Denis Lawson "Dave" Cowper
- 277Wallaby Number
Dave Cowper, along with Gordon Sturtridge, Owen Bridle, Weary Dunlop and Ted Jessep, was an integral part of Victorian rugby's golden era of the 1930s.
Cowper was a centre three-quarter who had speed to burn, a great outside swerve and a solid defence. He was also a born leader of men and will forever be remembered as the first Victorian representative to captain Australia in a rugby Test match. While that is fact, Cowper was actually born in Sydney and schooled at Newington College where he played three years in both the 1st XV and the 1st XI. In 1927 he captained the school, the 1st XV and the 1st XI. He also represented the Combined GPS 1st XV in his final year against United Services. That same year he had a day to remember at Newington’s sports day. In less than four hours he won six open athletics championships.
Although Cowper was a fine cricketer in his own right, two of his three sons attained greater honours in the sport, notably Bob who made the first Test match triple century in Australia when he scored 307 against England at the M.C.G. in 1966. After school Dave spent a year playing rugby league for Bigga, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, where he competed for, and won, the Poulos Challenge Cup.
In 1929 he moved to Melbourne to take up a clerical position with the London Export Company. Cowper joined the Melbourne rugby club and almost immediately won a place in the Victorian XV as 'his determined, swerving runs and judicious passing and kicking singled him out on every field on which he appeared.’ He travelled to Sydney with the Victorian squad and as a result of his displays was 'freely discussed’ as being in contention for an Australian jersey in the series against the All Blacks. Unfortunately he broke his shoulder against Duntroon Military College which temporarily put his ambition for higher honours on hold. Cowper, as vice-captain, recovered to be named in the final representative match of the season against New South Wales where his sound play had much to do with the home side’s brilliant 16-9 win.
In 1930 Cowper played in the trial match to decide the Australian XV to play the British Lions however Cyril Towers and Sid King were preferred for the one-off Test. Unperturbed, Cowper, ‘in a sensational display' went on to score three tries in Victoria’s 36-41 loss to the tourists, a performance that ultimately won him selection on the 1931 Wallaby tour to New Zealand. Cowper proved himself an indispensable part of the touring party as he played in nine of the 10 matches, including his Test debut in Auckland. What Cowper did not know at the time was that the sole game he missed, against the Maori, would be elevated to Test status by the ARU some 63 years later.
1932 was a big year for Cowper. Firstly, he competed in the Australian National Games which doubled as the final trial for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Cowper finished second in his heat of the 100 yards but was ultimately run out of a place in a highly competitive final. Secondly, he was chosen to play his first rugby Test at home however his participation required significant intervention from rugby’s hierarchy. Such intervention was required due to the fact that Cowper’s employer refused to give him a leave of absence in order to play. Victorian and Australian Rugby Union selector Herbert Penwill successfully persuaded Cowper’s employer to approve the absence and sent a telegram to the N.S.W. Rugby Union which read: "Cowper is available for ALL Tests, if required.”
The following year Cowper was chosen for Australia’s first-ever tour of South Africa. Unfortunately both captain, Alec Ross, and vice-captain, Syd Malcolm, fell foul of injury early on and, as a consequence, Cowper was elevated to the role of captain where he performed magnificently with the added responsibility. Cowper played 17 of the 23 matches, was the tour’s top scorer and led Australia in three of the five Tests, including the magnificent 21-6 victory at Kingsmead.
Upon his return home Cowper moved back to Sydney and joined Northern Suburbs.While he started the two New South Wales matches against the All Blacks he was an unused reserve for both Tests behind Queensland’s ‘Dooney’ Hayes. In 1935 Cowper ‘retired’ from representative rugby, played for New South Wales against Queensland, returned to Melbourne and started for Victoria against the touring Maori side. A far more definitive retirement followed a year later as Cowper chose to 'devote his time to the executive side of the code’ however that too failed to see the course and he was soon back playing club football.
Amazingly he continued to represent Victoria through until the 1939 interstate carnival that doubled as the trials for the Second Wallabies tour to Great Britain. During World War II he enlisted in the RAAF as a navigator, rose to the rank of squadron leader and saw service in the Pacific. He later coached Victoria, became an Australian selector and was assistant manager (coach) of the 1957-58 Fourth Wallabies side that toured the British Isles, France and North America.
Dave Cowper played nine Tests for Australia, three as captain, in a three-year international career.
Cowper won his first Test cap at inside centre, partnered with Cyril Towers, in the one-off Test, 13-20 loss to New Zealand at Eden Park
He was capped in all three home Tests against New Zealand however the first two were played on the wing, a position he disliked immensely, and the third at inside centre.
Cowper started at inside centre in each of the five away Tests against South Africa. He played inside Gordon Sturtridge in the first four Tests and in combination with Jack Steggall for the final international. In the first Test at Newlands, Cowper became the 27th man to captain Australia in a Test match.