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‘Scandal’, ‘debacle’, ‘fiasco’: ‘Canter-beery’ Bankstown’s disastrous visit to Brisbane in 1947

Roar Guru
8th February, 2024
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Roar Guru
8th February, 2024
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As the 1947 NSWRFL season approached its climax, things were looking up for Canterbury-Bankstown.

They were minor premiers, having finished three points ahead of premiers Balmain, and were prohibitive favourites to capture the club’s third premiership. The veteran front-row trio of Roy Kirkaldy, Eddie Burns and captain Henry Porter was as formidable as ever, with the 37-year-old Porter eyeing a fairytale path into retirement.

The ‘Berries’ predictably dispatched Newtown in the semi-final, setting up a final against Balmain. It was at this point things started to unravel.

The prolific Pat Devery kicked Balmain to victory in the final on September 13 at the Sydney Sports Ground. Canterbury still had a card up their sleeve, though, and they used it to challenge the Tigers to a grand final the following Saturday. But Balmain had a card of their own, club legend Joe Jorgenson who’d just returned to Sydney from a stint in Junee.

And it became Jorgenson’s fairytale, with the former Kangaroos captain scoring all Balmain’s points in a 13-9, premiership-clinching victory. The Berries had blown it, but the vanquished had no time to drown their sorrows.

They were booked on the early flight to Brisbane the following morning, with a game against a Brisbane XIII under lights at the Exhibition on Monday night to be followed by a trip to Ipswich for another night game on Wednesday.

But they never made it to Ipswich. In fact, most of the travelling party were back in Sydney by Wednesday afternoon.

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The flying Berries

The day after the Sydney Grand Final, Brisbane’s Sunday Mail excitedly announced that Canterbury would be flying into town that morning. This was interesting news. The intercity Qantas TAA service was very new. Just the previous year, the touring Great Britain team, after travelling from Blighty to Fremantle aboard an aircraft carrier, endured a long journey across the Nullarbor on the mail train.

No expense was being spared and the news held within it the promise of more interstate spectacles. Floodlit games on weeknights had proven popular in the interstate series and with visiting international teams. Queenslanders had previously demonstrated they would turn up in droves to see their local boys take on Sydney clubs. The expected return far outweighed the expenses.

And Canterbury were far from the only southerners on the make up north. Balmain went to Toowoomba at about the same time. Wests toured further north, taking in Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton. A team from Newcastle was due in Brisbane later that week before heading out to St George.

As it happened, about 12,000 Brisbanites came to see the Berries at the Exhibition, which might not sound like much, but it was a lot more than a typical BRL crowd at the time, and one assumes there was a healthy mark-up on the usual ticket price.

Canterbury’s reported share of the spoils was £278, just under $23,000 in today’s money. With another decent crowd at Ipswich, factoring in estimated travel and accommodation costs and allowances to the players, and assuming the Brisbane and Ipswich leagues had agreed to cover part of the costs, the Berries stood to make a tidy profit. Perhaps as much as £385-390 (~$31,000).

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But the game was no spectacle, at least not in a good way. Early in the second half, large swathes of the crowd began to leave, many loudly suggesting they should get a refund, others preoccupied with finding a radio to hear the title fight between Tommy Burns and Eddie Marcus from Sydney.

So, what happened?

‘Scandal’, ‘debacle’ and ‘fiasco’ at the Ekka

Laurie Kearney in The Courier Mail pulled no punches, reporting on Wednesday that “Canterbury-Bankstown’s exhibition provided such a travesty of rugby league football that Ipswich officials yesterday cancelled the floodlight match to have been played against Ipswich tonight”.

The Sunday paper, Truth, expending little effort trying to conceal its delight, ranted that “sport in Queensland took the worst sock in the eye it has ever had” and that “a team selected from the more advanced cases housed in … the General Hospital facing on to Bowen Bridge Road would have given them a harder game”.

It was immediately evident something was off. Some of the Berries seemed lethargic, uninterested even. In 20th minute, with Brisbane leading 9-2, Porter was warned by the referee, Mr Ballard, about an infringement at a scrum. When the infringement was repeated a few moments later, Ballard gave Porter his marching orders.

When Porter initially refused to leave the field, Ballard threatened to end the game there and then, which might not have been the worst idea.

