Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Xavier Gaffney (1877–1970)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Francis Xavier Gaffney (1877-1970), Marist Brother and Rugby coach, was born on 2 December 1877 in Cardiff, Wales, sixth of seven children of Patrick William Gaffney, customs officer, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Griffin, both Irish born. After his father's death, the family emigrated to Brisbane in 1884. Educated with his five male siblings at the Christian Brothers' College, he and his brother Tom helped to form the Gregory Rugby Football Club. Frank played first grade (1889-1905) as half-back with the Gregory, North Brisbane Electorate, Toowong Electorate and Christian Brothers football clubs before entering the Society of Mary (Marist Brothers) at Hunters Hill, Sydney, on 17 April 1906.

Having completed his novitiate at Mittagong, Gaffney took the religious name Henry, and taught briefly in Sydney at St Mary's Cathedral Boys' School and at St Patrick's Boys' School, Church Hill. In 1910 he joined the staff of St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, where he soon had his juniors playing sparkling Rugby. He taught in 1915-18 at New Norcia, Western Australia, and returned to the primary school at St Joseph's in 1919. Three years later he somewhat reluctantly agreed to coach the two senior teams.

In 1923 Brother Henry's first premiership team—and one of 'Joey's' greatest ever—scored 250 points to 25 in the seven competition games. Between 1922 and 1953 (except during World War II) his first XV won eighteen Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of New South Wales premierships (four shared) and were runners up four times, averaging in 181 games 26 points for to 6 against; his second XV won 15 premierships (4 shared) and were runners up 9 times. Many of his schoolboys later played Rugby and Rugby League for New South Wales and Australia.

His reputation resulted from his mastery of all aspects of the game and, not least, his uncanny knack of picking early potential. Insisting on fitness, safe handling, deadly tackling and fast, strong running in the open game, Gaffney made a cardinal rule of 'possession, position and pace'. The 'Wizard of Hunter's Hill' infused into the game a spirit of selflessness, co-ordination and comradeship: we 'have no outstanding players—we produce teams, not individuals'. He told his boys in the cerise and blue, 'Better an honourable defeat, than a mean victory'.

The historian, former English international and Australian selector G. V. Portus summed up Gaffney's style of Rugby: 'His teams exploit a great variety of modes of attack. They use quick transfers to the wingers, the short punt through, a timely cross-kick, a burst through by five-eighth or centre, the reverse movement to the waiting forwards . . . to you, Brother Henry, in the immortal words of the Sentimental Bloke, ''I dips me lid"'. A kindly man of strong faith and simple piety, Gaffney regarded his coaching skill as 'a gift from Heaven', a means by which he could influence boys to lead happy and worthy Christian lives. To him, Rugby was a powerful influence in moulding character and developing manly virtues.

Still 'nippy' on his feet in 1951, Brother Henry could be seen ducking, with his soutane flying, into the scrum to explain a special point. He retired as coach in mid-1954 because of a leg injury, but remained at the college. His many friends and ex-students welcomed him at matches and valued his football judgement and advice. He died on Christmas Day 1970 at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney, and was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery, Ryde. One week later it was announced that he had been appointed O.B.E.

Select Bibliography

  • G. V. Portus, Happy Highways (Melb, 1953)
  • J. Pollard, Australian Rugby Union (Syd, 1984)
  • Sporting Life (Sydney), May 1949, p 19
  • People (Sydney), 9 May 1951
  • Marist Monthly, Mar 1971, p 8
  • St Joseph's College Annual, Dec 1971, p 36
  • Referee (Sydney), 19 Aug 1937
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 14 Oct 1950
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Dec 1970
  • Catholic Weekly, 31 Dec 1970
  • St Joseph's College Archives, Hunter's Hill, Sydney.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Gaffney, Francis Xavier (1877–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Henry, Brother

2 December, 1877
Cardiff, South Glamorgan, Wales


25 December, 1970 (aged 93)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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