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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Kevin Emery Humphreys (1930–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

At the time when Kevin Humphreys was in trouble – really big trouble – his supporters in the rugby league hierarchy said they would forgive him anything, and give him anything. One said he would ''throw in the Harbour Bridge as well''.

It summed up the complexity of the man, a Balmain boy from birth (born in Leichhardt), who made his mark as an administrator and visionary whose time at the top changed rugby league forever and for the better.

He played a major role in the expansion of Sydney rugby league to become a truly national contest, and the transformation of the NSW-Queensland rivalry by the State of Origin concept. It drew him wide and well deserved praise.

In the end, he was a man with a weakness, for gambling, which pushed him over the edge. From the time it all came to a head, with the Street royal commission in 1983, he was finished, and his life lingered on in sadness and obscurity.

Kevin Emery Humphreys was born on April 14, 1930. He took to league early in life, as a junior with the Leichhardt Wanderers. He made his first-grade debut with Balmain against Newtown at Leichhardt Oval on April 4, 1953, and went on to play 43 games with the club over four seasons, scoring nine tries.

In 1965 he returned to the club as honorary secretary and the following year became the club's first full-time secretary. It was to be a golden era for the club, which won the 1969 premiership. In May 1973, Humphreys became president of the NSW Rugby League. The complication was that a club secretary could not become an official of the NSW or Australian rugby leagues, so he stepped down from that position and became secretary-manager of the Balmain Leagues Club Ltd.

Humphreys's problem then began to manifest itself when, as secretary-manager of the licensed club, he had access to money in the cash float.

By August 1975, he had vouchers for sums totalling $19,900 and the rot had set in. In February 1976, an audit discovered there was a deficiency of $30,579 not covered by vouchers. Humphreys explained the money had been loaned to ''a friend who was in financial trouble'' and that it would be paid back. Quickly, he borrowed $52,000 from four people, including coach Jack Gibson. Gibson said later he gave $34,000 to Humphreys on the condition that he ''never had another bet''. Ken Arthurson, secretary-manager of the Manly-Warringah Rugby League Club, gave him $5000. Humphreys deposited the money into the club's accounts.

A week later, a committee including Arthurson invited Humphreys to be full-time executive secretary of the NSW Rugby League for 10 years. Humphreys also took up chairmanship of the Australian Rugby League. In the television age, with ease of travel and open cheque books, the stage was set for a rapid expansion of rugby league, to full professionalism and to a code that embraced the nation.

There were other moves that he backed: sponsorship identification of guernseys, the mid-week Amco Cup, home-and-away rounds, competition naming rights (such as the Winfield Cup) and Jim Comans on the rugby league judiciary. This made the game cleaner, fairer, more profitable and more accessible. With his manly appearance and outward-going nature, he was the face of rugby league.

But the financial problems lay just below the surface. Humphreys had obtained a loan of $36,000 from the NSW Rugby League, which on later accounts he repaid slowly and only partially. The original fraud finally came to police attention and Humphreys was investigated. He pulled strings, approaching people in high places, including the police commissioner, Fred Hanson, who took steps to stop the investigation. But Humphreys was charged regardless. The chief stipendiary magistrate, Murray Farquhar, put pressure on a hapless subordinate magistrate, Kevin Jones, to dismiss the charges against Humphreys when he appeared before him on August 12, 1977. Jones did so and Humphreys was free again to turn his mind to the ever-evolving game of league.

In 1980, along with Senator Ron McAuliffe, president of the Queensland Rugby League, Humphreys promoted the idea of the State of Origin concept, against considerable Sydney opposition. Things were going swimmingly until, in 1983, ABC TV's Four Corners screened The Big League, in which reporter Chris Masters lifted the lid on the Balmain Leagues Club affair. A royal commission under Sir Laurence Street confirmed there had been malpractice. In October 1983, Humphreys was fined $4000 and placed on a two-year good behaviour bond. Farquhar went to jail and Jones, a sick man, would never sit on the bench again. Humphreys stepped down from the positions with the NSW Rugby League and the ARL.

He got a job on the south coast. Some years later, this reporter asked for an interview but he declined. Humphreys just said he wanted to get on with his life. In his later years, complications from diabetes led to the amputation of both legs and he suffered strokes.

When he died in Gladesville on April 29, tributes followed quickly. David Gallop, NRL executive chairman, said: ''Kevin was a significant figure in the development of the game.'' The Wests-Tigers rugby league team wore black arm bands in his memory at its match against the Roosters on May 2 and a minute's silence was observed. Humphreys is survived by his widow, Joan, and sons David and Stephen – the latter being chief executive of the Wests Tigers Club.

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Humphreys, Kevin Emery (1930–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

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