Desmond McGovern was born in Toowoomba on 13th February, 1928. His father had a bakery business in Grantham, near Gatton. There was no hospital in Grantham, so he was born at the Toowoomba hospital. Des was the youngest of three brothers, and they all had their share of work to do in the bakery before and after school. They moved to Clifton, about 50 km south of Toowoomba, when he was about 10 or 11 and his dad continued to work as a baker. The boys went to the Convent school in the town. Des didn’t mind school, but viewed himself more as a worker than a studier, due to the working-class values his father instilled in him. While living in Clifton, the three brothers helped their father with bread deliveries, using a horse and cart – they were responsible for loading the cart and taking care of the horse.
In the early ’40s, Des went to Nudgee Junior College at Indooroopilly, Brisbane for a year and then went to St Joseph’s (Senior) Nudgee College nearby and boarded there for three years of high school. Denis Flannery, who played club football for Ipswich Brothers and represent Australia in 13 Tests, was born in the same year as Des – 1928 – and was one of his classmates. Nudgee College is renowned for producing famous sportsmen, but is most famous as a rugby school. While living in Clifton, Des had played schoolboy rugby league against teams from Allora and Warwick, but rugby league was barely mentioned at Nudgee, let alone played there – and Des understood that. So, Des gave rugby a go.
As a schoolboy, Des was not very big – the coaches felt he was not big or strong enough to play for the rugby firsts. But he still had opportunities to play against other GPS schools (Great Public Schools Association of Qld), such as Church of England Grammar School, Ipswich Grammar School and The Southport School. He started off as a scrum half and then moved to fly half. Over time, he tried himself in different spots. It is ironic that he would go on to represent Queensland and Australia in rugby league as a winger, yet never focused on that position while playing rugby at Nudgee.
Des thoroughly enjoyed his life at school. He believed he was getting a good education, and not just in the classroom. The boarding experience was a good one for him – he thought getting some independence and being out on his own was a valuable life lesson. If there was anything difficult to endure, and being away from home and family was not always easy, he just decided to put up with it. He was a very popular student with the Brothers and classmates – always welcoming people with a smile and a positive attitude. Nothing ever worried him too much – he tried to get along with everybody, and his happy-go-lucky character, along with his generous nature, meant that no-one really had a bad word to say about him. He always the type of boy to ‘have a go’, so he was happy to participate in whatever sport was on offer for a particular school term – everything from cricket to tennis. He felt that the Christian Brothers were great and kind people – in his opinion, they did their very best to take care of their young charges.
While Des was still at Nudgee, his father moved his family out to a place called Rathdownie, near Beaudesert, and opened yet another bakery business. When Des moved back home, the closest sporting activity was rugby league. There is a little suburb outside of Beaudesert called Christmas Creek and they had a rugby league team there. At this stage, he could have happily played either union or league. But once he started playing for Christmas Creek he never played a serious game of rugby again.
He had a year or so with the Christmas Creek Team. Then he got his first job – he took on an apprenticeship in Laidley, in the Gatton area, as an electrician. He stayed in Laidley for three years and this was the time when he began putting on weight and gaining some inches – and started to get into the higher grades. Interestingly, his best playing position had still not been established. After some consideration, it was decided to play him on the wing, and he began to concentrate on this position. At first, he played in the Gatton competition. He then played for Laidley in the Ipswich competition in 1946. It was during this year that Des first started to get noticed by selectors. He was picked as a reserve for Ipswich’s Bulimba Cup team and was also a reserve for Ipswich against the touring English side. Laidley did not field a team in the Ipswich competition in 1947, as it rejoined the reformed Lockyer League, and so Des decided to join Ipswich club Moulders for that season.
Des was to make a life-changing decision that year. After watching Des play well in a game, Jack Lee from All Whites in Toowoomba approached Des and asked him if he might be interested in coming to Toowoomba to play. He was handling his electrician’s job OK, but wasn’t overly rapt with it. So he said he would give it a go and made the move. He came at the beginning of a golden era of the club. During the six years he stayed at All Whites he played in 69 games, scoring 59 tries and All Whites won four premierships, including three in a row in 1948-50. In his first year, 1948, the club facilities were not so great. Club officials decided to give the team’s home ground, the Athletic Oval, a facelift, so the team played their games that year at the Old Toowoomba Showgrounds. The team used a horse stall as a ‘dressing room’ and the ‘shower’ had no hot water – it was a jet that had been previously been used to wash horses and the players had the choice of getting an icy-cold blast or going home in their kit.
