Heming attended Manly Village Primary School and North Sydney Boys High before studying optometry at what is now UNSW. In the Olympic swimming competitions, he finished behind Jon Henricks, John Devitt and Gary Chapman, who won gold, silver and bronze. “I felt like I hadn’t made it, so without much rugby experience I went to the rugby oval in Manly. I was supported by Keith Ellis, Don McDeed and Tony Miller who were wonderfully strong and tough. It was very tough – the guys coming back from the war were really quite a mess.”
Heming had stumbled across rugby fraternity. Perhaps the older players filled the fatherly hole in his life left by World War II. At the age of 23 he made first place in his inaugural season at No. 8 and played 132 first class games for Manly between 1956 and 1969. He was selected for the Wallaby Studies 1957-58 and made his debut for NSW in 1957. The establishment of his optometry practice that year made him unavailable for the 1958 NZ tour. He made his debut for Australia in 1961 aged 28 against Fiji.
“I went to South Africa in ’61. They had just returned from the British Isles and had one of their best teams ever,” said Heming. “We were beaten pretty easily in the first test, but we almost beat them in the second test. I realized I was too small. I got on the plane and I was like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I said, ‘I’ll come back and I’ll be bigger’.”
Led by 21-year-old Ken Catchpole, a talented young group of players had received a master class from the best in the world. Catchpole would be key to eventual success. Heming told commentator Gordon Bray, “He was just the best – there’s no one else who can match his ability and his kindness and thoughtfulness.”
Catchpole rated Heming’s talents as world class: “Rugby is a team game and each position requires a combination with other positions,” he said in an interview marking the 50th anniversary of the fifth Wallaby Tour. “In the lineout, the direction and speed of the ball are critical to the halfback’s ability to catch and pass in one motion. I was lucky my catcher for NSW and Australia was Rob Heming.”
Heming played against the French on their first visit in 1961. When the selectors invited him to the first Test against the All Blacks in 1962, he turned them down: “Work came first and these people had me booked for Saturday mornings, so I pulled out. Everyone told me I would never play a test again.”
He was selected for the second Test in Sydney and then took part in the NZ Tour in 1962 when John Thornett took over as captain. Heming found Thornett inspirational. “You would give your heart and soul for him,” he said.
Thornett, in turn, praised Heming as part of a wallaby core that is “the world’s best in key positions” — Catchpole at halfback, Peter Johnson at hooker, Greg Davis and Jules Guerassimoff at breakaway, Heming in lineouts.
All five toured South Africa in 1963. The Wallabies drew the streak, becoming the first team since 1896 to teach the Springboks consecutive losses. Heming’s lineout skills were immortalized in an iconic photo at the second Test in Cape Town.
The centers featured future national coach Dick Marks, who probably has the longest record of elite-level rugby in Australia.
“In Africa there is a wild cat called a caracal that has the ability to jump vertically and catch birds in mid-air. This is what Heming looked like in an alleyway,” Marks said. “Lifting wasn’t allowed back then, but I’ve never seen a better individual jumper.”
Heming developed a training method in which he clapped his hands over the crossbar of the goalposts. Teammate Jim Boyce practiced throw-ins by aiming for the black dot in the middle of the bar. “I knew Rob could get that high and a little bit more, which is different from any other jumper in my experience,” says Boyce.
“The shot I remembered was Rob in the 3rd Test at Ellis Park in front of 75,000 spectators. As the lane formed about 40 yards from the South African try line, Rob started in the middle at No. 5 and then went back to No. 7. I saw that he was unmarked and threw the ball with a spiral throw. Standing up, Rob was well over the opponents and handed them to Peter Crittle, who bandaged his back. This was followed by an attempt by John Williams. A movie captures Rob going up and delivering the ball and to me he embodies his ability to influence a game.”
Australia won 11-9 – still the nation’s only high-altitude win in Johannesburg. “It was spectacular. We were made by this victory. We believed in ourselves,” said Heming.
He played in all three Tests on the 1964 NZ Tour, including the 20-5 win in Wellington – still considered one of the All Blacks’ greatest home defeats in history. In 1965, Australia won its first series against South Africa. Heming secured a crucial lane in the crucial Test in Brisbane after running back from injury. Thornett called him an “inspiration”.
After playing the unforgettable home series against the Lions in 1966, Heming was selected for the 1966-67 grand tour of the British Isles, France and Canada. Against Wales, he played most of the game with a broken foot and torn ligaments (an act of self-sacrifice as replacements for injuries were not allowed). The Wallabies recorded a historic first win against Wales. “The Welsh crowd started singing Waltzing Matilda, so I burst into tears every time I heard the Welsh sing,” Heming said. “I’m so glad I played. I would have played with one leg.”
He played his 21st and final Test against France in a heated encounter in Paris. Heming was heartbroken to lose the match, but by the end of the tour he once again devoted himself to supporting his mother and building his optometry practice. “We had a hard time because we were broke,” he said. “I actually had to hire an optician while I was away, so I paid to play for Australia.”
As the days of touring rolled back in memories with twinkling eyes, Heming always remained humble. “Heidi and I spent many winter Saturdays rolling down the hills at the Manly Oval while Dad and the cheering crowd supported their teams,” recalls daughter Peta. “Father was always greeted warmly by members and locals. I was unaware of the depth of the rugby connection at the time, the warmth and familiarity Dad was greeted with came from my firm belief that I had the best dad in the world!”
What Heming and the Thornett-era Wallabies lacked in finances, they made up for in partnership. Their reunions continue, and Heming was instrumental in connecting them through a wallaby internet chat forum called “The Ring”. “The guys I played with were just the most wonderful men,” he told me. “How sweet it was. How wonderful it was. I would do anything again.”
Heming retired from optometry in 2007. He was honored on the SCG Walk of Honor in 2003 and inducted into the Wallaby Hall of Fame in 2021. He is survived by his daughters Peta and Heidi, six grandchildren, his former wife and friend Jenny, and a favorite companion, Gail.
A public memorial service will be held at 1pm on 7 February at Manly Golf Club.
https://www.smh.com.au/national/wallaby-was-head-and-shoulders-above-everyone-in-lineout-20230125-p5cfaw.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_national Wallaby was head and shoulders above everyone in line