John Garven ('Jock') Blackwood
- 177Wallaby Number
The importance of ‘Jock’ Blackwood to Waratah teams of the mid-1920s can be best illustrated by two statistics: the number of matches he played on each of the tours he made and the number of wins New South Wales secured while he was on the field. Although Blackwood was not particularly mobile or a skilled ball-player and, at 5ft 10in (1.78m) and 11st 12lb (75kg), he certainly was not a big man, his ability as a hooker and a fierce competitor meant he was one of the world’s best during his time. He had the strength associated with a high-class surf-lifesaver (he was captain of the Mona Vale Surf Club for many years) and in 1927-28 his skills convinced the British that a specialist hooker was essential to any side – surprisingly, that lesson had not then been learned in the home of rugby.
It took Blackwood a little time to make his mark, as he was only two months shy of his 23rd birthday when he was first chosen to represent the State. He may have been held back initially by playing for a club of small account, as Mosman, his original club, folded after the 1921 season and he switched to the far stronger Eastern Suburbs club. He flourished in a pack that included a number of representative players and by 1922 was in the forefront of selectorial minds. He was chosen to make his debut against the Maori team that year, playing in the first of three thrilling encounters but making way for Duncan Fowles in the other two.
While Fowles was a good forward he was clearly not in the same class and Blackwood was reinstated for the series against a full All Black team a month later. This was a rugged three-match battle which New South Wales won 2-1 after dropping the first match. The series was decided by the home pack who knuckled down admirably in the face of a larger All Black unit and, through sheer industry and mental fortitude, won enough good ball for the speedy backline to create just enough chances to take the rubber. Blackwood was seldom singled out for individual praise but every report noted the uniform excellence of the eight and the Easts man secured his Test spot in style.
Blackwood again appeared in the first match of a three-game set against a Maori team in 1923, only to be superseded by Fowles for the others, but was always sure of his place in the touring party that crossed the Tasman later in the year. Once there Blackwood thrived on the hard work in trying conditions, as the tourists were decidedly under-strength since ten leading players had declared themselves unavailable for the trip. Fowles got the first match and Blackwood the second but the luck was with Blackwood; in the first match Wellington-Manawatu gave the tourists a bath but in the second, against a far less powerful South Canterbury team, Blackwood won the lion’s share of scrum ball.
Blackwood won the Test spot as a result and, apart from a slight hiccup in 1925, it remained his by right until he retired. This tour was more than just difficult and the visitors lost eight of their ten matches, many by wide margins. Although the general feeling in New Zealand was that it had done little for rugby in Sydney and possibly undone all the good work of 1922, it did at least provide the Waratahs with a convincing reason why they had just discovered a first-choice selection. In the first Test at Dunedin Blackwood ended the All Black career of his opposite, Sam Gemmell, by giving the Hawke Bay man a towelling in the scrums. Gemmell was a good loose forward but out of position in the front row, a point mercilessly made by the more skilled Blackwood.
By playing eight of the ten matches (he replaced Fowles late in the game at Wellington) Blackwood established himself as an iron man and the ideal tourist, the type that cannot play enough games. Blackwood was by now so well established that he rarely played against touring teams for teams like Metropolitan Union or the State Second XV, although he did have two such games (1923 and 1925) when he was temporarily out of favour. He played all three matches against the 1924 All Blacks – the home side caused a boil-over in winning the first but lost the others by progressively larger margins – and was part of the New South Wales team that gave an inept performance in the 1925 series opener.
As a result of that 3-26 loss, and a good performance by the Second XV in the midweeker, no fewer than 13 of the first Test team were replaced for the second match. Blackwood was one to get the chop, being replaced by Ken Tarleton, but he was still a sure selection for the New Zealand trip. Blackwood quickly disposed of Tarleton as a serious rival on tour – the North Sydney man only got two matches and one of those was as a prop – and eventually played ten of the 11 matches (once as a replacement). This team was highly successful, only losing two matches, and the pack won enough good ball for a star-studded backline to cut loose.
Most of the praise in the papers went to the backs, although it was generally acknowledged that the forwards were doing their job well. Blackwood normally won an individual mention but finally got a bigger write-up at Rotorua, where he captained the team for the first time in his career. That day he also scored his first try for New South Wales and it must have been a sight, as he scored after intercepting a pass near halfway and chugging over from 50 yards. As has been mentioned before, Blackwood was not particularly mobile in general play. He was always going to be the Test hooker but found himself in the middle of a superb All Black effort; the home side, which was for years considered the best ever fielded at home and which included 14 of the Invincibles, won 36-10 after a brilliant display. Blackwood was a sure selection in 1926, although current records suggest he missed one Test.
