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When discussion comes up about the fitness of modern sportspeople, we often think of our own footballers. But it?s hard to imagine many of today's Rugby League players matching it with the great Herb Narvo.
A rugged Test forward, Herb Narvo was Australian Heavyweight Boxing champion in 1945, a title he held during his football career. He was also a fine cricketer and cyclist of real potential.
A Newcastle Rugby League junior, Narvo went to Wickham School and worked on the water front to make ends meet. He joined Newtown in 1937 and had an immediate impact on the Sydney competition.
Originally omitted from the 1937 Kangaroos squad, Herb got his chance when champion forward Sid ?Joe? Pearce Jnr broke his leg. Narvo was a sensation in France and England, playing in four Tests and scoring two tries.
After the tour, Narvo represented NSW in 1938-39 and in 1941 while playing for Newcastle Norths, but his chances of playing for Australia again were taken away by the advent of World War Two.
Serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, Herb Narvo was considered a ?fitness fanatic? and was the physical fitness instructor for the RAAF.
He returned to Newtown in 1943 and produced a powerful display, guiding the Bluebags to a 34-7 grand final win over match day favourites North Sydney. A magnificent victory for Newtown but while they rejoiced in the win, no one could have known it would be the Bluebag's last premiership title.
Nevertheless, it was an impressive display from Narvo who appeared unstoppable. Norths captain-coach and League legend Frank Hyde was flattened after finding himself on the receiving end of one of Narvo?s powerhouse runs.
In an interview with Sean Fagan in 2001, former lock forward Charles 'Chicka' Cahill gave his 1943 team mate a glowing appraisal: ?I've always maintained that Herb Narvo was the best second row forward I've ever seen play and I've seen a lot of them of play.?
In 1945, Narvo was named captain of New South Wales. In the same year, in only his 13th professional fight, he won the Australian Heavyweight Boxing title, defeating Billy ?Wocko? Britt in just 23 seconds.
By now, Herb Narvo was a household name.
The following year Herb Narvo accepted an offer to captain-coach St George. The Dragons were coming off a disappointing season, finishing second last in 1945. A crisis meeting was held amongst committee members and their deliberations resulted in the signing of Narvo for 1946. The board speculated that the club?s many young players would prosper under Narvo?s experience, and they were right.
Herb brought to each game a lucky brooch given to him by a young lady admirer who supported Saints. But luck played no part in the success that was to follow. Narvo instigated a strict fitness regime and the young Dragons reaped the benefits. Grand finalists St George won the 1946 NSWRL Club Championship and for the first time in their history, were minor premiers. Narvo?s enthusiastic and demanding coaching style had completely turned around the fortunes of St George.
Now aged 33, Herb Narvo lost his Australian Heavyweight title to Jack Johnson. Incredibly, he was able to get up the next day to captain-coach St George in the 1946 grand final, scoring a try as the Dragons went down to Balmain by 13-12. To say the decider was a controversial match is an understatement. Saints scored four tries to three amidst claims that two of the Balmain tries were from two blatant forward passes.
Normally very conservative and non-critical of refereeing, Narvo said afterwards: ?Ponchard [Balmain?s five eighth] lost the ball which went a foot forward. The decision cost us the match?
Despite his ruggedness and fighting spirit, Herb Narvo had the reputation of being one of the fairest of sportsman.
?Many said he was the finest leader they had ever played with,? wrote St George official Horrie Maher many years later.
Herb played just one season with Saints before heading back to the bush, initially as captain-coach of Cootamundra in 1947 and then Camden in 1948. At age 37, Narvo returned to Newtown in 1949 before finally leaving the Sydney competition and finishing up as captain-coach of Newcastle.
A fighter, footballer and thorough gentleman, the great Herb Narvo passed away in 1958 following a long battle with cancer. Far too young at just 45 years of age, it was a cruel blow to one of the fittest men to ever play the game.
References: Encylopedia Rugby League Players Saints: The Legend Lives On rl1908.com SOTV history
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