Australians will this week pause and reflect on the sacrifice made by those selfless individuals who left behind friends, families, lovers, jobs, lives and safety, to defend the values of their country at war. Some never came home, while some lived to tell the tale and be grateful for their return from what was a life-altering experience. Either way, their country was left enriched by their selfless contribution.
One of those fortunate to return from WWII would go on to etch his name into rugby league and South Sydney history – as much for his ability on the field, as for his reputation for being a true gentleman and statesmen of the game off it.
Big Jack Rayner – originally from Lismore – saw battle on three fronts during his life; in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the streets of Sydney as a detective, and on rugby league pitches as one of the game’s greats. In all three spheres, those touched by his qualities of toughness, loyalty and leadership were better for it. But without his involvement in the war, Rayner’s distinguished career may never have been realised.
WWII saw Australia fighting in Papua New Guinea between 1942 and 1945. The landmass’ important strategic position during the war in the Pacific between Allied forces and Japan was not underestimated. A tall and lanky Private Rayner was among the Australians who volunteered to make the trip.
South Sydney international Eric Lewis was another Australian in New Guinea during the war, and it was during a friendly match between AIF outfits that the Kangaroo would spot Rayners talent caked in the mud of war.
In 2002, Rayner fondly recalled the meeting with Lewis in Port Moresby that would in many ways change the course of his life.
“When I was in the Army in New Guinea we used to play rugby league against different regiments and battalions and brigades and everything,” recalled Rayner.
“We played a game in Port Moresby and Eric Lewis from Souths was in it. Lewis said if we come out of this alright – he means to say that we got out with no injuries or anything, no deaths – would I consider playing football with Souths. I said we'll see if I'm good enough to play.”
Rayner was as good as his word, and upon returning to Sydney in 1946, the now legendary Captain of the Club first reported to Redfern for a trial – a decision the great man said he never regretted.
“I went in the trial match and as a result I was graded in the first grade side. So I went to the Rabbitohs and never regretted it.
“I never actually played lower grades with Souths or anyone ever. I played all my football with Souths, I think about 195-196 games.”
Rayner would knock off at the Police Station and make his way down to Redfern, where he would go on to establish himself as one of the game’s toughest and most damaging prop-forwards and internationals, a sentiment backed up by South Sydney Immortal, Clive Churchill, in the book True Blue.
“Jack was the crankiest forward I played with but what a grand fellow he was,” recalled Churchill.
"He was a brilliant tactician. I never saw a better forward in cover defence on the blind side than Rayner.”
Rayner’s toughness was only out-done by his record as Captain-Coach of Souths. Rayner was able to harness the great talents in the Club - Churchill, Moir, Hawick, Cowie, Purcell and Hammerton – to form one of the most successful eras in the Club’s history.
After losing to St George in the 1949 Grand Final, Souths won Premierships in 1950-51 before losing controversially to Wests in 1952. The Rabbitohs bounced back to win a hat-trick of Premierships in 1953-55, culminating in the amazing comeback win in 1955.
It was that 1955 season that in many ways summed up Rayner’s ability as a leader. At the half-way point of the season, Souths were next to no chance of defending their Premiership crown after winning just three matches out of 10. Rayner assembled his troops in the old Redfern Oval grandstand following their round 10 loss to Newtown to try and salvage the season.
Whatever was said did the trick, with the Rabbitohs going on to win the next 11 games including the Grand Final against the Bluebags by a single point. It was to be just one of many high-points in the life of the grand old gentleman.
Rayner passed away on the 17th May 2008 during the game’s centenary season at Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick. Whether as a player, a soldier, or as the long arm of the law, his Club, his game and his country were left enriched because of him.