100 Years of Rugby League in Australia panel discussion
Ian Heads, Sean Fagan, Geoff Armstrong and Guy Hansen, National Museum of Australia, 11 May 2008
GUY HANSEN: Good afternoon and welcome here today to our panel discussion this afternoon on rugby league history. Today is the final day of the League of Legends exhibition, which is an exhibition that the National Museum of Australia has organised as part of the centenary celebrations of rugby league in Australia. My name is Guy Hansen and my role in the exhibition was as lead curator. A team of people worked on the exhibition and I had the great privilege of being the lead curator putting the exhibition together. It has been in Canberra now for just over 10 weeks, and we have been very pleased with the response. We have had coming up to 40,000 people through the exhibition, which is a fantastic result. People have really enjoyed seeing their rugby league history.
In doing the exhibition, we had a lot of assistance from a lot of people. Some of the most important was a loose confederation of people called rugby league historians. There is quite a range of people who are a part of that group, and three of the most important ones are here today - Sean Fagan, Geoff Armstrong and Ian Heads - all of whom helped us prepare this exhibition, provided us with advice, directed us towards objects and let us know what had to be in the exhibition. Because of that, I thought it was very fitting that we finish the exhibition off with a discussion and let these guys come out and tell you some of the things that they think are important about the game’s history.
We are not going to attempt to give an exhaustive chronology of the game today, but each speaker will talk on a particular aspect which is of interest to them. Sean, our first speaker, is going to speak about the early period of the game; the events of 1907-1908. Geoff is going to talk about the history of rugby league photography, the great images that we remember, many of which are in the exhibition. And Ian, very appropriately, is going to talk about controversy in rugby league, which is something that is always associated with rugby league.
Sean Fagan is going to kick off today. If you are a rugby league fan and you are on the web, you have must probably stumbled upon Sean at one point because he’s the author of that fantastic website, ‘RL1908’ [http://www.rl1908.com/]. If you haven’t visited it, I really recommend it because it is a fantastic resource for rugby league history. Sean has also produced a couple of very important books on the early history of the game, including The Rugby Rebellion and most recently the revised edition of Dally Messenger’s biography The Master. These are very important books about rugby league history. Sean is going to talk to us today about the early history of the game.
SEAN FAGAN: Friday night - everyone saw the test match, I hope [Friday 9 May], with Greg Inglis’s effort right there on the dead ball line. There is a sort of Bermuda Triangle of space at the [Sydney] Cricket Ground. For those of you who remember it, that is probably within five or six metres away from where Steve Gearin scored his famous try in 1980. It is also where Parramatta executed the wedge, one of the most famous moments where they put Ron Hilditch at the heady point of a scrum and ran straight at the Manly try line. But a long time before that, almost in that same spot, Dally Messenger in 1911 hurdled over the top of two New Zealand players straight into the in goal and scored a try. He had actually also done that four years earlier, in 1907, for the New South Wales rugby union team. At that time he was by far the most popular footballer that we’d ever seen. There were 50,000 people at the Cricket Ground, 15,000 more than were there last Friday night. So you can see that number is an awfully big number.
The players who played that day worked out that the ₤2.5 thousand taken at the gate worked out to be ₤85 each, which is about a year and a half’s worth of wages for an hour and a half’s worth of football. So it wasn’t too surprising to learn that working-class footballers felt that they deserved a better deal than what they were getting from the rugby union.
Rugby union had started out as a sport based on amateurism. In England they had seen soccer rise up in the 1870s and start professionalism. The sport had been lost to the upper classes. It had been overrun by working classes and popularism. Professionalism came in.
The same things were happening in Yorkshire and Lancashire where rugby was particularly popular. But the rugby union didn’t want to lose control of their sport to the masses, to the people, so they looked at basically living off this ideal of amateurism. They wouldn’t allow payments to players for injuries or for time off work; they wouldn’t allow improvements in rules to make the game more attractive; because all that would have led to more crowds and more money and would have led to pressure to have the best players, with the buying and selling of players.
In 1895 that led to the Yorkshire and Lancashire split and the formation of what became the English rugby league called the Northern Union. At that time they allowed payments to players. Over the coming years they made changes to rugby union. They got rid of the line-out, changed teams to 13 a side and introduced the ‘play the ball’.
Those events happened 13 years before rugby league started here in Australia, but they were far from unknown when they happened. The New South Wales rugby union and the New Zealand rugby union all wrote to the English rugby union at the time of the split, encouraged them and gave them support. But it was being watched very closely here. Sydney in particular was a very large working-class city. We had just been granted the Saturday half-holiday, which meant that people were looking for cheap entertainment to both participate in and to watch. That’s when rugby started to become extremely popular in the 1890s.
In 1899 an English rugby union team came to Sydney. At that point the captain of that team, a Reverend Mullineux, pointed out to the New South Wales rugby union officials that Sydney was showing all the traits of tending towards professionalism: the players were playing with a determination to win, pushing the rules to the limit, and there were accusations of players being paid. Rather than listen to that, the New South Wales rugby union officials told Mr Mullineux to mind his own business and to go back and sort out Yorkshire and Lancashire if he was really concerned about professionalism. So there was no real secret about what was going on in England.
