Ross Ralph Cullen
Ralph Cullen was a sharp-striking, nomadic hooker who suffered the ignominy of being sent home from the Fifth Wallabies tour. However, what is less well known, understood, or even ignored is that Cullen was made a scapegoat by tour manager Bill McLaughlin who had sworn on his arrival in the U.K. that there would be no repeat of the “dirty” play accusations that had been levelled at the 1957/58 side.
Born and raised in New Zealand’s King Country, Cullen relocated to Australia and in the early 1960s played his rugby in the Riverina region of south-western New South Wales. In one of his first representative matches, Cullen faced the daunting task of his former countrymen when chosen for Southern NSW against the 1962 All Blacks. Although the local side included six current/future Wallabies - Jim Lenehan, Peter Scott, Beres Ellwood Ken McMullen, Jim Miller and Cullen - the tourists ran riot to win 56-8.
Cullen moved to Brisbane in 1965 and it did not take long for several good judges, including the 1947-48 Third Wallabies’ captain Bill McLean, to rate him a strong chance of edging incumbent hooker Bill Gunn from the Queensland XV. Those judges proved to be quite prophetic when Cullen made his state debut in the season’s opening fixture against New South Wales at Chatswood Oval. Seven weeks later Cullen started against the mighty Springboks where, despite the presence of eight current/future Wallabies, Queensland were humbled 5-50.
The following year Cullen faced the British Lions in Queensland’s 3-26 loss at Lang Park before he earned a place in both major trials ahead of the Fifth Wallabies tour of the northern hemisphere. With Peter Johnson considered a certain selection the battle to be his back-up came down to a contest between Cullen and Eastwood’s Dick Taylor who went head-to-head in each trial. Ultimately it was Cullen who made the 30-man squad under captain John Thornett.
Soon after the side arrived in Britain, manager McLaughlin announced that any Wallaby who played dirty football would be suspended for the next four matches. He added that the penalty would be invoked irrespective of any action, or not, taken by the referee and he did not care if the Australian in question was provoked. Soon thereafter Cullen made his debut for Australia in the tour opener, the 14-17 loss to North-East Counties, a week ahead of the fateful encounter with Oxford University.
Johnson later wrote of that match, and the incident, in ‘A Rugby Memoir’: “For the match with Oxford University all six Queenslanders were included under the captaincy of Jim Lenehan, while our old friend Tommy Bedford, a Rhodes Scholar, led the students. The good news was the sun shone but the field was as rough as a Lenehan back paddock. Oxford started off so savagely Ross Cullen had to receive attention following the first ruck......As we dirtrackers traipsed across the field to the dressing rooms a fast moving back breathlessly told us there was trouble at the mill and implored us to hurry. Though we had not seen anybody cautioned the Oxford tight head prop O.C. Waldron was alleging his left ear had been ‘almost bitten off’ by Ross Cullen and it seemed every Rugby official in Britain had gathered to add his two pence worth to the matter. I clearly recall asking Ross what had happened. He said: ‘The bastard was boring in on me, so I told him I’d bite him if he didn’t stop.’ I asked if he had actually bitten him so Ross replied: “No, I didn’t, he pulled his ear away as he sensed my teeth and that must have done it.’ He was adamant his intention was to deter not injure and that, as a hooker who had often experienced this illegal ploy of boring, I would know what it was like. I certainly did. In the presence of Peter Ryan, I suggested to Ross that he should flatly deny biting Waldron if, as he claimed, he hadn’t. Though he agreed with this course he later claimed the inquiry had been conducted in such a way as to make a bald statement of innocence impossible. Though little was said by officials it was clear from the glares in our direction some action would be taken. As the dressing rooms were by then knee deep in self-righteousness, I feared the worst and Ross would be the first recipient of McLaughlin’s [the manager] automatic four game suspension for dirty play award. I wasn’t being entirely altruistic in my hopes Ross would be exonerated as his suspension would mean I’d have to play several games on the trot and that I didn’t want.”
Johnson went on: “The summons to an early morning team meeting the next day was met with little enthusiasm as the night with the Oxford players had been long and hard. Bill McLaughlin opened the proceedings and virtually closed them by announcing Ross Cullen was being sent home because of the biting incident. McLaughlin advised us that Dick Taylor would be his replacement. We were allowed a minute or two to farewell Ross and then hustled onto the bus for training. To say we were stunned would be a major understatement. Sitting in the bus I felt sickened at the hypocrisy of the whole affair. Some months later a French Rugby official and I were discussing the matter and he suggested it was all predictable. ‘You English speakers detest biting and kicking above everything else. So Waldron could have broken Cullen’s neck, and you English say, at least he would have done it honourably. All Cullen could possibly have done was bite his ear off and yet Cullen is the only one punished. This is typical Anglo-Saxon logic.’ I found it difficult to disagree. Despite the trauma we got through the training session but every one of the party returned to The Randolph genuinely depressed. Ross had been removed for trying to protect himself, a job really for the referee…” Notably, McLaughlin’s manager report of the incident was not made public, a decision which effectively denied Cullen any chance to defend himself. Upon his return to Australia, and faced with a barrage of reporters, Cullen chose not to comment although he did say, “I am sorry all this happened.”
An unbiased opinion of the event was published by the Press Association rugby correspondent who wrote: - “The decision to send Cullen home is the most severe punishment inflicted on a top-class rugby union player since Cyril Brownlie, the New Zealand forward, was ordered off the field in the international against England at Twickenham in 1925.” Ken Kearney, dual international and hooker for the Third Wallabies, described the punishment as “unbelievable”. Brian Mulherin, president of Cullen’s Brisbane club Easts said, “I still cannot believe that this has happened. Only a few weeks ago I presented Cullen with a trophy for the club sportsman of the year and I said then, and I repeat now, he represents all that is good in the code, on and off the field.” Two days after Mulherin’s statement, Easts unanimously re-elected Cullen as first grade captain for the 1967 season.
Although he adopted a low-profile approach to rugby in the wake of the tour, Cullen continued to represent Queensland and won the last of his 21 state caps in 1968. In that final season Cullen came up against the All Blacks at Ballymore where, in an unnecessarily dirty match, he was notably one of the few local forwards to escape censure.
Cullen started two matches on the Fifth Wallabies tour - vs. North-East Counties at Gosport (L 14-17), and vs. Oxford University at Iffley Road (W 11-9)