John Laidley Duncan
- 235Wallaby Number
Jack Duncan was a clever and gritty halfback who had the misfortune to arrive on the representative scene at the same time as two of Australia’s great halves - Wally Meagher and Syd Malcolm. Although halfback was his preferred position, Duncan offered great versatility, highlighted by the fact that he also played representative football at fly half, inside centre and fullback. While Duncan was said to have a preference to run rather than pass he was able to compliment that tactic with a unique ability to penetrate opposition defences.
Born and bred in Sydney, Duncan was educated at Christian Brothers College, Waverley. After school he joined the YMCA club, played first grade in 1923 and ‘starred in the back division’ to such an extent that he was chosen for the New South Wales tour of New Zealand. Duncan played two matches, against Wellington-Manawatu (16-29) and Southland (9-31) however Norm Mingay and Wally Meagher were preferred for the Tests. He continued to show for YMCA in 1924 and 1925 however he also played President’s Cup rugby league for Eastern Suburbs in both of those seasons.
A move to Randwick in 1926 reinvigorated his rugby career and it was at Coogee that he revealed himself as a ‘footballer of class’. That same season Meagher started all three home ‘Tests’ against New Zealand. Somewhat surprisingly the NSWRU hastily scheduled an extra match against the tourists, one that required New Zealand to return to Sydney from Melbourne following their scheduled fixture with Victoria. The selectors made nine changes for the fourth state game, one of which was Duncan at halfback. Although he did not know it at the time that match was Duncan’s Test debut after an ARU decision in 1994 elevated the remaining 34 New South Wales matches played against international opposition in the 1920-28 period to Test status (the five 1927/28 Waratahs’ internationals were given Test status in 1986).
In 1927 Duncan was chosen for the trials ahead of the Waratahs northern hemisphere tour and enjoyed a stroke of luck when Norths’ Arthur Pratt withdrew from the No.1 team. ‘A good turn with a weaker pack of forwards’ proved enough for Duncan to win one of the halfback spots on the tour however his participation was immediately threatened by his employer. Duncan was refused a leave of absence by military authorities who then ordered his transfer to Newcastle. The little halfback was near heartbroken by the decision and threatened to resign his position to go with the team. After much angst, and nearing the eleventh hour, Duncan finally advised a specially summoned meeting of the rugby union management committee that he could make the trip. Less than 48 hours later he was England-bound aboard the Ormonde.
Unfortunately Duncan’s opportunities were limited by the presence of both Meagher and Malcolm however he definitively enhanced his reputation with an outstanding performance against Welsh club Swansea (W 11-0) which was played in deplorable conditions. Following the tour Malcolm went on to dominate the halfback position for the next seven years. Nonetheless Duncan continued to be chosen for representative sides, notably the Australian XV against New Zealand (1929), and, when selected at fullback, for the Waratahs v The Rest trial ahead of the British Lions tour in 1930.
Two years later Duncan threatened a move to rugby league amid frustration with selectors. He said, "My position is halfback. One cannot, in these days of specialisation, be expected to excel at any post. To act in case of emergency is loyal and right; I played fullback for the Waratahs when Ross was unavailable, but when I was playing five-eighth, centre, and then on the fence, with the team that toured Queensland, I became dissatisfied. The League game should suit my style as I will not have so many breakaway forwards to contend with.” As a result it was no surprise when he switched codes to play league with North Sydney.
Jack Duncan played one Test for Australia and will forever be Wallaby #235.
Duncan won his first Test cap at halfback, inside Gregor George, in the 4th Test, 21-28 loss to New Zealand at the Sydney Showground.