Cyril Henry Thomas Towers
- 230Wallaby Number
Cyril Towers is arguably the greatest Australian rugby player of the pre-World War II era. What is not up for debate is the fact that Towers was a legend of the game even while he still played. A rare student of rugby, Towers forgot more about the game than most ever knew. Possessed of every skill, he had the intuition that marks only the finest players. A fine kick, Towers had a safe pair of hands and an impenetrable defence - rare qualities to be to be found in an individual of such brilliance in attack. Importantly he never stopped adding or evolving parts to his game.
Towers’ consistently high standard of play over so many years was remarkable in an era when so many players’ careers were cut short through injury or financial constraints and that had much to do with his fastidious fitness regime. As a centre Towers was in a class of his own as he used his characteristic change of pace and direction - achieved by shortening and the suddenly lengthening his stride - to leave opposition defenders stranded. His tactical awareness was superb and he controlled a match much like a conductor directs an orchestra. Towers was also ‘a model sportsman’, a passionate believer in amateur sport and a strong advocate of the running game.
Born in Mansfield, a small town in the foothill of the Victorian Alps, Towers moved to Melbourne, where he acquired his trademark kicking skills as he played junior Australian Rules football. The family then moved to Roma in Queensland for three years before they finally settled in Sydney. Towers was educated at Randwick Boys’ Intermediate High School where he had the good fortune to have Oates Taylor as his rugby coach and mentor. He then attended Christian Brothers’ College, Waverley where he met ‘Wally’ Meagher who became his close friend and confidant. Together they both rigorously applied the Arthur Hennessy doctrine of ‘run at all times, never kick’.
In 1924 Towers played for Coogee juniors but two days before the season opened he was walking down George Street in the city when a steel girder rolled off a lorry and broke his right leg. While Towers missed eight weeks he recovered in time to make the combined first Juniors 'rep' side that played in one of the curtain raisers to the second State match against New Zealand. A mere schoolboy, Towers was near paralysed by the sight of the 30,000-strong crowd. He later said that, “It was no thrill, it was a decided fright; my fervent prayer being that I be whisked to some Roman Colosseum with a few affectionate lions to play about with.”
Prior to the start of the 1925 season Len Palfreyman convinced Towers to try out for senior football so he joined the Randwick club and played the first of 233 top grade matches. Towers’ initial appearances were as a fly half however he soon found a home at outside centre, the position in which he predominantly remained for the whole of his senior career. A year later New Zealand was set to arrive for a six-match tour. A series of trial games were played ahead of their arrival, one of which - NSW v. The Rest - marked the commencement of a centre combination that remained more or less unbroken for the next seven years.
Towers and the young Wests’ midfielder Sid King were paired in opposition to 'Johnny' Wallace and 'Tug' Morrissey. During that match Towers learned a lasting and far-reaching football lesson. Early in the fixture Wallace found Morrissey in support and threw him the ball. Morrissey looked up to find Towers blocking his way. Without deviation Morrissey crashed straight through Towers with such force that the defender was left looking for the truck that had hit him. The lesson - understand the fallacy of using sheer force and vigor to oppose another player who is more forceful and more vigorous than yourself.
Aged just 19, Towers was chosen for the first of three state games on the All Blacks’ schedule where he and King were ‘conspicuous by their brick walls defence’. Although he did not know it at the time that match was his official Test debut after an ARU decision in 1994 elevated 34 New South Wales matches played against international opposition in the 1920-28 period to Test status (the five 1927/28 Waratahs’ internationals were granted Test status in 1986). Towers then starred on the Waratahs tour to the northern hemisphere where he played 25 matches (pre-North America) and finished as the equal top try scorer (15) with Eric Ford. Towers wrote a tour diary (published in Australian Banker, Jun-Nov 1928) detailing how the team was feted, including a day’s duck shooting at Sandringham with King George V.
From that time forward Towers became an indispensable member of the Australian backline. He played a key role in the 1929, 3-0 series sweep of New Zealand but reserved one of his greatest moments for a memorable game-saving tackle to defeat the 1930 British Lions. Eight minutes before full time Australia led 6-5 however ‘a great pang of disappointment swept through 30,712 spectators’ as the fleet footed Lions’ centre Tony Novis - with flanker Ivor Jones and two others in support - bore down on Alec Ross, the Wallabies’ last line of defence. Ross claimed Novis but not before he gave a most perfect pass to Jones. It seemed that nothing could stop a British score and victory until a ‘green-jerseyed form hurtled through the air’. It was Towers, who had come from the clouds to intertwine himself in Jones’ legs and scrag the big forward three yards short of the line. The Lions’ bid for victory was checkmated.
Those heroics were forgotten two years later when Towers missed selection for the three Test home series against New Zealand only to be named in the trials for the following season’s tour to South Africa. Towers’ recall was described by the press of the day as ‘a chance to rehabilitate himself after being discarded earlier this season’ and while one critic suggested he ‘showed pleasing form’ another was of the view that he ‘failed to reproduce his old form’. He made the squad for the final trial, but only as a reserve, and when the touring team was announced St. George’s Jack Young was named in the centres alongside wonderful Queensland utility Jack Steggall and the two Victorian stars Dave Cowper and Gordon Sturtridge.
