Austin Sarsfield Ireland (Grally) Gralton
Halfback, Selector, Coach
Australia (3 tests 2 v Great Britain, 1 v New Zealand)
Queensland (29 Matches, 25 v NSW, 4 v NZ, 2 v Great Britain)
Valley Football Club
Christian Brothers (Coach)
Austin Sarsfield Ireland Gralton remains one of the most important, influential, and long tenured figures in the game of Rugby Union in Queensland and Australia. A leading player during the establishment of the Union in Queensland Gralton was a member of the first ever Australian Rugby Union test team in 1899. He was described as a “dour defender, never beaten, [who] lives for football.” His long career proved these sentiments. Following his retirement from the game as a player in 1903, Gralton became a state selector and coach and contributed to the development of the game and many of its stars in the state until his untimely death in 1919.
The youngest son of Henry and Margaret (née Dobbins) Gralton, Austin was actually born in New South Wales in the town of Kempsey on 9 February 1871. Like a number of other prominent players in Brisbane around the turn of the twentieth century, Gralton learned his rugby at St Josephs Gregory Terrace. As school rugby was sporadic and played on an irregular basis records of his Terrace career remains sparse.
Upon leaving school Gralton joined the Alhambras club which played in the Junior Division of the then Northern Rugby Union competition in Brisbane. Although not in the top grade Gralton’s passing game was commented upon favourably during the 1890 season. It took two years for the Alhambras club to gain admission into first grade. During their first year in the top division Alhambras were defeated 38-0 by Past Grammars, the best club in the competition giving the junior club a taste of the standard of play and of Grammars dominance. It was during this game the Gralton first showed his mettle. Although his side was defeated heavily, Gralton made a number of decisive breaks and he was singled out for praise in the Brisbane Courier.
Gralton’s improvement continued in 1893. He was selected in the ‘stripes’ team for an intrastate trial in preparation for the visit of the New Zealand All Blacks later in the season. The young halfback was not immediately selected for the state team. However, after a fine performance for the Queensland second XVIII against the visiting New Zealanders in 1893 Gralton was elevated in the state team to meet the All Blacks in the second of their two matches against the Maroons. Despite the sanguine expectations of the Queenslanders the visitors were victorious 36-0.
At the beginning of the 1894 season Gralton shifted to the Boomerangs club and became a star performer at halfback for the eventual Brisbane club Premiers. Gralton’s representative career continued in 1894. After scoring a try in the trial match for the Queensland team the twenty three year old halfback was named in the state side for the 6 match tour of New South Wales for that season’s intercolonial series. Following the tour Gralton returned to Brisbane where he helped Boomerangs defeat the visiting Sydney University side in two exhibition games that attracted 5000 spectators to each match. To end what had been a successful season for Gralton he was part of the Boomerangs 1894 Brisbane Rugby premiership winning team.
In what was to become a trend with the talented Gralton, he did not return to the playing field until a number of weeks into the 1895 Brisbane club Rugby season. Gralton however, remained with the defending premiers Boomerangs and his play was rewarded with selection in the Brisbane team that defeated a Toowoomba selection in what acted as a trial for the Queensland team for that year’s intercolonial season. Gralton was selected in the Queensland team and took the field weighing 10 stone in Queensland 26-16 win over New South Wales in the first of the intercolonial matches for the 1895 season. This was the first season during which Queensland wore maroon jerseys, but the series honours were shared with victory to Queensland in the first game 26-16 before the New South Welshmen hit back 11-8 in a tight match.
Uncharacteristically Gralton played in the opening match of the 1896 club season and the local press reported that he was in “fine form” for the Boomerangs in their first game. The young halfback’s importance to Queensland Rugby was becoming evident. At the team meeting following the naming of the Queensland side for the 1896 season the twenty-five year old Gralton was named on the team’s selection committee for the tour of New South Wales and New Zealand. Strangely, Gralton was a part of the three man committee that named him in the unfamiliar centre-three-quarter position for the match won by the New South Welshman 15-9 in front of 10,000 spectators in Sydney. Following the defeat the team then continued on to New Zealand for 3 week, 7 match tour , where Gralton captained the Queensland second XVI against the 1896 New Zealand All Blacks in midweek match.
