Leonard Herbert Smith
Len Smith was a Sydney Technical High School lad, as would be other Wallabies such as Max Howell, Arthur Buchan, Bob Outterside, Jack Carroll and Ed Magrath. Smith then played for Eastern Suburbs, being the ‘baby’ of the Easts firsts in 1935.
Tall and slender, he could play from five-eighth to wing three-quarter, but was more normally a centre. The famous Waratah fullback Alec Ross temporarily took charge of Easts in the absence of Pat Hardy, the regular coach. Ross was a NSW selector at that time (along with Jock Blackwood and Syd King), and this association did Len Smith no harm in the years to come. It was a year later, 1936, when Easts got a new home ground, Waverley Oval.
In 1938 his opportunity presented itself at the higher levels, when he was selected to play in the centre for NSW against New Zealand. There were some luminaries in the side, such as Ron Rankin, Bill McLaughlin, Vic Richards, Aub Hodgson, Russ Kelly, ‘Steak’ Malone, Frank Hutchinson, Alby Stone and Mac Ramsay. The All Blacks won 28 to 8, but Smith made a fine impression, going up against two All Black legends, Tom Morrison and ‘Brushy’ Mitchell.
In all, Smith would play nine matches for NSW in 1938 and 1939 against Queensland and Victoria as well, and on the basis of his performances and an Australia versus The Rest game was selected on the 1939 tour of the British Isles The other Easts players selected were Alby Stone and Jack Turnbull.
The 1939 team arrived in England only to have war declared with not a game being played. Before they could get a ship back to Australia, they filled sandbags. Because he and others had never played for Australia, a match was arranged in Bombay against a Gymkhana XV, so Smith’s record stands as one match for Australia, and no Tests. Like most of the Wallabies, Smith joined up, with the AIF in his case. He participated in the hostilities in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and New Guinea.
From a private he rose to be a captain. While in the Middle East, he played in exhibition matches against England, Wales, South Africa and New Zealand. However on his return to Australia he turned professional, playing with a strong Newtown team.
In the Newtown team of that time was the infamous Frank (‘Bumper’) Farrell, who allegedly bit off a chunk of the ear of St. George’s Doug McRitchie.
When he was repatriated back to Australia in 1942, the hard-running centre scored a try in Newtown’s grand final win of 1943. In 1944, though he was based in Melbourne with the AIF, he scored four tries in the 55-7 semi-final win over St. George, but missed the grand final as he had been posted to Townsville. When the war ended he returned to Newtown, but he did not make the 1946 matches against England because of a war-related illness. However in 1946 he was Newtown’s interim coach, and was captain of Sydney Firsts.
In 1947 he was captain of both Sydney and NSW. He repeated the captaincy of both Sydney and NSW in 1948, and then was appointed captain-coach of Australia in the two-Test series against New Zealand, the first to be appointed in both positions. The Kangaroo tour of 1948-49 was in the offing, and Smith appeared to be an absolute certainty. He was 28-years-of-age at the time. The first match against New Zealand was a massive upset, New Zealand narrowly winning 19 to 21. There was understandably much criticism over the loss, and Smith promised the authorities that Australia would win the second Test, which they did, by 13 to 4. It was said that Smith’s tactics won the day.
In that second Test was Queensland’s Duncan Hall, whose son would later on play for the Wallabies. When the team to tour England was announced, incredibly Smith was not on it, and Col Maxwell was named captain. Wally O’Connell said;”A great bombshell- we were shattered.” Clive Churchill in his first Test, later stated that it was “the greatest blunder ever made by Australian Test selectors.”
The story is told in Whiticker and Colliss’s Rugby League Test Matches in Australia, Ian Heads’ The Kangaroos and True Blue: The Story of the NSW Rugby League and Whiticker’s Captaining the Kangaroos. Whiticker wrote: ”Privately Smith was devastated by his omission. Since returning from the 1939 Wallabies he had set himself the personal goal of playing in a Test match in England. Why did the Australian selectors take such a set against Smith? Several writers allude to two main reasons- resentment and jealousy regarding Smith’s single-minded approach as captain-coach and, incredibly, religious bigotry.“
The position as Australian Kangaroo coach was a highly prestigious honour following the resumption of international rugby league after World War II. It was no secret that Norm ‘Latchem’ Robinson, one of the five Australian selectors, lobbied hard for the position. Although Len Smith made it clear that he was not interested in the job on the tour, the selectors’ decision to replace him with Wests centre Col Maxwell- a player who was neither captain nor coach of his club- was certainly one way to leave the door open for the appointment of a non-playing coach. But after the public reaction to Smith’s omission, the ARL declined to appoint a coach.
Not surprisingly, the move was slammed by ‘Latchem’ Robinson in the press. He was later appointed as manager of the 1952-53 Kangaroos and Australia’s 1957 World Cup team. But what sealed Smith’s fate was the fact that he was a Catholic. Australian sporting teams had been dominated by Masons for decades and many rugby league identities of the period belonged to the Freemasonry order. Smith later admitted, ‘Several ex- Kangaroo players later confided in me that previous tour captains had been Masons and had been asked to perform certain duties on tour overseas - addressing meetings and conducting ceremonies. I, of course, knew nothing about it. As for me being Catholic, the peculiar part of it is that I’m a very weak old one at that.”
To make the decision even more farcical, Len Smith was awarded the 1948 ‘Player of the Year’ by E.E.Christensen.