Weary Dunlop: A toothbrush, a fork, and a whole lot of fighting spirit

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HONORARY RUGBY CLUB MEMBER: Sir (Ernest) Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop

A toothbrush, a fork, and a whole lot of fighting spirit

Turning bamboo slithers into syringes and his own stethoscope into a saline-drip, Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop is passionately remembered as the resourceful hero-surgeon who kept hundreds of Australian prisoners alive on the Thai-Burma railway. At 190cm and 100kg, Weary was able to use his size and (at times) aggressive demeanor to intimidate Japanese captors against inhumane punishments, at one point standing before a severely disabled soldier about to be bayoneted. This spartan spirit is forever memorialised through his wartime accomplishments and also holds a special place in the rugby community and The Club.  

It was not only in defying the Japs that Weary showed his legendary toughness. Tommy Lawton, Rugby Club member and Wallaby hooker famous for orchestrating ‘The Big Push’ against Wales in the 1984 Grand Slam, recounts a pre-match dinner before the ‘89 British Lions test in Brisbane. “Finishing a speech to the team, Weary was walking back from the podium and after a misstep fell flat on his face. Back on his feet, a quick look at Weary’s nose smeared to one side told everyone present it was broken. “Billy!” Weary barked to 22 capped lock William ‘Billy’ Campbell, who was studying to be a surgeon. “Get me my toothbrush and a fork”. As the preparing team sat watching (and wincing) to the audible crunch of Weary’s mashed nose, William’s continues to straightening out the issue while the patient waited for an update. “Is it straight yet Bill. What about now Bill. Is it straight yet Bill.” He got fixed up then came back to finish his dinner and drink.”

Although Victorian born and raised on the other game, Weary saw the light during his Melbourne University days and would jump from 4th grade status to Wallaby legend in 1932 – all in the course of one year. When asked why he made the switch, Weary explained his choice had formed from the excitement of the chase – and a taste for hard contact. “The whole team gets into action at one time, and moves like one man in great dashes down the field, striving to defeat the opposing side and put the ball over the line. (And) tackling is more thrilling than anything in the Australian game.”

He played second row and number 8, becoming a ‘line-out specialist’ not afraid to throw his weight around, a quality that made him a marked man among the Kiwis. After the 1932 loss against the All Blacks and a break to focus on medical studies, Weary returned to the SCG for the New Zealand Bledisloe tour of 1934. Alex Ross, who like Weary went on to become a surgeon until the ripe age of 90, would captain the team at fullback. Rugby Club legend Aub Hodgson, the infamous host of nightly parties with overflowing baths of ice and champagne, also played in Number 8 as “the battlecruiser [that was] free to get into action from the open side.” After playing with the NZ team in 1932 (born in Sydney, raised in Wellington), Rugby Club member Evan ‘Ted’ Jessep was also included, slotted next to Weary in the forwards to battle his past kinsmen.

On the back of a dominating start to the first test, a takeout strategy was put in place by All Black’s captain Frank Kilby for Weary to be pinned by one enforcer and his face smashed-in by another. With a clearly broken nose, Weary refused to leave the ground without evening the score – a notch he accomplished with a knee to the head of an unassuming AB, although not the man he was looking for. Post-match, Weary downed two beers for anesthetic, then rearranged his own nose using a toothbrush up each nostril. Australia won the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in history, with the victory largely attributed by NZ flanker Jack Manchester to a strong forward pack. “In past years, we had always regarded ourselves as a little superior in the forwards,” describes ‘Lugger’ poignantly after play. “On this tour, however, we met forwards who held their own in every phase of play.”

Weary kept up rugby during the war prior to capture. While playing for the Commonwealth Combined Forces,  he gained an invitation from the British Barbarians. He faced the French with the Australian Army XV in Beirut and captained the team ‘Jerusalem’ during his time in Palestine, which held matches at the rocky base of the Mount of Olives. Rugby was a passion Weary maintained while acting as Assistant Director of Medical Services (ADMS) for headquarters throughout the Middle East during WW2. After the majority of Australian troops were withdrawn in 1942 and dispersed elsewhere, Weary’s unit was sent to Java and he was promoted to Lt Colonel. It was here that Weary became a POW after Japanese invasion and lead to his now legendary position as lifesaving surgeon to malnourished prisoners, first in Singapore then on the Thai-Burma railway. Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop has statues erected in his honour in Melbourne and at the Australian War Memorial, and is a calibre of man proudly linked to Australian rugby and it’s community.

After the war and like the 1989 pre-match dinner, Weary had been an honorary member and guest speaker at both ARU and Rugby Club functions. Weary is a member of the British Barbarians and has been inducted into the Wallaby Hall of Fame. Residing in Melbourne during his later years, Weary frequented the Rugby Club regularly, although he was not the only one from that 1934 Bledisloe-winning team. Evan ‘Ted’ Jessep, who played for New Zealand in 1932 then in Australia’s front row next to Weary, has his AB and Wallaby test caps under The Club’s collection. Aub Hodgson visited so regularly he had his own designated corner to the right side of the ground floor bar – a seat still marked with the plaque ‘Aub’s corner’ to this day. The Rugby Club also holds Captain Alex Ross’s 1934 honorary cap in the Waratah room, a rare item for it’s green colour and coat of arms which was the first of it’s kind in Australian rugby history.

Their 1934 team photo is on display in the Waratah room on level two.

It is stories like this that show the proud team spirit and sheer physical courage of so many of our Rugby players.  We want to recall and honour their exploits, both on and off the playing field.