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Duncan ‘Chook’ Fowles almost became the premier hooker in New South Wales immediately after World War I and was always in contention for the top spot until an emerging great, ‘Jock’ Blackwood, took over the position in 1922. The qualification ‘almost’ is put on Fowles’ career because despite his eight caps he never played against an All Black team, either at home or on his two tours of New Zealand. Fowles was originally from Brisbane and his career was just getting started when war interrupted everything about normal life in 1914. He had not represented the State before the outbreak of hostilities but he did in 1919, when rugby was briefly resumed north of the border.
He also appeared for the Queensland AIF in the match against the full AIF team, which toured Australia after returning from the King’s Cup tournament. However, Queensland rugby was in a real mess at that time and after the season the Union went into recess for the next ten years. Fowles, who was keen on the game, suddenly found a pressing reason to be studying at university in Sydney rather than Brisbane in 1920. John Bond hooked for New South Wales against the 1920 All Blacks but Fowles was the top man a year later when the Springboks arrived. Although Fowles was relatively slight at ft 8in (1.73m) and 11st 10lb (75kg) he was still substantially heavier than Bond, which may have been a point in his favour, but he did give a series of good displays against the much larger Springboks.
Although the first Test was lost heavily the issues were mainly in the backs and the home forwards played strongly in the next encounter. South Africa, reverting to the lineup that won the first match, was too strong in the last Test of three. Fowles was chosen for the New Zealand tour but found himself relegated to number three hooker, behind Bond and Tom Davis. Instead, he played four of the lesser matches as a prop, which almost defies belief in these days of slab-sided front rows. The 1921 Waratahs had one of the smallest packs on record, struggling to get the average up to 12st 7lb (80kg) per man in any match on tour.
Fowles was never going to play the Test, which resulted in New South Wales winning by a record 17-0, a margin that still holds up as New Zealand’s biggest defeat in any match at home. Fowles was back in favour for the first half of the 1922 season and played all three matches of the thrilling series with a good New Zealand Maori team. But his place was coming under threat from the emerging Blackwood, who played a strong match in the last fixture of that tour for New South Wales 2nd XV. When the All Blacks arrived a few weeks later Fowles had been superceded and, once again, missed the chance to turn out against a full New Zealand side.
In 1923 Blackwood was dropped after the first match of the Maori series, which allowed Fowles to resume his international career. He played the last two matches, which saw the home side complete a 3-0 sweep, and was again selected for a tour to New Zealand. Nobody could accuse the 1923 Waratahs of being a strong side – the withdrawal of 10 leading players from consideration ensured that – and the team struggled from the start of its tour. Fowles had, once again, been supplanted by Blackwood and played only in the minor matches, with Blackwood getting all the Tests. As the tour lurched along from bad to worse, the selectors threw their top team out in match after match as they tried to gain a victory, so Fowles was a spectator for the last two weeks. At the end of the tour and now 30 years of age, he was done with big-time rugby.
Born on 18 July 1895, Duncan Fowles was a scholarship winner from the Central State School and entered the Brisbane Grammar School (“BGS”) in 1909. He took up rowing and was in the School Crew, while he played in the First XV in 1911 as a second row forward but switched to hooker in 1912. In that year, the School magazine described him as weighing 11st 10 lbs: “Works very hard in the ruck, and dribbles and runs very well in the open. Kicks well with both feet but must remember not to take his man by the neck, although he rarely misses him. Colours for 1911-12. ”Very early in his school days, the young Fowles was known as ‘Chookie” for obvious reasons.
On leaving BGS, Fowles enrolled in the newly-established University of Queensland and chose not to play for Past Grammars as was traditional for BGS boys but turned out for the University team in first grade in 1913. Among his contemporaries were other fine footballers in Leslie Gall and Allan Row. Gall went on to do medicine and play for Queensland after the War, while Row was a Rhodes Scholar, who played for Queensland in 1914 and for Oxford, Blackheath and the Barbarians after the War. Fowles had two seasons for University and proved himself a tough, foraging hooker. He obtained employment as a journalist before enlisting in the War in 1915. He was serving as a Gunner with the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade when he embarked at Melbourne on the HMAT Hororata for overseas service. On his return from active service in 1919, Fowles took up rugby again.
