With Rugby League and wider Australia in lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic it is frightening to realise that we’ve been here before. When the Spanish Flu epidemic hit at the end of the First World War it killed more people globally than the conflict had, which is evidence enough of its danger.
Once the pandemic started it hit the Anzac troops overseas, and then they unknowingly brought the disease home. And like the war, it hit all levels of the Rugby League community.
Some who died were well known players such as Jack “Towser” Barnett, Annandale and Souths’ hooker Matt Cusack and 1908 Roosters pioneer Mick Frawley, who had represented Australia on the football field and the battlefield.
But it wasn’t just the players – their families and officials copped it too. Dally Messenger’s wife died in Manila after the son from her first marriage came back home, Newtown international Dick Townsend watched his wife die after only 8 months of marriage, while Albert “Paddy” Gray from Glebe had to endure his wife’s death after just returning from the war.
When you read the newspapers of the time you get an understanding of the impact the Spanish flu was having from the number of forfeits and cancelled fixtures. It was an issue in both the cities and country districts where Rugby League was played in those years of struggle. There were forfeits and cancellations though they tried their best to continue.
Even representative footy was impacted, just when they were looking to hit the ground running after the years of war:
“Havoc has also been played among the New South Wales rep. side, as Lyall Wall, Ray Norman, Snow Latta and Frank Burge are in dock, and strange to say, Kerwick, who was dying for a cut at the New Zealanders, is also laid up. Another cert to get a game (as there was a vacancy in the centre owing to Ray Norman being down) in Clarrie Horder is also dangerously ill at time of writing.” Sydney Sportsman June 18, 1919 page 6
By the end of 1919 the danger had largely passed, but it impacted on the entire season and sorely tested the resolve of a nation still reeling from the effects of war.