William Thornton Watson

  • 8Caps
  • 123Wallaby Number
PositionFront row forward
Date Of BirthNovember 10, 1887
Place of BirthNelson, New Zealand
SchoolNot known / Educated in New Zealand
Debut ClubNewtown
Other ClubGlebe-Balmain
Debut Test Match1912 Wallabies v American All Stars, California
Final Test Match1920 Wallabies v New Zealand, 3rd Test Sydney
DiedSeptember 9, 1961
Service NumberNX144850 (WWII)


There have been many New Zealanders who have played for Australia. Only four of these have captained Australia. The first to be so honoured was Willie Watson, followed by brothers Darby and Bob Loudon, and then Greg Davis. Only three Australians have played for Australia and the All Blacks, Evan Jessep, Des Connor and Eddie Stapleton. The Stapleton case is interesting as the New Zealanders wanted to field two teams in a trial game on the way to South Africa, and Eddie Stapleton was ready and willing. This one cameo appearance made him an All Black forever.
Willie Watson was born in Nelson, New Zealand, November 10 1887. He came to Australia in 1911 and made an immediate impact as a frontrow forward with Newtown. No touring teams came to Australia in 1911 and 1912, but he made a strong impression on his debut for NSW in 1912 and was selected on the 1912 tour of the United States and Canada.

The team was overwhelmed with hospitality and lacked a strong management team. They generally stayed in fraternity houses in the United States, and revelled in the social life and undergraduate antics of the college lads. Training was secondary, the enjoyment of the tour was primary. It would have to be the worst record of any Australian touring team, particularly considering the opposition, the Australians losing all of their Canadian matches, as an example. There was one Test, which Watson played in against the United States, and it was a narrow victory after the locals had led most of the game. The first-ever Test was against the USA was on 16 November 1912 at the University of California at Berkeley, a narrow 12 to 8 victory.

The Australian team was Alf Dunbar, Dan Carroll, Larry Dwyer, Ward Prentice (capt.), Lou Meibusch, Bob Adamson, Arthur Walker, Tom Richards, Bill Murphy, Allan Kent, Ted Fahey, George Pugh, Willie Watson, Tom Griffin and Harold George. Willie Watson was one of the successes of the tour, and was to play in 11 of the 16 games. The New Zealand Maori team arrived in 1913, and Watson played in both NSW games against them, and the Blues recorded two victories (15-3 and 16-5). Australian rugby union had been struggling since the defection of 14 of the Wallabies in 1909, and doubtless would have died out if there had not been the continual Maori and New Zealand tours. A Wallaby team was selected to go to New Zealand in 1913, the first tour to the land of the long white cloud since 1905. He was not the sole New Zealand-born member of the team, the other being Larry Wogan.

Five of this team would die in the First World War, five-eighth ‘Twit’ Tasker, forwards ‘Doss’ Wallach, Harold George and Fred Thompson, and back Hubert Jones. The captain of Australia was Larry Dwyer. The tour was not overly successful, Australia winning only four of the nine games, but Watson was hailed as one of the best players on the tour and played in eight of the games, including the three Tests. It was the same front row in the three Tests, David Williams and Willie Watson as props, and Harold George as hooker. New Zealand came to Australia in what Howell, et al in They Came To Conquer have called the ‘Declaration of War’ Tour, as war broke out during the All Black tour.

Watson played in the first match for NSW, at which sixty former Blues attended. NZ won handily 17 to 6. He also played in the first Test at the SCG, a close encounter won by the All Blacks 5 to 0. Watson was not selected in the second Test at Brisbane, eight Queenslanders being selected, as was the custom of the time. He did, however, play for the Metropolitan Union against them, and an injury precluded his selection in the following State and Australian games. Rugby Union players flocked to join up in the war, all Sydney Clubs being decimated because of it, and the authorities decided it was unpatriotic to hold competitions during the War. This was to have serious consequences, as the Rugby League kept on with their leagues. During the war, serving with the Australian Imperial Forces, Watson won the DCM, the MC and bar.

He was later to serve in the Second World War as well, being given command of the Papuan Infantry Battalion with the rank of major, and was awarded the DSO. When World War I ended on November 11 1918, there were some 250,000 troops awaiting a return to Australia. In order to alleviate the problems of keeping such a large group reasonably happy, a system of non-military employment was introduced, as well as a program encompassing a wide variety of sports. There was the Inter-Allied Games held in Pershing Stadium in Paris from 22 June to 6 July 1919, and this included sports like boxing, baseball, basketball, football (rugby, American football and soccer), quoits, track and field athletics, etc. Some 65 Australians competed, but not in rugby. The AIF Rugby team was engaged elsewhere. King George V gave a Cup (the King’s Cup) for competition among nations represented in the allied armies. Some 16 matches were played, the teams being the Imperial Army (called the ‘Mother Country’), Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Royal Air Force and South Africa. When the serious competition began for the King’s Cup, Lieutenant Willie Watson was the captain. The internationals were Watson, Jimmy Clarken, ‘Bill’ Cody, Dudley Suttor, Fred Thompson, Jackie Beith, Dan Carroll and Darb Hickey.

