A history of Brisbane Rugby League: District football, 1933 to 1939

The year 1933 saw a significant change to the structure of the Brisbane competition.

The city was divided into four footballing districts (East, South, North and West) and players were required to live within their club’s district.

There were exceptions, with players from the University club required to be present or past students and Past Christian Brothers players having to prove they were old boys of a Christian Brothers school. Past Grammars became part of Northern Suburbs, with the north shared with Valleys. Carlton morphed into Southern Suburbs, while Coorparoo gobbled up the short-lived Wynnum and became Eastern Suburbs.

This meant that local communities had a more tangible connection with their clubs’ players and also made it more difficult for richer clubs to poach players, although dominance by a single club really had not been an issue for well over a decade, since the great Valleys side ended their run in 1919. The district system provide a new period of prosperity for the competition and stayed in place until 1967.

Ironically it was Valleys that seemed to benefit as much as anyone from the new structure, winning in 1933 and then playing in four of the next five deciders. Their great rivals during the period, as so often before, were Wests. One or both of these great clubs appeared in every grand final between 1932 and 1938.

In 1933 Wests sprinted from the blocks and the Paddo boys looked for all the world to be headed towards back-to-back titles. However, Valleys defeated them in the final and then the challenge final a week later to take out the premiership. This was despite two of the Diehards’ stars – centre Fred “Firpo” Neumann and hooker Jack Little – being away on the Kangaroo tour. To be fair, so was Wests’ centre Henry Denny.

The University club folded half way through the 1934 season and the Students returned to rugby union only a few years after winning back-to-back premierships (in 1928 and 1929). Souths (formerly Carlton) and Easts (Coorparoo/Wynnum) endured lean times in the 1930s but survived despite neither side appearing in any grand final between 1931 and 1941.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In 1934 the finals system was changed from the old semi-finals, final and right of challenge by the minor premiers to a new model with a third versus fourth minor semi-final knock out and a first versus second major semi-final, the winner of which progressed straight through to the grand final. The loser of first versus second played the winner of third versus fourth in a preliminary final to determine the second grand finalist, with no right of challenge for the minor premier. This system stayed in place for many years.

The year 1934 was when Norths, formerly Past Grammar, became a force in the competition. They would be a constant presence in the finals for the next 11 seasons and appear in five grand finals, winning three. In 1934 they defeated minor premiers Western Suburbs 7-4 in a low-scoring grand final. Scores were tied with only a few minutes to go before Norths’ Queensland representative halfback Jack Stapleton broke the line and handled twice in a spectacular movement to engineer the match-winning try, scored by their Queensland forward “Babe” Collins. The papers described the try as “for artistic execution and polished finishing power no try scored this season was comparable”.

The Brethren from Past Christian Brothers came from nowhere to win the 1935 premiership. They had not even made a grand final since 1926 and they would not play another until 1939. Valleys and Norths had been the front-runners all season but Norths fell away at the end of the season and were flogged by Valleys in the major semi-final. Valleys’ reserve grade halfback Charlie Jones, on debut, scored four tries including three in the final 15 minutes to blow the northsiders away.

Meanwhile Brothers displayed a brutal forward orientated style to defeat Wests in “a hard-rucking game” and then dispatched Norths to make the grand final, with their pack being dubbed ‘The Terrible Six’ (Bill Law, former Diehard Jack Little, Vince Hogan, Jack Ryrie, Larry Gillespie and Bill Dall). The decider was a classic with scores locked at full time and the match won by a spectacular conversion from the sideline by Brothers lock Vince Hogan in the last few seconds of extra time. The unlucky Valleys team scored three tries to one and led for most of the match, including scoring the first try in extra time.

In 1936 Wests returned to the winners circle with a second heartbreaking grand final loss in a row for the Valleys Diehards. This time they lost 13-12 despite going out to a 9-nil halftime lead with the wind at their backs.

To give you any idea of the how different rugby league was compared to today there was a whopping 75 scrums in Wests’ major semi-final victory over Valleys that year.

Valleys finally got their title in 1937, but not until after a first round strike by the referees was resolved. The round was refereed by volunteers after the officials objected to club interference in match day appointments. Other notable events during the year included Norths, with their star three quarters Jack Reardon and Ron Cooper running rampant, towelling up Souths by a record 80 points to four. Cooper scored six tries, to go with the five he scored last time the two teams met.

Norths, “The Nundah Wonders”, were a great attacking side and dominated early in the season before fading away when Jack Reardon and Babe Collins left for the Kangaroo Tour. The grand final was another close one and Wests were considered the better side on the day, but this time Valleys prevailed 9-7 due to a late field goal from their legendary captain Fred Neumann. Their home ground was later named after the club stalwart.

