Sydney Albert Middleton
- 103Wallaby Number
Syd Middleton is unique as he competed for Australia in the Olympic Games, rugby union in 1908, when he won a gold medal, and rowing in 1912 as a member of the eights, who were beaten in the quarter- final. Born in Glebe, Sydney, on 24 February 1884, Syd Middleton first of all made his mark at the top level in rugby union. He played for the suburb of his birth, and came to the attention of the Australian selectors when playing for NSW against Queensland and the Anglo-Welsh touring team of 1908, the latter resulting in a nail-biting, 0-3 loss. His timing was perfect as it was that season that Australia was sending its first national rugby union team to the northern hemisphere. It was when they got to London by boat that they received the appellation the ‘Wallabies’. The name stuck. Middleton was a rangy backrow forward in a team captained by Herbert ‘Paddy’ Moran, and the vice-captain was Fred Wood, also from the Glebe club.
This team is called ‘The First Wallabies’. For a long period of time one was only a Wallaby if he undertook the northern hemisphere tour. Thus the 1939 Australian team was designated ‘The Second Wallabies’, though war broke out and they did not play a game. The 1947-48 Australians were called ‘The Third Wallabies’, and so on. In recent times these early distinctions have been waived, and any person who represents Australia in rugby union is now a Wallaby. Syd Middleton was the second tallest player at 6’1” on the 1908-09 tour, exceeded only by Cecil Murnin, who did not play a game and returned home. This made him invaluable in the lineout.
He and Paddy McCue were the heaviest, at 14 stone. Jack Pollard says of him, in Australian Rugby: “A robust back row forward from the powerful Glebe Club in Sydney with a long lineout reach, whose vigour helped develop Australian forward play in the early years of international rugby. He was a noted oarsman, an impressive physical specimen, and an incredibly tireless player. His general manner and sportsmanship won him many admirers.” There is certainly no doubt about his physical condition. He played in every one of the first 18 tour games, an incredible feat. He was obviously considered an indispensable part of the Wallaby pack. One game was an historic one, though the Wallabies did not at the time realise its significance. The Olympic Games of 1908 was in London, and rugby was placed on the programme. Cornwall was the county champions, and they were selected to represent England, and Australia was the opponent.
No other country participated. Scotland, Ireland and France, in particular, were disputing many matters with the English Rugby Union, as was France. They ignored the invitations. Why Wales did not compete is a mystery. Neither the captain nor the vice-captain of the Wallabies played. Moran wrote of the match in Viewless Winds: “We had already defeated this team [i.e. Cornwall, 18 to 5] in our third match, but our opponents were hopeful of turning the tables because, in the meantime, they had been reinforced by two internationals who had been absent in Australia [with the Anglo-Welsh tourists]. It was the first match after my injury [a dislocated shoulder] and I was, for the first time, an onlooker.
Our team played magnificent football, chiefly due to the fact that McKivat was at last in his proper position at half and McCabe was at five-eights [sic]. We were leading easily when an important official came to me to lay a complaint that our men were using running spikes; at half-time they had found some scratches on the body of one of the players. This was the comble! ...I insisted at once on an examination of the boots of all the players as they came off the field at full-time ...on the whole the boots of the Cornish players were in the worse condition. There was not the trace of a spike!” It was the easiest game of their tour to this point, the Wallabies racing away to the tune of 32 to 3. Syd Middleton was dominant, particularly in the lineout. Each Wallaby in that match was thereafter an Olympic gold medallist. The team on that historic day was Phil Carmichael, ‘Boxer’ Russell, John Hickey, Frank Bede Smith, Dan Carroll, Chris McKivat (capt.), Arthur McCabe, Tom Richards, Malcolm McArthur, Bob Craig, Syd Middleton, Paddy McCue, Charles McMurtrie, Tom Griffin and John Barnett. In his sixteenth successive match, against Oxford University, Middleton got his marching orders.
The captain, Moran, described the occasion in Viewless Winds: “I was sitting in the pavilion with G.V. Portus, for I was still nursing a shoulder that had been dislocated at Richmond, when suddenly on a line-out I saw one of our biggest forwards swing a blow that hit an opposing forward. A.O. Jones promptly sent our man off; what else could he do? Jones was an admirable referee. “The man who committed this offence was a magnificent athlete, rower, boxer and footballer, and actually a very good sportsman, but irritable and hot-headed. I followed him into the dressing-room with murder in my heart for one who was and is still a firm friend.
But when I saw his bowed head I said nothing and walked out. He is still paying for that indiscretion. It has pursued him for thirty years. It followed him to the war and it still pops up, every now and again, when the striker and the struck meet socially in London, where they both live.” Strangely, Middleton was picked for the next two games, against Yorkshire and Lancashire, presumably awaiting a decision on his case. He was to miss the next five games, including his chance of a first Test, against Wales. His re-entry onto the playing field was against Newport, and incredibly he played in all remaining thirteen games of the tour, including his first Test against England.
Thus he played in 31 of the Wallabies’ 36 matches. On his return to Australia fourteen of the Wallabies defected, but Middleton was not interested. In 1910 his faith in the amateur code was rewarded when he captained NSW in two matches against the All Blacks, and two NSW matches against the NZ Maori. He was captain of the three Tests against NZ that year, one of which was won by Australia. Syd Middleton, then, was to play 34 games for Australia in his career, including four Tests, three of which he was captain. An inspiration, he rose above his minor indiscretion against Oxford through his own force of character. From this point on Middleton concentrated on rowing, and completed a rare double when he represented Australasia, Australia and NZ having a combined team at this time, in the eights competition at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
The team was John Ryrie, Simon Fraser, Hugh Ward, Thomas Parker, Henry Hauenstein, Sydney Middleton, Harry Ross-Boden, Robert Fitzhardinge (stroke) and Robert Waley (cox). The team won its heat, but lost in the final to the Leander Club from England, which went on to win the gold medal. Peter Sharpham, in his excellent book The First Wallabies, stated: “In 1920 he was a member of the Australian eight which carried all before them at the Henley Regatta in England, including the Leander eight who went on to take the silver medal at the subsequent Antwerp Olympics. He represented Australia at Antwerp, but last-minute changes to the crew deprived the team of a medal.” This latter assertion is debatable, as the AOC’s official history, Australia at the Olympic Games at the Olympic Games by Harry Gordon, and Howell and Howell’s Aussie Gold: The Story of Australia at the Olympic Games do not list any rowing representation at the 1920 Antwerp Games. It was in the 1912 Games where he represented, as Sharpham noted.
Syd Middleton enlisted in World War I, serving at Gallipoli and France, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for bravery in action. A confirmed bachelor for most of his life, he was to marry a woman in England, and lived there. He died in London at 63 years of age.