100 Years of Rugby News: The incredible survival story of Wallaby and war hero Cecil Ramalli
There’s been no shortage of tough, resilient scrum-halves to have graced Sydney’s many rugby pitches over the years but, arguably, the toughest and most resilient of them all was Cecil Ramalli (bottom row, second from right).
Born in Mungindi on the NSW-QLD border to an Indian father and an Aboriginal mother, Ramalli played for Hurlstone Agricultural High School’s First XV as a 15-year-old in 1938. He made his first grade debut for Western Suburbs that same year and quickly caught the attention of NSW and Australian selectors.
The pint-sized No.9 was quick and nippy with a brilliant pass, and became the first player of both Indigenous descent and Asian descent, to play for the Wallabies when he was picked to play the All Blacks, not long after his 19th birthday.
Ramalli had an immediate impact on debut in Brisbane and the All Blacks soon realised they needed to find a way to slow him down. He played the second half that day with a broken nose and two black eyes but still backed up a week later to partner Western Suburbs teammate Paul Collins in the halves in the return Test in Sydney.
Ramalli was Australia’s best that day, but was again knocked out by a stray All Black elbow and carried from the field to a standing ovation from the SCG crowd.
He travelled to the UK and back with the ‘Unlucky 29’ Wallabies in 1939 and enlisted on his return, serving in Malaya initially where he captained the Australian Imperial Forces to several victories over the English troops.
When Malaya and Singapore fell to the Japanese, Ramalli was one of 100,000 British Empire troops captured. He was first sent to Changi Prison, then to build the Thai-Burma railway, where more than 2,600 Australian troops died under the horrific conditions. But Ramalli refused to give in and in 1944, he was sent by ship to Nagasaki, Japan to work as a slave in the coal mines.
Ramalli was due to board the Rokyo Maru, the ship mistakenly torpedoed by the US, killing over 500 Australians including Wallabies teammate Winston ‘Blow’ Ide. Instead, he was herded on to the next ship and spent most of the next year working in a coal mine below Nagasaki Harbour.
On August 9, 1945, as Ramalli’s 12-hour shift was due to end, he was ordered back down the mine to continue working. When he eventually finished, he returned to the surface to find a city and a population destroyed by the second atomic bomb the US dropped to end the war.
Somehow, Ramalli had survived again.
By the time he returned to Australia, he weighed just 38kgs and would never play rugby again. But he continued his involvement in the sport and helped start the West Pymble Rugby Club. He then managed and coached junior sides at Northern Suburbs for more than 15 years before retiring in 1977.