COMING OF AGE

The 1941 Premiership

By Geoff Armstrong

BOOK EXTRACT – Spirit of the Red V

WILSON’S PROMONTORY IS 240 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. Lieutenant Gordon Hart left his special forces camp there on a milk truck at 4 o’clock on the Friday morning, travelling for four hours to south-west Melbourne, hoping to get a flight from the Point Cook aerodrome to Sydney. Saints officials didn’t know where he was and couldn’t be sure he was coming. No planes were available, so Hart went back to the city and snuck on board the last overnight train north. He spent the entire journey hiding in toilets and swapping carriages to avoid Rail Transport Officers because he didn’t have a ticket and finally reached Sydney’s Central Station around lunchtime Saturday. Kickoff was 3.15pm. From Central, he walked up Foveaux Street, a decent climb, and then across Moore Park to the Sydney Cricket Ground. Legend has it that he strolled through the dressing-room door with an hour to spare, though press reports suggest he actually landed in the city a little before midday. Reserve-grade lock Bill Collier was ready to play as a makeshift centre if Hart didn’t arrive in time.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Hart played ‘magnificently’ in St George’s big win. The Sunday Telegraph headlined their grand final report: ‘Soldier Hart Hero of St George’s First Premiership Victory.’ Easts captain Ray Stehr said, ‘It’s a pity he didn’t miss the train. If he hadn’t played, we might have won.’ Hart scored the first of Saints’ seven tries, fending off Dave Brown to score. Straight after the game, while his teammates celebrated, he showered and quickly left the ground, knowing he had no time to lose if he wanted to be back in camp at the required hour. There was only time to have a cup of tea with his mother and sister at a café at Central, then he jumped on a troop train to Melbourne, and after hitching a ride with a commanding officer he got back to Wilson’s Promontory just before midnight on the Sunday night. Though he survived the war, Gordon Hart never played first grade again.

During the war, Hart served as a commando in Timor, New Guinea and Tarakan. He had been promoted to Lieutenant soon after enlisting and became a Captain in 1944. He was mentioned in despatches for some heroic service in Timor, keeping open an observation point located less than an hour’s march from the enemy for seven weeks in November-December 1942. Conditions were ‘incredibly hard’ but Hart never left his post. After the war, he came back to St George but, to quote the St George Call, ‘dimmer were his former dynamic bursts and hard running and Gordon at termination of the season decided to hang up his boots’. He became a vice-president and, at 28, the youngest selector in the history of the club to that time, before accepting a position with a printing business in India in August 1947. He had completed a lithographer apprenticeship before enlisting.

In May 1943, there was much excitement among St George fans when it was rumoured Hart was going to appear in a premiership game against Newtown. But it was not to be. ‘It was only by a whisker that we failed to have Gordon Hart here for last Saturday’s match,’ reported Rugby League News. ‘We know what a welcome this grand little player would have received.’

THE CROWD FOR THE final was 39,957, the second largest for a club game in Sydney, behind only the Easts-Norths game in 1921 that had brought together the two leading teams of the day at a time of renewed optimism following the twin nightmares of the Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic. Saints versus the Tricolours in 1941 was a clash of teams representing the fastest growing expanses of well-populated suburbia in the city — south from Tempe towards the Georges River and east from the inner-city communities of Paddington and Woollahra to the Pacific. Both districts had grown along important transport hubs: the Bondi tramline and the Illawarra railway. The weather was perfect, mild temperatures with high cloud. Long before the match kicked off, all the programs had been sold.

Easts scored the first try and soon after there was concern in the St George camp when Neville Smith was groggy and in the arms of the St John ambulanceman after being stiff-armed behind play. But the red and white forwards were relentless and gradually they took command. Smith kicked a penalty and their first try came from a slick backline move: Alby McAndrew to Roy Hasson to Hart, who left Brown behind as he raced for the line. Easts crossed again, to get back within a point, only for Charlie Montgomery to gather a loose ball on his own 25 and gallop upfield. At halfway, he passed to Smith, who sprinted 50 metres to score under the posts.

The second half was all St George. Hart put a kick through for Hasson to score. From a scrum, McAndrew worked a blindside move with Hasson and winger Owen Campbell flew over in the corner. Then Bill Tyquin picked up a loose ball, raced into the clear and sent Hasson away. There was a flare-up among the forwards, not the first of the game, and Tyquin and Easts’ Jack Arnold were sent off. Most observers thought the Saints man, who retaliated after being hit from behind, was unlucky. The sides swapped tries before the end, Campbell and Kelly scoring for St George. The final score was 31–14.

Claude Corbett (Sunday Sun, 31 August 1941): Nev Smith deserved the honour his teammates paid him when they carried him shoulder high from the field of victory. Smith was knocked out a couple of times, but he always went back to lead his side in their headlong races for the line. He scored a try and kicked five goals, so in this game, as in others, he has put his stamp indelibly on the records of St George in its first premiership year.