Early in the season, Des got in coach Ray Brown’s ear, convincing him to give him a go at five-eighth in a game. Unfortunately for Des, he had a shocker. Playing on the wing, on the other hand, was a different story. He started to feel at home in that position, and Brown was more than willing to keep him there. Den then made the decision to undertake a thorough analysis of his own strengths and weaknesses. He knew he was not the fastest winger, so he thought about how he could make up for this. He decided to focus on defence and fitness.
With defence, he always made sure he played outside his opposing winger, so that he couldn’t get around Des and beat him with pace. Through good positioning, he would force him back inside to look for room to run, so that players like half-back Keith Holman, who was a great defender, could come across and cut them off. This focus on teamwork meant that he was rarely beaten. When tackling, he timed his hit so that he would be there when the player received the ball. He felt that if he came after the opposition player got the ball they had time to pass or swerve or step around him. As for fitness, he and a couple of other players, including Kevin Boshammer, used to go out to the Toowoomba Golf Course early in the morning three times a week. This was in addition to the regular club training. They did a circle of it and there were plenty of hills to help build up their stamina. After a cross-country run they did some short sprints, at a variety of speeds. All-in-all, this regime took around an hour.
Of all his years at All Whites, 1950 was Des’ standout season. In 13 games, he scored 15 tries, the most significant one being in the Grand Final against Newtown. Pundits expected Newtown to win, as they had beaten All Whites in three of their last four matches. With 60 seconds left in the game, Newtown was up 3 points to 2 and seemed certain to get their second-ever premiership. All Whites had the ball deep inside their own half and the ball was passed along their backline. Tim McSweeney made a break through the tired Newtown defence, with Des was racing up on his inside. Des took the pass on the fly and scored, with no opposition player able to catch him. Excited All Whites supporters poured on to the field, delirious over the ‘miracle try’ and surrounded the goal-kicker, Frank Brennan. Calmly, he slotted the ball through the posts to extend the winning margin.
Three weeks later, a testimonial game was played between All Whites and Brisbane Valleys. It was held in honour of Frank Brennan, who played a total of 110 games for All Whites and was a former Toowoomba Bulimba Cup captain. During his career, Des was to become known as something of a try-scoring wizard, scoring multiple tries in matches many times. On this occasion, he crossed the line five times and was the main scorer for All Whites, who won the game 44 to 27.
In 1951, Toowoomba started their amazing six year Bulimba Cup (an annual competition between Toowoomba, Brisbane and Ipswich) winning streak, and Des was a part of this team for four out of the six years (1951, 1952, 1953 and 1956). Des put his own exclamation mark on the streak by scoring four tries in the final game of the 1956 Bulimba Cup competition against Ipswich, helping Toowoomba go undefeated in that year.
Toowoomba did not only do well in the Bulimba Cup. Toowoomba was known as a rugby league powerhouse at the time, so Sydney or Brisbane club teams sometimes came to Toowoomba to test their skills. And the Toowoomba team would win more often than not. For example, on June 1st 1952, the Sydney Eastern Suburbs club visited the Athletic Oval and were beaten 24 to 18. Des was in great form that day and scored three excellent tries. He was clearly the best back on the field and spectators at the game were impressed with his quick thinking and positioning.
The Toowoomba coach throughout the Bulimba Cup winning streak was ‘The Downs Fox’, Duncan Thompson (See Special Feature). His standing as a coach can be measured in the fact that in the year before he started coaching Toowoomba they did not win a single game, and in the year after he retired, Ipswich were champions. During his tenure, they only ever had the odd bad game. Along with ‘Nigger’ Brown, Des felt that Duncan had the biggest impact in shaping his career. Des had the highest regard for him, and viewed him as ‘a real gentleman’.
