury of 1906, which explains his indifferent form early in the tour.”
Coming into an analysis of the 1908-09 tour, the teams were picked logically, with Wood at halfback and McKivat five-eighth. This was the Wallaby line-up against Devon, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Glamorgan County, both were rested against Penygraig, then Neath and Aberavon, Llanelly and London. It should be noted that Australia won all but one of those games, against Llanelly. It is also true that Australia won its next twelve games in a row following the Llanelly loss, without Wood, who was injured. As both halves were injured, McKivat moved into the halfback position and he was sensational. As the captain Moran was also injured, McKivat was given the captaincy and the halfback position against Cornwall by default, and in so doing he received a gold medal as this was the Olympic rugby tournament. McKivat was also captain and halfback in the following matches: Combined Army and Navy, Durham, Northumberland and Cumberland, Cheshire and London.
Moran was back to captain the side against Cambridge University (in which McKivat played), but McKivat captained against Oxford University, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Moran against Somerset. Wood returned from injury to captain Combined Midlands and East Midlands Counties (McKivat playing five-eighth), and then he was rested against the Anglo-Welsh. This was only the second match that he was given time away from the field. He had played 18 of 20 games, an enormous physical challenge. McKivat was back at halfback for Wales, five-eighth against Glamorgan League, Newport, Abertillery, Swansea and Cardiff.
The next match was against Wales. The captain Moran was injured, and Wood had been playing well. Sharpham in The First Wallabies reported: “Arthur McCabe went to five-eighth and Chris McKivat moved back to scrum-half, ousting Fred Wood. Although Wood had played splendidly in Wales it was considered by Moran, McMahon and Wickham [the selectors along with Wood] that the combination of McKivat and McCabe was superior to a Wood-McKivat partnership and Wood had little option but to gracefully accede to his fellow selectors’ wishes.” With this decision, Chris McKivat entered an exclusive club. Though it would be his only Test captaincy, it happened on Monday 9 January 1909, and he led them brilliantly to a 9 to 3 victory. The tour did not end here. McKivat captained the team against Bristol and Clifton and played five-eighth against Plymouth. Then the team departed for Canada and California. McKivat captained the team against the University of California, did not play against Stanford, was at five-eighth for All-California, Vancouver and Victoria. In an incredible performance, out of thirty-six matches the boy from the bush played in thirty-three of them.
He was outstanding as a five-eighth and halfback, but was considered better in the latter position. Equally important is that he captained his country on 11 occasions, one of them being the England Test. Not many amusing stories have been remembered about him, but Moran tells one in Viewless Winds. It happened in the Abertillery game: “About this time the newspapers had nosed out the fact that we were in receipt of three shillings a day, out-of-pocket expenses, and they were trying to make a great scandal out of it... In the midst then of my vehement exhortations to the players to throw themselves resolutely down on the ball, McKivat looked up with an Irish twinkle in his eyes and exclaimed: ‘Blimey, doctor, it don’t work out to be a penny a ruck’.”
In 1909 the rugby world was changed forever when 14 of the Wallabies turned professional: McKivat, McCabe, McCue, Barnett, P. Burge, A.B. Burge, McMurtrie, McIntyre, Gavin, Dix, Mandible, Hickey, Craig and Russell. The player who got the most money was Chris McKivat, who was signed up for two hundred pounds. McKivat captained the 1911-12 Kangaroos to England, and his durability became evident once more, as he played 30 consecutive games. Glebe entered the rugby league Sydney competition, and he played for them from 1910 to 1914. After retirement he coached Glebe, then switched to North Sydney, steering them through their legendary premiership years of 1921-22.