George Thatcher (Daily Telegraph, 30 August 1941): I’ve seen all the rugby league finals, with the exception of those during the last war, but never have I seen such a sizzling tempo as in the first 20 minutes yesterday. Ray Stehr, Easts captain, admitted that the early pace wrecked his team’s hopes and ran some of the players ‘into the ground’.

Ray Stehr (trying to congratulate St George players in a crowded dressing-room): I’ve been chasing them all the afternoon and even now, when the match is over, I can’t find them. Anyhow, when we play them again, East will be equipped with lassos. We might have a better chance then of holding them.

Neville Smith: The boys have done everything I have asked of them and I think that I should not be singled out for special praise. We relied on speed and teamwork and that carried the day.

‘They were five yards faster than we were, and made the most of it,’ rued Dave Brown. ‘I am not sorry to be beaten by a side that plays that brand of football,’ said Stehr. ‘McAndrew was an inspiring force at the base of the scrum,’ wrote Corbett. ‘And with him, in great form at five-eighth, was the equally diminutive Hasson, who finished off two fine movements with tries. Tyquin, in the first half, played grandly and he, with Smith, Kelly and Montgomery, seemed always to be where the ball was.’

Truth judged Hart the ‘key man’ in the St George backline. ‘Short and stocky, [he] uses a well-judged fend and is always hard to tackle,’ said the tabloid’s correspondent. ‘Yesterday he had that fend working overtime.’ Centre Jack Gilbert, who came into the side when Jack Lindwall was forced out by an attack of boils, ‘defended almost perfectly’ according to Horrie Maher, while Gilbert’s brother, Herb junior, provided his side with a favourable share of the ball. George Thatcher spotted Arthur Fadden in the St George dressing-room after the game, rubbing shoulders with Herb Gilbert senior, Reg Fusedale and a khaki-clad Tony Redmond, three members of the Saints first-grade side from St George’s Day in 1921. Ricketty Johnston watched the game from the Members Stand.

Maher was in an ebullient mood as he waxed lyrical about ‘the greatest triumph the rugby league code of this district has ever experienced’. No other club in the metropolitan area ‘could get within cooee’ of Smith’s men. Even better, the majority of the players originated from the St George Junior League.

Horrie Maher: There is Len Kelly, who came to grade football from Sutherland nine seasons ago; Herb Gilbert and Roy Hasson (Carlton Waratah); Jack Gilbert (Arncliffe Scots), Gordon Hart (Hurstville Old Boys); Noel Jones and Alby McAndrew (Brighton); Jack Lindwall (Kogarah Sports); of the three reserves, Bill Collier and Jim Hale have played with Carlton Athletics, and Ray Pratt with Brighton. Jack Wedgwood, who hails from Dorrigo, has played nearly all his football in this district and has risen with the club.

There was excitement across the district and beyond. Ron Anderson, who prior to his enlistment with the AIF was a member of Kogarah Sports junior club, was serving alongside Charlie Hazelton in Syria. In a letter to Maher, he revealed that they had been in action not far from the Tomb of St George at the time of the final. ‘I think that the noise caused by the different methods of modern warfare must have stirred him in his grave,’ Anderson wrote. ‘I believe it was somewhere in the vicinity of where we were that he had a crack at the dragon.’

Clarrie Fahy spent 90 minutes reading congratulatory letters and telegrams at the next St George committee meeting. ‘The telephone has never stopped ringing since winning the premiership and I have even received congratulations from people I have never heard of before,’ he said. ‘My home is littered with these letters.’ Among them were a note from Joe Jorgensen, the young Port Kembla centre who had trialled with St George in 1940 until illness prevented him from playing for much of that season. He told Fahy that the St George win gave him ‘the biggest thrill of my life’ and that he was still keen to don the red and white. In fact, Jorgensen would end up at Balmain and captain Australia in 1946. Another letter came from Frank Mulville, who would have played with Saints in 1941 but for the NSW Rugby League’s strict interpretation of the residential rule that forced him to return to Newtown and ultimately back to the far north coast. From Newcastle, foundation secretary Arthur Moymow wrote: ‘It was an impressive victory and a just reward for the consistent and good football St George had played since its entry into the first-grade competition.’

Frank Gray, five-eighth in Saints’ first ever line-up in 1921, wrote that Herb Gilbert must have been ‘the proudest of all the St George committeemen … not only was Herb the captain of the original St George team, but 21 years later the side included his two sons’. This joyful family experience was not, in a way, unique to the Gilberts — there were many connected with the club, either officially or as fans, whose parents had lived through the defeats of the early ’20s, some who had moved to the sparsely populated St George district before it had a premiership team. Now they got to celebrate the club’s ‘coming of age’ together. In years to come, glory days would be shared by three, even four generations of Red V families. A tradition was born.

