Twickenham central to Australia glory and heartbreak

The Wallabies, for years travelling troubadours even in their own country, want to make Twickenham their "home away from home". That's not surprising as it is a ground with deep Australian rugby links - both heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Unlike Australia, where the Wallabies flit from ground to ground, city to city, this Rugby World Cup has given them the rare opportunity of making one venue their haven, with the potential of five straight Twickenham appearances if they make the final. That's why the Wallabies are doing everything they can to transform the old cabbage patch into their own plot, even blasting AC/DC tunes through the ground speakers during their pre-match captain's run.

Teams love familiar surroundings, and the Wallabies must give thanks to former Australian Rugby Union chief executive John O'Neill, who ensured that Australia could turn Twickenham into a genuine home base. As a Rugby World Cup director, whose responsibilities included determining the 2015 draw, O'Neill pushed hard for the final Australia pool match against Wales to be played at the neutral venue of Twickenham. He faced intense opposition from Wales, who instead wanted the game to be played at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. O'Neill won that battle through clever politicking and several Welsh officials remain bitter to this day, believing the result last weekend would have been different had the match been held in Cardiff.

O'Neill understand that Twickenham holds a strong and special historical significance to Australian rugby, as it is the venue of the Wallabies' greatest rugby triumph and probably their saddest moment.

It is where the young Wallabies captain Trevor Allan during the 1947-1948 tour made the celebrated diving cover tackle on England winger David Swarbick that knocked the ball free and saw the home team finish scoreless, allowing Australia to enjoy a 11-0 triumph. Allan's team was able to boast the extraordinary feat of never having their line crossed in a home international.

It is where the celebrated 1984 Australian team began their successful Grand Slam campaign by defeating England 19-3.

And it is where in 1991 the Wallabies, in their finest moment, were first crowned world champions.

There is also a tragic side to the Wallabies-Twickenham link.

On the day war was declared in 1939, a disconsolate Wallabies team manager Dr Wally Matthews stood in the middle of Twickenham fighting back tears. He had just left a meeting with the English Rugby Football Union, at which it had been decided that the 1939-40 28-match, four-Test Wallabies tour of the United Kingdom was over without a game being played just two days after the team had arrived in Plymouth following six weeks at sea.

Matthews was dreading the drive to Torquay, where he had to inform the players that due to the dangers of war they had to return home as quickly as possible. Matthews wrote in his diary: "Tour then is finished and have therefore decided to get team home as soon as possible. One cannot help worrying and what a disappointment it will be to the boys. Stood in the middle of the empty ground on the first day of the war."

The touring party was originally tagged the Lucky 29 to indicate they were probably the strongest Australian squad to have headed overseas. They instead became the Unlucky 29.

As the ship departed Marseille for England, the players were deeply concerned.

"This morning we find all the windows painted black, learn that all lights will be out at night, and no smoking on deck. We must be at war," Matthews wrote. "What a tragedy! The team wonders and disappointment is written on their faces. What an ending to it all.'

The players were worried they would not even get the chance to stand on English soil. "Will England be at war and what is our next move?" Matthews asked.

When they arrived in Plymouth five days later, the players were allowed to leave the ship and headed to the Grand Hotel in Torquay. In one of the hotel function rooms, they heard Neville Chamberlain's radio broadcast telling the world that England was now at war with Germany. They knew they would soon be going home.

To revive spirits, the players and management agreed to head to the nearby rugby ground for a team photograph.

Matthews wrote: "It was taken in uniform on Torquay RFU ground just opposite Grand Hotel, a lovely study, the boys looked grand. Sad to think there is to be no play and grand to see them happy and playful despite their great disappointment."

After filling sandbags to protect the hotel as well as building an air-raid shelter, making a visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the King and attending a cocktail party at The Savoy, they were taken to Twickenham so they at least could say they had been to the ground.

It was a sombre moment. Some players tried to lighten the mood by jokingly putting on the gas masks they had been supplied and striding to the centre of the ground for souvenir photos.

The team then spent four months rather than the usual two getting back to Australia because of the zig-zagging course the ship had to make to avoid German U-boats.

The team at least got one opportunity to play when their ship berthed at Bombay. It was decided all those who had never played in an Australian jersey would get the chance to wear the green and gold. Of the 10 newcomers who played in Bombay, nine never got the opportunity again to play for Australia.

Virtually all enlisted, with several boasting extraordinary war stories. The team captain Vay Wilson, joined the British Navy and was awarded the DSC for his action in the English Channel in a PT boat.

Winston 'Blow' Ide, whose mother was Australian, his father a Japanese silk printer, was captured during the fall of Singapore and died when the Japanese POW ship he was on was torpedoed. Despite repeated entreaties to clamber onto an overcrowded raft, Ide kept helping his fellow POWs. Blow's final words were said to be: "No mate. I'm staying here to help my mates. In any case I can swim to Australia if I have to." Shortly after, he disappeared.

Stan Bisset, one of a number of 1939 Wallabies to win a Military Cross, had to overcome the tragedy of his brother Butch dying in his arms on the Kokoda Track.

His team-mate Nicky Barr became one of the war's most celebrated war aces, credited with bringing down at least 12 enemy planes in the space of a year. He was shot down three times behind enemy lines and escaped four times, including once from a moving train. For his courage, organising escape routes and clandestine work against the enemy, Barr was also awarded a Military Cross.

Two weeks ago, my ESPN colleague Sam Bruce and I travelled to Torquay to pay homage to this most important of Wallabies teams.

The Grand Hotel doesn't appear to have changed much, and you can imagine the players huddled around a radio in one of the large dining rooms that boasts memorable 180-degree views out to sea. We walked across the road to the Torquay rugby ground, and went to the spot were the team photo was taken. Again time stood still. Seventy six years on, the surrounds looked virtually the same.

After that emotional Torquay visit all you can hope for is that when the Wallabies run out onto their favoured foreign patch on Sunday, they remember they're representing Australians present and past; none more important than those mighty men of 1939 who were robbed of the chance to achieve glory at Twickenham.