With the museum temporarily closed and with many of us now having to work from home, I decided to do some research on a large donation of old Queensland Railway Institute (QRI) sporting trophies that we received last year. The one that instantly caught my eye was a 1942 Victory Cup Reserve Grade Rugby League Premiers trophy. As I started looking into how the Brisbane Rugby League (BRL) association tried to run a competition during war time, I recognised parallels with today and how Australian sporting competitions have struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the Brisbane Rugby League management committee met in February 1942 to discuss the upcoming season, the world had just become a lot more menacing in the eyes of Australians. The Japanese army was advancing on Singapore while the bombing of Port Moresby had just begun. The war was on Queensland’s doorstep. There was considerable debate about the appropriateness of staging sporting events during such a critical time of national emergency.
Despite the concerns, the BRL announced that although the 1942 season would be ‘without precedent in rugby league history’, they would strive to keep the competition running as best as they could as long as it’s continuance was “in line with the needs of the nation.” (The Telegraph, 11/2/1942, p6.)
A large part of the league’s desire to host a season was to provide entertainment for members of the armed forces, but perhaps this can also be seen in terms of defiance; not letting the threat of a Japanese invasion completely dictate how the people of Brisbane would traditionally spend their weekends in winter. In today’s age of national competitions and huge television broadcasting deals, we may forget how immensely popular and important the BRL was. The Brisbane and Sydney city competitions were the top Rugby League competitions in the nation and would continue to be for many many decades.
Thumbing your nose to the enemy aside, the BRL did have very real obstacles to overcome if they were to complete a season in 1942. One major issue was the inability to hire grounds. The Brisbane Cricket Ground (Gabba), the home for the past 10 years of the league’s most important matches, had become unavailable as it had been taken over by the military. The league then lost the use of Lang Park, and Davies Park in West End. Before the season even started, the BRL only had access to a handful of grounds, Oxenham Park in Nundah, New Farm Park and occasionally matches at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground (RNA). The lack of access to first choice grounds also had a significant financial implication to the administration.
Finances became a real concern for the league. Though in the black at the start of the season, there was a fear that the administration would be unable to make sizable takings from the gate at these lesser grounds. As these were ‘open house’ grounds where spectators couldn’t be fenced and charged for the privilege of watching, there was a fear that the league would quickly burn through its capital and end the season deep in the red. The only turnstill ground the league had access to was Oxenham Park, but it was so far out from the centre of town that it was considered too unappealing for many spectators to travel there for games. The games at other venues would likely have to be run as entry by donation. It was declared in Truth that “it takes real money to run Rugby [and] Rugby won’t take real money from the please-give-a-penny aim seeking at free-for-all football.” (Truth, 3/5/1942, p7.)
As well as the grounds looking different, the teams themselves would be virtually unrecognisable as 90% of regular players were in the armed forces by this time. The teams would have to consist of younger players and senior men not required for military service. Many of the teams had to start building their player lists from scratch but as the season was set to open in April, the participating clubs were announced in March. The 1st grade competition would feature teams from Easts, Norths, Souths, Wests, Valley and Past Brothers. (‘The Telegraph’, 12/3/1942, p5.) Reserve grade was to comprise teams from Past Brothers, Wests, Norths, Valley, Easts and the Queensland Railway Institute.
By the beginning of April it was starting to look like the season might have had to be scratched. Other leagues around the state such as Ipswich and the Darling Downs were looking at canceling their planned seasons. The Brisbane clubs themselves were starting to get cold feet. The difficulties already faced by teams in having to reconfigure their line-ups with so many new players was compounded by the lack of suitable fields to practice on during the week. But in mid-April the decision was made to push on with the season, “until war or law stops it.” (Truth 12/4/1942, p7.) In a concession to the clubs, the league announced that they would put back the start of the season until the weekend of May 22 to give teams the opportunity to play a good number of trial games against each other before the season officially started.
The BRL felt it important to keep the league going to provide entertainment to men in uniform and in another concession to the clubs, it was announced that if required or desired, men in the armed forces were allowed to play for any of the teams in the competition (The Telegraph, 30/4/1942, p5.) That way if clubs got word of a good player on leave, or he had permission to play from his superiors, teams could get some fancied veterans in their sides if the timing was right.
