The famous story goes that the Wallabies departed Sydney on the 21st of July, 1939, setting sail for their tour of the United Kingdom. It took them 44 days to reach Southampton. A day later, the Allies declared war on Nazi Germany.
With war breaking, the Wallabies were turned around and sent home.
Many of them enlisted as soon as they could.
On board was a 21-year-old utility back from Paddington named Len Smith.
As in Len Smith the journalist?
Yeah… that’s him!
He served in Palestine, Egypt, Syria and New Guinea.
That’s not the Len Smith that created the Miracle Mile is it?
Sure is…. dabbled in the trots just a little too.
When he returned home to Australia in 1942, he had been converted after playing rugby league with other soldiers overseas.
Rugby union’s loss was Newtown’s gain who went on a mighty charge to the minor premiership with Smith starring at centre in his first season in the NSWRL. In the 1943 grand final at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Newtown flogged North Sydney 34-7 in front of a record 60, 922 people. Smith was one of seven different try scorers for the Bluebags that day.
It would be Newtown’s last grand final triumph.
By 1948, Smith was arguably the game’s best player, representing NSW and winning the NSW Player of the Year.
So good was Smith’s form, the Kangaroos named him captain-coach in his debut test series.
The match-day programme heaped praise on Australia’s new skipper.
“Playing his first Rugby League match for Australia to-day Len Smith has the double honor of captaining the home side,” the preview began.
“He is the bulwark of the Australian defence and the spearhead of attack, a strong running centre three quarter whose soundness in every phase of the game makes him such a desirable type to lead in an international match.”
Now that’s a fair write up!
But then… controversy struck.
Smith was sacked as Australian captain for the 1948-1949 Kangaroos Tour to Britain and France. To add insult to injury, selectors left the star centre out of the squad completely.
Incredibly, officials announced the touring party at a post-match dinner for NSW and QLD players – a game Smith had just featured in.
His name wasn’t read out!
Now it sounds crazy in 2021, but rumour has it Smith was ousted because he was a Catholic.
The selectors were Masons.
He retired from the game immediately and never played again.
On Sunday, we raise a glass to Len Smith.
War hero, rugby league great, entrepreneur.