Neville Smith was a product of St Stanislaus College, Bathurst. Family folklore has it that a toss of the coin in 1935 inspired the then 19-year-old Smith and three friends to head to Queensland rather than South Australia, in search of adventure and jobs. Smith joined the Fortitude Valley rugby league club in Brisbane, from where he was picked for Queensland and then in 1939 he joined St George and was appointed captain-coach, gaining the job in a close vote over Herb Gilbert senior. Smith was 23 years old. Gilbert, of course, was a rugby league legend, who was loved and respected in the St George district. It was an inspired decision.
Smith’s first season was difficult, with the team beset by injuries, but he still lifted them from last the previous year to equal second on the ladder and finished as the competition’s leading pointscorer, with 97 points (three tries and 44 goals). In 1940, St George again fell at the semi-final stage, but the year was an individual triumph for Saints’ captain-coach, whose display for NSW in a 52–11 demolition of Queensland prompted one critic to write:
‘His speed in the open resembled that of a three-quarter. Without doubt, Smith is one of the best constructive forwards playing, his intelligence, unequivocal coolness in exciting and stressing moments portraying him as one of the soundest young players to gain football fame.’
Smith would have been a certainty had an Australian team been chosen during 1940. But he wrenched a shoulder in Saints last game before the finals, a 31–15 win over Wests, and had to have it heavily strapped to finish the game (in which he scored a try and kicked four goals).
‘I am always in the wars,’
he said afterwards. Reporters noted that he also carried a deep bruise over his left eye.
Smith started the new season in rousing style, The St George Call celebrating his effort in a big win over Newtown:
‘Neville Smith, St George captain, gave his most outstanding display in the forwards since appearing with the local team. His leadership showed relentless energy … his football on Saturday rose to magnificent heights and he featured in almost every successful movement. Smashing his way through the opponents’ forwards, and even outpacing some of Newtown’s backs, he meant more to St George than two ordinary men.’
He scored two tries and kicked seven goals for City against Country and was excellent in two matches for NSW in Brisbane, the second of which occurred when back in Sydney his St George team was suffering its only bad defeat of the season without him, a 21–7 loss to Balmain.
But that result was put straight when the clubs met again in a semi-final, with Smith’s two tries and four goals important in a 32–8 win. In the final, he was flattened early but recovered to score a try and five goals as Saints claimed their first premiership in grand style, 31–14 over Easts. ‘I am not sorry to be beaten by a side that plays that brand of football,’ said Tricolours coach Ray Stehr.
The only shame was that the war would prevent this Saints team from building on its success. Centre Gordon Hart, who had travelled overnight from an army training camp in Victoria to play a starring role in the final, would performing heroically in Timor, New Guinea and Tarakan, but never play first grade again. Lock Bill Tyquin, a future Australian captain, and state fullback Jack Wedgwood both joined the AIF and didn’t wear the red and white again. Dynamic halfback Alby McAndrew, who didn’t celebrate his 21st until November 1941, was never the same footballer after he enlisted. But what a star this pocket dynamo was at his peak, as big a fan favourite as any Saint in the club’s first 100 years.
‘Even the big dipper at Luna Park could not give the consistent thrills that Alby McAndrew is providing football followers with this season,’
wrote Rugby League News after an important win during 1941.
The biggest loss of all was Neville Smith, who stunned the football world by retiring during the 1941–42 off-season, intimating but never outright saying that he was sick of all the injuries.
‘The leadership of this dashing forward will be missed by St George,’ wrote Claude Corbett. ‘The speed he infused into his football was an inspiration to the others, and this was reflected in last season’s successes.’
Remarkably, a Saints team with only four players from the 1941 premiership-winning line-up (winger Noel Jones, second rower Len Kelly, hooker Herb Gilbert jnr and prop Charlie Montgomery) would go down 11–9 in the 1942 Grand Final. Smith would return for one more year in 1943, but a series of leg injuries prompted him to quit once again at season’s end, this time for good.
The St George Call of 24 March 1944 called him
‘one of the greatest forwards ever to be associated with the club, and the most popular player to appear in this district’.
There were rumours in 1947 that Smith might return to Saints as coach, but he was now running a guest house at Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains, not too far from Bathurst, and was unavailable. Later, he became a NSW and Australian selector. He remains a giant figure in the story of the St George club: captain-coach of the first Saints team to win a first-grade premiership.