William Hector Cerutti
- 246Wallaby Number
‘Wild Bill’ Cerutti was the most popular and most garrulous Australian rugby player of his generation. He was once described as the Stan Pilecki of yesteryear. An inveterate gambler, a heavy pipe smoker and an extrovert, Cerutti was also a tough-as-nails front-row forward who never took a backward step. That said there was no malice in the man, and for that he was universally beloved. He was strong, fearless and surprisingly fast in the loose. It has been written that as a technician in his position he was second to none. The son of an Italian immigrant who began a wood-turning business on arrival in Australia, Cerutti was born and bred in the rough and tumble inner Sydney suburb of Newtown.
He attended Newtown Public School and Central Technical High School in Ultimo where he showed himself to be more than adept at round-ball football. When Cerutti travelled to South Africa in 1933 he was asked where he was schooled and replied, “Newtown College!” His good friend Dinny Love overheard the answer and said to him later, “You didn’t go to Newtown College, Bill.” "No,” replied Cerutti, “but when you fellas were saying Grammar, Scots College, Riverview College, Shore, Joeys, I thought I’d better make it Newtown College. Sounds pretty good, don’t you reckon?” After school Cerutti continued to play football and in 1925 he captained Metropolitan Juniors against the N.S.W. I representative Junior team. One weekend when he had a bye Cerutti went along to watch a mate play third grade rugby for YMCA and was immediately fascinated by the rucks, scrums and lineouts.
After making enquiries Cerutti was offered a game by third grade coach Bill Fry. “But I don’t know the rules,” Cerutti said. “Never mind about the rules, son. Wherever the ball is, you be there,” replied Fry. It was this sage advice that Cerutti both followed and passed on to hundreds of young players during his career.
In 1926, and aged just 17, Cerutti played two games in second grade before he was promoted to the first team. Word spread quickly about a tough, squat character with a fair turn of speed, and before the end of that season he played his first representative rugby when picked for the Metropolitan XV tour of regional New South Wales. The following year Cerutti made his state debut against Victoria however even the man himself considered he was too young to be chosen for the Waratahs momentous tour to the Northern Hemisphere. Nonetheless he was picked to play for The Rest against the tourists upon their return to Australia in early 1928.
In his customary fashion Cerutti was into everything as he knocked down famous players like ninepins. A spectator asked another: “Who’s that wild bastard racing around out there?” A newspaper reporter heard the question and nicknamed him ‘Wild Bill’ Cerutti. Not surprisingly it stuck. Even with 13 Waratahs either retired or unavailable for that season’s New South Wales tour to New Zealand it was no surprise that Cerutti was named in the 26-man squad. He started all 10 tour matches, including the 1st ‘Test’ in Wellington. Although he did not know it at the time that match was his actual Test debut after an ARU decision in 1994 elevated the remaining 34 New South Wales matches played against international opposition in the 1920-28 period to Test status (the five 1927/28 Waratahs’ internationals were given Test status in 1986). From that debut Cerutti played in 18 successive Tests until he was surprisingly omitted for the 1934 home series against New Zealand when Australia won their first Bledisloe Cup. There were many stories about Cerutti during his career however three encapsulated the man.
In 1930 Cerutti and future lifelong friend Aub Hodgson clashed in a club match. Both were involved in some heavy contact in the line-outs that more often than not ended with one of the two on his backside. At halftime Cerutti sought out Hodgson and said, “You know, son, a youngster like you shouldn’t start this sort of thing. Let’s call a truce.” Hodgson readily agreed. At the first second half lineout Hodgson set himself to jump and Cerutti felled him with a straight right. “I thought you said we had a truce?”, Hodgson called out from the ground. Cerutti simply smiled and said, “That’s lesson number one, sonny. Never trust your opponent.” That same year the British Lions toured Australia and they had a rugged Irishman named Jimmy Farrell in the front-row. Early in one match Farrell let fly with a vicious uppercut and Cerutti’s head shot out of the scrum with the force of the blow. As soon as the scrum repacked Cerutti returned the compliment and Farrell reeled away with bold flowing from his nose. Cerutti was then left alone for the rest of the game. At the post-match dinner Cerutti sought out Farrell and shared a beer with him. During their chat Cerutti said he was rather surprised to be on the receiving end of the Farrell right. Farrell grinned and said, ”Sure, Bill, I was just testing you out. If you hadn’t come back to me I’d have been after you all day.” They both laughed heartily.