When it came to coaching, Duncan Thompson had two distinct sides. At times he could be very caring, but at other times he was an inflexible and ruthless taskmaster. Evidence of the former is shown in the fact that Duncan had built up a network of Toowoomba rugby league identities to support his players, such as ‘Nigger’ Brown, Mick Madsen and Herb Steinohrt. If a player wanted to talk something over and Duncan was busy, or he thought one of his network could offer specific advice, he said to go and have a yarn to one of those blokes. They offered a lot of assistance that was greatly appreciated by the players.
Duncan was also fiercely loyal to players that he felt were loyal to him. Around the time when Des was about to go to England for the 1952-53 Kangaroo Tour, a new set of boots came out in England that were more like a shoe. Duncan heard about the innovation and asked Des if he would bring back a pair of the new boots. Des was more than happy to comply with the request, and soon after Des’ return, Duncan started manufacturing them in Australian and they became very popular. This loyalty was reciprocated in the form of no less than four aerograms to Des while he was in England with the Kangaroos. Duncan congratulated him on his efforts and encouraged him to hold his head high. This was particularly appreciated by Des, as he was struggling with confidence on the tour because he was playing well but not getting picked for the Test matches.
Duncan’s stern side was legendary. Players would often have a beer (or several) together after a game and would meet at such-and-such hotel – but no-one ever dared drink in front of him. Two stories show what could happen if a player got on Duncan’s ‘wrong side’. The first is with regard to the way in which he thought the full-back should play. Duncan believed that ball possession was of paramount importance, which meant that the full-back should never kick the ball, at a time when kicking duals between opposition custodians were quite common. Billy Sullivan was playing at full-back one particular day and although he knew how Duncan thought, he kicked the ball. He had seen the opposition number 1 out of position, and he was proved ‘right’ in his reading of the game when a Toowoomba player ran through the defence, picked up the ball and scored. When the next game came along, Sully wasn’t playing – he wasn’t picked. Des asked Duncan why. Duncan replied that although Billy knew that he didn’t like full-backs kicking the ball, he went ahead and did it anyway and that’s why he wasn’t in the team.
The second story revolves around Duncan’s response to a player that decided to leave Toowoomba. Brian Jones had played for Parramatta in the Sydney competition, and was the highest scorer in the NSWRFL in 1955 with 109 points. He moved to Queensland and joined Toowoomba Valleys. His form was so good that he played six games for his adopted State in 1957 and 1958. When Brian got a job offer to be the coach of Ayr in the Foley Shield competition in North Queensland, he went to talk about it with Duncan. Duncan told him that as he had helped his development as a player, Brian should stay in Toowoomba. Brian quite naturally really wanted to go, as he was offered a house in addition to a very good salary. Duncan said that if he went that was his business, but he wouldn’t get picked for Queensland again – and he wasn’t.
Whether the players loved him or hated him, Duncan was the best analyst in the game. He was always looking for attacking and defensive trends in opposition teams. For example, when he was coaching Queensland, he noticed that the NSW full-back often used to come into the backline. Duncan told his defenders to look for this and as soon as the opposition full-back looked like he was coming into the backline, they were to fly in and knock him over. Although it didn’t always succeed, this strategy was generally successful in disrupting NSW backline movements. He was excellent at passing on his ideas to the players in a clear and thorough way that they all understood, sometimes using a magnetic coaching board as an instructional tool.
In training, he focused on his pet concept of ‘contract football’ – players were told to focus on retaining possession by avoiding being tackled with the ball and to keeping it alive. Duncan would soon pull you into gear if you didn’t try to develop the necessary understanding that this kind of football requires. The players also did more conventional training, such as push-ups, sit-ups and stretching. There were tackle drills that, at certain times, included tackle bags and passing the ball while running up and down the field. If you were in the backline, you’d have the forwards in opposition to you. They’d come up and you’d have to pass. Duncan always made sure that his training sessions had a bit of variety.
Des’ breakout representative year was 1952. This was the year that he was picked to play for his first Test for Australia – against the Kiwis in Sydney in the third Test. Leading up to the Test on July 2nd, it was obvious that Des was equal second in the pecking order of wingers in the national selectors’ minds. Noel Pidding was first, and then came he and Dennis Flannery – Des was named as reserve for the second Test and replaced Denis in the third. Although he did not play in a winning Queensland team that year, he did have one spectacular Bulimba Cup game. On June 8th, Des scored four tries against Brisbane, and Toowoomba won 36-26. Good judges viewed this polished effort as confirmation of his continuous rise as a winger of class over the previous few years, and the selectors were sufficiently impressed to include him as a member of the 1952-53 Kangaroos.
