John Joseph Hickey
- 96Wallaby Number
An all- too- brief Test match career belies the public status held by John “Darb” Hickey in Australian rugby in the first decades of the twentieth century. Born in 1887, he burst onto the Sydney first grade club scene as a 19-year-old with Glebe late in the 1906 season. A junior whose talents at once gave promise of being more than an able player, Hickey possessed a good swerving run, “tricky” traits and was “a heady player”.
Described by Peter Sharpham in The First Wallabies as being “relatively short in stature, Hickey had powerful, well-developed leg muscles which he used to great effect in evading some of the best defenders in rugby. A brave front-on tackler, he was equally at home in the centres or on the wing.” Also a steady and reliable short-distance goal kicker, Hickey’s combination of tries and goals contributed significantly to the Glebe club as it won back-to-back premierships in 1906 and 1907.
In the latter season, Hickey finished in third place on the leading points-scorers’ table, just behind Dally Messenger. His arrival ,though ,coincided with the growing turmoil and upheaval caused by the events that led to the formation of rugby league in Australia. This caused Hickey’s career to take numerous unexpected turns, and curtail what may have been a far greater representative rugby union career. Despite his eye-catching club form, Hickey could not break into the NSW team, and feeling somewhat neglected by the State selectors (and perhaps influenced by older team -mates), in early August 1907 he decided to join the ranks of the newly-formed NSWRL.
Hickey was duly selected in the NSWRL’s “All Blues”, and began training with the team in preparation for a three-match series against the New Zealand “All Golds” professional rugby (league) team at the Sydney Agricultural Ground. So taken with the professional movement, Hickey was one of a few select group (including the League’s founders James Giltinan and cricketer Victor Trumper) who were present at the Margaret Street Wharf in Sydney to welcome Albert Baskerville and the “All Golds” when they arrived in Australia. After sitting with the NSW “All Blues” for a team photograph, Hickey (along with Newtown’s William Farnsworth) withdrew from the NSWRL and sought to return to rugby union.
Despite signing an agreement to play for the League – an act which in itself was enough under the RFUs Rules As To Professionalism to warrant an immediate lifetime ban – the NSWRU attributed Hickey’s actions to his youthful exuberance, and allowed him to continue his career without penalty. The matter was no longer spoken of, and was seemingly forgotten. Resuming with Glebe for the 1908 season, Hickey quickly became acclaimed as the State’s best centre three-quarter. No longer having to compete with the ubiquitous Messenger, Hickey played for NSW against Queensland and the touring British (Anglo-Welsh) team.
He duly won selection in the Wallabies team for its inaugural tour of Great Britain (a trip that also extended to France and North America). Disputes though between the Home Unions over player allowances and professionalism restricted the Australians to Tests against England and Wales. Hickey played in both Tests, and was a member of the team that won a gold medal for rugby union at the Olympic Games. Hickey’s tour was not without off-field controversy. Even before the Wallabies had sailed out of Sydney, the NSWRU held meetings to decide if Hickey’s earlier flirtation with rugby league would pass muster if it was exposed in England during the campaign.
Touring Britain at the same time were Giltinan and the Kangaroos, and whispers abounded that the “All Blues” photograph would, via some helpful Australian and English rugby league officials, fall into the hands of the London newspapers and the RFU. The NSWRU satisfied itself that Hickey (and itself) had done nothing wrong, and he duly left with the Wallabies. Cover-ups by football administrators are apt to unravel, and the photograph duly surfaced. Pressed by the English newspapers for comment, the Wallabies managers dismissed it as a beat-up. Interviewed by The Yorkshire Evening Post, Hickey said his brother had joined the League, hence the confusion.
The RFU was satisfied the photo was not of John Hickey, and took no action. After returning home to Australia, in August 1909 Hickey was one of the Wallabies who followed the lead of his Glebe team-mate Chris McKivat and defected to rugby league. Hickey was reported to have been given a fee of £100 to take part in three matches between the Wallabies and the Kangaroos. He performed particularly well in the matches, and the Sydney Morning Herald declared that “Each side had a champion – Hickey for Wallabies, Messenger for Kangaroos.” Meanwhile a reporter for The Referee wrote that “Hickey has been the most consistent player in each of the games. On form he has no equal – his tackling, running, kicking, and powers in combination being of the highest quality. One wonders what he would be worth to a NU (English rugby league) club.”
Hickey joined the Glebe rugby league club in 1910, and continued to enhance his reputation in the thirteen-man code. He played in a two-Test series against the visiting British team, partnering Messenger in the centres. Injury though soon curtailed his representative career, and he was unable to regain his form in time to take part in the 1911/12 Kangaroos tour of England. Hickey continued to play on for Newtown (with an interlude at Balmain in 1911), until enlisting in the AIF in 1915. After serving in France, at the conclusion of the war Hickey took part in rugby union services matches, partnering Wallabies’ team- mate Dan Carroll in the centres. Hickey’s experiences at the war front are said to have so dismayed him that upon returning home he visited Birchgrove Oval, whereupon he tossed his medals into Sydney Harbour.
He was far prouder of his football achievements; a butcher by trade, Hickey proudly displayed pictorial mementos of his union and league career for Australia in his Glebe shop. Hickey remained a popular figure in the then working-class Glebe area, until he passed away in May 1950, aged sixty-three.