Finally, after months of planning and negotiations, the season started. The team from the Queensland Railway Institute in the reserve grade competition got off to a flyer, racking up wins against Easts and Norths before having a bye. They then beat Wests 14-0 at Toowong Memorial Park (which had now become available for the league to use). QRI experienced their first loss of the season at the hands of Brothers, 20-3. The competition was often affected by player shortages, particularly in reserve grade, with teams sometimes playing with only 10 or 11 men or having to forfeit games outright because they couldn’t field a team. But despite these challenges, QRI finished the regular season on top of the ladder.
The BRL finals for both 1st and reserve grades were announced at the start of August. There would be three weeks of semi finals (principal, major and special semi-finals) played by the top four teams and then a Grand Final at the end of the month.
QRI started their finals campaign at New Farm Park going down to Valley 15-7. They then had to play in a major semi-final again at New Farm Park the following weekend, this time against Brothers on Saturday 15th August. They lost this match too, going down 7-0. This victory gave Brothers a spot in the Grand Final and the next weekend off, while QRI would now once more play Valley in a special semi-final, who had won by forfeit against Norths in their major semi-final, for the final spot in the Grand Final.
After dominating the reserve grade competition all season, QRI was staring down a straight sets exit in the finals, a huge disappointment for any Minor Premier in any league during any era. They had their last shot on Saturday August 22 on the No.2 oval at the Showgrounds. In a close and hard fought match QRI beat Valley 5-3. They had made the Grand Final the hard way.
The BRL tried to secure the use of the Gabba for the most prestigious games of the year but were unable to book it. (Courier Mail, 26/8/1942, p6.) The showgrounds were also booked out due to Rugby Union finals so the league was forced to play the Grand Finals at one of the suburban grounds.
QRI faced Brothers in the reserve grade Grand Final at Oxenham Park. With scores 8 all at full time an extra 5 minutes was played but with scores still deadlocked, the game was ended and a replay scheduled for the following weekend. This reserve grade Grand Final was played as a curtain raiser to the 1st grade final between Brothers and Souths, so it’s likely they couldn’t extend the game time any further to get a result due to time constraints. It was Souths’ first 1st grade Grand Final appearance in 10 years and as they had the youngest side of all the 1st grade teams, the match was billed as a ‘David v Golitath’ scenario against a Brothers side who had one of the largest forward packs the competition had seen in years (The Telegraph, 28/8/1942, p8.)
Despite the difficulties the league faced throughout the whole season, the day was a success, with a new crowd record set at Oxenham Park and a huge gate of £85 taken. Brothers were too good for the young Souths side and won 20 – 11. After the Grand Final it was announced that a special Brisbane V Ipswich representative match would be played the following week at the Showgrounds, with the reserve grade Grand Final replay as the curtain raiser. (Sunday Mail, 30/8/1942, p9).
The replay was played on the No. 2 oval at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground with QRI winning 18-14, denying Brothers the double premiership. The QRI side was christened the ‘Three-don’t-team’ by a clearly impressed Truth after their Grand Final victory:
“The three don’ts are: They don’t turn up to practice, they don’t train and they don’t lose matches [they must have forgotten those two semi-final losses]. Here’s a final don’t, R.I. Don’t lose the services of mentor-coach, Jack Olrich.” (Truth, 6/9/1942, p7.)
The BRL hosted their presentation night in late October 1942 where the QRI side was awarded the Victory Cup Premiership trophy that we now have at the museum.
The recently donated Premiership trophy awarded to the side from the Brisbane Rugby League association in October 1942.
The 1942 Brisbane Rugby League season is a fine example of determination overcoming significant adversity, an adversity that, at the time, Australia had never previously come close to experiencing. As I’m writing this now, we are in the midst of the greatest challenge faced by many of us in our lifetimes. Perhaps the only thing we have in our soon-to-be-extinguished living memory that we can reference is how Australia overcame the challenges it faced during the Second World War.
Although obviously a completely different equation to what we’re facing now, I found learning about how these administrators managed to stage these competitions during such difficult times an inspiration. There are greater things at stake than football at the moment, but through history we might learn a bit more about ourselves and how we overcame great obstacles in the past. Whether we see football again in Australia this year remains to be seen, but our clubs and codes have overcome countless challenges over the years, and if history tells us anything, they’ll overcome this most recent challenge too.
*A note on scoring: Many of you younger readers might be thinking that with all the odd number final scores in this article that these teams must have been field goal happy. That’s not the case. In the past rugby league had a different points system – tries were worth three points with conversions, penalty kicks and field goals all awarded two points.
Collection Manager, The Workshops Rail Museum
Title image caption: The all conquering Queensland Railway Institute Reserve Grade Premiership team photograph. Queensland Museum Network/Queensland Rail Collection.