In fact this ruling is one of the more contentious ones made in 1986 when the Waratahs matches of the 1920s were upgraded to full Test status and, along with matches against New Zealand Maori, is probably the main reason why other countries have not accepted the Australian view on these matches. Briefly what happened is this: there were three matches scheduled against the touring All Blacks that year, of which New South Wales won the first and lost the other two. At the end of the tour a match against a team styled ‘A New South Wales XV’ was played, which New Zealand won 28-21, but everyone agreed it was not part of the series and the home side had something of an experimental look to it. Almost all the regulars were missing as the selectors introduced a few players with an eye on the 1927-28 British tour, while the match held little public interest and only drew a crowd of 2000. Five players are now considered Test caps as a result of this game – they played no other international – although Ian Comrie-Thomson, who replaced Blackwood, did play a handful of later Tests.
Blackwood’s name was one of the first entered onto the team list in 1927-28, when the great adventure of a British tour was undertaken. He played 24 matches on tour, including all the important ones and each of the five Tests, while the team was always better when he was on the park. It was not until Blackwood’s 18th tour match – the Scotland Test in mid-December - that he was part of a losing Waratah effort. That match and the England Test were the only losing games he played on the entire tour - a feat worthy to stand alongside any put up by leading New Zealand or South African players on such a long tour and one unmatched by any Australian before or since.
Whether the Waratahs could play on top of the ground or were condemned to a slog in the mud was of no account to Blackwood, whose form from first to last was of the highest calibre. One of the team’s indispensable men, he returned home as one of the tour’s greatest successes. Blackwood retired after the 1928 home season, having played more than 100 grade matches and 54 for New South Wales, including 21 Tests. Apart from the 1923 tour of New Zealand and the 1924 home series, all his tours and home series were memorable for the good rugby played by his team and the hard games given to some very strong New Zealand sides. He carried on serving rugby with distinction and, in 1956, was elected the eighth president of the New South Wales Rugby Union.
Jock Blackwood gave great service to New South Wales and Australian rugby as firstly a player and secondly as an administrator of the game. As a player, he was a lively, specialist hooker who won 21 caps in the 1920’s before becoming a long -serving Australian selector and President of the NSWRU in 1956. Born on 26 August 1899 at Mona Vale in New South Wales, Blackwood attended Manly High School, Sydney. A keen surfer, he was captain of the Mona Vale Surf Club for six years. After leaving School, Blackwood played 13 games for the Mosman Club until it dropped out of first grade in 1921 and then moved to Eastern Suburbs in Sydney. He went on to play 89 first grade games for Easts.
After the War, New South Wales had two very good hookers in Duncan Fowles, a Sydney University medical student, and Johnny Bond, who had been the AIF hooker. Both Fowles and Bond toured New Zealand in 1921 with the State side, but Blackwood’s form was so good in 1922, that he was preferred as hooker against the Maori and Fowles was relegated to the reserves. The New South Wales forwards appeared to be intimidated in the early stages of the game and Blackwood was omitted for Fowles for the second and third matches of the tour. The Maori made a clean sweep of all three matches with New South Wales and met the New South Wales Second XV at the Manly Oval to wind up their tour.
Blackwood was given a run in this game and scored a try. In his first season of representative rugby, Blackwood gained valuable experience at the next level and came back better than ever later in the season when the All Blacks arrived in August for a short tour of five games. If the All Blacks expected an easy time after the undefeated tour of the Maori, they were disappointed. Although they won the first match with New South Wales 26-19, the All Blacks were defeated in the second and third games 14-8 and 8-6. Blackwood played in all three matches as hooker between two stalwart props in Tom ‘Iron guts’ Davis and Tom Smith, who helped him win a fair share of the ball from the peculiar two- man front row of the All Blacks. Whereas New South Wales packed an orthodox 3-2-3, the All Blacks employed the old fashioned 2-3-2 scrum with a rover, a method that New South Wales gave up after the Reverend Mullineux’s team introduced the superior 3-2-3 scrum in 1899.