They played 16 matches in all, winning 12 of 16, but in actual fact only five of them were in the King’s Cup competition. The AIF team lost to the Royal Air Force and the ‘Mother Country’, but defeated New Zealand, who won the Cup. It was decided that the AIF would play eight games in Australia. Beith stayed in the British Isles for medical studies, Dan Carroll went to the USA to settle, and Darb Hickey went back to rugby league. This tour is designated by Howell et al in The Came To Conquer as ‘The Saviours of the Game’, as they brought Rugby Union back to rugby union followers who had missed out because of the war. The AIF team won all of its games, scoring 268 to 78 points. The AIF in turn beat NSW, Australia, New England, Queensland, Queensland AIF, Australia, North-West Union and Australia. Watson played in five of the eight games, all as captain.

As the Sydney Morning Herald put it: “The disabandonment of the team will cause some regret, for the side has given Rugby Union football a great impetus in Sydney. The forwards in particular revived a phase of the game that was gradually weakening from the old standard, and when these players are merged into the different clubs an improvement should be noted. “It was a very fine performance on the part of Major Walter Mathews [manager] and Lieutenant W. Watson to organise such a team from scattered sources, and in some instances to choose soldiers, practically unknown in football, but whose selection was more than justified by results.” Despite these efforts, it was not until 1929 that rugby union would be revived in Queensland, and consequently NSW matches against touring teams were, much later, designated as Tests by the ARU.

After all, the NSW team constituted the best rugby players in Australia at the time. The 32-year-old Watson, now playing for Glebe-Balmain, was picked as captain for NSW, and thus he became a Test captain, though he was not aware of such in his lifetime. He was, indeed, captain in all three NSW matches. In total, Watson would play 46 club games for Newtown and 13 for Glebe-Balmain, and 20 matches for NSW. He would play 23 matches for his country (including the three NSW games in 1920), and eight Tests. Three of these Tests were as captain. A distinguished man in every respect, a war hero, a leader of men, he was a tough front row forward who never shirked his duties, grafting away unspectacularly and bravely for his adopted country. His leadership and example did much to restore Union’s image after the war. He was made Australian Consul-General in New York, and was to die there in 1961.

WATSON, WILLIAM THORNTON (1887-1961), army officer, was born on 10 November 1887 at Nelson, New Zealand, son of Tasmanian-born Robert Watson, blacksmith, and his Victorian wife Annie, nee Harford. Educated at Nelson, William came to Australia and by 1912 had been selected as a front-row forward in the New South Wales Rugby Union football team. Giving his occupation as salesman, Watson enlisted in the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force on 8 August 1914 and took part in operations in New Britain and New Ireland. Discharged in January 1915, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19 March and ,as a gunner, was posted as a reinforcement for the 1st Divisional Artillery.

He embarked from Sydney on 26 June, landed at Gallipoli on 14 August and two days later joined the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. After service on Gallipoli and in Egypt, in March 1916 he proceeded with his unit to France where his temporary promotion to sergeant was confirmed on 22 April. During operations on the Somme from 26 October 1916 to 15 January 1917 Watson showed ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ by going to the aid of wounded men under heavy fire. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and posted to England for officer training. Commissioned on 7 September, he joined the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade that month and was wounded in action in Belgium on 17 November. Promoted lieutenant on 7 December, he returned to duty in April 1918 and was at Foucaucourt on 27 August, acting as forward observation officer with the infantry.

When the advance was impeded by enemy machine-gun fire, Watson worked his way forward and directed three batteries barraging the German machine-gun posts. For his conduct he was awarded the Military Cross. At Nauroy on the night of 2-3 October Watson’s battery was bombarded with gas shells; although gassed himself, he stayed with the unit and attempted to save the life of a wounded officer. His ‘energy and devotion to duty’ won him a Bar to his M.C. In 1919 Watson captained the A.I.F. Rugby XV in the King’s Cup competition. After his A.I.F. appointment was terminated and his name transferred to the reserve of officers, in 1920 he captained New South Wales against New Zealand. Back in New Guinea, in 1920-25 and 1932-39 he engaged in copra production and gold mining. Having married American-born Cora May Callear on 14 September on 14 September 1929 at St Stephens Church, Sydney, in 1935 he established their home at Columbiana, Ohio, United States of America. With the outbreak of world War 11 Watson returned to Australia and served in the 2nd Australian Garrison Battalion from March 1940.

In June he was promoted temporary captain and posted to the Papuan Infantry Battalion, a unit comprising Papuan soldiers and Australian officers and non-commissioned officers. Soon after Japan entered the war, Watson became commanding officer of the P.I.B. The battalion, an element of Maroubra Force, was dispersed between Awala and the north coast when the Japanese landed at Buna and Gona on 22 July 1942. Outnumbered, the P.I.B. fell back before the advancing Japanese; its remnants linked up with leading troops of the 39th Battalion, fought rearguard actions at Gorari and Oivi, and rejoined Lieutenant-Colonel W.T.Owen, the Maroubra Force commander at Deniki. Having abandoned the position prematurely, Owen reoccupied Kokoda on 28 July, his force reduced to about eighty men. The Japanese attacked that evening.

With Owen mortally wounded, Watson –‘a bluff, outspoken man, quick in thought and speech’- took command. The defenders withdrew to Deniki where Watson remained in command until 4 August when he was relieved by the arrival of a more senior commander. For his bravery and example during the withdrawal, Watson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and promoted to major on 1 September 1942. The P.I.B. subsequently carried out useful work, patrolling the flanks of the Australian-American forces as they pushed northward. Watson relinquished his command on 30 March 1944 and on 7th July was transferred to the reserve of officers. After the war Watson returned to the United States and was Australian vice-consul in New York (1945-52). Survived by his wife, daughter and son, he died on September 1961 in the Veterans Administration Hospital, Brooklyn, New York.

William Thornton Watson profile