Cyril Thomas Burke
- 344Wallaby Number
Cyril Burke was the pre-eminent Wallaby scrum half of the post World War II era. While other great Australian halves had longer passes, were quicker or were better cover defenders there is almost no doubt that Burke was the toughest. He also possessed an audacious, trade-mark side step that left regularly his opposition grasping helplessly at thin air. Born and bred in Newcastle it didn’t take long for Burke to be considered the best local product since Wallaby #242 Syd Malcolm as he ran around for his beloved Waratahs from age 14. He enlisted in the Air Force at 18 and as luck would have it found himself in Sydney at the embarkation depot when Newcastle was playing a representative game. Burke arrived at the game with his boots and was given a run in the second half. An impressive performance won him a place on the bench in the New South Wales team to play Army.
He was later stationed with a Fighter Control Unit in Borneo and then Sarawak. After Japan surrendered Burke’s CO in Borneo told him that he was going to be made a corporal but then changed his mind. As a consequence Burke arrived home in January 1946 which allowed him to play in the Australian trials for the first post-war tour to New Zealand. Burke went away as the No.2 scrum half to the more experienced Queenslander ‘Chappie’ Schulte. Burke played inspired rugby on the tour and a fine performance against Wellington justifiably earned him a debut against the All Blacks in Auckland. As further luck would have it the previously mentioned second choice corporal didn’t return to Australia until 1947, after the Wallabies had set sail on the Orion for the British Isles, France, Canada and the United States with a youthful Burke on board.
Again Burke went away as No.2 scrum half, this time to to Randwick's Roy Cawsey, however a series of stunning and intelligent displays saw Burke start in all five Tests. He remained the first choice half until 1952 and the arrival of Manly’s Brian Cox. The two went head-to-head for five seasons before both were sensationally excluded from the Fourth Wallabies tour of 1957/58. Burke had the game of his life in the Possibles v Probables, final trial match for the tour but when the team was announced Burke was not selected. Arnold Tancred, manager of the 1947/48 Wallabies later rang Burke and stated: ‘They assured me the team would be picked on merit. It was not.’ Unfortunately, a previous disagreement with Harry Crow, the chairman of the Country Rugby union and an Australian selector for that tour, proved to be the decisive factor.
In 1958 Burke captained NSW for the fifth and final time before his career was ended the following year after he suffered a dislocated hip. He received the British Empire Medal in 1954, was a Life Member of the Waratahs, won the best and fairest player in Newcastle seven times, and was elected to the Hunter Region Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2015 Burke was inducted into the Wallaby Hall of Fame. Cyril Burke played 26 Tests for Australia in an eleven-year international career.
Burke won his first Test cap at halfback alongside ‘Mick’ Cremin in the 2nd Test, 10-14 loss to New Zealand at Eden Park. At a crucial point in the match Burke went for the line and grounded the ball. To the amazement of Burke and his team the referee called Burke for barging and the opportunity was lost. New Zealand accounts of the match suggest that the All Blacks were ‘lucky’ and ‘the better team lost.’
Burke was capped in both home Test losses to New Zealand, the first in combination with Cremin and the second paired with debutant Nev Emery.
Burke and Emery started all five Tests on the the Third Wallabies tour. Burke scored his first Test try in the third match, the 16-3 defeat of Ireland at Lansdowne Road.
Burke was omitted from the opening home Test against the Maori after the tourists’ defeat of New South Wales and Randwick’s Roy Cawsey earned a debut at halfback. However, Burke then gave a commanding performance for Newcastle against the Maori. When Cawsey was ruled out with a thigh injury Burke was recalled for the 2nd Test in Brisbane and held his spot alongside Emery for the final test at the S.C.G. Later in the year Burke and Emery were the halves in both away victories over New Zealand.
John Solomon was Burke’s fly half in the two home losses to the British Lions.
Burke and Dick Tooth started in the halves for all three Tests in the home series against New Zealand.
Having played all four Tests the previous year Manly’s Brian Cox was firmly in the box seat for the trip to South Africa before disaster struck. In an early morning, pre-season training run Cox was trailing his forward pack in uncertain light, trod on a ball and suffered shooting pains in his right ankle. X-rays revealed a complete fracture of the fibula just above the ankle and he was ruled out of the tour. As a result Burke and Easts’ John Bosler were chosen as the tour halfbacks. Surprisingly it was Bosler who took the opportunity with both hands when he started the first seven major provincial matches. As a result Bosler was named at halfback to make his debut in the opening Test at Ellis Park. Australia were humbled 3-25 as the ‘enormous pressure exerted by the Springbok pack and halves’ took its toll, particularly on the debutants. The selectors made five changes for Cape Town, three of which were in the backs, and Burke returned to start the final three Tests of the series.
Burke partnered Murray Tate in the 1st Test, 22-19 defeat of Fiji however he was then in the New South Wales side that suffered a second half capitulation against the tourists a week out from the final Test. In response the Australian Rugby Union selectors sent out an ‘S.O.S.' for Cox who played in the 16-18 loss at the S.C.G.
Burke and Cox were both selected for the tour to New Zealand. Cox started the 1st Test 8-16 loss at Athletic Park in combination with Solomon while Burke was surprisingly shifted to inside centre. Cox was then ruled out of the second international due to injury. Burke took his place, inside debutant Gordon Davis, and retained it alongside Dick Tooth, Australia’s third fly half in three internationals, for the memorable 8-3 win at Eden Park.
Burke was paired with debutant Ross Sheil in the 1st Test, 0-9 loss to South Africa in Sydney however Sheil dislocated his shoulder and was unavailable for the return match. Unfortunately Tooth and Arthur Summons were also on the injured list. As a consequence, and in what was nonetheless a mystifying selection decision, Burke was moved to fly half, outside of a recalled Cox, for what was his final international, the 2nd Test in Brisbane.