It was not until a number of weeks into the season that Gralton made his first appearance for the Boomerang’s club in a “splendid contest” with the defending Premiers Citys. Despite his incisive running Gralton’s efforts were not enough to overcome the star studded opposition and Boomerangs suffered a 13-3 loss. Despite his early season form, Gralton was omitted from the Queensland side to meet the visiting All Blacks in the opening to the 1897 representative season; however he was included in the team for the second match against the New Zealanders. His presence was not enough. The All Blacks “outclassed” the Queenslanders 24-6. Gralton went on to play in the opening match against New South Wales in the intercolonial season – won by the Welshmen 26-8 – but he was omitted from the side for the return match.
In what had now become a personal tradition Gralton’s first match of the 1898 season came against the defending premiers Citys a number of weeks into the season. The premiers were victorious again. As the Boomerang’s halfback Gralton was a prime figure in what the Brisbane Courier referred to as “the one objectionable feature of the game [which] was the new practice of letting the players put the ball in the scrum.” The reporter claimed this innovation led to slower and rougher play by all players. Gralton captained the Boomerang’s club for the season and his fine play was again rewarded with selection in the Queensland side. Queensland was victorious in the intercolonial series after winning the first match 14-5 and then securing a draw in the return encounter.
The 1899 season signalled a change in Gralton’s career when he moved to the newly formed Valley Football Club. The move did not detract from Gralton’s play. He was selected in the Queensland team to met New South Wales in the 1899 intercolonial series. This series had inordinate significance. After a year’s delay Reverend Matthew Mullineux was bringing the first team of touring Rugby Union players to Australia from Great Britain since the establishment of the game in the antipodes. Aware that a number of international matches would be played, Queensland’s sole selector Fred Lea selected a strong team for the opening two matches of the annual interstate series against New South Wales in Sydney, for these matches would act as selection trails for the Australian team. Despite losing both matches Queensland found itself with 6 players named in the first ever Australian Rugby Union team; Gralton was named at halfback. Playing in his customary felt hat to keep the sun of his head, Gralton kicked off to begin Australia’s first ever test match. Sensing the occasion, the Australian’s scored two late, converted tries to win the nation’s first ever test 11-3.
In the lead up to the second test match the Great Britain team travelled to Queensland where they were defeated in acrimonious circumstances by the Queensland team also by the score of 11-3 with Gralton playing an important role from halfback. Mullineux’s men travelled to North Queensland for a series of matches and the interstate series resumed with the two matches between Queensland and New South Wales in Brisbane resulting in one victory apiece. Despite playing a leading role, Gralton was inexplicably omitted from the second test team by a re-vamped selection committee that included two Queensland selectors and he was overlooked for the third test also; Australia lost both matches. Selectors made a number of changes for the fourth test, with Gralton one of those they hoped would help lift Australia’s fortunes. Unfortunately the momentum had shifted inexorably to the tourist and they prevailed 13-0 for a 3-1 series victory.
For the second successive season Gralton began 1900 with a new club. Merthyr was also a new club to the QRU’s Brisbane Premiership competition showing the still unstable composition of the game in Queensland. Unsurprisingly though Gralton’s form remained constant. Now permanently ensconced as the Queensland halfback, Gralton featured in the state’s unlucky 11-10 victory in the first match and was complimented as playing a “splendid game” in Queensland 11-9 loss to New South Wales in front of 8000 spectators in heavy conditions at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the return encounter. The Queensland side returned to Brisbane and defeated New South Wales in both return matches for the first time in the history of the intercolonial contests, including a 20-0 victory in the fourth match.
