The Other Premiers of 1943
by Terry Williams (Newtown RLFC Club Historian)
1943 is most famously remembered by Bluebags for Newtown winning their last first grade premiership, when Bumper Farrell and his mighty men conquered the invading hordes from North Sydney led by Frank Hyde.
That’s exactly as it should be, as many of those names are among the finest to ever grace rugby league in Australia.
But there was another Bluebag team that year that also claimed the premiership and it is their 80th anniversary this year too.
1943 was the height of the war. Austerity and restrictions were everywhere so that clothing, food and petrol were all scarcely available as the war effort swung into full production. There were even beer droughts, which would have been considered “un-Australian” if the term had been coined then.
But there was also an acknowledgement that if things were tough here, they were tougher for some other nations so everyone made do. Sports were seen as important way to hold communities together but players had military duties or were employed in essential industries that could also restrict their availability.
The end result was a huge turnover of players at all clubs as players came and went in a topsy turvy season. And the Third Grade teams, on the lowest rung of the premiership ladder, probably felt that impact more than the others.
Newtown had some great depth throughout the war years and although the first grade side had claimed the State Cup titles in 1941 and ’42, this was the year they put it all together.
Arthur Folwell was coach of the first grade, Keith Ellis had the Seconds and his brother Allan the Third Grade, who hadn’t won a single match the previous year. The three coaches acted as selectors for all teams, aided by the experience of Jack Kessey and Alex Bolewski who both, like the others, came from a rich rugby league pedigree.
Allan Ellis was in the early stages of a coaching career that spanned three decades. The youngest of the three famous brothers that had worn the Royal Blue jersey with such distinction he had, like his siblings Tom and Keith, chalked up over 100 games for the club when such a figure was a real milestone.
The Third Grade Secretary Alf Thompson was also starting out on an administrative career that culminated in him being manager of the 1949 Australian team to New Zealand. He was rated as one of the game’s rising stars as an official.
The players in their charge were an eclectic group, like most football teams before and since. There is a full list of all those appeared below but because reports of lower grade games were scant (if only they’d had Rugby League Week back then) it is hard for any historian to get a complete picture of how it was.
Fullback Ken Burnell had played first grade for the second half of 1942 but was graded in Thirds and spent most of the year before being called into second grade. Young Tom Jones took over for the finals and did a good job, even though he was built like a jockey. He would go on to play a few first grade games after the war.
The wingers in the decider were Fred O’Connor and Mick Shortus. Both were speed merchants and knew, like all good wingers, how to get across the line. O’Connor went on to have a long career in athletics and won an OAM for his services to the sport. Shortus was more experienced and got to play a couple of first grade games. He was the team’s leading tryscorer in 1943, crossing for seven three-pointers.
Centres Percy Haines and Ray Schafer were another couple with plenty of toe. They were the club’s representatives in in the individual and relay athletic events that augmented matches on carnival days during the war.
Five eighth was teenager Kevin Ryan, another thinly built will-o-the-wisp who had sublime skills from the match reports. Think Paul Morris 1981 without the flowing locks – that’s how he comes across.
Herbie Hunter was lock but he could fill several positions and was a club stalwart, having played his only two first grade matches back in 1937. His appearances were also restricted by his military duties but he made a difference to this side.
In the second row were Joe Ryan, brother of Kevin and one of a prolific Bluebag family, and Queenslander Charlie Leibke a nephew of the great Toowoomba and Queensland forward from the 1920s. There was a bit of pedigree and class in the pair of them.
Up front, the muscle of Arthur Ward and Albert Catt supported hooker Joe Lyons. Ward and Catt proved the most durable members of the team, only missing one match each during the season. Both had memorable moments in the decider.
Halfback and skipper over the latter stages of the season was Keith Froome. He had played for NSW from the famous Wests Newcastle club in 1941 before army duties brought him to Sydney and he linked up with Newtown. Although his army commitments limited his appearances he was, crucially, available for the second half of the season.
After the war Froome confirmed his standing as the best halfback in the competition and won selection for the 1948 Kangaroo tour. A year later he was Australian captain-coach for the tour to New Zealand and was in line to be Australia’s captain in 1950 before an injury ruled him out of the series and ended his career at the top level. But he proved the difference in Allan Ellis’ team.
There were a few other members of the team that warrant mention, even if they didn’t appear in the decider.
Ron Schuman was appointed captain at the start of the year and was also a very good cricketer who opened the batting for the Marrickville team that claimed the Sydney first grade premiership in 1943-44.
Ray O’Donnell played most of the games this year but not the final, though he had some fair progeny with his grandson Luke O’Donnell winning Origin and Test honours and winning a premiership with the Sydney Roosters in 2013. Luke’s brother Kyle also played first grade with Canberra and Newcastle, whilst the third brother, Dane, worked at the ARL Foundation and spent a season with Newtown in the Jim Beam Cup era.
Steve Norrish had a son of the same name who played with Sydney University in the Second Division in the 1970s before becoming a respected judge.