However, this success was in stark contrast to his interstate debut in 1949. The game was held at the SCG in horrendous conditions – the playing surface was a sea of mud, as Sydney had seen two days of continuous pouring rain before the match. Len Kenny had originally been pencilled in to start, but he had gained 10 kg while playing overseas for Leeds, and as the Queensland selectors knew that he wasn’t so good on a ‘wet track’, they decided to go with Des. Des lined up against big Ron Roberts, the NSW winger who was to go on to score the Ashes winning try a year later. Des let him through in the first 10 minutes and found the winger hard to handle all game. Des was the first to admit that he had been outplayed due to a lack of experience, but he was determined to learn from his mistakes and became a fine defensive player.
Before the 1952-53 Kangaroos left Australia, the Ipswich Moulders Football Club organised a tribute night for Des. The fact that Des had not played for Moulders since the end of the 1947 season, and had never represented Ipswich in a Bulimba Cup game, is testament to Des’ popularity and standing in the Ipswich Rugby League community. VIP guests at the function included Jack Lee, the President of All Whites, and fellow Kangaroo Denis Flannery. The Moulders club presented Des with a suitcase and a travelling rug and congratulated him on his selection. When responding, Des said that he was gratified that even after five years his mates in Ipswich had not forgotten him. He thanked the Moulders club for giving him his start in the game. When Denis Flannery was asked to speak, he said that his Nudgee College classmate had a fighting spirit and was the type of player needed on the tour.
Des really enjoyed the boat trip over to Europe on the Strathnaver, particularly the stopovers at several ports after the Kangaroos left Fremantle. He loved sightseeing because, in his mind, it was something different and the people were different. He loved learning about other cultures because he thought it was a great education. At Colombo, the team were taken on a tour by Peter Foenander, the pre-eminent cricket journalist in the area. The Kangaroos were witness to the annual Aadi Vel Festival and saw a colourful procession with musicians playing traditional music passing through the main streets of the city. Afterwards, they went to Mt Lavinia, famous for its beautiful white beaches. They also visited a Buddhist temple, the racecourse, cricket ground and went to three different receptions.
In Bombay (now Mumbai), the most unusual ‘attraction’ was the Tower of Silence, a Parsi (Zoroastrian) structure where dead bodies are exposed to vultures. The Kangaroos also saw an amazingly huge open-air laundry. Hundreds of Dhobis (washerpeople) spent many hours every day handwashing clothes from all over the city using traditional cleaning methods. At Aden, a British protectorate at the time and now part of Yemen, the Kangaroos were welcomed by HMS Illustrious, a British aircraft carrier accompanying troop ships carrying soldiers to Korea. Port Said, Egypt, was the last port the tourists visited. A revolution had just occurred and martial law was still in place. Files of armed troops were stationed outside most of the places that they visited.
Des felt that at the beginning of the tour Clive Churchill had something against him and was ‘stand-offish’ – in Des’ mind perhaps due to the fact that he was picked for the tour in place of a Souths teammate. Churchill himself later wrote that he felt that there was an anti-Souths bias with regard to the tour. One day, Des was playing pool at a hotel with a few teammates. Churchill came up to the table and grabbed one of the balls. Des enquired what Clive wanted with the ball and what was he going to do with it. Clive asked him why he wanted to know. Then there was the following exchange:
‘Put the bloody thing back where it belongs.’
‘Oh, so that is what you want, is it?’
Clive paused for a moment, and then returned the ball and walked away.
Des was not happy about the incident, and it was the only time anything really annoyed him on the whole tour. However, Clive did come over and speak to Des later on. During the conversation, Clive said that they would be good mates from then on, which they were, as they got a lot closer as the tour progressed.
In his third game of the tour, Des accomplished one of the greatest try-scoring feats in the history of rugby league. Less than 4000 people braved the conditions to see Australia’s defeat of Featherstone Rovers. Des’ spectacular achievement of scoring six tries is all the more remarkable in that there was continuous rain throughout the match and the ball was extremely greasy. Two of the tries scored were due to Des’ ability to size up the opposition. He felt that he could beat the five-eighth Cording for speed. Des twice came infield after Australia had won a scrum to make the extra man and, with a quick burst, beat the five-eighth on the inside to score.
