- 300Wallaby Number
‘Shirts’ Richards was a naturally brilliant halfback and fly half who figured prominently in Australian representative rugby of the 1930s. A truly gifted footballer, Richards played under a star of misfortune his entire career. Incredibly he suffered a significant injury in each of the seven seasons he played at the top level. Richards was strong in all aspects of the game, particularly his devastating speed off the mark.
While considerably versatile Richards was at his best closer to the set play where he could exploit his unerring eye for an opening. He started to kick a rugby ball about from tabletop height, and after school was one of a bunch of lads who raced around Randwick Oval until darkness drove them home. It was in those early days that he picked up the moniker that stuck with him all of his life. The name ‘Shirts’ was given to him because his father had a men's mercery business in the city. At 15 Richards left school and played for Coogee juniors. In 1928 he joined Randwick, played Burke and Kentwell Cup rugby for one season, and then undertook a four-year course in Commerce at the University of Sydney.
He rejoined Randwick in 1933 and was immediately graded in the firsts. While Richards only played three matches that year he was hailed as the ‘find’ of the season. He played at halfback and five-eighth, and was refreshingly unorthodox at both, proving beyond any doubt that he possessed versatility and ability above the ordinary. It was said that ‘none so captivated the imagination by the breezy quality of his play’ and ‘it seemed only a matter of Richards' standing up to attain representative honours’. Two days after he near-single-handedly tore Wests to shreds he was diagnosed with synovitis of the left knee and was laid up for a fortnight.
He did not play again until well into the second round of the competition, again against Wests, where his hoodoo struck again when he tore the muscles in his right knee. Richards was told to face the possibility of compulsory and permanent retirement for if he did not walk away from the game he would have recurring trouble with the injuries. In 1934, Gordon Stone arrived to form a formidable second grade halves combination with Richards and it was no surprise that after just a few games the pair were promoted to first grade. Coach Wally Meagher then surprised when he moved Gordon to halfback and Richards to flyhalf.
Unbeknown to the public at large was the fact that the change came at the behest of the Australian selectors who were keen to test Richards at fly half ahead of the impending All Blacks’ visit. The switch was a masterstroke and ultimately instrumental in Randwick winning the 1934 premiership. Richards was a reserve for both Tests of the New Zealand series but did not win a cap. Australia did not play any internationals in 1935 and as such the tour to New Zealand in 1936 became a much greater focus for the elite players of that era. Richards was chosen to tour as a halfback but went on to make his Test debut at fly half in Wellington.
In 1937 Jan McShane, the Rhodes Scholar and Oxford Blue returned to Australia. McShane’s long, accurate passes gave the effervescent Richards plenty of scope to exploit his bag of tricks, particularly in what is widely regarded as Richards greatest match. With the Springboks due to arrive, Johnnie Wallace, came down from the country to prepare the New South Wales and Australian teams. Wallace proved a strong influence on Richards who had a tendency to carry play back to the forwards after breaking through. Wallace trained him to shift out after the break and link up with the three-quarters. On a most memorable day at the S.C.G., and in simply deplorable conditions, the Richards-led Waratahs played dry weather football, scored five tries - four of which were shared by wingers ‘Jockey’ Kelaher and ‘FOB’ O’Brien - and humbled a side considered South Africa’s greatest by 17-6.
In 1939 Richards was chosen for the ill-fated Second Wallabies tour to Great Britain. He described the decision to abandon the tour due to war being declared as his greatest rugby disappointment. A year later Richards announced his retirement after a doctor refused to operate on his nose to relieve a chronic throat ailment unless he swore off football. Although the game gave him two ‘bunged’ knees, a ‘dicky’ shoulder, an injured nose, medical and hospital bills, and many hard knocks, Richards put those down as incidentals and assessed his gains. "Football has given me my most pleasurable years," he said. "I have made many true friends, met great fellows associated with the game, and enjoyed some wonderful trips that I would not otherwise have had. I leave the game reluctantly and only with the happiest memories." ‘Shirts’ Richards played five Tests for Australia in a three-year international career.
Richards won his first Test cap at fly half, outside of ‘Mike’ Gibbons, in the 1st Test, 6-11 loss to New Zealand at Athletic Park. Richards was ‘one of the defensive heroes’ of the match. He was named as a reserve for the second Test but picked up a second cap when he came on after halftime to replace Bill McLaughlin (injured rib) at outside centre. Richards earned a third cap at fly half in the 31-6 triumph over the Maori in Palmerston North.
Richards started at fly half alongside Jan McShane in the 1stTest, 5-9 loss to South Africa at the S.C.G. He retained his position for the second Test however a recurrence of his old knee injury at training the day before the match forced him to withdraw.
Richards picked up his final cap, again at fly half, in the 1st Test, 9-24 defeat to New Zealand at the S.C.G. He chipped his collarbone in that match and was ruled out of the second and third matches of that series.