The famous AIF side made a glorious tour of Australia to re-ignite rugby again after the game was shut down during the War. When the AIF bandwagon rolled into Brisbane for a week of matches against various local teams, Fowles played for the Queensland AIF in the midweek match along with Tommy Lawton. Wearing black and gold jerseys, the Queensland AIF was no match for their powerful opponents who won the match by 39-3. In 1920, Fowles enrolled in Medicine at the University of Sydney where he became acquainted with other Queensland students, Tom Lawton and Otto Nothling, both from BGS, and George Marshall, a burly prop forward from Toowoomba Grammar School.
Fowles and Nothling resided at St Andrew’s College and became firm friends. In 1920, the students toured New Zealand with the Sydney University team and enjoyed a 45-10 thrashing of Otago University. During the 1920 year, Johnny Bond, the seasoned AIF hooker, kept Fowles out of the New South Wales matches against the touring New Zealand team, but in the following year, Fowles supplanted Bond for the matches against the touring Springboks, who were making their first visit to Australia. It was a particularly tough debut for Fowles to come against the huge Springbok pack that scrummaged expertly in a 3-3-2 formation. The feature of the team was their huge forwards and the fact that there were no fewer than five Morkels in the team. Frank Mellish (he had already played for England), Theuns Kruger and Phil Mostert were a formidable front row backed by the massive Royal Morkel.
Tom Smith and Tom ‘Iron Guts’ Davis were Fowles’ props with Charlie Fox and ‘Jumbo’ Holdsworth in the second row. Walter Friend, Viv Dunn and Joe Thorn formed the back row. Otto Nothling was at fullback with the flying ‘Slip’ Carr on the wing. Carr scored a try which Norm Mingay goaled and Nothling kicked a mighty dropped goal but the Springboks won by 25 points to 10. For the second match, played just two days later, the Springboks, who definitely did not regard these games against New South Wales as Test matches, made a number of changes and introduced the biggest player to represent South Africa, until Piet Botha in 1965, Jim ‘Tiny’ Michau and ‘Tank’ van Rooyen, another great forward. Playing adventurous football, the home side led 8-5 at halftime and looked all over winners until midway through the second half. New South Wales scored three good tries but lost 16-11.
After that fright, the Springboks played their strongest side for the third match and won 28-9. South Africa played one further match against Metropolitan Sydney but Johnny Bond was preferred to Fowles. Later that year, New South Wales toured New Zealand and Fowles was one of five Sydney University players chosen for the tour. The others were his old pal, Otto Nothling, Pup Raymond, Bot Stanley and Johnny Wallace. The 25-year-old Fowles started as the number one hooker in the opener against North Auckland but was later supplanted by Johnny Bond. In the matches against Poverty Bay and West Coast, the heavier Fowles, at 75kg, played as a prop forward with Bond hooking.
In all, Fowles played just four of the ten matches, while Bond played eight, including the Test against New Zealand, which New South Wales won 17-0. When the Maori arrived in 1922, Fowles found that Eastern Suburbs hooker, Jock Blackwood, was preferred as the New South Wales hooker in the first encounter, which the visitors won 25-22. In the course of the game, Charlie Thompson, the Eastern Suburbs prop, was injured and Fowles came on as a replacement. Fowles was then named as hooker in place of Blackwood for the second match, which New South Wales won convincingly by 28 points to 13.
When the home side led 22-6 in the third Test, the Maori looked certain to lose the match and the series, but they staged a great second half rally to win 23-22. Later in the season, when the All Blacks, led by the famous Moke Bellis, toured and played three matches against New South Wales, Jock Blackwood returned to the side in place of Fowles and played in all three matches. Next year, the popular Maori team returned for a series of matches against New South Wales in June 1923. After Blackwood was preferred in the first Test, Fowles returned for the second and third Tests, both of which, New South Wales won. Then, in August that year, New South Wales ventured across the Tasman again with two hookers, Fowles and Blackwood. Once again, Fowles started the tour as the preferred hooker and was included in the opening game against Wellington-Manawatu. However, he soon lost his place to Blackwood and started in just three of the 10 matches, while coming on as a replacement for Reg Ferguson against South Canterbury. Blackwood played in all three Tests. On his return to Australia, Duncan Fowles completed his medical studies and returned to Queensland to practise medicine.