Henry 'Nug' Plunkett was like a comet that lit up the football firmament for an instant and then was seen no more. In just his third year with Norwood, 1893, he was briefly captain of both his club and South Australia. Two years later, after a five-month battle with tuberculosis and bronchial catarrh, he was dead at the tender age of 27, survived by a sorrowing widow and two small daughters.
Such is the fickleness of fame that no likeness of 'Nug' was known to exist until the SANFL Archives unearthed a photograph of the 1893 SA team early in 2017.
'Nug' made a sterling debut with Adelaide in 1889 and moved to Norwood as a forward in 1890. In 1891 he switched to umpiring and, although out for some time with a right kneecap injury, was chosen to control the vital match in which Norwood defeated Port Adelaide for the premiership.
Back at Norwood in 1892, he was soon rated one of the best centremen in the colony. All went well in 1893 until the depleted SA team he led with honour went down to Victoria at Adelaide Oval, 4.7 to 2.9, largely because Port Adelaide's players had gone off on a trip to Melbourne. 'Nug' seemed in fine form when he handed the Norwood captaincy over to 'Bunny' Daly midseason because of knee and work issues. In the last match of the season, 'Nug' and younger brother Mick were team-mates.
'Nug' resumed as a leading umpire in 1894, but resigned in June because he was "dotty on his pins". His request to be allowed to play for "any club" that same season was denied. His career was over.
The Plunkett football legacy was entrenched by his brothers. Family lore says the oldest, Jack, captained North Adelaide, though sketchy records can confirm only that he played with North Adelaide and Medindie. Oliver, Bill and Mick played for Norwood. Bill captained Norwood, West Perth and WA. Bill and Mick twice were SA team-mates. Their Irish father, John, a champion high jumper, became Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in 1906 after a long stint as deputy.
Born at Byethorne, near Nairne, on 29 February 1868, 'Nug' attended Christian Brothers' College and was an all-round athlete who could play any position on the football field. He and brother Jack were in the Young Australians tug-of-war team that competed at the Exhibition Building in 1887. 'Nug' excelled in running, boxing, swimming, cricket and baseball. A first base and catcher, he represented SA in intercolonial baseball in Melbourne in 1890.
'Nug' was employed as a lithographic printer with Scrymgour & Sons before he died at his Norwood home on 7 May 1895. Some 40 vehicles formed a funeral procession from Elizabeth Street, Norwood, to the Roman Catholic Cemetery at West Terrace. Norwood players and officials were among the many mourners, including the legendary 'Bunny' Daly, 'Topsy' Waldron and Alby Green.
'Nug' was survived by his widow, Bridget Veronica, née Supple, and daughters Maude and Kathleen. Maude went on to make her name as Thespian in Australia and the US - she was a friend of Charlie Chaplin - before marrying munitions magnate Earl Hunter Collester in Chicago in 1920. She was Mrs A. Wangler when her mother died in 1953. Kathleen also moved the US, where she too married and as Kaye Sarsfield became a prolific writer of magazine love stories and Westerns.
P Robins April 2017