Ella to Lewis to O’Connor: The greatest Australian rugby side of all time?

In the late 1970s, Australian rugby was in serious trouble.

The Wallabies didn’t play a Test match in 1977 for the first time since the second World War and the ARU was close to broke and on the verge of extinction.

The future of the 15-man game looked bleak. But then the 1977-78 Australian Schoolboys side came along and changed rugby in this country forever.

Arguably the most talented and successful Australian representative side of all time, the 1977-78 team won 16 straight matches during a nine-week tour of Japan, Europe and the UK and drew crowds of more than 25,000 fans to watch their innovative flat, attacking rugby style.

On their return, they featured on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and were labelled one of the most dominant Australian sporting sides of the decade.

Next week, the squad will celebrate their 40th reunion in Sydney.

“Looking back at it, we were just a bunch of kids and we probably didn’t realise just how lucky we were or how good a side we would become,” captain and former Wallaby Tony Melrose told Rugby News.

The squad featured 10 future Wallabies - Tony Darcy, Shane Nightingale, Chris Roche, Dominic Vaughan, Tony Melrose, Michael Hawker, Michael O'Connor, Mark, Glen and Gary Ella and rugby league immortal Wally Lewis.

In fact they were so dominant, Lewis struggled to break into the starting XV in the opening matches before a broken arm ruled him out for the remainder of the tour.

According to Mark Ella, Lewis still considers the 1977-78 side to be one of the best teams he ever played in.

“There were only seven spots in the backline and we had eight players go on to play for Australia so it was difficult to find a spot for everyone,” Melrose added.

“Mick Hawker and Mick O’Connor played on the wings, but one was a flyhalf and the other was a centre. We just had to find a way to get them on the field. When you watched them, you would have thought that they’d been playing there for years but both of them had probably never played there before. It didn’t matter, they were just great all round footballers.”

While still at school, Melrose played for Parramatta’s first grade Shute Shield side but the centre said it didn’t take long for him to realise just how talented the schoolboys side was.

“I was playing against grown men each week, guys who were considered to be great at that time and then I went back and played in this team of school kids and thought ‘these guys are just incredible.”

“Tony Darcy was a front rower from Queensland, he was 16.5 stone and could run 100 metres in 11 seconds. Chris Roach was very good on that tour and went on to play for the Wallabies a few years later.

“Obviously Mark, Glen and Gary Ella were outstanding. Mick Hawker was one of the only players from a GPS school so we used to get stuck into him about that but he was exceptional.

“Mick O’Connor carried the ACT team on his back that year and he could do everything you saw him do as a Wallaby or in State of Origin as a schoolboy. That big sidestep was tough to stop.”

According to Melrose, the squad were only given two rules ahead of the nine-week tour. Off the field, the players were expected to use common sense. On the field, they weren’t allowed to kick the ball.

“The management team were pretty good about it, they allowed us to enjoy ourselves but the common sense rule did apply,” he said.

“The kicking rule came from (coach) Geoff Mould. When we first got together after they picked the squad we spent five days training at Waverley College and Geoff basically said that once we got outside of our 22, we weren’t allowed to kick it and it seemed to work for us.”

Led by Mould and the Ella brothers, the Australian side focussed on playing flat, attacking rugby and had immediate success.

It was this style that led to the resurgence of Australian rugby in the 1980s.

“We didn’t copy anyone so I guess it was a new style of play. I’m not saying we were the first to play like that, the Ella brothers were already doing it for Matraville, this was just an exceptional bunch of players with a tremendous amount of talent and we adapted to it really well,” Melrose said.

“Because we were so successful and we won games so convincingly, people took notice because it was good to watch and it got results.”

Besides a tight 12-10 win over Ireland in Limerick, Australia won there 15 other games in style beating Japan 42-0, London Counties 54-6, South West 28-12, North Wales 66-0, Ulster 30-7, Leinster 34-6, East Wales 14-6, Wales 25-6, West Wales 36-0, South and South Midland 37-4, Midland Counties 63-12, Northern 33-9, Sevenoaks 14-6, England 31-9 and Dutch Youth 34-4.

Over 25,000 fans watched the Australians play Wales at Cardiff Arms Park.

“There were plenty of memories, both on and off the field. Some I can’t remember properly now, others I can’t tell you about, but it was fantastic,” Melrose said.

“We were 17,18-year old kids with stars in our eyes on the other side of the world. That’s partly where Mick Hawker got his nickname Lord. He told us all he was going to come back to Europe and buy a castle one day.

“We were all nobodies at the time, but we came back as different people and I think that helped us all achieve what we did in the years to come.”

The squad will celebrate the 40th reunion of their famous tour in Sydney next week. Australian Schools Rugby is hosting a lunch to raise funds for future tours at the Four Seasons Hotel on Friday 31st March with all 10 Wallabies and Grand Slam winning coach Alan Jones set to attend and speak.

“There are 25 players and a few managers coming to the lunch on Friday and a few more arriving on Saturday for our reunion so it should be a great weekend and a great chance to catch up.”

Tickets for the lunch are still available. For more information head to www.schoolsrugby.com.au/2016/news/schools-luncheon-2017

1977-78 Australian Schoolboys squad: 

Brad Allan, Glenn Bailey, Tony D’Arcy, Michael Egan, Gary Ella, Glen Ella, Mark Ella, George Gavalas, John Hancock, Michael Hawker, Merrick Illett, Richard Leslie, Darrell Lester, Wally Lewis, Andrew Maclean, John Matherson, Michael Maxwell, Peter McPherson, Tony Melrose, Warwick Melrose, Ian Miller, Shane Nightingale, Michael O’Connor, Graham Reed, Chris Roche, Anthony Ryan, Phillip Tuck, Dominic Vaughan, Max Williams.

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