John Stewart ‘Sean’ Spence
‘Sean’ Spence’s journey to Wallaby gold could well have been chronicled in a ‘Boy’s Own Annual’ - 1941. Australian RAMC Surgeon father. Irish nursing mother. Conceived in the Middle East during the campaign against Rommel and the Africa Korps. Born in Durban. Returned to Cairo. Early schooling in England. Arrived in Australia. Secondary and tertiary education in Sydney. Wallaby.
Spence played football during his childhood years in England. He credited that time in the roundball game for his more than proficient ability to kick with both feet. It was not until Spence arrived at Sydney’s Saint Ignatius' College that he turned his hand to rugby. In 1959, his final year, Spence started at fly half in the College’s 1st XV.
After graduation Spence attended the University of Sydney where he initially played his rugby in the lower grades. In 1961, and now shifted to fullback, Spence found himself in the 2nd XV. An injury to first’s custodian Bob Perrett saw Spence promoted to the top grade in the final weeks of the season, a position he held through to the Shute Shield grand final win over Drummoyne.
Another premiership followed in 1962 however the highlight of Spence’s year appeared to be when he was selected from South Harbour for The Rest, against Australia, in the final trial match ahead of the tour to New Zealand. Some years later Wallaby captain and future Wallaby Hall of Fame inductee Peter Johnson wrote of that match in ‘A Rugby Memoir’: “I liked the look of St George’s Terry Casey, but his prospects were shattered when Sean Spence had the type of match every fullback dreamed of against Jim Lenehan on the final afternoon.”
Spence’s performance stamped his ticket for the three Test, 13-match tour, albeit as understudy to fellow Ignatian, Lenehan. Unfortunately, tragedy struck, in the form of injury, to plague Spence’s tour. During a training drill, on what could best be described as a goat track, Lenehan and Spence were engaged in a good old schoolyard version of “force-em-backs”. At one point Spence stepped into a hole and badly twisted his ankle, so much so that it looked like he would need to be sent home. Nonetheless he soldiered on to debut in the sixth match, against Buller West Coast at Westport, and start three further fixtures over the remainder of the tour. Jack Pollard, in ‘Australian Rugby: The Game and the Players’ wrote of Spence on that tour: “He knew no fear, even under the most intense pressure, and won many admirers by the manner in which he went down on loose balls or fielded high kicks from the New Zealanders.”
In 1963 Spence debuted for New South Wales, against Queensland at Manly Oval, to join a select group of Wallabies who played for their country before they had played for their state. His fourth and final Waratah match was the last of that season, when the state side upset the returning 1963 Wallabies by 20-18. Spence moved to Manly in 1964 however by the end of the year he was over in the U.K. in an effort to complete his airline pilot training. While in England, Spence spent two seasons with London Irish (1964/65 & 1965/66) before giving the game away to concentrate on his career.
Sean Spence played four matches for Australia and while none were Tests he will forever be a Wallaby.