Frederick 'Possum' Wood
- 85Wallaby Number
Fred (‘Possum’) Wood, born in England, was a giant in the rugby union code when its very edifices seemed to be falling down. He was one who held firm, when he could easily have turned professional. His career went from 1905 to 1914, so it encompassed two waves of professionalism, the visit of the NZ ‘All Golds’ in 1907, the subsequent signing of ‘Dally’ Messenger and the formation of rugby league clubs, and the startling defection of 14 of the 1908-09 Wallabies after their return to Australia. Wood, in these very troubling years for rugby union, would captain his club Glebe, the State of NSW, and his country.
He would tour NZ in 1905 and 1913, and the British Isles and North America in 1908-09. His career span at the top level lasted from 1905 to 1914, and despite occasional rebuffs he stood tall, despite being a mere 5 foot 2 inches in height. He was squat and solid, though he weighed only 10 stone 7 pounds on the 1098-09 tour. Peter Sharpham, inThe First Wallabies, called him “a fearless scrum-half.” Jack Pollard in Australian Rugby says of him that he “was a very solid, reliable performer behind the Australian scrum... Wood was stocky with powerful legs and shoulders, and in bruising matches against big forwards had the ability to absorb punishment.” He first attracted notice at the higher level against the touring 1905 NZ team, captained by Jimmy Hunter, with notables such as George Gillett, ‘Massa’ Johnston, George Nicholson, Simon Mynott, George Smith and Billy Wallace.
The All Blacks were using Australia as a warm-up for their impending tour of Britain and scheduled three matches, two against NSW and one against the Metropolitan Union. Wood missed the first State game, but impressed for the Metropolitan Union and was selected for the second NSW match, the latter resulting in a draw. Some of the outstanding players on the ‘Blues’ were ‘Boxer’ Russell, Ernie Anlezark, Cecil Murnin, Blair Swannell, Peter Burge, Harold Judd, Jimmy Clarken and Alex Burdon. A full Australian team, the first national side ever selected to tour overseas, was announced the day after the second State game. Stan Wickham was the skipper, and the 21-year-old Fred Wood was officially the sole halfback, but Queensland’s Mick Dore also had experience in the position.
It was Dore selected for the first match, so Wood’s first appearance for Australia was against Marlborough-Nelson-Buller-West Coast. Chester and McMillan, in The Visitors, wrote that “Anlezark, Wood, Wickham and McLean stood out among the backs.” Dore was selected for the match against Canterbury- South Canterbury, as well as the Test against NZ. Wood played in the final three matches, once as five-eighth, and therefore had played in four of the seven matches. It was a solid beginning to a long career. There were no tours in or out of Australia in 1906, but in 1907 the All Blacks were back to test Australia’s mettle. Wood was in their first match, playing for NSW. ‘Dally’ Messenger, a key figure in rugby league later on, was on the wing. NSW went down 3 to 11.
In the next match, surprisingly won by the ‘Blues’ 14 to 0, his five-eighth partner was also from Glebe, Chris McKivat. They were the automatic selections for their first Test, but Australia was thoroughly drubbed at 6-26. The second Test was in Brisbane, and in a selectorial farce the two selectors, James McMahon of Sydney and Poley Evans of Brisbane, agreed that the local man had the casting vote. The captain was therefore Billy Richards from Charters Towers, and in all there were seven Queenslanders in the team. Fred Wood held his position, though Chris McKivat was replaced by Eric Mandible. NZ again won by 14 to 5.
In the final Test, McKivat was recalled, but at centre, the halves being Wood and Mandible. The following year, 1908, the Anglo-Welsh toured, and Fred Wood was in the two main NSW games, captaining his State in the first game, played in terrible conditions. Players from each team could not be differentiated. Howell, et al, in They Came To Conquer reported: “The NSW captain, Fred Wood, played magnificently.” The Anglo-Welsh won both games, 3-0 and 8-0. It is of interest, based on later developments, that McKivat played five-eighth in the first encounter, but was dropped for the second. The big news that enveloped all the rugby players of Australia was the possibility of an eight-month long tour of the British Isles and North America. It was Australia’s first excursion to the northern hemisphere. It was rightly hailed as the tour of a lifetime. The tour is brilliantly analysed by Peter Sharpham in the First Wallabies.
Captained by Herbert (‘Paddy’) Moran, Fred Wood was selected as the vice-captain. It is of interest that Wood and Newcastle’s Joshua Stevenson were the selected halfbacks. Stevenson would play in only one match, at Penygraig. He was injured and was a passenger from that time on. How different things might have been if he had been healthy. It forced the selectors to look elsewhere for a back-up halfback, and the choice fell to Chris McKivat, Wood’s partner at Glebe. McKivat was a brilliant and versatile player, and given the chance through circumstance showed more initiative and break-through possibilities than Wood. What exacerbated Wood’s problem was that he had physical problems allegedly due to the damp English winter.
