Ignatius Charles O'Donnell
- 29Wallaby Number
Born on 27 May 1876, ‘Iggy’ O’Donnell attended St Ignatius College, Sydney, along with his brothers Jack and Peter. All three were schoolboy stars in a variety of sports. On leaving school, Iggy O’Donnell became a clerk in the public service and joined the famous Wallaroo Club, playing as a five-eighth in the Sydney Metropolitan competition. At the time in Sydney club football, the sides played a fullback, three quarter backs, a five-eighth, halfback and nine forwards, including two wing forwards, and O’Donnell fitted in at five-eighth. O’Donnell’s first break into representative football came in 1898 when he was selected to go to Brisbane with the New South Wales team as a reserve. At the time, his passage into the side was blocked by Will Shortland, a talented University player who died tragically in 1901 after touring New Zealand. After Queensland won the first game through two excellent tries from Poley Evans, O’Donnell played in the midweek match against the Next Fifteen and was chosen to make his interState debut in the return game in place of Shortland, who was injured. The day of the match was quite miserable. The pitch was slippery and then it rained all through the first half. The contest ended in a draw with each side scoring a try. It was memorable for the brilliant run by Evans, who was chased all the way by the brilliant Lonnie Spragg.The drenched spectators forsook their shelter and merged to cheer Evans on his epic run. In the end, there were just as many cheers for the gallant Spragg.
By now, Iggy O’Donnell was in his prime. Strong and well built, he was a complete footballer who ran straight, threw a good pass and tackled soundly. Tactically sound, he linked well with his backs and was also a useful goal kicker. When the 1899 season dawned, the NSW Rugby Union decided to do away with the wing forward and play seven backs with three quarter backs, three halfbacks and a fullback. This year, O’Donnell’s club, the Wallaroos, fielded a powerful side that included Charlie White, Frank ‘Banger’ Row, Lonnie Spragg, Willie Webb, Jack O’Donnell, ‘Curly’ Kelly and O’Donnell himself. This was also the year when the Reverend Mullineaux brought out his British team to tour Australia and those eight players all represented Australia during the Test series! After missing the opening interState clash in Sydney that year, O’Donnell was selected as one of the three halfbacks in the New South Wales side for the return encounter. Of the three halfbacks named, Archie Boyd would feed the scrums and O’Donnell and Peter Ward would stand on either side of the scrum.
At the lineouts, it was the former New Zealander, Ward, who threw in to the lineout. O’Donnell found himself marking the redoubtable Poley Evans, but his team won 16-3 in wet and windy conditions. This match was played on the Wednesday to allow New South Wales to play the British team on the Saturday. With the tourists playing four three quarters, O’Donnell was pitted against the talented Gwyn Nicholls, the “Prince of Centres”, one of the greatest centres to play in this country. In one of the wettest winters in Sydney, the match was played in heavy conditions and Esmond Martelli won the game for the tourists with a goal from a mark, worth four points, to a try by Ward. After this narrow loss, O’Donnell backed up for the Sydney Metropolitan team in the midweek game on Referendum Day. After the visitors led 8-0 at halftime, O’Donnell cleverly kicked to the fullback who failed to gather the ball and allowed Jum Carson to score a converted try to make the final score 8-5 to Mullineaux’s men. After three tough games in ten days, O’Donnell was beaten for the first-ever Australian Test team on the following Saturday by Poley Evans.
