John Arthur Fihelly
- 87Wallaby Number
Jack Fihelly did not play senior football until 1905 when he was 23- years -old, and then he represented Queensland in his first season in senior football in 1905. That year, he became a member of the Valley senior club, After showing remarkably good form against a Rockhampton side, he was chosen to play for Queensland against New South Wales as a loose forward, forming a splendid backrow with Ben Lucas and Peter Flanagan, who were also on debut. Fihelly played in both interstate matches in Brisbane but missed the southern tour.
Fihelly was born on 7 November 1882 at Timoleague, Cork, in Ireland, the son of a customs officer, Cornelius Fihelly .In September 1883, his family migrated to Australia aboard The Duke of Westminster The young Fihelly was educated at Petrie State School and St. Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace. He had to leave the School at the age of 14 years and went to work as a telegraph messenger in the Post Office. He later transferred to the Department of Trade and Customs in its State office. Handsome and well-built, Fihelly was enthusiastic about his football.
In 1906, he switched clubs and moved to the Brothers’ club, which had been formed the previous year. However, the club recruited well and Fihelly found himself part of a powerful backrow combination with Tom Colton and Peter Flanagan. When the selectors named the Queensland team for the first interstate match in Brisbane, Fihelly was a sure selection. ‘Paddy’ Moran, who was to captain the First Wallabies, made his representative debut in this match.
Writing about the Queenslanders in his book, ‘Viewless Winds’, Moran remarked:”Another forward was Jack Fihelly, a most vigorous player who fought far above his weight.” This was a fairly accurate description for Fihelly was a smallish, aggressive forward who stood 178 cms tall and weighed just 74kgs.
Thereafter, Fihelly was a regular selection in 1906 and 1907. When the All Blacks toured in 1907, Fihelly was unable to obtain leave from the public service and missed the midweek match against the tourists, who won easily by 23-3. Bob Tubman replaced Fihelly for that match, but the fiery number 8 returned for the Saturday game when the home side put up a better performance, before going down 17-11. ‘Poley’ Evans, the Queensland representative on the two-man selection committee, used his veto to name seven Queenslanders in the Test side for the second Test at the Brisbane Cricket Ground. There was no question of a cost saving measure as suggested by some writers, because the Unions were cashed up due to the popularity of rugby at the time.
Fihelly was one of six Queensland forwards selected for the second Test match at the Brisbane Cricket Ground when the All Blacks won 14-5 after Australia led 5-0 at halftime. In this match, Fihelly’s lack of weight told against the much heavier All Black forwards. Fihelly lost his place for the third Test, when the other selector, Jimmy McMahon, flexed his muscles and vetoed all Queenslanders, so that Australia fielded a team solely from New South Wales players and drew 5-5, perhaps to prove the point. In all Fihelly played 11 matches for Queensland, and one Test match in three seasons of senior rugby.
But now, his thoughts were to turn to the rugby league game, which was introduced to Sydney in 1907. Fihelly was passionate about most things that he attempted, from football to politics, and he took up the idea of forming a Queensland rugby league, along with George Watson, Sine Boland, Mickey Dore, Jack O’Connor, E.L, ‘Buck’ Buchanan and Alf Faulkner. Fihelly, Watson, Boland and Dore had represented Australia at rugby, Buchanan was a 1907 Queensland player and O’Connor a club player, while Faulkner had been a prominent referee. Indeed, as referee of the Queensland versus British team in 1899, Faulkner drew the wrath of Reverend Mullineux, the team’s captain and manager, for one of his decisions.
These men formed the Queensland Rugby Football Association but had trouble enticing young players to rugby League, and Queensland was by no means competitive in the early years. Fihelly played rugby league for Queensland against the Maori with Mickey Dore, Doug McLean, George Watson, Bob Tubman and eight others. The QRU expelled all thirteen players along with the referee, Bob Beattie. Fihelly became an Australian rugby league selector with Dore and was named in the original 30-man Kangaroo touring team to England, but played few matches on tour, being more active on the managerial side.
The tour by the Kangaroos coincided with the visit by the Wallabies but there was a great contrast in conditions for the players. Whereas the Wallabies played a majority of their matches before large crowds in the warmer south, stayed in first class hotels and were better paid, the Kangaroos played most of their games in the bleak north of England. The miserable winter plagued the Kangaroos, whose tour was far too long. The bitter cold restricted crowds and depressed the players. On his return to Australia, Fihelly retired from playing and became a Test referee, but his interest soon turned to politics and he joined the Australian Labor Party. Widely read, Fihelly also wrote well and he contributed to the Worker from 1906.
He won the seat for Paddington and entered the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1912, where he became a protégé of Ted Theodore, Minister for Railways. Throughout his political career, Fihelly was abrasive, passionate and a fine orator. His campaign against conscription in 1915 made him most unpopular but he did not flinch from criticism. He ran against Theodore for the party leadership in 1919 and, when defeated by Theodore, he accepted the deputy-leadership. “Fihelly’s personal behaviour,” Betty Churchley wrote in the Dictionary of Biography”, was becoming embarrassing to the government by 1921 and in June he was defeated by W J Dunstan in pre-selection for the Federal seat of Maranoa.” In February 1922, Fihelly accepted appointment as agent-general in London.
Beset by personal and domestic problems in London, he departed in early 1924 without advising the government. He moved into local government and held the Paddington ward for Labor until 1930. In September 1926, Fihelly suffered a fractured skull in an accident at Sandgate and never really recovered. His health deteriorated and he was institutionalised At Dunwich.He died of cerebral thrombosis on 2nd March 1945 at Brisbane and was buried in Toowong Cemetery after a State funeral. Today, Fihelly is best remembered, in a sporting context, as one of the founders of rugby league in Queensland, yet he was a regular and valuable member of the Queensland rugby team as an energetic and vigorous loose forward from 1905 to 1907.