Arthur Yager, St George’s president since the foundation meeting in 1920, rose to address the club’s annual meeting prior to the 1927 season.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘after serious consideration by your officers, and guided by the advice of our late coach Herb Gilbert, it was decided to secure the services of a playing coach, if at all possible. Inquiries were instituted in every possible quarter, and we were successful in the end by interesting that world famed footballer Frank Burge. ‘I am pleased to be in a position to announce that Mr Burge has accepted the position and will don the red and white of St George in the forthcoming season.
‘To say we expect great things as a result of this move would, I think, be putting it mildly.’
Seventeen years earlier, so the story goes, Burge had been injured while playing rugby on the University Oval and was taken to Prince Alfred Hospital. ‘How old are you?’ asked the doctor, a former footballer. ‘Fifteen,’ Burge replied.
‘Your age I want, not your weight,’
said the medico, who was astonished to learn that the imposing fellow before him was still very much teenager.
In the seasons that followed, Burge would establish dual reputations as perhaps the greatest rugby league forward of all time, and as a highly influential coach. Fast, tall (183cm), brave and staggeringly powerful, he scored tries at a phenomenal rate for a forward, averaging better than one per game. He holds the record for most tries in a premiership game (eight for Glebe against University in 1920) and scored 33 tries in 23 tour matches for the Kangaroos in 1921–22.
Burge retired before a ball was kicked in 1923. Three years later, he announced he was making a comeback. After two matches with Glebe as a front-rower, he was named NSW captain. However, after one interstate encounter, Burge broke his leg in a club game and was out for the year. For 1927, he accepted an unprecedented £200 from St George to be captain-coach and took them to the final in his first year and the top four in each of the next three seasons (when he was a non-playing coach).
His feat in transforming a club that had never finished higher than fifth in its first six seasons to perennial contenders is one of the great coaching achievements in premiership history. St George won their first six games under his leadership. He scored three tries in a 23–5 win over Newtown in round 6 but missed the next two games because of injury and Saints lost on both occasions. Burge came back and his men won four and drew one of their next five games. The season culminated with a tight 20–11 loss to defending premiers Souths in the final.
‘Under the Burge influence the St George forwards became torrid fighters, dominating in rucks and heavy work, and full of ginger in tackling,’
wrote the Daily Telegraph in April 1932. This description fits a number of future Dragons line-ups. Burge set a standard for the red-and-white generations that followed.
Burge’s arrival at Earl Park meant that Arnold Traynor lost the leadership. But though the new captain-coach brought his former Glebe teammate, Bill ‘Binghi’ Benson, over to play halfback, it was far from the end for Traynor, who produced perhaps his finest season, playing mostly as a five-eighth. The whole club was revitalised; St George’s gate takings increased from £1010 in 1926 to £2702 in 1927, making Burge arguably the biggest bargain in the club’s history. Clarrie Tye had been convinced to have one more tremendous year, Jockey Kelly and Snowy Justice were respectively the best lock and hooker in the country, while fullback Frank Meighan, a recruit from Newcastle, was outstanding. The suspension suffered by Meighan after he was controversially sent off late in the 26–11 semi-final against Wests, might have cost Saints the premiership.
In 1928, Burge was a central figure in what became known as the ‘Earl Park riot’, after he and club secretary Reg Fusedale dashed on to the field after star centre George Carstairs was kicked in the head. They left when ordered to by the referee, but their spontaneous action helped set the mood. Carstairs and his assailant, Balmain’s Tony Russell, were taken to hospital (the pair resuming their fisticuffs after they were inadvisably placed in the same ambulance) while footballers fought, fans clashed and police wielding batons struggled to restore order. Saints finished equal top of the ladder that year, but lost their semi-final to Souths, and were second in 1929, only to be knocked out by Newtown. Burge then steered his men from fourth into the 1930 grand final, but lost to Western Suburbs.
There were reports during the ’30 season of dissension between the coach and some Saints officials.
‘If St George want me, I’m at their service,’ Burge said. ‘But I will not tolerate meddling interference with my coaching methods.’
And then he stunningly lost the job before the 1931 season, when the committee opted for the former Souths and Australian halfback Harry ‘Mick’ Kadwell as captain-coach. It would not be the last time the club would prefer that their coach had an on-field presence. After a slow start (there were rumours Burge might return after Saints lost their first three games), Kadwell led his team to a semi-final in his first year but broke his leg playing for NSW in 1932 and missed the club’s last ten games of the season, only two of which were won. ‘Ricketty’ Johnston, the first Saint to play for Australia, returned to coach the team, with Kadwell back as skipper, to an 18–5 loss to Newtown in the 1933 final. But except for a run of seven victories in eight games in the second half of 1934, the next three years featured more losses that wins. The ’36 season closed with a 13–11 loss to University at Earl Park, the students’ only success of the season.
Fortunately, Frank Burge’s impact on the club was not over. As if to prove a point, he returned to the club in 1937, taking them from second-last to equal second on the ladder in a year in which, because of a Kangaroo tour, there was no finals series. He was named as Australian coach, but only made it as far as New Zealand before a stomach illness forced his return home. In early 1938, Yager and Fusedale both retired, the club’s one Kangaroo, hooker and captain Percy Fairall, transferred to Souths, and Burge took a season off from club coaching. Without this formidable quartet, Saints plummeted to the bottom of the ladder. New inspiration was clearly needed. It would come from an unlikely source.