Monday Milestone: 1940s Rugby League – Losing My Religion

Filed in Other by on August 18, 2013

As we head towards the rugby league finals, the Milestone takes the Delorean forward another decade this week, this time focussing on rugby league in the 1940’s.

This Week in History
, August 20
The young Kangaroo tour arrives in England, without the incumbent Australian captain Len Smith who had been controversially left out of the squad allegedly on religious grounds.

“Len will probably be one of the first men considered for captaincy
 of the Australian side to tour England next year.”

– A Sydney Morning Herald article by Stan Baxter dated 3 September 1947*

A wise man once said that two things begin wars: greed, and religion.

When it comes to such things no decade has understood this better than the 1940s. An era starkly divided between the devastation of the Second World War and the prosperity that followed in peace time.

Stepping out of the Delorean, the Milestone discovers the days before Australian multiculturalism, before a spectrum of cultures and religious beliefs blended together. It was a time, when much of Australian society attended Christian church each Sunday and yet a strong religious line of judgement was still drawn: Were you Protestant? Or were you Catholic?

Surprisingly, rugby league was not immune.

Len Smith was a tremendous centre for Newtown during the 1940s. After serving in the Middle East and Africa during the Second World War, he returned from battle, and joined Newtown in 1943, an instant success. Predominantly playing as a hard running, and robust centre, the Bluebags won the premiership that year, and the following year, whilst back on active army service travelled 25 hours from Melbourne to play in the 1944 semi-final against St George before shipping out again to New Guinea. Smith was heroic on the frontline and rugby league field alike.

As the war ended in ‘45, his star was on the rise. By ‘47, Smith was playing for New South Wales. Then, in 1948, in a two Test series against New Zealand, Smith was appointed captain-coach. He was the most renowned rugby league player in the country.

But controversy was brewing. That year, the 1948 Kangaroo Tour was announced. A twenty-eight man squad would go to England. But inexplicably Len Smith was not among them. He’d gone from Australian captain/coach, to missing the boat. How could that be?

In short, he was Catholic.

If the stories are to be believed, the selector and coach of New South Wales and Australia, Norm “Latchem” Robinson was behind Smith’s non-selection. The duties of the touring captain included speaking engagements in many of the Northern English clubs with strong Masonic ties which could have been awkward. But perhaps the justification was more sinister than that. Robinson was staunchly Protestant.

Whilst the line between Catholics and Protestants has softened considerably in Australia over recent generations, discrimination like this, even in the 1940s, it is still remarkable. Try to imagine if Cameron Smith or Johnathon Thurston had been left out of the Australian side this season, on religious grounds? Imagine if their places instead went to James Tamou or Matt Gillett? Uproar would understandably ensue.

It was hugely controversial at the time, helped of course by the fact it could never be proven. But in an interview shortly before his death, half a century later, Len Smith could not hide the disappointment or the bitterness that endured from being omitted from that squad.

But because the 1940s did not hold our hyper-sensitivity to political correctness and discrimination and was an era that was no stranger to differentiation on the basis of religion as those in the war knew all too well, it cost Len Smith a greater opportunity to play for his country.


Milestone Five: Notable 1940s rugby league moments

5. 1943 – North Sydney play in their last premiership decider, going down to the Newtown Bluebags 34-3

4. 1943 – Canterbury wear maroon and Eastern Suburbs wear sky blue instead of their traditional colours to preserve dye for uniforms as part of the war effort.

3. 1947 – Two new clubs are admitted to the premiership sparking the birth of Manly-Warringah and Parramatta clubs, still in existence today.

2. 1948 – Len Smith is controversially omitted from the 1948 Kangaroos allegedly due to his Catholicism.

1. 1942 – in one of the all-time closest fought grand finals, with the scores locked up at 9-9, Lin Johnson slips taking the conversion, as the ball barely slides over, and Canterbury defeat St George 11-9.


 * from


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