Then it was back to club football with the Wallaroos for O’Donnell, who was unable to get leave to visit Queensland with the New South Wales side for the return interState games. Meanwhile, the British team toured Queensland and enjoyed the sunshine, while evening the Test series by beating Australia at Brisbane. On their return to Sydney, the tourists met a powerful New South Wales team that was expected to win. This time, Bill Galloway was the halfback to Ward and O’Donnell. Unfortunately, Galloway broke his collarbone and, with Mullineaux refusing to allow a replacement, the home side lost 11-5. O’Donnell had his fourth outing against Mullineaux’s men for the return match against the Metropolitan side. This time the Sydney men turned the tables to win 8-5 even though they finished two men short when the hard running Charlie White was injured and ‘Curly’ Kelly was sent off for kicking indiscriminately.With Evans injuring his knee in a club match, the Australian selectors turned to O’Donnell as his replacement for the third Test match. With Australia down 8-0 in the second half, O’Donnell ran straight and committed the defence before sending Spragg over for a try that he converted. Then Timms scored but, with eight minutes to go, Spragg scored again and converted to make it 11-10. Right on full-time, O’Donnell attempted a long-range penalty goal to win the match but his attempt failed. The selectors retained O’Donnell for the fourth Test match and also chose his brother, Jack, a tight forward, as a replacement for Kelly, who was ill. This was the first time that two brothers represented Australia in Test rugby, although errors by rugby historians in crediting the former New Zealander, Jim O’Donnell, with the cap, denied the brothers the honour for many years.
Although the British team won 13-0, O’Donnell succeeded in keeping Nicholls in check and it was greatly to his credit that he showed up so well against the great man. Although the Test series was completed, the British team had one further match in Sydney, which was against Combined Schools Past and Present. Test players, Iggy O’Donnell and Charles Ellis, played in this match. Curiously, it was the seventh time that O’Donnell had played against the tourists. In fact, he played in five consecutive games against them. Gwyn Nicholls, who played in each of these games, must have been heartily sick of the sight of O’Donnell.
The Wallaroos were particularly powerful this year and they won the premiership. However, Sydney club football was rife with professionalism and the system of club football was abandoned in favour of district football, with the result that the Wallaroos folded. In 1900, with the introduction of district football, O’Donnell was instrumental in forming the North Sydney District Football Club. Along with his brother, Jack, he organised the club during its formative years. Besides the O’Donnell’s, the ‘Shoremen’ had the services of Ellis, Webb, Kelly and White, all internationals, and Paddy Lane captained the side. In the 1900 and 1901 seasons, O’Donnell captained New South Wales against Queensland in the Sydney matches and was the side’s goal kicker. Because of his employment, he was not available for matches in Brisbane.
Following the British visit, New South Wales adopted the four three-quarter system and O’Donnell generally played at inside centre, although he did shift to five-eighth for the Sydney game in 1901 in place of John Conlon. A badly injured shoulder ruined O’Donnell’s season in 1902 and he decided to sit out the 1903 year, although he did play some club football that year and figured in an incident with Paddy Carew, the giant former Queensland forward who moved to Sydney to further his cricket career. Playing against Eastern Suburbs, O’Donnell suffered a badly broken nose. As he left the field, he heard Carew, the captain of Easts, refusing to permit a replacement!
O’Donnell returned to representative football in 1904 and captained New South Wales in both Sydney games against Queensland and then was named captain of the State side to meet the British team led by David ‘Darkie’ Bedell-Sivright in June that year. This team had most of the fabulous Welsh backs from the “Golden Age of Welsh Rugby’- Tommy Vile, Percy Bush, Rhys Gabe, Teddy Morgan and Willie Llewellyn. The British backs proved too hot for the New South Wales side and O’Donnell’s hopes of playing Test football were dashed when he was axed from the return game against Sivright’s men. Late in the season, O’Donnell travelled privately to Brisbane with the New South Wales team and turned out for New South Wales in the midweek game when the side was hard hit with injuries. This was his last representative game but he continued to serve North Sydney and he also became a New South Wales selector and, in 1908, helped Jack MacManamey and Jimmy McMahon to select the first Wallabies to tour Britain and North America.
In a career extending from 1898 to 1904, Iggy O’Donnell played 11 times for New South Wales and was captain on seven occasions. He would have made many more appearances but for injuries and work commitments. He also played in two Test matches in 1899 and successfully checked the brilliance of the great Gwyn Nicholls. After his retirement, he served the NSWRU in many capacities and was a great servant of the game in the first decade of the twentieth century. He died in 1946.