John Wylie Paton Breckenridge
- 222Wallaby Number
There are few in the history of Australian rugby who have matched the contribution of Wylie Breckenridge, as a Wallaby, selector, manager, President of both the New South Wales and Australian Rugby Unions, and as a member of the International Rugby Board.
As a player, Breckenridge was considered to be the greatest Australian defensive flanker of his era and, arguably, of all-time. Wallaby centre Sid King, the great defensive foil to Cyril Towers’ brilliant attack in the 1930s, said: “Early in his career Breck made a vital decision. He had been told by Glebe-Balmain's 'Pup' Raymond, a Rhodes scholar, that a breakaway must, above all, know how to tackle. He must be the wrecker of the other side's hopes and the destroyer of their tactical plans. So Breck became a specialist... he concentrated on tackling. He became the greatest tackling forward of the decade, the most dreaded raider of opposing backlines, the bogeyman of diminutive halfbacks.”
The man himself provided the following insight into his development as an offensive defender: “I learnt to tackle by diving over low fences at Drummoyne Oval and even over shrubs in our front garden. The secret of not being injured in a tackle is to relax so that you fall like a drunk. Never stiffen up preparing for the fall. The reason for my tackling success was speed to the opponent and then a flying tackle aimed just above the knees. Mostly he loses the ball in the tackle and so you turn defence into attack. In defence you must always run towards the opponent with the ball and not stand waiting for him. Make sure you keep inside the ball carrier and tackle him side on just above the knees. Try and avoid a front on tackle.”
Born at Failford, near Taree, Breckenridge’s talents might never have come to the fore if his family had not moved to the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne. He attended Drummoyne Public School and from there represented NSW schoolboys at association football. Aged 15 Breckenridge left school, largely due to the severe influenza epidemic at the end of the war, to begin an accountancy / auditing apprenticeship. He dabbled in athletics and joined the Drummoyne Sailing Club however it was not until he turned 18 that his rugby career began.
In 1923 Breckenridge started on the wing with Drummoyne juniors and by the end of that season he had graduated to Glebe-Balmain’s senior first grade side as an openside flanker. His mum became so concerned about the prospect of injury in rugby that Breck’s father bought three tennis courts and started the Drummoyne District Tennis Club. During his tennis foray Breck played doubles against two greats of Australian tennis - Harry Hopman and Jack Crawford. It was playing tennis that Breck suffered the worst injury of his sporting career when he tripped and fell against the net post. The resultant injury, to his ear of all places, required 21 stitches.
In 1925 Breck returned to Glebe-Balmain and his impact was immediate. As one of three forwards described as ‘the backbone of a magnificent [club] pack’ he was selected as a reserve for the ‘Second XV’ in the key trial ahead of the inbound tour by New Zealand. From there he was included in the match day squad for the NSW 2nd XV that upset the All Blacks 18-16. As a consequence of that result the selectors made mass changes to the losing first Test team and Breckenridge was selected as a reserve for the 2nd Test. When captain Ted Thorn retired with a leg injury Breck came onto the field for his international debut and according to the press of the day ‘for the rest of the game was a real star’. Although he did not know it at the time that match was Breckenridge’s official 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).
Surprisingly he was not chosen for the return tour of New Zealand just two months later and was not sighted in 1926 after he returned to tennis. However, Breck once again came back to rugby in 1927, lured by the prospect of the Waratahs grand tour to the northern hemisphere. He made the 29-man strong squad only to find that his employer refused his application for leave. One of the junior partners told Breck to make the trip and not resign. Breck took the advice and was, thankfully, welcomed with open arms upon his return. He had a magnificent tour, played in an incredible 26 of the 31 matches in Britain and France including all five internationals. The Times said of him: 'He was the most persistent breakaway the game of rugby has ever known'. Peter Fenton wrote of Breck in ‘For the Sake of the Game’: - “His vigorous, harassing tactics and ferocious tackling brought him undue criticism from the English press early in the tour but they, like the opposition players, learned to appreciate his non-stop performances. He came home with a fine reputation”.
Like many of his Waratah colleagues Breck was unavailable for the following year’s tour to New Zealand before he went on to enjoy two of the greatest seasons in Australian rugby history – the 3-0 home series sweep of New Zealand in 1929 and the one-off Test defeat of the British Lions in 1930. In that Lions match Breck starred as he ‘tackled the brilliant [Lions fly-half] Roger Spong out of the game.’ Breck then went out at the top of his game, and on his own terms, when he formally retired from rugby. However, that was by no means the end of his career. In 1931 he coached Drummoyne first grade juniors to the premiership. In 1932 he coached first grade at Drummoyne and the following year at Gordon.
In 1948 Breck became a Life Member of the NSWRU. In 1953 he was elected as President of the NSWRU, a role he held for three years. Breck then became one of the most popular managers in Australian rugby history, as he led the 1953 tour to South Africa and the 1955 Wallabies to New Zealand. In 1956 he became the President of the Australian rugby union and in 1963 he began a three-year term as the Australian member on the International Rugby Board.
Wylie Breckenridge played 11 Tests for Australia in a six-year international career.
Breckenridge won his first Test cap at flanker when he came off the bench to replace the injured Ted Thorn (Leg) in the 2nd Test, 0-4 loss to New Zealand at the Sydney Showground. Three days later he won a second cap, again on the flank, in the 3-11, 3rd Test defeat, again at the Showground.
Breck and Arnold Tancred, with Jack Ford at No.8, formed a back-row that started the first three Tests, against Ireland, Wales and Scotland - on the Waratahs tour. Ted Greatorex replaced the injured Tancred at Twickenham and Huck Finlay shifted back to No.8 (Ford didn’t play in any of the three French matches) in Paris.
Ford and Breckenridge started all three home Test wins over New Zealand. Len Palfreyman played in the first Test but withdrew from the second following the passing over his father. Bob Loudon came in for Brisbane however he suffered a bout of influenza to miss the third Test and as a result Wal Ives was called up for the 15-13 win at the S.C.G.
Breckenridge won his final Test cap, with Ford and Palfreyman, in the 6-5 victory over the British Lions at the S.C.G.