Towers absence from the touring party was both described as a ‘tragedy’ and the low point of his storied career. One of the selectors suggested that form against the All Blacks had been considered most important however Young, like Towers, had not played in that series. It is believed that Towers inexplicable exclusion was due to his strongly expressed differences with the tour manager, Dr. Wally Matthews. Others suggested Matthews saw Towers’ strong personality as a threat to his authority. Either way, Towers’ omission was arguably the most controversial in the history of Australian rugby.
The irony in all of that was that some of Towers’ best days had yet to come. He played a crucial role in the in two Tests against the New Zealand in 1934, when Australia won the Bledisloe Cup for the first time, and then finished his Test career as captain against the 1937 Springboks. However, there were several further chapters to the Cyril Towers story. In 1939 Towers captained New South Wales against a Combined XV in the secondary trial for the Second Wallabies tour. Reviews of that match considered Towers to be one of the ‘bright attacking stars’ and he ‘figured largely’ in six of his side’s nine tries.
Towers then attended the selection announcement hosted by New South Wales Rugby Union chairman Mr. W. W. Hill. Towers centre partner Syd King recorded the moment for the Daily Telegraph as follows: ‘Towers was jotting down the names of the, team. "Centre three-quarters,” called the chairman, then read the four selected. The pencil in Towers' hand moved rapidly, then paused and trembled: He closed his eyes momentarily and swayed slightly. He could not hide his disappointment, for here was smashed an ambition harbored for years.' The manager of that Second Wallabies tour was the same Dr. Wally Matthews. A year later Towers retired from representative rugby.
At that time he said, "I'm tired of the Union's petty meddling and stupid administration. They've killed my enthusiasm for football." Randwick played in six first grade grand finals during the Towers era - 1926, 1930, 1934 and 1938-40 - winning four (1930, 1934, 1938 and 1940], three of which came under his leadership. Towers then coached his beloved Randwick before he became a much-respected Australian Broadcasting Commission rugby commentator, for radio (1945-57) and television (1957-70). He was also a ‘hands-on’ member of the St Vincent de Paul Society where he worked tirelessly for the poor and underprivileged. Towers’ grandson, Pat Howard, played 20 Tests for Australia in the 1990s.
His two sons-in-law Roy Prosser (Wallaby #503) and Jake Howard (Wallaby #534) won 25 caps and 7 caps respectively. In 2006 Towers was inducted into the Wallaby Hall of Fame. His great friend Wally Meagher wrote of him in Rugby News ‘…no fairer player has graced the field, and I cannot remember having seen an unsportsmanlike action by Cyril...no player in the game derives more enjoyment, evinces more keenness or at all times gives of his very best….[his] record of achievement and gentlemanly bearing have stamped him an everlasting ornament to the code and a football genius whose name will endure while ever Rugby Union is played.” Cyril Towers played 19 Tests for Australia, two as captain, in an extraordinary 12-year international career.
When ‘Tug’ Morrissey withdrew from the side following the passing of his father, Towers won his first Test cap at outside centre in the 1st Test 26-20 victory over New Zealand at the Sydney Showground. Towers won a second cap when he came off the bench to replace Sid King in the 4th Test, 21-28 loss. King, who had suffered a head knock during the first half, collapsed unconscious at halftime and was unable to resume.
Towers earned three caps, all at out-centre, on the Waratahs tour. He partnered Johnnie Wallace in the 5-3 win over Ireland however despite Towers’ ‘grand form’ Billy Sheehan started the Tests against Wales and Scotland. Towers returned to start outside Sid King at Twickenham and in Paris.
Towers started all three away Tests against New Zealand, the first outside of Bob Burge and the third alongside Cliff Caldwell. He partnered Don Bull in the one-off 8-9 loss to the Maori at Palmerston North
King and Towers were the centres for the first and third Tests of the home series against the All Blacks. Towers was replaced by Alan Thorpe in the opening Test after a collision with opposing inside centre Sid Carleton. Both players went for the ball and Carleton’s elbow caught Towers on the bridge of the nose. He missed the Brisbane Test with a broken nose and the possible re-fracture of his jaw, one that was first suffered against Queensland in the third interstate match five weeks earlier.
Recovered from a broken collarbone suffered in a club match against Norths in late May, Towers and King were paired for the 6-5 victory over the British Lions at the S.C.G.
Towers was capped in the 14-3 win over the Maori at Showgrounds Oval and then in combination with the debutant Dave Cowper for the 13-20 loss to New Zealand at Eden Park.
Queensland’s ‘Dooney’ Hayes partnered Towers in both Tests of the 1-0 home series victory over New Zealand.
The Wallabies did not play a Test match in 1935.
Towers secured special leave from his employer, The Rural Bank of New South Wales, for an educational trip to study certain phases of the banking profession overseas. He returned home in time to stake a claim for the Australian tour of New Zealand however after just one club match he slipped on a marble step at his home and suffered a knee injury that ruled him out of consideration.
Towers became the 30th player to captain Australia in a Test when he led the Wallabies in the two home Test losses to South Africa. In the first match of that series Towers scored his 10th Test try to equal the all-time Australian record of ‘Pup’ Raymond (1920-23).