James Russell Roxburgh
- 516 Wallaby Number
Jim Roxburgh was a hard, durable, determined, strong scrummaging prop who more than made up for a perceived lack of size with the mobility of a back-rower. Roxburgh’s rugby career is equally remembered for his decision, alongside six of his Wallaby teammates - Tony Abrahams, Jim Boyce, Paul Darveniza, Terry Forman, Barry McDonald and Bruce Taafe - to stand down from possible selection against the touring all-white 1971 Springboks in protest at South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Born in Wudinna, South Australia and educated at The King’s School, Roxburgh showed his proclivity for sport as he represented King’s in athletics, rowing and rugby. After graduation he attended the University of Sydney where he won his rugby Blue in 1965. Two years later Roxburgh played his first game of senior representative rugby for New South Wales against Victoria at Olympic Park.
In 1968 he packed down with Peter Johnson and Roy Prosser for Sydney in their narrow 9-14 loss to New Zealand. Another good performance for the Junior Wallabies against the tourists earned him a Test debut in Sydney. Later that season Roxburgh earned a rave review - ‘none played better’ - for his performance against the visiting French. In 1969 he was selected on his first Wallaby tour to South Africa. He and Prosser propped in each of the four Tests and performed admirably despite being heavily outweighed. In the final days on tour, Abrahams wrote a letter to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. The letter, headlined ‘South Africa and Sport’, was published on October 8 and generated much discussion and opinion about the nation’s racial discrimination policies. Upon the teams’ return to Australia the other six players agreed that while they were not political activists they had a ‘moral responsibility’ to oppose apartheid.
In May of 1970 an opportunity presented itself to speak out. Geoffrey Robertson, the future Queens Counsel and international human-rights barrister, was also the editor of Blackacre, the journal of the Sydney University Law Society. Robertson invited the Wallabies to be interviewed about their time in South Africa. When asked whether Australia should send future teams to the Republic, Roxburgh replied, “I agree with Barry and Paul - I could not play against South Africa again while apartheid is a way of life in that country. I suppose I was at fault to some extent in going without knowing enough about the country and its policies. But after three months in the place I am involved, and caring as I do, I think it’s wrong to send teams there.” The article that resulted from the interview, ‘Political Football’, also published in The Australian (21/05/70), was a definitive catalyst for the organised opposition to the 1971 Springbok tour.
The players then wrote to the Australian Rugby Union and confirmed what they had told Robertson: if selected, they would not play against the Springboks. Despite having fallen out with the ARU, both Roxburgh and McDonald were selected to play for Australia in the one-off Test against Scotland (Darveniza was a reserve). The catalyst for the 23-3, six tries to none victory was attributed to the ‘mobile Australian forwards who never allowed the Scots to get off the mark.’ That match marked the end of Roxburgh’s representative career.
McDonald later said, “James Roxburgh gave up more than I did. He was a fabulous footballer, just 24, possibly our best forward and with a long Wallaby career ahead of him.” Roxburgh, like McDonald was circumspect about his decision: ‘I’ve not taken great credit for what we did because I couldn’t have looked at myself in the mirror if I hadn’t protested against the tour.”
“The Rugby Seven” as they had become known, were later hailed as the “Magnificent Seven” after it was recognised that a direct line could be traced from their actions, to the referendum that marked the end of apartheid in 1994. Their deeds were honoured when South African President Nelson Mandela bestowed upon them the Medal of Freedom.
Jim Roxburgh played nine Tests for Australia in a three-year international career.
Roxburgh won his first Test cap alongside Johnson and Prosser in the 1st Test, 11-27 loss to New Zealand in at the S.C.G. That front-row retained their place for the 18-19, 2nd Test defeat in Brisbane. Roxburgh was unavailable for the end-of-season tour to Ireland and Scotland due to the timing of his University exams.
Roxburgh and Prosser partnered in all five Tests against Wales (1) and South Africa (4).
In his final Test Roxburgh combined with Peter Johnson and Jake Howard in the 23-3 victory over Scotland at the S.C.G.