In a bid to provide stability to the Brisbane club competition and end any claims of professionalism the QRU moved to instigate electorate based club rugby for the 1901 season. Under this system players would be required to play with the club based in the district in which they lived. As the Merthyr club was forced out of existence, Gralton joined a host of other players including established stars Lonnie Spragg and Bertie St John, and talented youngster Allen Oxlade, and Eddie Dore at the new North Brisbane club. Gralton’s tenure as the Queensland halfback continued in 1901 season during which the Queensland team won the series 3-1 under Paddy Carew. During New South Wales visit to Queensland for the return matches, Gralton found time to play halfback for the Brisbane team versus the visitors. North Brisbane were to be the new competition’s first ever premiers.
Gralton lined up for North Brisbane for the 1902 season where he again shared the club captaincy with Alonzo Spragg despite it being Grally’s twelfth year in first grade club rugby. Alongside the host of established stars a myriad of younger players were included in the A-Grade side, including the Dore brothers and Allen ‘Butcher’ Oxlade. While Gralton’s form remained excellent in many club matches, he was not selected for the Queensland team for that years interstate series and he even took to playing under the alias of “Veteran” in some club matches. Alongside Gralton in these matches was fellow Terrace Old Boy, Mick Dore. It was the prodigious Dore who eventually took Gralton’s place in the North’s first grade team for the remainder of the 1902 season and was to go on to a decorated career for Queensland.
Despite being effectively surpassed by Mick Dore at North Brisbane, the 1903 season was to provide Gralton’s third international cap. Although he played club rugby very infrequently, Gralton again shared the captaincy with Spragg at the North Brisbane club. Despite his infrequent appearances in Brisbane the experienced halfback was selected in the Town A team for the match against Country A to end the QRU’s second annual country week. While he was selected for the team injury meant that Gralton did not make the trip to Sydney for the first two matches of the series – Queensland lost both matches. With the arrival of the 1903 touring All Blacks in Queensland Gralton returned to the state side in the halves for the first match against New Zealand in 1903 but was not included in the side for the second match; the visitors were victorious in both encounters. The veteran’s performance against New Zealand in the first match combined with his previous experiences saw him selected in the halves for the first international test played in Australia for four years which resulted in victory for the visitors 22-3 in the one off match in Sydney. Nonetheless Gralton had now played in three of Australia’s first five international Rugby Union matches.
Later in the season Gralton played alongside the precocious Dore in the halves for the Queensland team that met New South Wales in the third match of the 1903 season. In recognition of not just his skill but also his respect in the Rugby community Gralton was named state captain for the final match with the “mother state” in 1903. Unfortunately, Queensland lost all four interstate matches. Dore and Gralton were to play a major role in North Brisbane’s securing of the 1903 premiership; a feat the club were to repeat in 1904 and 1905.
Following the 1903 season Gralton disappeared from the playing fields of A-Grade Rugby in Queensland; however this did not signal his exit from the game. Upon his retirement Gralton received a “generous tribute” and although he wanted to return to the Queensland team for the 1904 season, the state selectors would not grant the great man’s wish. In 1905 Gralton was lured to the nely formed Christian Brothers Club as senior coach and he lead the team to the senior premiership in 1907 and helped set the foundations for what was to become the most successful club in Brisbane Rugby in the years before World War 1. Upon retirement Gralton became a state selector almost immediately and by 1908 he had become the state coach. He retained this role for a number of years. While Gralton guided the maroons to a host of memorable victories , the highlight of his coaching career came in 1914 when he was named coach of the Wallabies team to meet the All Blacks in the first test match played in Brisbane in seven years. Despite his knowledge and experience Gralton was not able to prevent the rampant All Black’s securing their second successive victory to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.
In the years that followed Gralton remained a prominent figure in the Brisbane community and its rugby life especially. Although he began his working life as a joiner, from 1909 onwards he was the licensee of the Albion Hotel, in the inner northern Brisbane suburb of Albion. Along with continuing as a state coach and selector Gralton took to the playing field in 1913 at the age of 40 in a veterans match in aid of the Brisbane Hospital. In honour of his continuing contributions to the sport in Queensland he was made a life member of the Queensland Rugby Union. Gralton died on 26 June 1919 at the age of 46; a victim of the influenza sweeping the world. At his funeral he was eulogised as “a player who never squeaked, an outstanding coach, always played to win and was always friends with his opponents.”