Russell Lindsay Frederick Kelly
- 295Wallaby Number
Russ Kelly was one of the Wallabies’ outstanding forwards in the pre-World War II era. A fearless back-rower and specialist lineout exponent, Kelly was once described as ‘a great strapping specimen of Australian manhood’. He was a magnificently proportioned athlete at 6 feet one inch and 14 ½ stone with a chest expansion of 4 ½ inches. A prominent Sydney physical culture expert, who measured Kelly declared him to be a ‘sculptor's dream’. Born in Murwillumbah, but schooled in Sydney, Kelly made his first grade debut with Northern Suburbs in 1931 however it was his shift to Drummoyne a year later that preempted his elevation into representative consideration.
He debuted for New South Wales in their first match against Queensland in 1933 where he was ‘the best breakaway in either side’. Kelly then became a near permanent fixture in the Waratahs as he played 28 matches through to the end of the 1939 season. Kelly enjoyed a breakout season in 1936 when he was ‘the best forward’ on the state tour to Queensland and ‘his consistency in turning on great displays was remarkable’. His performances were said to be ‘so clearly of international standard that his selection for the New Zealand tour was a formality’.
Kelly played seven matches on that tour and in his Test debut at Wellington showed as a keen, hard-working toiler in the tight. Kelly went on to start in Australia’s next six internationals in succession and only missed the third Test against New Zealand in 1938 when he withdrew at the eleventh hour with a thigh injury. In 1939 the sole focus for all elite Australian rugby players was the Second Wallaby tour to Great Britain. Unfortunately Kelly severely strained tendons in his chest as he captained New South Wales against Toowoomba just three weeks out from the tour trials.
As a result of the injury Kelly missed the trials however he was still considered to be an unlucky omission from the final touring party. Kelly formally retired at the end of that season before he enlisted in the AIF. In 1941, as a member of an anti-tank regiment, Kelly suffered a serious chest wound during the Libyan campaign when trapped with an anti-tank unit near Tobruk. He was held as a POW in Benghazi, sent to a hospital in Naples, Italy, and after four months there was drafted to a prison camp in the Austrian Tyrol. Harry Bosward, former Wests coach, said this of Kelly: “You can take it from me that the Jerries and Wops paid dearly to capture Russ.
In all my long experience I have never met a footballer so utterly fearless as Russ Kelly. He had an absolute disregard of personal injury, and played flat out from bell-ring to bell-ring in a relentless, courageous manner which was an inspiration to his comrades.” In September, 1943 Kelly was repatriated to Australia but passed away on Christmas Day at the Yaralla Military Hospital aged just 34.
Kelly won his first Test cap at No.8 in the 1st Test, 6-11 loss to New Zealand in Wellington. Kelly, Aub Hodgson and Owen Bridle were retained in the back-row for the 2nd Test, 13-38 defeat at Carisbrook. Kelly and Hodgson were joined by ‘Mac’ Ramsay for the 31-6 victory over the Maori at Palmerston North.
Kelly started at flanker in the two home losses against South Africa.
Kelly earned his final caps at lock in the 1st Test, 9-34 defeat to New Zealand at the S.C.G. and in the narrow 2nd Test, 14-20 loss in Brisbane.