Australia’s Oldest Living Test Captain
Australia’s oldest living Test captain Wally O’Connell, celebrated his 90th birthday on 6 April. There is some thought that his birthday is 16 April but the two dates are close and whenever it happened, it marked a great achievement for a humble and highly respected man.
Wally played 10 Tests between 1948 and 1951. He captained the Kangaroos in the first Test of the 1948 tour at Leeds on 9 October when the Australians were unluckily beaten 23-21. Team of the Century members, Clive Churchill and Duncan Hall were members of this Australian team.
A Roosters junior, Wally made his first grade debut as a five eighth at the old Sports Ground on 2 May 1942 in the 18-14 loss to South Sydney. In seven seasons at Bondi Junction, Wally played 89 first grade matches, scoring 24 tries and kicking seven goals for a total of 86 points. His first representative game was for City Firsts in 1943 and he again represented City in 1944.
The first of seven matches for NSW came in 1948 and that same year he made his Test debut. This was at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 29 May 1948 when the Kiwis won 21-19. Wally also played in the second Test of this series at Brisbane on 12 June when the Aussies won 13-4 to draw the series, one Test all. Just a week after the Brisbane Test, Wally was named in the Kangaroo team, when NSW had defeated Queensland 17-13 in Brisbane. Wally was the NSW five eighth. The team sailed out of Sydney on the Maloja, on 3 August. There was uproar throughout Rugby League when the Kangaroos had been named, because of the omission of Newtown player Len Smith, who had captained Australia in the two Tests against New Zealand earlier that year.
Tour captain Col Maxwell was unavailable for the first Test in England so Wally was appointed as captain in his absence. Wally also played in the other four Tests on that tour, two more with England and two in France. On this 1948 Kangaroo tour, Wally played a total of 21 matches, scoring six tries. He also toured New Zealand in 1949 where he played five games including both Tests. Altogether, including his 10 Tests, Wally played 29 matches for Australia and scored seven tries, two of which came in Test matches, both against France in France.
His last Test was at the Sydney Cricket ground on 21 July 1951 against France. Wally played three of his Tests in Australia, three in England and two each in France and New Zealand. After returning home from the Kangaroo tour, he took up a position as captain/coach of the CBC (Christian Brothers College) Old Boys club in Wollongong, from where he represented Country Firsts against City.
He planned to play with Manly in 1950 but because of the residential rules of the time, spent the year on the sidelines because he had not lived in the Manly area for the necessary six months when the season began. He wanted to honour a three year captain/coaching contract he had signed with Manly, so in 1950 he was a non playing coach, returning to the playing arena in 1951. He guided Manly to their first Grand Final where Souths beat them 42-14 at the Sports Ground on 23 September 1951. Unfortunately he missed the Grand Final after breaking his wrist in Manly’s 18-8 win in the Final against St. George.
In 1952, Manly finished equal fourth but were beaten in a playoff for the semi finals by North Sydney. Wally announced his retirement as a player after the playoff, finishing with 34 first grade games and 11 tries for the club. He returned to Manly for the 1966 and 1967 seasons as coach, taking the team to the 1966 final. In 1973 he coached Queensland in the series against NSW By Barry Ross