The Victory Smoko at the Kogarah Masonic Hall on 19 November was packed with friends and supporters, to the point that, according to the St George Call, ‘seating accommodation was so taxed that many had to stand all night [and] many left after the function with their thirsts unquenched’. St George’s cricket captain, the great leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly, presented the premiership blazers to captain Neville Smith and vice-captain Len Kelly, and Arthur Yager handed blazers to the rest of the team, the selectors, various officials (including life member Joe McGraw), timekeeper Sid Smith and ballboy Arthur Ross.

‘I’ve battled hard for many years to win this first blazer in grade football,’ said Kelly. ‘If the other players of the team appreciate it as much as I do, more premierships will be won in coming seasons.’

THERE WAS AN EXULTANT tone to this evening, but it would be wrong to suggest that the St George district was overcome with unadulterated ecstasy at their football team’s great triumph. The second anniversary of the start of the Second World War occurred four days after the big win over Easts, so the excitement was tempered by the increasingly depressing news from the battlefields.

Local member HV ‘Bert’ Evatt was a guest of the club in the dressing-room after the final; on the Monday he left for Canberra to attend a meeting of the Advisory War Council. In November, on the same day Clarrie Fahy released news of the bonuses the club would pay their premiership players, there was news out of Libya that the siege at Tobruk might soon be over but in Washington the US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, admitted he had received no response to his demand that Japan recall its armies and renounce its alliance with Germany and Italy. ‘The Far East volcano continues to boil,’ wrote the Sun.

Propeller (20 November 1941): The St George Rugby League Football Club, winners of the premiership competition, this week paid £2300 in bonuses to players and donations to patriotic organisations. This is the largest disbursement ever made by an Australian rugby league club. First-grade players received a record bonus of £102. Neville Smith, playing-coach, got £177. The season’s football will be worth almost £200 to Smith, as he also received special bonuses for interstate matches. Second-graders will be paid £45 and third-graders £9/8/-. The St George club also gave £140 to patriotic organisations. This includes £25 each to Hurstville, Bexley, Kogarah and Rockdale Patriotic Funds, and £20 to Sutherland Council for war comforts funds, and £20 to the Red Cross Society. The players’ bonus was reduced from £110 to £102 in order to make donations to the patriotic funds. The previous highest bonus by a Sydney club for competition matches was £99, by North Sydney 20 years ago.

By March 1942, when Fahy released his Annual Report, the bonus was put officially at £101. The report also gave an indication of how the war was affecting the club. The names of 45 players, past and present, who were known to be on active service were listed; the true cost was unquestionably higher, as the club had lost contact with some former players, while many players who had not formally enlisted were attending army camps. From the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, every man was on call.

There was a strong hint of what was to come when Bill Tyquin told the club he had joined the AIF and was with the armoured division at Greta, near Newcastle. This was no surprise, as he had tried to sign up previously and his teammates had sensed that he would not be able to resist the urge to join the fight once the football season was over. ‘I want to do my bit,’ he told them. After the war, Tyquin returned to Brisbane, to become a major figure at Southern Suburbs, make his Test debut in 1948 and be named vice-captain of the 1948–49 Kangaroos. He played in four Tests on that tour, and took over the captaincy from Col Maxwell for the third Ashes Test and both Tests in France.

GIVEN THAT THE PREMIERSHIP had been won with such a young and skilful side, St George supporters could quite logically have expected the 1941 premiership to have been the start of a dynasty. But these were not normal times. Even before a ball was kicked in the new season, they were resigned to being without Tyquin, Hart and Wedgwood. And then came the biggest loss of all. The first sense the fans had that Neville Smith was contemplating an early retirement came in the first week of August in 1941, after Maher reported a recent conversation he’d had with the captain-coach.

‘One of my main ambitions since coming to this district has been to help St George club win the first-grade rugby league premiership, and I believe that this season we have good prospects of taking out that honour,’ Smith said. But then he dropped his bombshell — that he intended to quit playing at the end of the season. As Maher wrote his story, Smith didn’t really say why, suggesting he might move to Queensland to manage a sheep station, or look after the family farm at Bathurst, or maybe join the air force. But there was an implication in Maher’s report that Smith was struggling with the pressure and scrutiny that came with being the leader of the club. ‘For the position which he holds in the football limelight it is only to be expected that at various times he would be confronted with critics, some of whom are decidedly lacking in their football knowledge,’ Maher wrote. ‘But to the more stable identities of the district Smith will also be regarded as one of the greatest personalities seen in St George.’