Ian Heads, in The Kangaroo, has this to say of McKivat: “Skipper McKivat was the driving, inspirational force of the whole campaign. There is a famous tour story of a Coventry outfitter putting up a prize of an overcoat to the first Colonial player to score a try in England. ‘I knew that overcoat would be mine’, McKivat would say, a twinkle in his eye when he told the story in later years. In his first chance in that first match of the tour, McKivat dummied and scored – and won the coat. English critics glowingly praised him for his leadership and the quality of his play. One story told was of a Kangaroo prop fighting for a loose head which was not rightly his in the scrum. Twice McKivat called ‘out’ to his man, demanding that he pack down correctly. The enthusiastic scrummager persisted. McKivat did not call again, he kicked the front rower, sharply – and when the astonished forward wheeled around McKivat said simply: ‘Get in behind, man.’ McKivat was a quiet man off the field, but on it he never let up. From start to finish he snapped out staccato commands, urging his men to greater efforts. He was an unselfish player, and a splendid supporter of the man with the ball, playing a part in many tries on tour.” His was a superb career. In rugby union he played in 34 games for Australia, which included four Tests. He won a gold medal in Olympic rugby in 1908, and captained the Wallabies against England. He won an Ashes series in Britain 1911-12, and became the first person to captain Australia in both codes.
McKivat, Christopher Hobart (1879-1941), footballer, was born on 27 November 1879 at Burrawang, New South Wales, fifth surviving of ten children of Edward McKivat, Irish-born farmer, and his Tasmanian wife Susan, nee Bellette. By 1897 McKivat was playing senior grade Rugby Union with Bowen Bros Tannery’s team at Orange. He performed well for country against city in 1901 and was selected to tour New Zealand, but had to decline. Moving to Sydney in 1905, he joined Glebe (called the ‘Dirty Reds’ for their maroon guernseys) which won the premiership in 1906 and 1907. McKivat played either as scrum-half or five-eighth. He represented New South Wales against New Zealand in 1907 and next year captained Glebe.
In August 1908, selected for the first Wallaby tour of Britain and the United States of America, he was presented by fellow workers at the Farmers’ & Dairymen’s Milk Co. Ltd with an inscribed gold watch. An unselfish player, he scored eight tries on tour. As captain H.M.Moran and vice-captain Freddy Wood were frequently injured, McKivat led the Wallabies seventeen times, including the match against Cornwall at the London Olympic Games when the Australians won gold medals. On returning to Sydney in September 1909, fourteen of the Wallabies played a series against the Rugby League Kangaroos. McKivat, allegedly paid 150 pounds, was expelled with the others from the amateur code. In 1910 he played for Australasia in all three Tests against the touring British (Rugby League) team. In 1911-12 he led the second Kangaroos’ tour of Britain; although older than his colleagues, he played in 32 of the 36 matches , scoring 41 points from 13 tries and one goal. The Australians won all three Tests. McKivat played no more representative matches, but continued to captain Glebe Rugby League team until 1914.
At St Benedict’s Catholic Church on 6 February 1915 he married Ada Glynn, a tailoress. His occupation then was storeman; earlier he had been a labourer and engine driver, later a weigh-clerk. He was also a successful football coach, taking North Sydney to premierships in 1921 and 1922. Sturdily built, 5 ft 8 1/2 in (174 cm) tall, weighing about 12 stone (76kg), McKivat had thick, dark, curly hair, rugged features and a wide mouth. Reputedly Australia’s finest half-back in either Rugby code, to G.V.Portus he gave ‘the impression of strength rather than agility. But his feet and hands worked in perfect combination with his eyes, and behind them all was a quick-thinking brain…… His passes were accurate, well-timed and…. He was a deadly tackler’. Adept at stealing from the scrum-base, he was very quick off the mark without straightening up and was master of the high short kick. His screw-punting was handy in defence.
‘A born captain….of equable temperament - never rattled’, according to Claude Corbett, he constantly snapped out orders to his players on the field; off it he was a quiet humorist. All his life he enjoyed going to the football on Saturdays and having a few beers with mates after the game. He was not a churchgoer. McKivat died on 4 May 1941, survived by his wife and son, and was buried in the Catholic section of Botany cemetery.