Club Appearances: 15
Club Debut Year: 1927
Club Final Year: 1927
Position: Utility Forward
Club Points: 27
Club Tries: 9
- NSW v Qld: 6
- NSW v Int: 13
- Australia: 13
- St George: 15
- St George: 27
Frank ‘Chunky’ Burge decided to retire at the start of the 1923 season. He was 28. He had made his name as a dynamic and tough back rower, and a prolific scorer of tries. Some critics of the time rated him the greatest forward in the history of both rugby codes. Burge made a brief return for one game for his club Glebe in 1923 (a testimonial game). His only games in 1924 and 1925 were a few matches in the bush, where he also did some coaching. Then, at the end of April 1926, he suddenly announced he was making a comeback with Glebe. After two appearances as a front rower — two matches after being out for the best part of three years! — he was named NSW captain. Such was his stature in the game.
Fast, tall (183cm), brave and staggeringly powerful, Burge set new standards for lock-forward play. He scored tries at a phenomenal rate for a forward, averaging better than a try 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. He had played his first game for Glebe at the start of 1911, when he was 16, and appeared in all three Tests in the 1914 Ashes series before his 20th birthday. His impact in the UK when he toured with the 1921–22 Kangaroos was immense. Fifty years later, the leading English commentator Eddie Waring wrote that
Johnny Raper was ‘the greatest loose forward Australia has possibly ever had’ before adding matter-of-factly, almost as if it didn’t need saying: ‘Apart from Frank Burge.’
In 1945, the old sports writer WF Corbett stated that Burge was
‘by miles the most slashing forward in attack that most of us have seen in our lifetime … he took long, loping strides, because he ran from the hips and not the knees and could cover the ground in less than 11 seconds for the hundred [yards].’
Burge once beat the famous winger Harold Horder in a sprint challenge. Corbett’s brother Claude, also a fine journalist, wrote,
‘Frank was, perhaps, the finest League forward of all time. He could play anywhere in the scrum, but, although he preferred the loose forward place, he was equally as fine in the front row. Sandy Pearce, greatest of all rugby league hookers, once told me that Frank Burge was the best “side man” he ever had.’
Burge was chosen in the Australian Rugby League Team of the Century in 2008, and became an Immortal in 2018. He was the most revered player of his day, as Sporting Life magazine recalled in 1950:
‘Remember how the crowds used to flock out to see him in his battles against another league giant, “Bluey” Watkins, who played for Eastern Suburbs when Burge played for Glebe. Remember his bull-like charges down the centre against the English league sides. Remember his uncanny anticipation when he would race (and how could he race!) to take the last pass and with his head thrown back, stride for the line.’
Unfortunately, after one game with NSW in 1926, Burge broke his leg playing for Glebe against University. His playing career seemed over, but St George offered him an unprecedented £200 contract to be captain-coach in 1927. Saints had finished last the previous year, but Burge took them to the final in his first season at Earl Park and the top four in each of his four years in charge. He came back to coach one more season in 1937, and Saints jumped from second last to runners-up. 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.
His influence at St George was profound, lasting generations. His belief that rugby league games are won by the forwards carried over into the coaching mantras of Neville Smith, Ken Kearney, Norm Provan and Harry Bath.
‘They are the labourers to the tradesmen, the hod carriers to the bricklayers,’ Burge once said of his comrades in the pack. ‘If the forwards don’t pave the way, then the backs don’t function.’