The highpoint of the match came when Des scored a hat-trick of tries within eight minutes in the second half. In each case Des created his own opportunities, showing amazing dexterity by picking up a loose ball and scoring unaided. For the first try, a pass from a teammate did not reach him; in the second instance, a pass was thrown behind him and he had to turn around to gather it; and for the third, a rolling ball came in his direction. Dennis Flannery scored three times and Ken McCaffrey once, making it 10 tries in total for the Queensland trio. After the game, Des received a letter from Duncan Thompson, congratulating him on his efforts.
When the 1952-53 Kangaroos side was picked, critics judged them as one of the most inexperienced and immature sides to ever leave Australia. Only three of the team had gone on the 1948-49 tour. The press was very harsh, with even their right to be regarded as of truly international standard being challenged. By the end of the tour, however, Australia only needed 15 points in their last game against Dewsbury to beat the record for the highest number of points scored by a touring side – 763 – held by Les Cubitt’s 1921-22 Kangaroos. Des finished his English tour in style, scoring the try that broke the record. There were a number of Australians in the crowd that day and they cheered loudly for Des as he went back into position. There was naturally a great deal of jubilation in the Australian camp and they celebrated long after the game was over.
In the game against Cannes, Des added to his reputation as a try-scoring wizard by scoring five tries in the first 16 minutes. In a bizarre twist, the game was terminated with six minutes to go because no one was game to retrieve the game balls. Kangaroo goal-kickers had booted goals high over the bar, out of the ground and into an adjoining garden where savage dogs were kept. As there were no other available balls, the referees called a halt to proceedings. On his return to Toowoomba Des, along with Ken McCaffrey and Duncan Hall, was interviewed and he mentioned that he was confused by the French referees’ interpretations on more than one occasion. Still, Des thoroughly enjoyed the French part of the tour.
Des always felt that his career highlight was his representative season in 1953. The powers-that-be had finally decided to have a trophy for the interstate series, so Qld and NSW were playing for the newly established Dr H. C. Finn Trophy. Down two games to nil, the Queenslanders were desperate to do something to turn things around. Duncan Thompson started working on a defence to negate the faster and perhaps more individually brilliant southerners, especially Churchill. The team practised the tactics designed by Thompson every day for a week before the third game. The strategy was that when Churchill got the ball, the Queenslanders were to create an extra man in defence by leaving the winger unmarked – and if the winger did get the ball, the full-back, Norm Pope, rushed up to cover. The tactics worked. Churchill had a very quiet game and Queensland won the match, played at the ’Gabba, 32 to 23. Des had a blinder. He scored three tries and was excellent in defence, successfully getting the man he was marking several times ‘ball and all’.
If anything, Des played even better in the final game of the series at the Exhibition Ground. He believed Clive Churchill was the key player on the NSW team and, buoyed by his success in the previous game, decided to take him on. On the first occasion, when he only had Churchill to beat in order to score, Des slowed down as he approached Churchill. Clive came in for the tackle, and Des stepped, making his man go the wrong way, and kept on going. Des thought, ‘Gee, I’ve done that all right’. So when he got another chance, he tried the same thing. And it worked again. After that, he thought to himself, ‘That’ll do me for a while’. The crowd behind where he scored was almost all Toowoomba people and he could still hear the noise they made ringing in his ears long after the match was over. Des was very pleased because he really felt he had achieved something against the player he perceived as the best full-back in the world. The Queenslanders, using similar strategies employed during the previous game, won the game 22-13 and tied the series. Respected journalist Jack Reardon nominated Des as Australia’s best winger.
When the 1953 Australian team was announced for a New Zealand tour, Des’ name was among those chosen. He was very pleased, as he felt he had played well in the interstate series and earnt his spot. Playing against South Island in Dunedin, and hoping for a place in the second Test, Des scored four fine tries in Australia’s 66-9 win. Unluckily, Des was injured in the last minute of the game, and had to be helped from the field, with Albert Paul and Alec Watson assisting him. He had tried to step off his right foot when he was running, but slipped and fell. As he did so, he hurt his right knee – the muscle behind the knee got twisted. Fortunately, he was able to move freely after receiving treatment.