In 1938, the dominant Valleys team sailed through the season undefeated only to be stunned by Norths in the grand final. Valleys beat Norths in the major semi-final with champion Norths centre Jack Reardon suffering a fractured cheekbone and concussion attempting to tackle his opposite, Firpo Neumann. He played on for ten minutes, but then Norths were left a man short (no replacements in those days). With Reardon out of the grand final, along with Norths’ five-eighth Charlie “The Count” Ryan, Valleys were overwhelming favourites but were beaten 16-7 in one of the great grand final boilovers.

Season 1938 was the first year when players were paid across the entire competition: five shillings a win, three for a draw and two for a loss.

In 1939 Brothers enjoyed their second win of the decade after a recruitment drive that netted them Kangaroos hooker Jack Little from Valleys and winger Len Dawson from Newcastle. But the Brethren did it tough. They lost the major semi-final to Norths and then trailed Valleys 19 to nil midway through the second half of the preliminary final. But in an extraordinary turnaround Brothers put on 21 points in the final 20 minutes to snatch victory. In a rugged grand final Brothers triumphed 11-9 after again trailing at halftime, this time 7-3 and running against the wind in the second half. Their pack was described as the greatest of the last decade.

The Brisbane competition was entering the 1940s in great shape, even as the shadow of a second World War fell upon the nation.

A team of the era (1933 to 1939) (finals appearances, grand finals, premierships)

Fullback
• Colin Webster (Carlton, Norths) – 16, four, two. Ffiteen goals in finals including five in the 1938 grand final victory. Captain 1938.

Three quarters
• Len Walker (Valleys) – 18, six, three. Four tries in finals.
• Fred “Firpo” Neumann (Valleys) (one Test. Queensland – eight games) – 25, eight, three. Eight tries, two goals and a field goal in finals. Captain 1934-1938 and 1941-1943.
• Arthur “Skinny” Donovan (Valleys) (Brisbane firsts 1931) – ten, three, two. Three tries in finals, including a double in the 1933 grand final win. Captain 1930-1933.
• Billy Wright (Wests) – 18, five, two. One try and 19 goals in finals. Captain 1936 premiership win.

Halves
• Charlie “The Count” Ryan (Coorparoo, Past Grammars, Norths) – 23, four, one. Three tries and 19 goals in finals. Captain 1936-1938.
• Jack Stapleton (Past Grammars, Norths) (Queensland – four games) – 25, eight, three. Two tries and six goals in finals. Captain 1935 and 1941.

Forwards
• Bill Dall (Valleys, Brothers) – 20, seven, five. Seven tries in finals.
• Jack Little (Valleys, Brothers) (one Test, Queensland – 20 games) – hooker – 19, seven, three. Five goals in finals. Man of the match 1935 grand final. 1933/34 Kangaroo Tourist. Remarkably went bush in 1933 to captain-coach Cunnamulla. This little western town has a decent footballing pedigree, also producing Australian half Bobby Banks, Chris Close and tough-as-nails Souths Brisbane and Canterbury hooker Billy Johnstone.
• Vic Rudd (Wests, Norths) (Queensland – one game) – 25, seven, three. One try in finals.
• Paddy Mitchell (Carlton, Valleys) (Brisbane firsts 1931) – 17, five, two. Four tries in finals.
• Vince Hogan (Carlton, Brothers) (Queensland – nine games) – 14, three, two. Four tries and 20 goals in finals, including two tries and three goals in the 1940 preliminary final.
• Eddie “Babe” Collins (Coorparoo, Norths, Brothers) (1938 Kangaroo Tourist. Queensland – 36 games) – 14, four, three. Twelve tries in finals. Man of the match 1934, 1938 and 1940 grand finals. Two tries in 1938 preliminary final and a try in the grand final. Try in the 1939 grand final. Captain 1940 and two tries in the grand final, captained Brisbane and Queensland to series wins in 1940. Captain Brothers 1941. Holds the record for the most tries scored for Brisbane in the Bulimba Cup and the most tries in a Brisbane premierships season by a forward (39 in 12 games).

Reserves
• Tom Purtell (Wests) (Queensland – three games) – hooker – 21, five, two. Wests’ home ground Purtell Park was name after Tom Purtell, who became a long time president of the club.
• Bill Law (Brothers) (Queensland – seven games) – forward – 18, five, four. One try in finals. Captain 1942-1943.
• Eugene “Bow” Robson (Valleys) (Queensland – one game. Rest of Australia – one game) – 15, five, two. One try in finals.
• Reg Stanton (Brothers) (Queensland – three games) – fullback/five-eighth – 15, three, two. One try in finals. Captain 1939-1940.

Other notable players: Jack Reardon (Norths, Brothers), Len Dawson (Brothers), Ron Cooper (Norths), Jack Ryrie (Brothers).

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