In the following season, the Maori toured again in June and Blackwood had to share the hooking duties again with Fowles. In September that year, Blackwood made his first tour of New Zealand with Fowles but became the first choice hooker and played eight of the ten tour matches. Thereafter, until Blackwood’s retirement, there was no doubt as to who was the leading hooker in Australia, although ‘Doc’ Tarleton had two games for New South Wales against the All Blacks in 1925 when Blackwood was unavailable. By the time the 1926 All Blacks arrived in Australia, Blackwood had earned 14 caps and he added two more in the first two fixtures against the New Zealanders.
In the first, the home side scored a famous 26-20 victory that was followed by a 14-0 loss. In the final game, the selectors blooded Ian Comrie-Thomson in place of Blackwood. Although Blackwood had made two tours of New Zealand, the big tour of the British Isles, France and Canada beckoned in 1927. The NSWRU organised this tour and determined that the team would be known as the Waratahs. Blackwood set his heart on making the tour and was pleased to be selected with Tarleton as his deputy hooker. The Waratahs gathered at Central Station to catch the train to Albury and then a change of trains and on to Melbourne where they would board the Ormonde,bound for the United Kingdom. A large crowd gathered to farewell the Waratahs and, as Blackwood arrived, his fans chorused: He may not be a real good looker, But he’s sure the State’s best hooker.
Blackwood played in the opening game against Devon and Cornwall led by Erb Stanbury. Blackwood’s clean, quick heeling laid the platform for the Waratah backs to run freely to provide an encouraging win by 30 points to 3. Blackwood struck up a good combination with his props, ‘Blue’ Judd and Harry Woods, and they formed the front row in the major matches on tour. As the tour progressed, Blackwood observed that many of the teams in England did not play a specialist hooker and he remained unbeaten in the scrums. Tough, mobile and skilful, Blackwood played in the five internationals on the tour and proved a tremendous striker for the ball.
He won a big reputation on the tour. In the internationals against Ireland and Scotland, Blackwood was not up against a specialist hooker and the Waratahs received a good supply of ball and won both internationals. However, Wales had Arthur Bowdler, a tough miner from Cwmcarn, and a skilful hooker, for the wily Blackwood to contend with. This was an important factor in Wales’ 18-8 victory. Again, in the English international, the home side fielded an experienced specialist hooker, Sam Tucker, propped by Ronnie Cove-Smith and Erb Stanbury and England won 18-11. In Paris, the Waratahs returned to their winning ways to record an 11-8 success.
The touring party travelled across the Atlantic to the port of St John on the Canadian east coast then it was on to the Canadian Pacific Railway for the long train journey across to Vancouver for a series of three matches to complete the tour. All told, Blackwood played in 23 of the 31 matches on tour and scored one try, which was against Cambridge University, while Tarleton, his deputy hooker, figured in just nine games. The Waratahs travelled home on board the Aorangi via Hawaii, Fiji and New Zealand to a tumultuous welcome in Sydney Harbour. Next morning, the NSWRU gave the Waratahs an official welcome at the Carlton Hotel and that evening, they were hosted by the State Government at the Burlington Café.
The following week was full of functions complete with motorcade down Pitt, Market and Castlereagh Streets to Government House to meet the Governor followed by a civic reception. The rapturous reception that the tourists received everywhere only served to confirm them in the belief that they had achieved something special and they themselves were special. The tour and its success had engendered a spirit of camaraderie that persisted down through the years.
The Waratahs met regularly for re-unions for the rest of their days, with most living into the 1980’s. They became involved in coaching and administration and helped to influence Australian rugby for decades as they preached and coached the running game. They became Australian selectors and chose players who would carry out their ideals. Jock Blackwood was typical of this genre. After retiring at the end of the tour, he coached Eastern Suburbs and then became an Australian selector. In 1950, when the British Lions toured, Trevor Allan was the Australian captain/coach but he was unable to play or coach the Australian teams through injury so Jock Blackwood and Bill Cerutti took the training runs for the Wallabies. In 1956, Blackwood capped his career by becoming President of the NSWRU, when Wylie Breckenridge, another Waratah, took over the presidency of the Australian Rugby Union in time for the Springbok tour. Blackwood died in 1979, mourned as an outstanding hooker and administrator of the game.
Peter Fenton wrote of him in For the Sake of the Game: “Tough, mobile and skilful, he played all five internationals and was a tremendous striker for the ball in an era when this skill was often underestimated.”
Eddie Kann wrote in Easts Rugby Story: “Jock topped the century [in games] near the close of the season .....the fourth player associated with Easts to reach the three-figure mark. His total included 13 games with Mosman in 1920 and 89 with the Tricolours.”