A week later, on July 7th, there was an interesting case of déjà vu. The Australians, including Des, played against Taranaki, and the match was a ‘mud bath’. The last time Des had played a game for a touring Australian team against a non-Test opponent in similar conditions was the previous year against Featherstone Rovers when he scored six tries. Amazingly, he was to score six tries again in this match, even though like in Featherstone, the conditions were terrible and the ball was like a piece of soap. Fortunately for Des, this is where the déjà vu ended, for unlike in England, he was chosen for the final Test match on July 18th. Match observers noted his speed and his ability to step inside in attack.
The Taranaki ground turned into a swamp after the first few minutes. Players on both sides had their faces and playing gear blackened with mud. Later, the referee admitted that he had to wait until he saw the direction the forwards ran to know which players belonged to which side. The mud was of a particularly sticky variety, and players had to scrub each other for an hour after the game to remove the ‘black glue’. With all the funny twists and turns, the final score was almost an afterthought – Australia 62, Taranaki 3.
Des backed up two days later to help Australia beat South Auckland 63-11 by top scoring again with five tries. Spectators watching the game could not understand how Australia had lost the first two Tests, given the excellent ball handling, passing, cover defence and backing up shown by the tourists. Some of the try movements were spectacular, covering 90 yards or more. The two captains, Clive Churchill and Travers Hardwick, clashed throughout most of the game, and things came to a head in the final minutes. The New Zealanders, in attack, spotted a potential opening and kicked the ball ahead. Hardwick came through the Australian defensive line at speed, but Churchill got to the ball first and dived on it. Hardwick fell on top of him and a fight broke out. After some punches were thrown, it was clear Hardwick came out of the encounter the loser, and left the field, with blood flowing from a cut over his left eye. Neither player shook hands after the game, and neither commented about the incident to the press.
Before the third Test, Des had scored 19 tries in five matches, including a gem of a try playing against Auckland when he caught a pass from Churchill slightly in front of him and balanced the ball on his fingertips for several seconds as he ran. But he had not played in either the first or second Test. Some observers were wondering out loud what more Des had to do to get picked, as he had been the most consistent winger on the tour – but standing in his way was the incumbent, Brian Carlson, the champion NSW winger from Newcastle. Despite Carlson’s undeniable ability, Des was chosen over him. Sydney newspapers called this a ‘shock omission’, but Des thoroughly deserved the opportunity. Clive Churchill was later to comment that Des was the most improved player on the tour.
Late in the Test match, it seemed that Australia was not going to win any of the tour Tests, with the visitors down 13-16. Australia was able to redress the situation somewhat when Harry Wells, the Wollongong centre three-quarter, scored with three minutes to go and Noel Pidding converted. It was a very dour but even affair, with both teams using their forwards to try to gain an advantage on the heavy ground. Both sides’ backs had limited opportunities, but were able to handle the ball well and were involved in good attacking movements. Des acquitted himself well, never being beaten in defence and positioning himself well in attack. When he played in a Bulimba Cup game on August 9th for Toowoomba against Brisbane after coming back from the tour, journalists commented on his improved play. One scribe commented that he was yards faster and more polished in his all-round ability.
In 1954, Des decided to move to Rockhampton. Rockhampton Railways advertised a player-coach position for the season, and Des was the successful applicant. His wages were £25 a week, which included a position in a sports store and free room and board for himself and his wife. In his only season he led his team to the minor premiership, but went down to Fitzroys in the Grand Final in front of a crowd of over 2000. In the first few minutes of the game, Fitzroys knocked on in their own half and Railways had the scrum feed. From 25 yards out, Des received a long pass and then went at full speed for the corner. No opposition player came near him and Railways led 3-0. Despite some stiff resistance, Railways eventually lost 20-13. At the presentation ceremony, Des received the Partridge Cup, which was the runner-up trophy, from Mr J Browne, the chairman of the Rockhampton Rugby League.
