William Denis ‘Willie’ Canniffe
Second Row Forward
Australia 1 (Second test v New Zealand 1907)
Queensland 14 (11 versus New South Wales)
Valley Football Club
Described by Ian Diehm as a “stringy lineout ace” William ‘Willie’ Canniffe’s physique saw become a fixture in the Queensland backrow from 1907 onwards. A noted junior footballer both at St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace and in club ranks, when he left school Caniffe ascended to test status relatively quickly. A Marine Engineer by qualification, Canniffe’s professional career often interfered with his football and hindered him gaining further representative honours. Nonetheless, he was a feature of a strong Queensland forward pack during the later years of the first decade of the twentieth century that was considered one of the best of all time.
Canniffe was born on 1 April 1885 on Keppel Island in the Whitsundays to Denis Thomas and Mary (nee Lynch). Little is known of Canniffe’s early life or his father’s career however Rugby historian jack Pollard records that Caniffe was a noted schoolboy player at Terrace. Notably, it was the young man’s physique that made him a stand out in interschool rugby for Terrace. Upon leaving school Canniffe joined the powerful Valley Football Club and gave tremendous service over the years.
Although he failed to gain selection in the Valley A-Grade team in the 1905 season, Caniffe made his representative debut that same year. His abilities and performances in the lower grades saw him selected in a Queensland Junior team to play against a Church Union representative side in a curtain raiser for the Queensland versus New South Wales interstate match. Despite his achievements, Caniffe could not force his way into the powerful Valley’s A-Grade team that included another Terrace Old boy, Jack Fihelly playing as a loose forward.
Canniffe was elevated into the A-Grade side for the Valley Football club in 1906 from the opening game of the season against the star studded Christian Brothers club. As a reward for his play in the early part of the season Caniffe joined a host of former St Josephs Gregory Terrace students in the Metropolitan team named to take on a Country side in Brisbane on 9 June 1906. The city based side included Jack Fihelly, Phil Carmichael, Voy Oxenham, Mick Dore, and Peter Flannagan and triumphed over the country team by an imposing 48-0.
Caniffe’s play in this match saw him named to make his Queensland debut against New South Wales in the opening match of the four-game 1906 interstate series. Unable to capitalise on their home field advantage the Queenslanders lost the first game 11-9 and the Canniffe was not selected for the return encounter in Brisbane. Despite his impressive physique and obviousl potential state selectors opted against taking the young second rower to New South Wales for the two return matches of the series.
Despite his omission from the final three games of the 1906 interstate series, in 1907 the former Gregory Terrace student became the school’s seventh old boy to represent his nation on the Rugby field. Caniffe was selected to make his test debut against New Zealand in the second test of the 1907 season. Australia had lost the first match of the series 26 -6 and were thoroughly outplayed especially in the forwards. Canniffe was one of six Queenslanders included in the second test team for the match in Brisbane. There were some rumors at the time that the selection of the Queenslanders was a financial expedient to save the ARU the cost of transporting more experienced and superior players from New South Wales to Brisbane for the match; however, Caniffe’s test debut was well received. Australia were defeated 14-5 and despite the fine play of the forward pack the Australian team for the final test match consisted entirely of New South Wales players.
In 1908 Caniffe was a part of the successful Valley club. He teamed with the legendary Phil Carmichael to help Valley defeat Christian Brothers in the Hospital Cup match in July 9 points to 3 at the midseason point of the competition and confirm Valley’s status as the leading side in Brisbane. The Valley Football Club’s season continued in fine fashion in 1908 as it went on to win the premiership that year too by
defeating Souths in the Grand-final. Caniffe was not available for selection in the Queensland side for the first match against the uninspiring Anglo-Welsh tourists of 1908. He was rushed back into the side for the following match and his leadership of the forward pack was not enough to prevent Queensland succumbing to a narrow defeat in the dying moment of the second match also.
Canniffe’s form in both club rugby and in the interstate clashes with New South Wales, earned him tremendous respect in Australian Rugby and hHe was one of five Queenslanders invited to tour Great Britain with the New South Wales controlled “Wallaby” tour of 1908. Unfortunately he was forced to withdraw. Canniffe was scheduled to begin the seafaring portion of his marine engineering course and he could not get leave. If he were to tour with the side it would have meant that 3 of the original Wallabies touring squad were all drawn from St Josephs Gregory Terrace – Phil Carmichael, Peter Flanagan, and Caniffe.
Undeterred Caniffe continued his club rugby career with Valley and his representative career with Queensland. In local club rugby, Canniffe and Carmichael again combined to see Valley defeat Christian Brothers 17-5 in the Hospital Cup Match of 1909 en route to the club premiership for the year. Canniffe was chosen in the Metropolitan team for the match against the country selection at the conclusion of the 1909 Country week. On the basis of his form in local rugby the second rower was selected in the forwards for the state side’s tour of New South Wales, where Queensland lost both matches. These were his last matches for Queensland.
In the days before Rugby became a professional sport men such as Canniffe played purely for the love of the game and had to maintain a career outside of the game. In Canniffe’s case his professional career outside of Rugby was as a Marine Engineer and his retirement from the game allowed him to concentrate on his chosen profession. He died 15/09/1956 in Brisbane aged 72 and was buried at the Toowong Cemetery on 27 September.