Spanish Flu and rugby league

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With COVID-19 having seemingly unprecedented impacts on the NRL in 2020, Andrew Ferguson looks back at the Spanish Flu which hit Australian shores just over 100 years ago.

Spanish Flu - origins

The Spanish Flu began approximately in January 1918 and lasted until December 1920, infecting over half a billion people globally (which at the time was around 25% of the global population). Some estimates suggested that the death toll was around 100 million. That's a mortality rate of around 1 death per 5 infected people, or 20%.

The virus arrived in Australia in January 1919 and remained until September of that year. In those 9 months it killed 6,387 people in NSW alone - 3,902 of those in Sydney, where nearly 300,000 people were infected.

The flu came to Australia mostly through infected returning servicemen, but it was on October 25, 1918 when a ship arrived in Sydney from New Zealand that the illness likely first reached the country.

But the virus didn't spread like wildfire until one single event on January 22, 1919, when a soldier, travelling from Melbourne to Sydney via ship, shared a compartment with a civilian who was "very ill with aches and pains and a high temperature". Two days later the soldier was ill with the same symptoms, as were the three nurses who treated him. Seven other soldiers who made the same journey also fell ill. On January 27, it was confirmed they were suffering from the Spanish Flu.

The NSW State Government leapt into action quickly. The very next day they shut down all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls and places of indoor resort for public entertainment.

By January 30, further measures were issued: people were required to wear masks covering their mouth and nose; the assembly of people in public areas was banned; and there was a travel ban across the Victorian-New South Wales border.

It was suggested that fresh air was the best natural resistance to the flu, with a medical council encouraging outdoor activity provided that it was away from crowds. In February further restrictions saw the closure of all hotels and racecourses and the banning of public meetings.

The flu hits rugby league

On April 14, the NSWRL held their meeting where it was revealed that Harold Horder and Les Cubitt "are still wearing their brains out how they are going to dodge the flu restrictions." It was also reported that Charles Fraser was quite sick with the flu. This however was the only mention of the virus during the meeting.

Two weeks after the meeting, the Rugby League season went ahead as normal, even discussing tours to other nations and having other teams visit Australia.

Many notable stars came out of retirement to help a number of clubs who were short of players during 1919 due to the flu: Arthur Butler and Bob Craig, both aged 37, continued on for one last season with Annandale and Balmain respectively, Bob Graves who retired in 1913, played 7 games for Annandale to help them with their player shortage. Sid Deane came out of retirement to play in a game for Norths, Charlie Russell did the same for Newtown despite having retired 4 years earlier. Paddy McCue also made a return to first grade for the first time since 1916 when he lined up for Wests.

The NSWRL season remained at 14 rounds and was still played in front of crowds, with only a moderate drop in crowd figures - yet there were still some games played in front of large crowds, such as:

  • Souths v Wests in Round 1 drew 20,000
  • Souths v Glebe in Round 3 drew 17,000
  • Balmain v Souths in Round 4 drew 25,000
  • Balmain v Easts in Round 8 drew 17,000 - and their return match in Round 14 drew 20,000.

The New Zealand touring side arrived in Melbourne at the start of June and were immediately quarantined. After almost a week they were finally released and began their tour in Sydney on June 7. They travelled to Tamworth, Newcastle, Ipswich, Brisbane, Rockhampton and Toowoomba on an 11 game tour, but did not play any Tests.

The toll rises

On June 15, Glebe had 9 of their usual 13 first grade players missing as they were all struck down by the flu. Their opponents in that game were Balmain, who were without 3 players themselves.

On June 16, Mick Frawley, a pioneer player for the Roosters, succumbed to the virus and died.

June 18 saw three of the touring Kiwi players bedridden with the flu - Henry Tancred, Wally Somers and Billy Wilson, alongside tour managers Oakley and Levien. This caused the game at Orange scheduled for June 19 to be postphoned, before ultimately getting cancelled.

June also saw the North Sydney club travel to Tamworth for a game. Upon returning home it was found that 6 of their players had come down with the flu.

June 21 saw several stars for NSW struck down by the flu and stood down for their game against the touring Kiwi side: Lyall Wall, Ray Norman, Frank Burge, Reg Latta, Albert Johnston, John Kerwick and Dick Townsend.

Dally Messenger and his wife Annie both contracted the disease and were frightfully ill. Dally survived but sadly his wife didn't.

In August, Australia travelled to New Zealand playing in 9 games where they savaged their opposition, with the only exception being the second test which was their only loss. By then though, the worst of the flu had passed and normality to life was resuming.

The aftermath

By the time the flu had run its course in Australia, Balmain had been declared premiers for the fourth time in five years, the post-season City Cup saw Wests beat Glebe in front of 12,000 fans, 4 interstate games had been played and all won by NSW - with the first game attracting a bumper crowd of 30,000 in mid-July and New Zealand had drawn some massive crowds in their 11 game tour - notably 46,157, 38,884 and a pair of 20,000 crowds for their 4 games against NSW.

The Spanish flu was aggressively fast and unbelievably deadly, yet despite this, Rugby League did not flinch - it carried on regardless even when players were getting infected and a past player was killed by it.

The Spanish Flu couldn't kill Rugby League.

Andrew Ferguson is a long-time contributor, and is co-owner of the Rugby League Project. You can support them on Patreon here.