Easily distinguished by his jet-black hair parted down the middle, Peter Cunningham was a tall, rangy flanker who was a first choice for Queensland during the period 1911 to 1913. A speedy, loose forward with a penchant for scoring tries, he capped his career with selection in the Wallaby team that toured North America in 1912. Cunningham was one of three rugby playing brothers who began playing first grade with Valleys in the QRU club competition in Brisbane. Elder brother, John, was also a flanker and he played for Queensland in 1908 against the touring Anglo/Welsh team. Peter Cunningham began his senior football in 1909 with Valleys, playing alongside his brother, John. A younger brother, ‘Paddy’, came along later and played as a hooker.
In 1911, Peter Cunningham made his debut for Queensland against New South Wales in Brisbane and scored a try in a match that New South Wales won narrowly by 18 points to 12. His team was not so successful in the return encounter, with the visitors winning 24-3. Later in the year, Cunningham toured with the Queensland team and played in both interstate matches. In the first game, played at the University Oval, New South Wales won 34-14 and repeated the dose at the SCG a week later when the score was 34-15.
In between the interstate games, Cunningham figured in Queensland’s squeaky 12-11 win over the Sydney team. The match was interesting because the great flanker, Tom Richards, played for Queensland. Richards had returned from South Africa where he had been playing in Johannesburg when the Lions co-opted him to join their injury-ravaged side. Richards played in the first two Test matches against the Springboks, but was controversially dropped for the third Test, virtually on the morning of the match. It was a great fillip for the Queenslanders to have such a renowned player back in the side, if only for this one game.
Prior to the start of the next season, Cunningham found himself embroiled in controversy at club level with Valleys over the Great Tram Strike of 1912. When the strike broke out in late January 1912, a number of Valleys players had acted as special constables to break up gatherings of the strikers. These special constables were particularly hated and, when it was made known that the Valleys centre, Jack (‘Ginger’) McLaren, was selected in the 12 players nominated for the Australian cricket team for the fourth Test match against the touring MCC team in Melbourne, the NSW Branch of the Tramway Workers’ Union called for a black ban if McLaren was selected in the eleven for the Test match. With this level of hatred abroad, the selectors took the soft option and relegated McLaren to twelfth man duties.
He was to get his chance in the fifth Test in Sydney. Nevertheless, the role of the Valleys’ players as special constables in the Great Tram Strike led to a walkout by dissidents who promptly formed a new club to be known as Eastern Districts. Peter Cunningham and his brother, Paddy, were among those dissidents who left Valleys for Easts. The new team was not strong but Cunningham, and prop forward, Sam Topham, were selected in the Queensland team for the interstate matches in Brisbane. Queensland welcomed back two old stalwarts in ‘Butcher’ Oxlade and Billy Richards, who had last represented Queensland and Australia in 1907. The revitalised Queensland team won both Brisbane games 18-15 and 23-8 and travelled to Sydney full of confidence.
The Sydney matches proved disappointing. Unspeakable conditions greeted the Queenslanders at Sydney University Oval where the big, heavy New South Wales forwards ground out a 12-3 victory. On the Bank Holiday, Queensland drew 9-all with Sydney. The final interstate match served as a selection trial for a tour of North America arranged by the New South Wales Rugby Union. The team was to be known as the Waratahs. In any event, the match was virtually decided when Oxlade was forced off the field early in the game with New South Wales leading 6-4. The new captain, Bob Willcocks, asked for a replacement as was the custom, but Leo Reynolds, the opposing captain, refused. Left with no replacement for their injured captain and hooker, Queensland plummeted to a 19-4 defeat. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the same Leo Reynolds came on as a replacement for Fred Timbury in the second Test match against the 1910 All Blacks. Fortunately for Cunningham, the selectors had noted his form and he was an original selection for the tour to North America. The Queensland number 8, Bill Murphy, was added to the party later.
On tour in the United States, Murphy purchased a convertible sedan and toured around in it with Cunningham and ‘Twit’ Tasker. Cunningham enjoyed the tour, but with Tom Richards in the team, he had few opportunities on the field. The split in the Valleys rugby club over the tram strike was like a time bomb ticking away and it exploded when Valleys and Easts met in 1913. Fights broke out continuously and Tom Bailes, the referee, sent five players off in three separate incidents before he abandoned the game. The QRU held a searching inquiry that led to one player being suspended for six weeks, two for one week and one for as long as it took for him to apologise to the referee. Two others were severely cautioned. In this season, Cunningham showed vast improvement as a result of touring North America with so many fine players.
He played two matches against the touring Maori team. In the first, he had a devastating game in the loose and scored two tries in Queensland’s 19-9 victory. In the return match four days later, the Maori got their revenge by 11 points to nil.
Cunningham also figured in both interstate matches in Brisbane, which Queensland won 13-3 and 9-6. Selected in the Queensland team for the southern tour, Cunningham rated himself a good chance of selection in the Australian team to tour New Zealand after the interstate series.
In Sydney, the Queenslanders were overwhelmed in the first game 26-6. Then, in the midweek match with a New South Wales Second XV, Cunningham was injured and was unable to play in the second game against New South Wales. Bill Morrissey, normally a prop forward, was drafted into the Queensland team in Cunningham’s place. In fact, because of a spate of injuries, Queensland fielded four prop forwards but won the match 22-21 with a last- gasp conversion of Bill Larcombe’s try. When the Australian team was announced, ‘Bill’ Cody, an uncapped flanker from the NSW Second XV, was selected and Cunningham was not considered.
Although he continued to play for Easts in the 1914 and 1915 seasons, Cunningham’s representative career was over. The QRU ceased competition after 1915 and did not resume until 1919. With Paddy Cunningham in the back row, he played his last important match for Easts against Brothers ‘A’ in 1915 for the Hospitals Cup, which Brothers won 9-3. Peter Cunningham played 13 matches for Queensland between 1911 and 1913 and scored four tries. He toured North America with the Waratahs and was unlucky to miss a tour of New Zealand through injury. He enjoyed a short, but eventful, career in rugby.
Peter Cunningham never played in a Test but he was in three non-Test matches, all on the 1912 tour to the United States and Canada. Peter Cunningham played for Valleys, Brisbane, originally, but later switched to the Easts Club. He was a flanker early, but was picked as a prop later on. The first game on the larger scale was for Queensland against the visiting 1908 Anglo-Welsh side, at Brisbane Exhibition Ground. It was a 3-20 loss for Queensland.
It had been four years since a British team had visited the northern State. The captain was ‘Boxer’ Harding. Cunningham did not play in the return match, and neither did he put in an appearance against the 1910 New Zealand side, or the 1910 Maori side.
However he was selected in the Australian team which toured North America in 1912, under captain Ward Prentice. There were 16 matches on the tour, and, doubtless through injury, he played in only three of them, and not the single Test. He went up against Santa Clara College (won 20-8), Stanford University (lost 3-12) and the Olympic Club (won 20-0). It was a disappointing tour except for the single Test win. The Australians lost, for example, all their games in Canada. The team was housed in fraternity houses and the like, and the social life seemed too hectic for the young Australians. The tour did not end Cunningham’s rugby aspirations as he played prop for Queensland in the losing effort against the 1913 Maori team. However that seemed to put an end to his career as he did not play against the 1914 New Zealand team, which was the last team to visit as war had been declared.
Little is known of Cunningham. He did not play a Test, but was in three Australian representative games. He played for Queensland from 1911 to 1913.