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Maroons honour 1919 captain, war hero ‘one lung’ Thompson

He was shot through the right lung on the battlefields of France in 1918 and told he would never play sport again. But that didn’t stop rugby league legend Duncan Thompson from captaining the 1919 Queensland side a year later against New South Wales and New Zealand with distinction.

The bravery and commitment displayed by Thompson a century ago is being honoured by the 2019 Queensland Maroons when they wear a replica of the 1919 Queensland jersey for their captain’s run at Suncorp Stadium today, ahead of Wednesday night’s State of Origin opener.

The 1919 Queensland team.
The 1919 Queensland team.

Thompson's extraordinary story is set to inspire the Maroons, and for good reason.

"We can only try and imagine what it was like for Duncan, firstly getting the injury and then fighting all the way back into the Queensland side. It just shows his spirit, desire and drive to play for Queensland," Maroons coach Kevin Walters said.

"How tough is he physically and mentally? That is what stands out to me - his mental toughness, and that always puts you in a great position in any sport and particularly rugby league at Origin level.

"We can certainly draw on Duncan's example on Wednesday night because all of those great characters of our past are very important to every Origin player."

Thompson, who in 2008 was named in Queensland’s team of the century, epitomised what representing his state meant.

Aged just 23, Thompson was repelling the German Spring Offensive while fighting with the 13th Brigade of the Australian 4th Division on the Western Front on April 5, 1918 when he was shot through the chest at Dernancourt on the Ancre River.

Thompson returned to Australia and wrote in his unpublished memoirs that after being “invalided out of the army” he received a transfer with the Commonwealth Bank back to Brisbane.

"Doctors kept telling me I was lucky to be alive. I had been shot through the apex of the right lung and they reminded me that the thickness of a leaf could deflect a bullet," Thompson wrote.

"I will never forget that date I was hit – April 5. So on April 5 every year I celebrate another birthday. I may not have nine lives, but I am certainly on my second."

Thompson, who had played with North Sydney before joining the Australian Imperial Force, decided the biggest threat to his health was not a bung lung but "a snapping of the mind". A wonderful cricketer, he first ventured back into the sporting arena by scoring 160 in an inter-bank clash.

Thompson had represented Queensland in rugby league before his military service and after running up and down a cricket pitch, his comeback was well and truly ON. Then, in a momentous turning point in the history of Queensland rugby league, he played a game at fullback for his old Ipswich club Starlights in 1919.

Duncan Thompson in action.
Duncan Thompson in action.

"I had played a game and was determined to play more. So began an intense period of rehabilitation," Thompson wrote.

"Near where I was living was a paddock. Each morning and each night I ran around that paddock perimeter."

Thompson referred to that activity in one sense as “sheer boredom”. He had an ethos that "one should never train the body without working the mind", so he took a ball with him on those relentless runs.

"That ball was great company. I fondled it as I ran, bounced it, kicked it off my knee, my shin or my foot and whether I realised it or not, I was developing a keen ball sense," he wrote.

And here’s the clincher. Thompson wrote he was determined to "do anything that would help develop my right lung". He won that battle.

"What an incredible year it was April 5, 1918 to April 5, 1919 – from death’s door on the Somme to playing for Starlights in Ipswich,” Thompson said.

"The change in the next six months was equally spectacular, from wheezy fullback in Ipswich to halfback for Australia in the second Test against New Zealand.”

The legend of 'one bung lung Thompson' was born.

In 1919 he also captained Queensland in two interstate matches against NSW and in two games against New Zealand. Queensland lost the interstate series but won the two showdowns with the Kiwis.

Thompson scored two tries in one of the New Zealand fixtures and was a star against NSW. One of the newspapers of the day wrote of one of Thompson’s 1919 displays against NSW that he was "resourceful to a degree seldom attained…smart on his feet, and a fine kick, his display ranks as one of the best seen for some years".

Thompson continued his career with Australia and Queensland, won two premierships with North Sydney in 1921 and 1922 and captained the extraordinary Toowoomba side in 1924 and 1925, an outfit that defeated Great Britain and New Zealand.

Duncan Thompson in action in 1921.
Duncan Thompson in action in 1921.

Thompson later became a Queensland and Australian selector, and a coach who revolutionised the game.

He would coach the Toowoomba Clydesdales to six Bulimba Cup titles in the 1950s, playing what became known as "contract football", a style of play that was enterprising, free flowing and entertaining.

That style of play has influenced Wayne Bennett at various stages of his coaching career and continues to resonate with Ipswich co-coaches Ben and Shane Walker.

Thompson’s grandson Phil Stuart has read his book on coaching, which details what contract football is all about.

