John Robert Klem
A converted scrumhalf, 20-year-old John Klem was a shock selection as back-up to Australian five-eighth, Phil Hawthorne, in the Wallaby team that toured South Africa in 1963. At the time, Klem was an agricultural student at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College and playing for the College in the NSW Second Division.
The year before, Klem figured in Hawkesbury’s first grade team that won the Second Division Colin Lawson Memorial Trophy but was a virtual unknown before being chosen in the Wallaby tour trials. However, his trials’ form was impressive and contenders for the post were few. No one denied that Klem’s selection was a big gamble but the selectors could point to a perceived dearth of available candidates. It was hoped that he would develop on tour.
A diminutive player, Klem was a chunky 164cms (5ft 6ins) and weighed just 66kgs (155lbs.). Having played mainly as a halfback, Klem lacked Hawthorne’s kicking skills and speed off the mark, but he handled and passed neatly and looked likely to play the running game. His selection was all the more intriguing, because his father, David Klem, was born and raised in bustling industrial Vereeniging in the southern Transvaal, now Gauteng province. He left South Africa for Australia some ten years before John was born.
Klem made his debut for the Wallabies in the second match of the tour against North Eastern Districts at Burgersdorp in partnership with Ken McMullen. Given a poor service by McMullen, Klem was rattled by the opposing flankers Chris and Rommel Venter into handling errors and the Wallabies were unimpressive in scraping home 9-8.
He was not risked again until the sixth match against a Rhodesian XV when he enjoyed the lightning service from Ken Catchpole and scored a try in Australia’s 22-11 victory. Given more opportunities after Australia’s first Test defeat, Klem came into calculations for the second Test at Newlands when it was felt that he was combining better with his centres than Hawthorne was.
In the end, the selectors stuck with Hawthorne because of his Test experience and combination with Catchpole. The Wallabies scored a sensational and historic 9-5 win over the Springboks that virtually signalled the end of Klem’s hopes of a Test place. In all, Klem figured in just nine of the 24 tour fixtures.
On the team’s return to Australia, the full Wallaby contingent came to Brisbane for two matches that were played at Lank Park. While the Wallaby Test side overran The Rest by 45-6, the Wallaby seconds fared badly in the early match, losing 15-11 to a Queensland XV. Klem bade farewell to the Wallaby jersey in this match.
In 1964, Klem left College and moved to the land. He represented Central West in the Country Carnival and was selected in the New South Wales team for the interstate matches in Brisbane.
Klem made his debut for the State in the opening match when Queensland scored its first win over New South Wales since 1958. Ray Pride replaced Klem for the return encounter. Klem was not invited to the Wallaby trials in July at Manly Oval for the tour of New Zealand and his representative career was over.
In Klem’s playing days, a system of trials was employed to select touring teams and this often led to ‘bolters’ or unknowns catching the eye of the selectors to the exclusion of more established performers. John Klem was one such bolter but he did not let Australia down.
Peter Johnson wrote in A Rugby Memoir: “The selection of John Klem was manna for the media. His meteoric rise from sub-district Rugby to the Wallabies, in a matter of days, was hailed as beautification material. The facts were however that his five-eighth play had been excellent through the entire month of trials. His image was right out of the Disney studios. John was just twenty… Added to this he possessed a shy, infectious grin that sent photographers to drooling.”
John Kelm proved himself on the South African tour, and was universally held in high regard.