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A short time later, Canterbury fullback Dick Johnson, visibly unwell, was forced off, with The Courier-Mail reporting that he suffered “an attack of malaria”, which might sound far-fetched but wasn’t entirely wrong.

With Canterbury already struggling and now short-handed, Brisbane raced to a 35-2 lead at half-time. The procession continued in the second half, much to the disgust of the paying public, and Brisbane ran out 60-2 winners.

A defeat for Canterbury was no shock. After all, the premiers Balmain lost in Toowoomba a few days later. But the manner of this defeat suggested something was very wrong.

Crime and punishment

Details began to emerge the following day. Canterbury had arrived in Brisbane on Sunday morning and proceeded to their lodgings at Hotel Daniell on the corner of George and Adelaide Streets in the City (where the Brisbane City Council offices are now located). They probably had a run that afternoon before retiring to their quarters.

At some point on Monday, the players must have wondered what they were going to do all day. Enter team manager H. Culbert who distributed £5 (about $400) among the players and probably told them to go and shoot some pool, have some lunch and meet back at the hotel in the afternoon.

What could possibly go wrong?

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Press reports from the time indicate that four Canterbury players imbibed “intoxicating liquor” during their day out in Brisbane town, though only two were formally found guilty of this, Johnson and lower-grader L. Baxter, both of whom were later suspended until the following August.

According to Steve Haddan, the pair admitted they were drinking from around 9:45am after Johnson bumped into some old Air Force friends and “had four or five beers”. Johnson also claimed that “his malaria had flared up and with no aterbrin or quinine available he hit the whisky”.

So, three Canterbury players were likely in some state of intoxication, one was probably very intoxicated and suffering residual symptoms of malaria, and their captain was sent off after 20 minutes. It sounds like they did well to only lose by 58.

Regardless, it caused quite a stir. BRL Chairman ‘Taffy’ Welch declared it “the biggest blow our game has received since inception of the BRL in 1922”.

The ever calm and level-headed Truth, still evidently enjoying itself, bemoaned footballers who “can’t tell the difference between foot-balls and bung-holes and distinguish a goal-post from a beer bottle”, demanded Canterbury’s share of the profits be withheld and railed that “THERE MUST BE NO WHITEWASHING!”, apparently pre-empting an expected cover-up from Sydney.

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It was obvious that Truth was well aware of the BRL Management Committee’s deliberations in the days prior but was determined to not let the facts get in the way of a good rant.

While Canterbury was most definitely in the wrong, it is hard to fault their response. They copped the cancellation of the Ipswich match in good spirit, arranged for the players to be sent home early and instructed Culbert to remain in Brisbane to liaise with the BRL investigation.

Porter was initially defensive, understandably siding with teammates in the face of some vociferous reactions and still unhappy about his dismissal, but quickly reverted to contrition, “I refuse to pass the buck. I’ll take full responsibility as captain if charges are made against us”.

The club through Culbert also endorsed the BRL’s report into the incident, effectively ensuring a sanction from the NSWRL.

The BRL Committee meeting on Wednesday sounds like it was a lively affair. Some delegates were clearly in a punitive mood – perhaps they were Truth readers – with Mr Davis of Souths the most vocal in recommending the BRL withhold Canterbury’s share of the profits.

But reason seems to have prevailed. Peter Scott of Valleys wondered aloud about how to define ‘drunk’ and suggested the committee would need to seek legal advice, most likely about whether the available evidence amounted to a breach of contract. Others worried about precedent and perhaps discouraging future tours if the committee pursued the matter.

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There seems to have been little consideration of refunds for those who purchased tickets, and a motion at the next meeting of the Canterbury Club Committee to donate the £278 to charity was defeated.

While the BRL had little recourse to sanction Canterbury, it did suspend Porter for two matches, an empty gesture given he had already announced his retirement and, true to his word, then retired.

But never fear, Canterbury got their comeuppance. The BRL’s report eventually made it to Sydney where it was considered by the NSWRL on October 14. The club was slapped with a £200 fine, thereby erasing whatever profit they made in Brisbane, and then some.

Canterbury will visit Brisbane a couple of times in 2024 for games against Canberra in ‘Magic Round’ and the Broncos in late July. Hopefully they stay away from intoxicating liquors, on matchday at least.

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