The Australian Rugby community is mourning the loss of Wallaby 373, Ernest Hills, who sadly passed peacefully this week.
Born during the Great Depression on a kitchen table in Manurewa, south of Auckland, Hills attended Otahuhu Technical High School. While there he had a ‘remarkable’ athletic and rugby career before he was involved in a nasty motorcycle accident.
Aged 17, Hills broke his leg in three places, including the ankle, and it was feared he would never run again. Fortunately Hills enjoyed a most remarkable recovery, so much so that in 1948 he played interprovincial rugby for Auckland, was an All Black trialist, and took out the 1948 New Zealand ‘Junior Sprint’ 100 yards title in record-equalling time.
That result gave Hills hope that he would win a spot on the New Zealand team for the 1950 Empire Games in Auckland. In order to achieve that ambition he travelled to Sydney where a chance meeting with former sprint champion Frank Banner saw Hills join Banner’s running group, one that included a very young future world record holder Marlene Mathews.
During his time with Banner, Hills ran with and against former U.S. Olympic Games sprinter Barney Ewell, who was the fastest man on earth. Hills returned to New Zealand for the Empire Games trials, won, and was all but selected in the team when a letter from Banner convinced him to turn professional.
Unfortunately, as a consequence, Hills never ran for New Zealand. He returned to Melbourne as Victoria was the heart and soul of professional foot racing in Australia where he linked up with Melbourne Rugby Club for the 1950 season.
Hills’ tremendous speed did not go unnoticed and he was quickly named to play for Victoria, against Queensland, where he put on a ‘brilliant’ display. That performance saw Hills chosen ahead of New South Wales wingers Don Lisle and Ralph Garner for the opening Test against the British Lions where he opposed flying Welshman and Olympic sprint semi-finalist Ken Jones.
A week after the second Test it was revealed that Hills had received a “huge” offer to play with an English Rugby League club. While teammates Trevor Allan and Rex Mossop accepted their respective offers, Hills was undecided. It was at that time Hills received a letter from his brother Jack saying that he was joining the New Zealand Army and headed for Korea.
Ernie decided to reject league and join his brother in Korea where he spent the next three years with the famous Kayforce. During his tour the Japanese Government proposed a goodwill rugby union tour of their country and selected the New Zealand Army to supply the players. Hills was one of the fortunate soldiers to be chosen and he played two ‘Tests’ against Japan.
In 1956 he was back in Sydney and trialled with the Western Suburbs rugby league club where he impressed Kangaroo halfback Keith Holman. Hills played two seasons of first grade and scored 20 tries in 28 matches. Ernie Hills played two Tests in a one-year international career.