Maher didn’t reveal the major reason for Smith’s introspection. Back in June, the Saints captain had been badly knocked about during a thrilling and controversial game with Newtown that ended in a 20–all draw. Jack Lindwall scored a spectacular kick and chase right on fulltime that Roy Hasson converted to bring the teams level and prop Charlie Montgomery was cited by referee Tom McMahon on a misconduct charge. When Smith sought attention from the ambulanceman after being kicked in the face, McMahon said he was sick of the players wasting time and they ‘were like a lot of girls’, a comment that enraged the St George players. To a man, they interpreted the referee’s remark as a shot at their concussed captain, who had been cared for more than once by the first-aid officers. Montgomery, who was not sent off, asked McMahon if it was true he had recently missed some games because of a broken toe. At the subsequent judiciary hearing, he was accompanied by fellow forwards Len Kelly and Cliff Kelly, but League officials decided there was no need to hear their evidence or hand out any punishment. ‘The remarks made by referee T. McMahon were indiscreet and should not have been made, and the retort by player Montgomery was also indiscreet and should not have been made,’ said a League spokesman.

Smith did not attend the hearing because he was still under medical supervision. Maher’s report of the game shows how he was struggling.

Horrie Maher (27 June 1941): The St George captain and coach, Neville Smith, played through the second half of Saturday’s match in a state of unconsciousness and was unaware of the result until Sunday morning. He collapsed after entering the dressing-room and was immediately conveyed to hospital. It was not till several hours later that doctors would grant him permission to leave for home. Even then they wanted him to stay the night in hospital.

It is not the first time that Nev has suffered such lapses. ‘I am susceptible to knocks on my head and this is the third occasion in a short time that I have had no recollection of what happened in matches I have played in,’ he said on Sunday. He does not remember having made several attempts to kick goals in the second half and laughed when someone told him of the good fortune he had when one of his kicks hit the goal posts and bounced over. ‘Did that really happen?’ Nev asked.

Smith told Maher on the quiet that specialists had suggested he retire immediately. ‘Nev never intended to play again following his succession of injuries last season, and had it not been for the sake of the team in the latter end of the competition, he would have pulled out there and then, as this was the advice the doctor tendered to him,’ Maher wrote prior to the start of the 1942 season, after the former captain-coach confirmed he was finished. That Smith was able to lead the team to premiership glory in these circumstances only adds to his greatness. He had signed up for army duty in August 1940, but was discharged in November 1941, his papers suggesting somewhat vaguely that he was performing an ‘essential occupation’. When Saints tried one last time to change his mind, he confirmed to the Daily Telegraph: ‘I had medical advice not to play any more, so I decided to turn it in.’

Claude Corbett (Sun, 25 March 1942): The leadership of this dashing forward will be missed by St George. The speed he infused into his football was an inspiration to the others, and this was reflected in last season’s successes.

St George will be without two other key men in Bill Tyquin and Gordon Hart, both unavailable … men of St George’s victorious team last year who are engaged in essential services or are in nearby camps are Spencer, Gilbert, Kelly and Montgomery of the forwards, and McAndrew, Hasson, Lindwall, Campbell and Jones of the backs.

The Saints committee marked time rather than appointing a new coach, saying that with training being so difficult to organise, they’d nominate a ‘manager’ instead. Len Kelly, the new captain, was given the job just a few days before the opening round, when his availability for the season was confirmed. From week to week through 1942, club officials would often not know until just before kickoff what team they would be putting on the park. St George’s domination of the finals series in 1941 had been the most decisive seen since the top-four playoff system was introduced in 1926. Their two wins, by margins of 24 and 17 points, eight tries to two and then seven tries to four, were emphatic. The reserves were minor premiers, but lost the grand final to Balmain, while a last-minute try cost the thirds a semi-final place. St George had won the President’s Cup earlier in the year. In cricket, the St George district club’s first-grade team, led by Bill O’Reilly and featuring two highly promising teenagers in left-handed batsman Arthur Morris and fast bowler Ray Lindwall, had won the first-grade premiership in 1940–41, and the club also claimed the Poidevin-Gray and AW Green Shield junior competitions and the club championship. St George as a sporting district was flying high.

‘If we both keep going,’ St George Cricket Club president Arthur Blackshaw quipped soon after the league team’s victory, ‘we will need to have flagpoles all around the ground at Hurstville Oval.’

Ray Lindwall, a younger brother of Jack, was also an excellent fullback who had played a couple of first-grade games in 1940. With the break-up of St George’s premiership-winning rugby league team of 1941 happening so quickly, youngsters such as him would be needed to maintain the club’s momentum.

This book extract is from Spirit of the Red V: A Century of Dragons Rugby League (Volume 1, 1921–1967), by Geoff Armstrong, published in association with the St George DRLFC by Stoke Hill Press, $45.00, available at www.stokehillpress.com and wherever good books are sold.