Finally, in 1939, Cerutti attended the announcement of the Second Wallabies touring squad. In spite of his tremendous record and fine form that season it was widely tipped that Cerutti would not make the team. When all was said and done his name was not among those announced. Cerutti took his omission in a splendid manner. "It's a good side. Good luck to the fellows who have been chosen," he said Breaking into a broad grin, he added: "I might have better luck next time. I'll be a candidate.” Cerutti’s exclusion left rugby followers stunned. One writer of the time suggested it was staggering that an untested Victorian and a second-row forward from Sydney were chosen to play in the front-row ahead of Cerutti. The writer described his omission as both inexplicable and a tragedy.
While it was thought he was too old, at 29, to tour Cerutti’s family remain convinced that he did not make the team due to the prevailing anti-Italian, pre-war sentiment sweeping Australia at that time. Cerutti announced his retirement in 1939 and then again each year until the last of his 247 first grade games in 1946. Cerutti was not lost to rugby as he continued to coach first grade, became a state selector and later was appointed manager of several Wallaby tours. When he passed away in 1965 renowned sports journalist Phil Tressider wrote: ‘Wild’ Bill Cerutti - you can select your sport and choose your era, there never was a sporting character to match him. The sports world mourns his death. He was a man of unbounded good humour and enthusiasm, and his influence bubbled over far and beyond the confines of rugby union football, which was always his first love.
Footballer, captain, coach, manager, selector, administrator - you name it and he was all of these. He played with his socks dangling around his ankles, the tail of his sweater falling out over his shorts, and he scorned such refinements as shin pads, headgear and mouthguards. He scuttled about the field on short, thick legs like a late-for-an appointment crab, and he was as hard as nails, as any doughty All Black or Springbok forward would willingly vouch. He was not a big man as Test forwards go unless you measure your forwards by the size of their hearts, in which case he was a giant. He was a man’s man, who found in the amateur rugby game the qualities of a great physical trial of strength together with team-ship and good fellowship that he treasured so much.” Bill Cerutti played 21 Tests for Australia in a wonderful 10-year international career.
Cerutti won his first Test cap at prop alongside fellow debutant ‘Jack’ O’Donnell and single capper Ian Comrie-Thomson in the 1st Test, 12-15 defeat to New Zealand at Athletic Park. Cerutti and Comrie-Thomson remained in the front-row for the second and third Tests as well as the 8-9 loss to the Maori at Palmerston North.
Cerutti was joined by two Queenslanders - Eddie Bonis and Ted Thompson - for the 3-0 home series victory over the All Blacks.
Thompson, Bonis and Cerutti packed down for the one-off, 6-5 win over the British Lions At the S.C.G.
Mal Blair joined Bonis and Cerutti up front for the one-off away Tests against the Maori and New Zealand.
‘Dinny’ Love, Bonis and Cerutti formed the front-row for the three home Test losses to New Zealand.
Bonis and Cerutti combined with lock-cum prop forward Max White in all five away Tests against South Africa.
The Wallabies did not play a Test match in 1935.
Cerutti was chosen for the Wallaby tour to New Zealand but fractured both his cheekbone and his jaw in the opening match against Auckland and missed the two Tests against the All Blacks. He returned for the final tour match to win a cap in the 31-6 victory over the Maori at Showgrounds Oval.
He won his final two caps in the home series loss to South Africa.
In 1938 Cerutti injured his leg in a club match for Easts, against Norths, and did not return in time to stake a claim for a Test spot.