Frank Speechley rose from Third Grade in 1943 all the way to First Grade which was a fair effort at any time. He was one of the first in another famous Bluebag family and was a no nonsense utility who was a celebrity when he regularly attended matches and functions into the 1990s.
Another familiar surname was George Stonestreet, who played with the club for the best part of a decade but whose 1943 was interrupted. His great grandson Sam is part of the Jets’ 2023 NSW KOE Cup campaign.
The team only lost three games during the preliminary rounds, although two of those were to St George, yet they went into the finals quietly confident.
But first there was a play off for the minor premiership. Both Newtown and Balmain had finished equal at the top of the table, as in first grade, and the same two clubs had to play to decide who got the honour of finishing at the top of the pile.
So on August 7th the Bluebags and Tigers faced off to decide the minor premiers in First Grade and the Thirds. And, happy days, the thirteen boys all dressed in blue triumphed in both games.
Froome’s class started to show in the third grade clash; he scored the opening try and two goals by Jones gave Newtown a 7-0 lead at the break. The Tigers came back to score and narrow the deficit with a converted try. In the last ten minutes Balmain were pressing when Jack Leo broke a leg. Soon after Newtown got their chance and a try to Ray Schafer saw them home 10-5.
That meant they played South Sydney in the semi final the following Saturday at the SCG. This proved to be another close encounter of the rugby league kind. Jones and Froome each kicked goals for the Blues but at half time Souths led 5-4.
Froome kicked a penalty to edge Newtown ahead late in the second half and then Souths threw everything at them in the last minutes, sending waves of attack at the Blue defenders. At the death the Rabbitohs strung seven passes together before Frank Curry, father of the man who coached Souths in the 1990s, was bundled into touch just before the corner post.
After a week to rest their bruises and watch St George eliminate Balmain in the other semi final Newtown faced the Dragons on August 28. Teams. Referee for the match was a young Darcy Lawler who would go on to be both famous and infamous in his whistling career.
In the final Froome steadied any early nerves with a penalty goal from wide out. Midway through the half a classic chain passing movement by the Newtown backs saw Shortus fly across in the corner to make it 5-0. St George threatened several times but their only joy in the first half came from a penalty to make it 5-2 at the interval.
Soon after the resumption the Dragons scored a converted try under the posts from a scrum to grab a 7-5 lead. But within ten minutes Newtown replied through some smart play by one of their big men. When he was awarded a penalty right on the St George line Blues’ prop Albert Catt toed the ball ahead and beat the defenders, and Froome’s conversion made it 10-7.
Bluebags’ prop Arthur Ward was sent off after a scuffle in the last 15 minutes, and with only 12 players and no reserves the Blues were under the pump.
The Dragons pressed again and hit back with a try next to the posts, but somehow the conversion was astray and scores were locked at 10-10. Newtown attacked once more with time running out but Percy Haines was recalled after scoring because of a forward pass. From the next scrum, however, the Bluebags received a penalty and Froome kicked the goal to nudge them ahead 12-10.
Fulltime came when a last desperate St George raid on the Newtown line saw Froome shadow a kick over the dead ball line. But the final bell and whistle didn’t signal the end of the action by any means.
There must have been a bit of feeling in the match that lingered – one report says that “play had been heated throughout” because at fulltime a Newtown player then felled Dragons’ back rower Ken Braddock and it was all of a sudden on for young and old. Players rushed from everywhere to join in the fracas, right in front of the Members Stand.
The featured header image shows that it was obviously heated, and the referee, touch judges and officials from both teams did their best to quell the donnybrook. The crowd, many of them servicemen, roared their approval.
The newspapers said there were several fistic encounters and some kicking, and decried the incident as the ugliest in years – again, shades of 1981!
Afterwards Joe Ryan was sent from the field and he subsequently received a two week suspension, whilst Ward was given a single week for his earlier indiscretion.
For their efforts the team earned a night at the presentation dinner, a blazer and a £29 bonus. By way of comparison the successful first grade team that year each received over £ 200. But both teams made a lifetime of memories.
Several of these players, so I’ve been told, had Newtown jerseys on their coffins at their funeral which is the ultimate display of affectionate remembrance.
But there’s lots of that spirit at Newtown – the camaraderie and eternal kinship among those who ever wore the Royal Blue and the acknowledgement, respect and love of heritage from their fans. It’s another thing that helps distinguish the Jets and make them such a special club.
The players listed in the Third Grade squad that year were: S Bailey, R Bunch, B Burford, K Burnell, A Catt, D Craig, J Desmond, W Dorrity, B Drew, P Farduly, F Fitzpatrick, K Froome, M Glasheen, E Gleeson, J Haines, P Haines, F Harper, J Hourigan, H Hunter, T Jones, J Keefe, C Leibke, J Lyons, A McAllister, E McKinley, S Norrish, F O’Connor, R O’Donnell, W Raby, R Ratcliffe, J Roach, C Rowsell, J Ryan, K Ryan, R Schafer, R Schuman, M Shortus, C Smith, F Speechley, G Stonestreet, W Van Rugge, A Ward, T Wilson.
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