He suffered from rheumatism or lumbago from a previously injured hip, and his form was affected. However he had his own personal pride, and he was not only vice-captain he was a selector. The problem is revealed in captain Moran’s book, Viewless Winds: “Our team [against Cornwall] the gold medal Olympic game played magnificent football, chiefly due to the fact that McKivat was at last in his proper position at half and MacCabe [sic] at five-eights [sic].” Though this may have been the case, in actual fact Wood had been seriously injured, and missed the matches against Cambridge, Oxford, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Somerset. This allowed McKivat to shine. His re-appearance was against a Combined Midlands and E. Midlands Counties, and Sharpham noted: “Wood, returning from a long injury, seemed slow and hesitant around the scrum-base and second-phase play.” The next match was against Wales, the first international, and the selectors picked McKivat at halfback and Ward Prentice at five-eighth. Wales won a close and emotional match by 9 to 0. Wood next fronted up, as captain, against Glamorgan League.
Sharpham wrote “... the whole team, more than capably led by Fred Wood, played superbly in the abysmal conditions.” Opinions are consistent that Wood’s form increased in the latter stages of the tour, but McKivat was still superior. In what this author regards as an incorrect assessment, Moran states in Viewless Winds: “The vice-captain 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 [sic] out of his proper position.” These comments by Moran presumably allude to the opening matches, in which Wood played in seven, not nine matches, before being injured.
After all, McKivat was the five-eighth of his club and for NSW and Australia before the team left, and Wood was selected as a halfback and McKivat a five-eighth. It must have been difficult for Wood himself to accept what was becoming a reality. This author’s reading is that increasingly Wood accepted the reality of the situation and instead concentrated on improving his own game. What is for certain is that from his return to the field in the British Isles, Wood would play 13 games, seven of them as captain. He missed both internationals, and the gold medal game against Cornwall in the 1908 Olympic Games. Only one game was lost when he was captain, so he did his best. He would play 20 games on tour.
McKivat, as it turned out, would be one of 14 Wallabies who defected after the tour, and got the highest fee, and then he captained the 1911-12 Kangaroos to Britain, which won the Ashes. McKivat was a brilliant player, and there was no disgrace in Wood eventually playing second fiddle to him on this tour. In 1910 NZ toured Australia, and Wood played against them twice for NSW, and in the three Tests. The first was won by NZ 6 to 0, the second leg Australia 11 to 0 and the tie-breaker by NZ 28-13. The second Test represented the first Test won over NZ in seven meetings (one match had been drawn) and the first time Australia had held an opponent scoreless. Howell, et al state in They Came To Conquer: “At a time of turmoil for the game, Australia’s second Test win was a real fillip ... Wood was a terrier around the field.” The same year, 1910, the NZ Maori toured, and Wood played in the two games for NSW, which the ‘Blues’ won. There were no Tests.
In 1911 and 1912 there was no international rugby, but in 1913 a starved rugby-union fraternity gloried in a visit from the NZ Maori. Fred Wood got a try and a penalty goal in the first 15-3 NSW victory. He was also in the second NSW match, again won by the locals, 16-5. That same year, 1913, Australia embarked on a nine-match tour of NZ under captain Larry Dwyer. Chester and McMillan said of Wood in The Visitors: “Fred Wood, generally known as ‘Possum’, played 12 tests for Australia and 38 games for New South Wales. Short and chunky, he could stand up to the biggest forwards and was highly rated among rugby halfbacks of his time.” The team was not overly successful, winning four and losing five, but Fred Wood played in eight of the nine games. He would play in the three Tests.
In the second Test, Chester and McMillan wrote: “Wood turned on his best game of the tour and was the outstanding back on the field.” After the third Test, they said: “Wood was again the outstanding back on the field, his passing and control of the game being quite magnificent.” Now 30 –years- of -age, the curtain rang down on his career after the visit of the 1914 NZ tour. He captained NSW against them in the first match, and captained Australia in the first and third Tests, as well as NSW in the second match. It was a fitting end to his career. War had broken out late in the tour, and the minds of all were on what might happen. Harold George and Fred Thompson would both be killed at Gallipoli, and Bill Tasker would be severely injured. They were all in the final Test.
One has the feeling that but for the War Fred Wood would have still been tossing balls out from the scrum base for many years to come, and would go down courageously as he always did with rampaging packs. This author has great admiration for the diminutive Wood. He was a player’s player, captaining his club, his State and his country. In all he would play 41 matches for Australia, 12 of them Tests. In the Test arena he captained Australia three times, but in addition would be captain in seven mid-week games. What he lacked in size he made up for in heart. He was one of the rocks on which the foundation of Australian rugby was re-built. He never gave up on the game. The words of Moran in Viewless Winds comes to mind when thinking of Fred Wood: “For Rugby is a great game, not ending with the blown whistle. Years after we see again the rift in the opposing defences. We get ready to break through with a sudden flash of speed.
Long after the events we still stretch ourselves full length barely to reach the heels of a flying three-quarter, drag them to ourselves and him to the ground. We leap, once more, higher than the others on a long line-out, gather the ball on our fingertips, marvellously, and head the rush onward. We sink at the feet of dribbling forwards and gather the ball as the attacking force tumbles pell-mell upon us; the situation is saved. We feel the joyous rapture of massed forwards taking it on in a fierce irruption, or of centre-threes swerving through and just reaching the white line as they hit the green turf. The earth trembles, but a try has been scored.” Fred Wood lived to only 40 years of age, and would have had such dreams. He died during the season of 1924, and the NSWRU organised a fund for his wife and children.