John Wynne Holdsworth
- 168Wallaby Number
More than 80 years after his first Test Jumbo Holdsworth remains Australia’s oldest debutant. Well established in grade rugby before the War, Holdsworth returned to the game in its aftermath and finally won a cap against the 1921 Springboks, playing his first match at the age of 36 years 288 days. As he played on for another 13 months he is still Australia’s second-oldest Wallaby; only the eternal Tony ‘Slaggy’ Miller, an icon of the 1950s and 1960s, has worn Australia’s colours at a greater age. He was a big man for the day – at 14st 4lb (91kg) he was the heaviest forward on the 1921 tour – and his power in the tight offset any lack of mobility.
He was one of Easts’ most prominent forwards in the years immediately before World War I, when the club was the strongest in Sydney, and it was noted his departure to war – he was among the first to sign up – was one of the reasons for the reigning premiers’ dramatic fall from grace in 1914. Ironically, in light of what was to happen five years on, he was regarded as too old for State selection even though his grade form probably dictated otherwise. Holdsworth was back home before the end of the war and therefore was not a member of the AIF team that played in the King’s Cup, but he did face that team and Queensland in 1919, his first year in State colours.
Rugby in Queensland lapsed after 1919 and Holdsworth was restricted to two big matches in 1920, for the State Second XV against the All Blacks (a match lost 18-31) and the second Metropolitan Union match, which was a complete disaster; after scoring in the opening minute Metropolitan then collapsed and the All Blacks ran in 19 tries to win 79-5. Being part of that debacle was not held against Holdsworth and the following year, when the first Springboks toured Australia, the big man’s presence was required in an otherwise heavily outweighed pack. There was nobody to match the South African giants, Royal Morkel and Baby Michau (a pair of 17-stoners) and only Holdsworth was within 20 kgs or so of that imposing weight. He worked hard in the tight in every match, although the home side was beaten with a degree of comfort in two of the three matches.
The only close match was the second, which was played two days after the first and the South Africans changed more than half the team from Saturday to Monday. The locals, with the benefit of a previous run together, almost caused an upset and only a couple of late tries to Harry Morkel prevented what would have been a totally unexpected reverse. Holdsworth scored one of New South Wales’ three tries and was part of a pack that gave as good as it got; the first-rate tackling of the home forwards put the Springboks off their game throughout the 80 minutes. Returned to full strength for the third match, South Africa ran away with it.
Holdsworth was not required for the Metropolitan Union team that played the visitors and was a sure selection for the New Zealand tour. His fortunes on that tour were not what would have been expected. As one of the premier locks from the home series and an ever-present, he may have expected a better deal than he got. Charlie Fox, certainly, was one of the leading players of his day but Holdsworth was rated above Ray Elliott and Big George McKay on his Sydney form and yet he only played three matches on tour. Despite the tourists making a good start by winning the first match, against North Auckland decisively and getting a good showing from their pack including Holdsworth, he was not used again until the Poverty Bay game and this probably counted against him.
The tour selectors, aware that there were several players who had either played one game or had not yet appeared, put the whole lot into the fifteen that took the field at Gisborne. The lack of combination was obvious from the start and Holdsworth was one of six players who had his cards marked as a result of that match – the six between them made six further appearances on tour. His locking partner, Geoff Steanes, was another and each only got one more match, in combination against West Coast a fortnight later. While the tourists won a hard match in good style that was it for the second-stringers, as the two remaining fixtures were the sole Test (which was won 17-0) and a match with Wellington, which resulted in the tour’s only defeat. Holdsworth carried on in 1922 and played two matches in the thrilling series against the New Zealand Maori team.
He came into the team when Fox was moved to the back row for the second match, which New South Wales won 28-13, and held his place for the third when the tourists, who had trailed 6-22 at one stage, staged a magnificent recovery to take the match 23-22. Later in the year a full All Black side toured and Holdsworth came on as a replacement in the first Test but by then Fox, Watty Friend and Bond Bonnor were fighting for the Test spots. It is hard to say what impact the war had on Holdsworth’s career. The easy thing would be, since he played on either side of it, to suggest that he lost his peak years to the conflict, but his non-selection in 1913 and 1914 suggests otherwise. Perhaps he received a break in 1919 that would never have come his way otherwise, since the pre-war State selectors thought the 30-year-old veteran too long in the tooth for big-time rugby. Time and circumstances were to dictate otherwise.