Robert Robertson Craig
- 94Wallaby Number
Bob Craig’s sole Test appearance for Australia came in the Wallabies’ first -ever match against Wales in December 1908. Played on Cardiff Arms Park, unfortunately for Craig it was a penalty awarded against him for off-side play at the scrum, that gave the Welsh the winning margin in their 9-6 victory. Craig though holds an esteemed place in the history of Australian sport, and his misdemeanour in that Test match is eclipsed by his wider contribution and reputation.
His sporting career spans far more than rugby, and arguably was one of the nation’s most versatile athletes – ever. Born in the heart of Sydney in 1885, and spending his childhood residing with his family in Balmain, Craig initially came to prominence as a “crack” teenage swimmer, competing at all distances between 100 yards and 500 yards. It was generally acknowledged that there were few competitors in Australia and New Zealand his superior. Between 1899 and 1906 Craig annually won NSW State championships, and regularly finished amongst the place-getters in Australian and Australasian title races.
An apprentice boilermaker at Mort’s Dock, the city’s ship-building works in Balmain (now Mort Bay), at the age of fifteen, Craig called upon his swimming attributes in a selfless attempt to save the life of a fellow worker trapped under water. Working in full diving apparatus below a steamer ship, the diver became trapped and lost his oxygen supply. Craig jumped into the bay, set the man free and dragged him to the surface, but he was unable to be resuscitated. Craig was awarded a medal and certificates for bravery from both The Royal Humane Society and The Royal Life Saving Society.
His fellow employees at Mort’s Dock presented to him a “handsome chronograph” (stopwatch). Craig was deeply affected by the tragic incident, and could rarely be drawn to speak of it throughout the rest of his life. In the early 1900s Craig found time to mentor and train Barney Kieran, developing him into Australia’s international swimming sensation. Kieran established numerous world records, but was tragically killed as the result of appendicitis at the age of nineteen in 1906. Aside from his swimming interests, Craig also gained recognition with Balmain’s district water polo club (winning four premierships between 1896 and 1903) and soccer club (champions of the State-wide Gardiner Cup in 1905). Craig then turned his talents to rugby, and in 1906 his standout performances as a second row forward for Balmain earned him a place in the Metropolitan representative team against Queensland.
Standing at 5 foot 9 inches, and weighing 13 stone 5 lbs, Craig was considered to be one of the heaviest men of his era. It was not his size though that was his greatest asset. Aided by his fine soccer “dribbling” skills, he was particularly adept at dropping the rugby ball at his feet and hurrying it on towards his opponent’s goal line. On wet and sloppy fields his mastery of the mud-caked football along the ground was unsurpassed. Though unable to break into the NSW team for the high profile series against New Zealand in July 1907, he gained some consolation by selection in a second NSW XV which visited Western Australia at the same time. He returned to Sydney to find loyalties and friendships with the Balmain rugby club torn asunder by the upheaval caused by the formation of rugby league.
With the Balmain district particularly aggrieved at its treatment by Sydney rugby union administrators, it seemed practically certain that the Balmain RU Club would not survive the rift. At the club’s annual meeting in early 1908, a promise by NSWRU officials to include Craig in the Wallabies team for their upcoming tour convinced enough players and supporters to remain loyal and keep the club alive. Craig played for NSW in two minor games during the State team’s visit to Queensland in June 1908, but could still not convince the selectors of his merits.
Craig was finally called in the NSW first XV, playing in a 3-0 loss to Great Britain (Anglo-Welsh) at the SCG on 5 August. However, a day earlier the Wallabies team was announced, and Craig was not listed. After an outcry from Balmain officials (feeling they had been dudded again), and a volley of fierce criticism from letter-writers to the city’s newspapers, the NSWRU found Craig a last-minute place in the Wallabies’ team. Somewhat crudely handled though, Craig’s inclusion came at the expense of Queensland’s Bill Canniffe, who was dumped from the tour party to make way. Though he only played 14 games during the Wallabies’ tour, including the one Test and the gold medal win at the London Olympics, Craig was one of the most popular men amongst his team mates, his opponents, and with the public alike.
