THE war years were difficult for Canterbury, as they were for clubs and sports of all nations. While the world was deep in bloody conflict, Australia was fortunate that life could go on, albeit not the same, but without the devestations suffered so badly in Europe.
The problems facing the league were minor by world standards. There was the question of lack of players because of the war effort, and Canterbury, for instance, had to change its colours in 1943 because of the ban placed on striped jerseys. There was a call from a number of Australians for all sport to be abandoned while the war was on. They saw the involvement in sport as a mark of disrespect for the fighting men of the world, unable to enjoy a sporting pastime. The question of sport brought a response from the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, who called on all sports to continue, claiming he would go to a football match, if he got the chance.
The NSWRL president Harold Jersey Flegg wrote: “... the NSWRL, in deciding to carry on, is helping to build up this race of athletes, as the Australian and New Zealand troops were designated during the last war by that widely experienced and famous war correspondent, Ashmead Bartlett”.
In 1940, the Country Rugby League disaffiliated itself from the NSWRL; the league conducted their gala day again; Frank Sponberg left Canterbury and played in Wollongong; Eddie Burns, after seven matches, went to Newcastle; and Alan Brady played just three games before retiring. Another to leave was Tom Kirk for Newtown. But Brady was coach of the team, and Canterbury was fortunate to have signed country winger Merv Denton, Jack Bonnyman, who took over as captain, Jim Gibbs and Bob Farrar, a promising second-rower. According to the annual report: “Len (Lin) Johnson and Arthur Morris came of their own desires.”
Brien, coach in 1939, did not stand when he heard that Brady wanted the job, stating: “I consider that Alan's experience and sportsmanship is greater than mine, and results will be assured”.
The Berries maintained their rating, finishing equal third and beating Newtown 19-11 – five tries to one – in the semi-final to qualify for the final. Frank Burge, who had coached Canterbury in their second season, was in charge of Newtown. Canterbury received a setback in the semi-final when Henry Porter was sent off and was unable to play in the final against Easts. It probably mattered not, for Canterbury were no match, losing 14-24, six tries to two. Easts were back on top as the premier club.
Canterbury also made the reserve grade semi-finals, losing their match against St George in a thriller. Ray Lindwall kicked the winning goal.
The three musketeers – Porter, Kirkaldy and Burns – all scored points during the year. Burns scored three tries and Porter and Kirkaldy each kicked two goals. Kirkaldy was the only one of the three to play in the final. Newham continued his outstanding football, scoring 11 tries for the season, a club record.
As 1941 came and went, it was starting to become a case of near enough, but not good enough. Canterbury continued as a major force, finishing equal on top with Easts and Balmain, but not having the 'for and against' record to be minor premiers. Easts had beaten Canterbury twice during the year – 13-2 (the only time Canterbury failed to score a try) and 15-11 (only one try). In the semi-final Canterbury scored four tries against Easts and yet were still beaten 24-22.
Military duties interfered with playing personnel again and there was a reasonably heavy turnover of players in many clubs. Canterbury lost Denton to Young and replaced him with Wests winger Ron Knight. Sponberg and Burns were back and Ron Bailey came to the club after a stint with English club Huddersfield.
Bailey more than compensated for the retirement of Brady. He was a classy centre, his game refined after playing in England. Canterbury appointed Bailey player-coach just as they had done with Brady the previous year. However, unlike Brady, Bailey went on to play more than three matches. In fact, he played all 15, scoring seven tries, and was instrumental in lifting Canterbury not only into the semi-finals of the premiership but also into the semi-finals of the State Cup.
Consistency had become a virtue of Canterbury. Since 1938 when they won the premiership and club championship, they won the State Championship in 1939, as well as the club championship and the reserve grade title. In 1940, they were runners up and semi-finalists in 1941.