After spending 1955 in Charleville, Des returned to Toowoomba in 1956 and signed up for Newtown. In his two years away from Toowoomba, Des played all eight games for Queensland against NSW, including playing for the Maroons against the Great Britain and French touring sides. He did not lose focus or fitness, which sometimes happened to players that went to play in the country leagues. In his first interstate game of 1956 Des scored a try and showed that while he had lost a little of his speed, he had mastered the ability to position himself well in attack and defence. Queensland lost this game, but won the next one, with Des scoring twice. When the first Test team was announced to play the visiting New Zealanders, Des’ name was not among them and many felt he was very unlucky to miss out, although he was picked for Tests two and three.
Ten Queenslanders, including four players from the undefeated Toowoomba side – Des, Don Furner, Ripper Doyle and Jim Payne – were picked in the 1956-57 Kangaroos squad, the most since 1933-34. Des played in a total of 12 games against English club sides. His standout games were against Northern Bradford, Leigh and Wigan, and Australia won all three games. The game against Northern Bradford was played under floodlights and Des scored two tries, despite injuring his ankle before the game. One of them was scored after Des stole the ball from the arms of the Bradford full-back. In the next two games Des played sterling defence against the two best wingers in England, Brian Bevan and Billy Boston, giving neither player any latitude. Australia lost the first Test against the Great Britain side 10-21, with Des picked as a reserve, and he felt it was his tackling that got him picked for the second Test. In this match, Des handled Billy Boston well for the second time on the tour, and Australia won 22-9.
The players would train every day bar Sundays, and the time spent training depended on what kind of game was coming up. If it was ‘just’ a game against a club side, you would go for an hour or so. If it was a Test match, you’d train for 1½ to two hours. Forwards and backs trained separately and then would come and combine. You wouldn’t go hard in defence, but you would still tackle. With the backline, it did take time to get combinations working and the players just kept working at it until things started to click.
The Ashes-deciding third Test was played at Swinton on December 15. With Brian Davies and Norm Provan not playing due to injury, and with Des dislocating his shoulder in attempting to score in the first five minutes, Australia did not score a point. At the time the injury occurred, Des was at full pace and just got around Billy Boston, but did not have much room left to work in. The full-back came across and knocked him over. Boston came in over the top, slamming Des’ shoulder into the ground. After he recovered, Des went back to the dressing room and a big, long needle was put into his shoulder and then he was told to go back on because there were no replacements. So, Des had to play with a still dislocated shoulder for the rest of the game. Des had a quick chat with Keith Holman. They decided that Des should stand outside Boston and drive him back infield when he got the ball, and Keith would take care of him, which he did.
Although Des’ injury was so severe that he was not to play another game on tour, he wasn’t angry with Billy Boston. He viewed what happened as being part of the game, and was one of those things that couldn’t be helped. Des was never interested in holding anything against an opposing player. He and Billy even had a beer after the match.
Playing France in Paris at the Parc des Princes on November 1st was a big thrill for Des. When both teams lined up for the national anthems he felt a strong surge of pride and was impressed with the ceremonial preliminaries before the game. Both teams were evenly matched, and with three minutes left in the game, the result was still not decided. France was behind 8-10 and on the attack when Roger Rey, one of their centres, dropped the ball. In a brilliant piece of attacking football, Des came through at speed, kicked the ball off the ground, regathered while on the fly and ran another 50 yards to score. Australia won the Test and went through the French part of the tour without losing a game.
1957 was Des’ last year as a player. He had recovered from his shoulder injury and, up until April, he was playing as well as ever. In the Toowoomba competition playing for Newtown, he scored 10 tries in the first six matches. However, due to ruptured kidneys Des became seriously ill and did not play again after April, as he could not receive a medical clearance. He spent several weeks in hospital, and although picked for the Queensland team, had to withdraw. He was also having major problems with his back, and so although he was able to go back to work, Des decided to retire from all forms of football. Although Newtown lost a wonderful player, they gained an excellent coach. In 1958, they won the Toowoomba competition, a triumph for Des in his first year of coaching the club. Newtown succeeded in gaining only their second-ever premiership, not having won one since 1933.
Des was never the fastest winger around, but his ability to read the game and place himself in advantageous positions on the field made him one of the deadliest ever finishers. Des could score multiple tries in a game, no matter who he was playing with or against. On top of his freakish abilities, he was one of the most popular players to represent Australia, being regarded by everyone around him as a class act, both on and off the field.