Possessing a particularly dry and quick wit, Craig was the Wallabies chief prankster and self-appointed comedian. He was bestowed the nickname of “Boneta”, apparently in recognition of his “Italian witticism”. An English newspaper scribe recorded that at a Wallabies’ training session at Newton Abbot (Devon), Craig “reduced the spectators to the verge of hysterics with original horseplay and knockabout entertainment”. Craig had already begun the Wallabies’ tour by audaciously sneaking his pet, a carpet-snake called “Bertie”, on board the ship before it left Sydney. After surviving the six week sea journey with little difficulty, “Bertie” was secretly smuggled past English dockside authorities wrapped around the waist of Queensland’s Tom Richards. Unfortunately though “Bertie” soon fatally fell victim at his first attempt to eat the local prey. "I think it is an exceedingly poor country,” remarked Craig to the press, “considering that my esteemed snake ‘Bertie’ died after taking the risk of eating an English mouse for his first meal here.
He had survived such ordeals as bushfires, drought and starvation.” Upon returning home to Sydney, Craig played for the Wallabies in a 22-16 victory over NSW (who wore scarlet coloured jerseys). In July 1909 he finally gained selection in an inter-State fixture, playing for NSW in a 21-11 defeat of Queensland. It was to be his last representative game though, as, along with thirteen other Wallabies, Craig (for £100) agreed to play in three rugby league matches against the Kangaroos.
The Wallabies’ tour manager, James McMahon, was particularly surprised at Craig’s decision. “There were players in the team who I thought were amateurs to the very core,” McMahon said at the time. “The foremost of whom, in my opinion was Craig of Balmain. But when sums as large as £200, £150 and £100 are flourished at young fellows the relative merits of amateurism and professionalism recede into insignificance for the time being. It is then a case of money talks.” Craig’s performances in the League matches against the Kangaroos quickly caught the eye of keen judges. “Craig of Balmain was the finest forward on the ground,” wrote The Referee’s League columnist. “This game suits his style of play admirably.” One doubts that even that reporter could foresee the success and longevity that Craig would enjoy in the professional code. Joining the Balmain rugby league club for the 1910 season, Craig quickly moved into the top echelon of forwards in the League ranks. That winter he played for NSW, Australia and Australasia in matches against the touring British rugby league team.
A year later, Craig made his second tour of England when he was part of the Chris McKivat (former Wallaby) led Kangaroos. The Australians won a three match Test series against England, a feat that no touring team could repeat until the Arthur Summons (a dual international) captained Kangaroos of 1963/64. Craig played in all three Tests and appeared in more games than any other of the Kangaroos. Team manager John Quinlan, (who helped to form the Easts RU club in 1900), wrote that: “Craig played 30 games, and didn’t play a bad one. His tackling through the tour was constantly deadly.” His soccer skills did not pass without notice during the tour, with officials of English football clubs (most notably Aston Villa F.C.) putting substantial contract offers before him to remain in England.
Craig though rebuked them all, and returned to Australia with the Kangaroos. Craig’s rugby league career showed no sign of slowing, arguably a testament to his strength and fitness levels maintained through his love of swimming. In 1913 he toured New Zealand with the NSW Blues, and in the following season was again chosen in Test matches for Australia against Britain in Sydney. By that time he was the last of the former Wallabies still playing representative rugby league, and it was perhaps only the advent of the Great War that stopped him adding to his impressive record.
On the club scene Craig continued to play for the Balmain Tigers, and was an integral member of the team that won the NSWRL premiership in 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1919. He also added to his involvement by taking on the position of club secretary from 1918-1922. His playing career finally drew to a close in 1925, at the age of 40. For much of the last decade of his career Craig played alongside his younger brother Jimmy. An outstanding footballer in his own right, Jimmy Craig’s rugby league accomplishments were so stellar that he was inducted into the Australian Rugby League’s Hall of Fame in 2005. Bob Craig’s management skills saw him move to England in the late 1920s, accepting a position with a rugby league club in Hull. He soon became a publican in nearby Broughton, but fell on hard times financially during The Great Depression.
Like many other tragic figures who have hidden their deeper and darker thoughts behind jokes and comedy, in March 1935, seemingly unable to face the enormity of his predicament, Craig hanged himself. Perhaps somewhat bluntly rather than in tribute, his Wallabies’ tour captain “Paddy” Moran wrote of Craig in his biography Viewless Winds: “Though he was over fifty years he still stripped in magnificent condition, and it was a splendid torso they found dangling lifeless and limp.”