William Gregor George
- 190Wallaby Number
Bill George was one of a number of skilled fly halves who played in Sydney during the 1920s and he had one of the longer careers in the State team. He was perhaps fortunate that his emergence coincided with Tom Lawton taking up a Rhodes Scholarship, but George was such a capable player that it is not impossible that the selectors would have found room for both men in the same team if necessary. Too young to have seen World War I action, George was still a teenager when he was first promoted to the State team in what was to prove a difficult year, although 1923 started off in promising fashion.
The touring New Zealand Maori side, although strong, was not fully representative and yet an interesting and close-fought three-match series attracted a deal of interest. George made his debut in the first match, with regular 1922 flyhalf Billy Sheehan moving to inside centre, and the youngster made a sound initial appearance, controlling play well in a tense match, won 27-23 by the home team. He was dropped for the second match, Sheehan returning to flyhalf, but was reinstated for the third. George displayed maturity beyond his years in this match, again playing well despite being under pressure, but this time doing so on a heavy pitch after a weekend downpour.
His third appearance against the tourists was for Metropolitan Union on a bog at Manly Oval and once again the young YMCA player had a good outing. There was never any doubt he would be named for the New Zealand tour and he duly took his place in a much-weakened team, as ten of the leading players were unavailable. The tour started with six University players being held back to sit exams, so George was always going to play the early matches. His forwards, very slight by international standards, were heavily beaten at Wellington in the opener and there was little chance George could have a big influence on the game, although he did have the chance to study New Zealand maestro Mark Nicholls at close range; Nicholls was outstanding as the tourists fell to a big defeat.
George was still the best visiting back and troubled the defence with his running; the only problem was a shortage of good ball to work with. He did see more ball against South Canterbury and the tourists responded with a good win, scoring five tries, but George was again on rations in the first Test, when the big New Zealand pack dominated much of the game. ‘Jock’ Blackwood won plenty of scrums, it is true, but the ball was often accompanied by the fast-breaking All Black loose forwards and the Waratah backs had only limited freedom. He was destined to have an even tougher time at Christchurch in the second Test, where the All Blacks completely outplayed the visitors in winning 34-6.
Newspaper reporters noted that the speedy New South Wales backs were starved of possession all afternoon and nobody in a blue jersey had a memorable match. The same story was told a week later against Auckland-North Auckland and the home side ran out with a 27-11 win. George did not appear again on tour – Sheehan played fly half in the third Test, which was lost 11-38 – but his reputation was not badly damaged despite the unsuccessful nature of the trip. Sheehan was the first-choice flyhalf for the Golden Jubilee series in 1924 and George’s only chance came in the final match, which was something of a disaster for the home team.
The All Blacks, who had started shakily after a rough crossing, were now working into a superb combination – they are known as ‘the Invincibles’ after completing a 32-match, 32-win northern hemisphere tour immediately on the back of the Australian venture – and the State team was cut to ribbons by the free-running New Zealand backs. Like most of the local players, George had little chance to shine. He was still in the picture a year later, although Alf Rainbow got the nod for the first Test against New Zealand. This was something of a blessing for George, as the State team was hammered 26-3 and he missed the match; instead he was part of a NSW Second XV that put up a most creditable showing midweek and which was, almost to a man, promoted to the main lineup for the second match. While the score suggests the Test was a dull affair – New Zealand won 4-0, with a dropped goal by fullback Harris being the only score – it was actually a tense match with a lot of good play from both teams.
George held his place for the third match, which New Zealand won 11-3, and was again chosen to tour the Shaky Isles with the Waratah team in 1925. This side was a much better combination than that of two years earlier; more experienced players were available for selection and, as an added bonus, Lawton had recently returned from Oxford University and was again available. The great man naturally commanded the flyhalf spot and George was limited to four lesser matches, three at centre and one at scrum half. Without being quite as notable as on his previous trip – there were any number of classy backs in this side – George did well enough in his limited outings to prove the worth of his selection.
George played twice against the 1926 All Blacks, both times for teams designated ‘A New South Wales XV’. However, the second fixture, which was definitely not part of the series, was among those matches raised to Test status in 1986 and is, along with matches against New Zealand Maori, the most questionable of these posthumous elevations; many think that the inclusion of this match and the games against Maori teams probably prevented any chance of agreement between the two countries on the status of other matches when no Australian teams were being chosen. The locals lost both matches but gave a good showing each time, giving an indication that depth as well as strength was finally becoming a feature of NSW rugby.
George made his third tour of New Zealand in 1928 after missing out on the great 1927-28 Waratah trip to Britain. Most of the players who had been in Europe were unavailable later in the year and nobody really gave the Waratahs a chance in New Zealand, even if the top 29 All Blacks were touring South Africa. However, the visitors were to prove something of a surprise packet and gave the All Blacks a hard time in the three-match series. The tour opened with a good win against Auckland, who had been unbeaten the previous year, and carried on with the team giving a good account of itself in every match.
George was not picked out for much individual praise – most of that was directed at a 22-year-old centre, Cyril Towers, who was clearly marked out for great things – but his steady play was invaluable. He took his place in the team for all three Tests and, with an ounce or so of luck, might have been part of a 3-0 series win. New Zealand won the first match 15-12 after scoring one try to three but kicking four penalty goals, while the All Blacks also took the second 16-14 after Cliff Porter was awarded a controversial penalty try; all agreed he was tackled without the ball but the incident occurred 16 yards from the goal-line.
New South Wales finally got a win in the third match, by 11-8, and took some satisfaction from having run the All Blacks so close. George also played against New Zealand Maori – another match later raised to Test status amid a deal of controversy- and ended his tour in the Masterton mud against Wairarapa. That was the end of his representative rugby apart from a match against Victoria in 1929; he did not play against the All Blacks that year. George, who stood 5ft 9in (1.75m) and weighed 10st 3lb (65kg), was a sturdy individual even if lacking in weight and he appeared more solid than many heavier colleagues. He could take the punishment and accepted his place in New South Wales rugby as being slightly behind a few real stars, although he was always in the selection picture. George was still a young man (at 29 years of age) when he died from tuberculosis in 1933.