Like many young boys growing up in the country, former St Mary’s College student John Kinniburgh dreamt of becoming a professional football player.

After achieving success in both rugby league and rugby union at school-age level, he had every right to consider this as a possibility, however, further education and an appetite for learning, international travel and overseas experiences, memorable moments as well as life-changing events, resulted in a career in education and the pathway to his new role as Headmaster of Toowoomba Grammar School.

John and his wife Jo settled in the inland Queensland city on the Darling Downs with their three children Charlie (14), Eliza (12) and Archie (10) at the beginning of 2021. This was the next step in a career that began as a young teacher at The King’s School in 1996 where he stayed for 16 years interrupted by a 16-month study break at Oxford University in 1998 and 1999. After leaving King’s, John and his young family enjoyed a four-year stint in the UK at one of the world’s great independent co-educational boarding schools, Wellington College, before spending four-and-a-half years in Adelaide at Prince Alfred College.

Born in Brisbane in 1974, John grew up in Gunnedah where his mother Jenny was the physiotherapist at Gunnedah Hospital for some 30 years and his father Craig was involved in the rural industry, which drew them to the town when he was a baby. The youngest in the family, John has two older sisters, Jane and Anna, who both live at Caves Beach with their families in the same area as their parents who are now well retired.

“I firmly believe that I am where I am today because of the family and community values as well as opportunities I had when growing up in Gunnedah,” John said.

“Sport was massive for me. I recall playing rugby or league on a Saturday and going to mum’s physio for the afternoon to get ready for the next day’s game. There is no doubt that growing up playing league helped me greatly with my union, which eventually became the game I would continue playing. I learnt quickly that my skills as a league player were very handy in union, particularly with respect to defence and running with the ball.

“I played cricket in the summer as well and have great memories playing for Gunnedah and the northwest as a junior as well as Albion Cricket Club. There was always some tennis and golf being played as well but winter was mainly dominated by rugby league with a bit of rugby union on the side. Dad introduced me to rugby on a Sunday at a young age, but it was not a priority at that point. I also played the guitar but suffice to say I did not end up on the stage … anywhere.”

John attended Gunnedah South Public School before heading to St Mary’s College, which he loved.

“I loved St Mary’s, I loved school and don’t recall it being a burden,” John said.

“When I was older, I was fortunate to do well at underage level, particularly with rugby league and union, I was lucky enough to be selected in the Australian Schoolboys Rugby League under 15 merit side in 1989 so I thought that a league career was on the horizon at that point. Dad told me years later that a couple of the Sydney league teams showed interest, but he batted them back.”

A promising player, John toured Papua New Guinea with the NSW Country team, which included one Andrew Johns, who went on to captain the Newcastle Knights and play in two World Cups.

“I broke my hand in a Commonwealth Cup game playing for St Mary’s which meant I could not trial for the Open Australian Schoolboys that year, which was heartbreaking for me as that was my dream,” John said. “But I re-grouped and ended up being selected to play for the Australian under 17 rugby union side that toured NZ in 1991 – I don’t think I played another game of rugby league after that.”

John left Gunnedah at the end of 1991 after completing Year 12 and secured a sporting scholarship to attend St Andrew’s College at Sydney University and play rugby for Sydney Uni.

“I was probably ill-equipped for life in a big city, but college was good in that regard. Of course, I had two older sisters living in Sydney as well, which was great – they had a massive influence on my life at that point, as they do now. I love them dearly,” John said.

“I studied a Bachelor of Arts Degree at Sydney Uni completing a double major in geography, with minors in marine science and geology. I originally had plans to be a sport psychologist but attended one lecture and realised that was not for me – but I loved geography.”

Teaching was never on the radar for John when he left Gunnedah, but towards the end of his fourth year at uni, he started to be interested in primary education.

“As things turned out, I was lucky enough to land a geography teaching contract at The King’s School in Sydney in 1996 – I had no teacher training, but it was not needed at the time, so it was sink or swim. I can honestly say that I knew I would be a career teacher after the first day in the job, I just loved it. I was a geography master and boarding resident and coached cricket and rugby. I was in heaven.”

John continued to play rugby at Sydney Uni but transferred to Gordon Rugby Club in 1997 where he had two “wonderful years” and feels blest to have had the opportunity to play for two famous Sydney clubs and make lifelong friends.

In 1998 John was considering his options and applied for a scholarship to Oxford University after being approached about playing rugby and was accepted into a full master’s course,

Environment Change and Management, which suited his geography training. A Major Stanley scholarship enabled him to take up the opportunity.

“This changed my life,” John said.

“Living and studying in Oxford and playing rugby for the Oxford University 1st XV (referred to as the ‘Blues’) was extraordinary. We had some great tours to countries like South Africa and I ended up getting my ‘Blue’ in 1999 playing in front of 57,000 at Twickenham – this was my career highlight. This experience also opened my eyes to the academic potential that I had.

“I had been given 16 months leave without pay from King’s, for which I was grateful, so I returned to King’s and to Gordon Rugby Club. Unfortunately, I only played one or two games before succumbing to a groin injury. This ended my career so to speak – I realised that I was never going to get to the very top, and I was okay with that.

“It had dawned on me that rugby and the game I had grown to love, had served me well providing me with numerous opportunities and friendships. I ended up having 15 operations to repair my body – of course, I would do it all again.”

John returned to King’s and immediately immersed himself into his teaching and coaching. In 2002 he was invited to co-coach the King’s 1st XV, which he said was arguably the best side the school has had, with a win in the GPS premiership that year. He, along with the men who played in that 2002 side, were recently invited back to The King’s School to present the jerseys to the 2022 1st XV and enjoy their 20-year reunion. He continued to coach schoolboy rugby which filled the void for him, and the team won again at King’s in 2008.

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