"Even though a team has 13 people on the field, every time a man has the ball there is someone there he is going to pass the ball to. That’s the contract. It’s simple and yet effective," Stuart said.

"How can you be part of that contract with the man who has got the ball? And when you’ve got the ball, what is the best use of that ball?

"Pa was always a big believer in keeping the ball moving.

"His explanation for contract football includes accurate passing, quick passing and good handling and his ‘eighth of a second rule’. He said that an average football field is 100 yards and in football boots a man can run that in 12 seconds, so you will run [approximately] eight yards in one second and one yard in an eighth of a second.

Pa had the brain to analyse that and say that it takes an eighth of a second for one man to beat another man, and if you let the ball do the work with good handling and really accurate passing you would be able to break the line…and with contract football you would have players backing you up."

Phil Stuart Duncan Thompson's grandson

That style of play, although with a modern twist, was evident in the play of Allan Langer and Kevin Walters when they weaved their magic for Brisbane and Queensland. Queensland’s ‘miracle try’ in the 1994 Origin series, where a raft of players appeared out of nowhere in support of the ball carrier, also springs to mind.

Walters, who also coached the Toowoomba Clydesdales, said the Thompson philosophy on playing rugby league was still relevant today.

"Ball possession was a big one for Duncan and he knew how important it was to use the ball in the right manner when you had it, and in a positive manner as well," Walters said.

"The modern game is all about that. Always supporting the ball carrier is a big part of the way this Queensland team likes to play. He was well ahead of his time Duncan, and that has been proven. His coaching methods are still being used today."

Asides from his remarkable feats in rugby league, Thompson was also a much-loved figure everywhere he went.

Duncan Thompson during the 1921 tour of England.
Duncan Thompson during the 1921 tour of England.

Phil Stuart remembers his grandfather for his "generosity" of spirit, and how when he owned a sports store in Toowoomba he would give away cricket bats or tennis racquets to those doing it tough – particularly farmers whose crops hadn’t panned out the way they had planned.

Thompson’s grandson Duncan Stuart reflected on how his grandfather was a "fabulous raconteur" who would get up at any function without notes and hold the entire room in the palm of his hand, topped off by a keen wit and an innate ability to connect with people.

Thompson’s legacy still resonates with his surviving family who are in awe of his achievements after being shot in 1918.

He had a great belief in these European world class runners who would run 25 miles every day for their training, just short of a marathon. So every morning Pa would get up at 6am and run, and then every evening at 6pm"

Phil Stuart Duncan Thompson's grandson

"He basically just made his one good lung really efficient. His determination to run is what got him there…and he had the football brain. They called him 'The Fox' because he was so cunning."

Thompson died in 1980 at the age of 85, just months before the State of Origin concept was realised at Lang Park.

Duncan Stuart said that Origin football would have warmed his grandfather's heart, as it readdressed an imbalance he had identified decades earlier.

"He wrote a book on coaching that has never been published and he starts off in that by talking about Queensland having an inferiority complex versus NSW, and he puts that down partly to NSW clubs being more wealthy because they had the poker machines," he said.

"Of course he captained North Sydney in the early 1920s, the only two years they won the premiership, and spoke about how the NSW teams had been so much better funded than Queensland.

"Breaking through that was one of the things which had to happen to give Queensland the belief in themselves so I think he would have been delighted that Origin started out as a way of evening that out.

"The fact that they cut their teeth up here, went to NSW and had the benefit of that financial backing that wasn't possible here, but then were able to come back to play for their home state to play Origin for Queensland. It was only way to neutralise the huge financial benefits NSW had for so many years."

Duncan Stuart said the extended Thompson family was thrilled by the recognition of his grandfather at Tuesday's captain's run.

“We are delighted that he is being remembered so long after the event, and very proud of him. The fact that his memory has survived without any [video] recording of him playing is testimony to the player that he was," he said

"We are honoured that the QRL is doing this."

Duncan Thompson with team mates.
Duncan Thompson with team mates.

Walters said that both he, and his players, were thrilled and inspired to likewise honour the legacy of Thompson and the Queenslanders of 1919.

"Our Queensland players will embrace the story behind the captain’s run jumper and why they are wearing it. They are always interested in our great history, which is littered with great moments that honour playing for Queensland," Walters said.

"Duncan Thompson’s story is another one of those great facts. It is a great news story…tremendous.

"You have got to be mentally tough to achieve what Duncan did, and that is what our boys will need to be on Wednesday night. If they can do that then it will put them in a great position."

Such is the importance of this replica jersey, it is available for purchase for the first time ever. 

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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