William (Billy) Joseph Wallace was born in Wellington on 2 August 1878, the son of Matthew Rolleston Wallace, a cook, and his wife, Louisa Stirling. He was educated at Mount Cook Boys’ School. Rugby was the only sporting interest for him and his comrades. Unable to afford a football, they made do with either a pig’s bladder (which soon began to stink) or clothes tied into shape. After leaving school Wallace began his working life with Luke Brooks, of Ngauranga.
He joined the Poneke Football Club, where he so compellingly carried out the counsels of his coach, Sid Nicholls, that he was named as a centre in the Wellington representative team when only 19. He stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 12 stone. Phenomenally fast – he was nicknamed Carbine, after the famed racehorse – Wallace was, most usefully, a very accurate goal-kicker.
By sad chance, one of his first representative matches, against Otago at Carisbrook in Dunedin, is remembered forever as ‘The Butchers’ Match’. Bad blood stirred between the two teams. As the game came to an end with Wellington ahead by 10 points to 6, the huge gallery was united in yelling ‘Butchers! Slaughterers!’ at the Wellington men.
Having spent 1900 in Dunedin playing for Alhambra Rugby Football Club and representing Otago, Wallace returned to Poneke. He represented Wellington (1901–4 and 1906–8) and the North Island for four seasons between 1902 and 1908. Billy Wallace was first chosen for New Zealand in 1903, in a team which won all 10 of its matches while touring Australia. Playing in nine matches, Wallace amassed 85 points, a record, which included 13 points in New Zealand’s 22–3 win in its first official test. The team was both massively powerful and extraordinarily acute in seizing scoring chances. Wallace and others of the side – which scored 276 points while conceding only 13 – considered it to be the finest of all New Zealand teams.
Wallace was next chosen for the All Black side that toured the British Isles, France and North America in 1905–6. The team lost only one of its 35 matches: that against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park on 16 December 1905. It was the 28th match of the tour. The great golden glow of games in the first half of the tour had departed. Constant journeying, matches twice a week, or three times in eight days, had wearied the players. They had lost their élan. There are varying, and contradictory, accounts of what became one of the most well-known incidents in New Zealand rugby history. According to Wallace’s own account, with Wales leading narrowly he swooped upon a loose ball. After running himself, he passed to his support, the powerful young centre Bob Deans, who flashed over the goal-line about 15 yards from the left upright (‘an easy goal for me’, Wallace always said). Youthfully, triumphantly, Deans stood up, leaving the ball in place. A Welsh player grabbed it and placed it in field, a yard from the goal-line. The referee, John Dallas, was a novice. Reaching the scene, he whistled for a scrummage, which the Welsh won. They won the game 3–0. Thirty years later, Dallas volunteered to T. H. C. Caughey, centre of the 1935 All Blacks, that he had made a mistake.
Wallace returned to New Zealand a hero. He had scored 27 tries, 74 conversions, three penalty goals and two dropped goals, with an aggregate of 246 points, and had become the most admired player in New Zealand. Although he has long been widely regarded as one of the best fullbacks fielded by New Zealand at international level, Wallace played many games, including four tests, as a wing or centre. Yet, wherever he played, he was sublime, incomparable.
Billy Wallace toured Australia as a three-quarter in 1907, and retired after playing against the touring Anglo-Welsh team in 1908. In 51 appearances for New Zealand he had scored 379 points, a record bettered only half a century later by Don Clarke. The public of Wellington rewarded him with a purse containing 400 gold sovereigns. With this fortune he set up an iron foundry, where he worked until his retirement.
So deeply had he assimilated the arts and crafts of the game that, after his playing days, he coached all who were willing to listen. One who did so with avidity was Mark Nicholls, a son of Wallace’s own coach at Poneke. Nicholls became one of the great players of the 1920s. Wallace managed the 1932 All Black team in Australia, and co-managed the 1935 New Zealand Maori team in New South Wales. He served on the New Zealand Rugby Football Union’s management committee from 1931 to 1936, and on its executive committee from 1937 to 1938, and was a Wellington selector in 1910, 1922 and 1924. Honours, life memberships, distinctions were showered upon him.
Billy Wallace had married Jessie Mowatt at Wellington on 9 October 1911; they had two daughters and a son. It was a close and happy family. Wallace maintained his interest in rugby, and both he and his wife played lawn bowls at Hataitai. Jessie Wallace died in 1966 and Billy at Wellington on 2 March 1972. He failed by only 10 days to achieve his ‘one small ambition’ of being the last surviving player from that famed test in 1905.