- 75Wallaby Number
In the more than century-long history of Australian rugby union’s amateur era, one match stands above all others when it comes to public anticipation and interest. On July 13 in 1907, a time when State teams held more importance than the national side, a record crowd of more than 52,000 poured into the stands, terraces and grassed banks of the SCG to watch NSW take on the New Zealand All Blacks. Though the visitors yet again took the victory, the day belonged to “Bill” Dix, a little known fullback / three-quarter from the New England district. His plucky performance against the All Blacks immediately turned Dix into a public favourite, and secured for him a Test career and a place in the first- ever Wallabies touring team. Born in 1887, Dix grew up in Armidale, a city surrounded by sheep and cattle grazing stations in the New England Tablelands of northern NSW.
He worked most of his life for the NSW Railways, an employer who generously accommodated his need for extended leave to take part in rugby tours to Sydney, Brisbane, and later, with the Wallabies to Britain and North America. Despite standing at barely 161 cms (5ft 6 inches), Dix was a muscular man, weighing approximately 75 kgs when in peak fitness. At a time when backs used the safety of keeping their feet planted firmly on the ground when attempting catches, Dix preferred to leap in the air, and relied totally on his sure hands to secure possession. Newspaper profiles during his career describe Dix as being “quick-footed, a splendid tackler, and a capital kick”. His dark complexion, combined with his leaping about and general trickiness (he was difficult to grab hold of), led to him being tagged “Monkey Dix”.
Some have subsequently speculated that he was of Aboriginal descent, though Dix told the press his parents were both born in England. For a time Dix played rugby in Newcastle, and in 1902 was selected in a representative team for a match against the powerful Glebe club (who had won the Sydney club premiership the previous two winters). However, it was not until the 1905 Country Week Carnival that Dix made his first appearance in Sydney. The annual tournament saw representative teams from all NSW regions descend on the State capital for matches against the city clubs. After playing as a centre for the New England district, Dix was chosen at fullback in the Country team against City. He reached the same level in 1906 and 1907, and in the latter season was finally given an opportunity for a NSW second XV against Queensland. The Reds had beaten the full NSW team in the preceding match, and few thought the second XV would do any better. However, Dix “distinguished himself” in a surprise 12-3 victory over Queensland. He was immediately elevated to the first XV for another shot at the Queenslanders. Dix again performed above expectations, and NSW won 11-3 in dreadfully wet conditions.
The Sydney Morning Herald offered high praise: “Dix was star performer of the day, the meteoric Messenger being a good second.” Understandably, he retained his place for the return matches against Queensland in Brisbane. With NSW winning all three games on the short tour, Dix gained selection for the coveted match against New Zealand. It was the first visit of the All Blacks to Australia since their triumphant Northern hemisphere tour of 1905/06, and the public interest it generated in Sydney was unprecedented. Where previous NSW and Australian matches had barely topped 30,000, this game attracted a record 52,000 – a figure that no football match in Australasia (of any code) had ever come close to. Remarkably, a century later, the Waratahs have still yet to eclipse that number of spectators. Though New Zealand won 11-3, Dix ended the day “as the idol of the crowd”. Glowing praise from The Sydney Morning Herald was typical of the plaudits: “Dix acquitted himself heroically, saving many of those awkward situations which develop so quickly in rugby. His catching, either standing or going at top speed was remarkably clean. His line-kicking, in fact his work all round, was brilliant.” Dix subsequently played in all three Test matches against the All Blacks.
His solid performances in the series were unfortunately overshadowed by poor handling at three inopportune moments in the second and third Tests. The precious points scored by the New Zealanders from these errors went a long way towards Australia losing what was a tight series. The most recalled fumble came in the third Test at the SCG; with Australia leading 5-0 and looking likely to carry off its first- ever win over the All Blacks. Standing five yards from his own goal line, Dix caught the ball from a New Zealand kick and began to call for a fair catch. However, at that very moment, he was barrelled over by his team mate Albert “Son” Burge, who had raced back to help him. The ball rolled free, and with both Australians sprawled on the grass from the collision, Frank Mitchinson pounced upon the ball for the New Zealanders, scoring a converted try that snared an unlikely draw. It was of little consolation to Dix, but after the match many fair judges claimed he had held the ball long enough to constitute a fair catch.
Dix returned to Armidale after the Test series and resumed his duties with the NSW Railways. He had been away from work since late May, a period of almost two months, and his only income had been the standard three shillings per day allowance provided by the NSWRU (an amount that could barely cover his daily laundry and ironing bill). There was little doubt Dix had been forced to dip into his own savings to fund his time away from work, and his predicament was used by those endeavouring to convince the NSWRU to increase allowances to players. Dix’s plight was also raised by supporters of the NSWRL as evidence of the NSWRU’s indifference to its players. Though Dix had been the man-of-the-match the day the NSWRU basked in the riches from the 52,000 SCG crowd, he gave no grist to either side of the amateur v. professional argument, and quietly went about his daily business without comment or complaint. Dix eschewed any interest in joining rugby league, and returned again to the public eye during the 1908 representative season. He played for NSW in the inter-State matches in Brisbane.
Dix was absent from the return series in Sydney, but regained his place in the NSW team in the two opening matches against the visiting British (Anglo-Welsh) team. It was no surprise when Dix’s name appeared amongst the Wallabies’ party for the inaugural tour of Great Britain, France and North America. With Queensland’s Phil Carmichael the only other fullback in the squad, Dix appeared to be the front-runner to take the position for the major matches during the campaign. However Dix, with Messenger now in League, had his eye on one of the centre three-quarter positions. A superb two-try performance in an early tour game against Durham seemed to have all but secured Dix the prize he sought. An English newspaper reporter offered that “Dix was immense. The way he bamboozled the whole defence when Russell scored the first two tries in the second half was magnificent, and impartial Durham supporters went so far as to declare that Dix was the best centre ever seen on the Hartlepool Ground.” Another described Dix as “small, but made of the right stuff – brilliant tackler!”. However, the Wallabies managers and captain thought otherwise, and not only did Dix not get a centre or wing position in the opening Test against Wales, he missed out completely (Carmichael getting the fullback role because of his goal kicking skills). Australia lost the Test 9-6. For the Test match against England Dix was brought into the team on the wing.
As if to prove his point, Dix made a break to set up a crucial try for Australia in the 9-3 victory. Back home in Armidale in 1909, Dix returned to work with the NSW Railways. Unfortunately he soon suffered a severe shoulder injury in a railway accident, and his rugby career came to an abrupt halt. Meanwhile in Sydney secret negotiations were taking place that soon culminated in nearly half the Wallabies squad accepting lucrative payments to play rugby league matches against the Kangaroos. At the last moment Dix accepted an offer of £100 put to him by letter, becoming the fourteenth Wallaby to sign-on. Dix took the field in the first match, but was clearly restricted in his movements and hesitant to make heavy contact against his injured shoulder. His tackling was weak and he frequently allowed the ball to bounce before chasing it. Dix did not last until half-time and was replaced, walking dejectedly from the arena. Dix was one of the few Wallabies who “retired with the plum” of their appearance money – their contracts were solely for the series against the Kangaroos, and there was no obligation to play rugby league in 1910. Disqualified for life by the NSWRU, and with a bung shoulder, Dix quietly slipped away into retirement.