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Original Issue

Whiffenpoofs and Wallabies

The Australians may not have known whereof they sang, but they played a fast game and took the measure of the best U.S. team ever assembled

To the tables down at Mory's,
To the place where Louis dwells,
To the dear old Temple Bar we love so well,
Sing the Wallabies, assembled with their glasses raised on high,
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.

A wallaby, as any Eli knows, is not a Whiffenpoof. It is, rather, a sort of junior kangaroo. It is also the symbol of the Australian National rugby team. And the song? "Our official song that isn't dirty," a Wallaby says.

"Is it Australian?" an American asks.

Comes the authoritative reply: "The origin is unknown. No one in Sydney or Brisbane ever heard of this bloke Louis, or of any bars called Mory's or Temple's."

And certainly not of a bar called Barney Googles in New York City, where the Wallabies were assembled now, their glasses raised very much on high. They had just played a game, excuse enough for celebration: it was their first appearance ever in the United States, worth another beer; and they had won 22-3, which didn't seem to matter at all.

Winning isn't everything, rugby men always say; sometimes it appears to be almost nothing, especially at obligatory postgame parties. "Rugby's a great way for working up a thirst," said a player on the losing side. It is, too, a great sport for the après-game song. In the definitive collection of rugby lyrics, through thousands upon thousands of lines, there are perhaps six or eight that are quotable in a family magazine. And so it was last week that the Aussies negotiated their way past not only the unindigenous bleat for Mory's, but also the classic It Nearly Broke the Family's Heart When Lady Jane Became a Tart and the almost endless Eskimo Nell, the Girl From the Yukon. The wonder was that there was anybody at Barney Googles on Manhattan's East Side who remembered why all the Americans and Australians were there in the first place. But, lo, "confoined in one corner," as an Australian said, "was a knot of serious ruggers, and they had a game to talk about."

Australia was only the second national team ever to play in this country, and what had made its visit to New York particularly appetizing was the memory of the first—Fiji, an overpowering band of giants who were cut down to size by cold weather, overconfidence and a motley bunch of businessmen, lawyers and graduate students in an icy little dell called Downing Stadium. Now, 365 nights later, the temperature was dropping again in Downing Stadium. And this time the U.S. had an even stronger team, a group of all-stars from the 10,600- member Eastern Rugby Union, only five of them expatriates (there were several more on last year's team). It was the closest thing to a national rugby side ever fielded in this country.

The match was so big that two Australian ambassadors attended, the Fiji ambassador to the UN was there, and so were actor Richard Harris, six Texans who had flown in for the game and about 3,000 other congealed souls. They saw in the first 40-minute half an Australian team that was considered one of the live best in the world and whose forwards—the main body-contact men—outweighed their American counterparts by 18 pounds. The Australians led at the end of the period by only a point, the result of a four-point try by a dairy farmer named Garreth Gray that overrode the three-point penalty kick later by Rhodri Thomas for the ERU.

The Americans were hopeful. Fiji had led at the half 8-6. The halftime rest in rugby is only five minutes, not long enough either to lose momentum or gain it. Finally, an Australian said: "I've never been tackled so hard." which was no more than frank testimony that most of the Americans had played college football.

Unfortunately for the home forces, rugby is more like basketball than football. It is a game of sudden reverses in direction, a flowing back and forth, and though the Americans did tackle hard, they failed to break the Australians in half. The Wallabies were far quicker in getting the ball out of the rucks and this, many people said, was an ominous sign. A ruck is not something they wish a person rots of in Yokohama; it is more like a joint that connects rugby's offensive rushes, a kind of unofficial scrum occurring when a surrounded player attempts to release the ball among a gaggle of friends and foes. The nearest player grabs it and tries to pass the ball to his own backs with his feet. When a back gets the ball quickly, the other team's man-to-man defense is apt to suffer. And this is what the Aussies hoped would happen in the second half.

At the whistle the Wallabies seemed supercharged. Two minutes into the half an Australian back grabbed the ball from a ruck on his 40-yard line, and instantly four or five of his teammates were lined out at 10-yard intervals beside him. What ensued was a classic rugby play—flat, hard cross-field laterals from back to sprinting back, a tackle, another ruck, Wallabies' ball again and a try.

Later an ERU player would recall that moment: "If we had contained that try it might have been close. We didn't, though, and they saw they could run on us."

And now in the rucks one could see Australian weight and conditioning take effect; the ERU backs were a step behind on defense. Minutes after the half's first try, there was another ruck, another pretty pass play and another try. Dick Plant of the ERU came out of one ruck with the back of his shirt ripped off; he played out the game that way, and it symbolized the state of his team gallant, outweighed, bloodied and helpless to contain what a British ERU fan called the "remorseless inevitability" of the Australians.

Afterward, in the ERU locker room, the talk seemed in a way a preamble for Barney Googles. It was in that bistro that an Australian said. "Tell me another game where you can beat the stuffin' out of a bloke for 80 minutes, then put your arm around him at the end, drink with him that night and still think he's a hell of a bloke."

Later, much later, along tow aid dawn in a cab returning to his hotel, an Australian was humming his team's official song, the one that isn't ribald. "Baaa...baaa...baaa." he sang softly, and he began talking about rugby. "Your men have nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "Just work on your passing. That's what we're known for. In Sydney and Brisbane we have to compete with professional rugby, with 13 men, and it's a passing game. They've got blokes like Namath." Tackle that, you Whiffenpoofs.