In 1902 players in Sydney openly threatened to join the English rugby league. But it wasn’t until 1905 when the New Zealand All Blacks toured England. They all went as amateurs. They got the standard three bob or three shillings a day allowance when they were in England that they had to live off. They didn’t get any money at all on the ship. That money, basically, was enough to deal with your laundry bill, and not much else.
New South Wales rugby union players, when they went to Brisbane, got that money as well. They reckoned that if they got in a shout at the pub, three shillings wasn’t going to get you very far. Arthur Hennessy very famously said, ‘After one rum and milk in the morning, my three shillings is done’.
This brings us up to 1907 when you have those huge crowds; you have the players feeling that they weren’t getting a fair deal; and a lot of the working-class players wouldn’t go on tour. They would say, ‘I have work commitments’, or ‘I am injured’, simply because to go on a tour you had to spend your own money. It was a bit embarrassing to have to go without the money in the first place or not be able to go at all and say ‘I can’t go because of the money’, so they’d make out that they were injured or they’d make up stories that they couldn’t get off work. This was affecting the standard of the New South Wales team. We could never beat New Zealand in rugby union.
Messenger came along and performed his feats. We did finally beat New Zealand in one game. But by then the move towards the split had already come. The players had teamed up with entrepreneur James J Giltinan, test cricketer Victor Trumper, and later politician Henry Hoyle, and formed the rugby league in August 1907. They then played three games against a professional New Zealand team who were going to go to England and repeat that All Blacks tour in the hope of making similar money. Those players were accused of being professionals. They were called All Golds on the basis that they were supposedly out for gold instead of being out for glory. But, as it turned out, they each had to find ₤50, which is about a year’s worth of wages, to buy a place on that first rugby league team.
As it turned out, they did make the profits. They all got over 350 quid each, which is an awful lot of money. The success of that tour helped with rugby league’s formation in Sydney because, when all the clubs were formed, James Giltinan offered the chance for Sydney players and Queensland players to join in a first Kangaroo tour. Instead of asking the Sydney players to find ₤50, which none of them would have been able to, he went and borrowed ₤2,000 to fund that tour himself. As events turned out, that tour was ravaged by a very severe winter in England and then labour strikes in the cotton mills, and they didn’t make any money. Giltinan was bankrupted out of that.
The league also had its own problems when the game started, in terms of its administration. But in the end, the game itself was the crucial issue. People had been saying ‘we want changes to rugby union rules’. Fifty thousand people would go and watch a New South Wales-New Zealand rugby union game, but the headlines would say things like ‘deadly dull’. So, they wouldn’t necessarily want to play Australian rules or soccer, they wanted to play rugby, but we wanted to make it a better game.
Rugby league delivered that. It gave two less players on the field and introduced the ‘play the ball’ rule. And as it turned out, as soon as rugby league got on the field, despite all the off-field problems, it found immediate favor with the crowds and the public.
Rugby union officials openly admitted that if they didn’t do something about it, in their words, the game would be as dead as Julius Caesar.
What they initially tried to do with the rugby union was increase player allowances, start providing jerseys for players; things that they had refused to do before.
But the game itself was the main draw card. It is interesting - you look at the ‘play the ball’ rule, which had just come into England in 1906, so we started with that here. But, in all the match reports I’ve read, there were virtually no references to the ‘play the ball’ rule at all. They all talk about interchanges of passing between players; that they hadn’t seen the extent of passing of the ball. That was the big difference. The scrums. They said, ‘See, they are a mess, but they are over in a flash’, which isn’t a lot different today.
The scrums seemed to have improved in the 1930s and 1940s and seem to have deteriorated again since the 1980s, which is interesting.
There were also suggestions that rugby league should merge with Australian rules in Melbourne and create a national football code. That just seems a crazy idea now. But, the match reports and other newspaper articles talk about rugby league being a halfway house between rugby union and Australian rules in terms of the way it was played.
The ‘held’ law, the rule that when the referee called ‘held’ you have to stop and play the ball; the way it was originally intended was closer to Australian rules. The minute you were pinned and couldn’t pass the ball, that’s when you were held. At that point you had to drop the ball and it could be kicked in any direction with your foot, which is very similar to Australian rules.
Dally Messenger, in 1911, topped the points scoring in Sydney. He scored the same number of points that Dave McNamara, the leading Victorian rules footballer scored in Melbourne, that same year. Both games were particularly similar. The only difference, obviously, was an offside rule.
But even in rugby league, there was a lot of offside play. And there are still remnants of it there today in terms of you can’t go within 10 metres of a fullback, but you can be offside.
Those moves towards merging the codes were taken up seriously in 1908 in August in Melbourne. James Giltinan said that when he went to England, he would take to the English rugby league the idea that he could take the merged game and create a national and international aspect for football. It didn’t quite work out that way. As I said, Giltinan ended up bankrupted, came back in 1909. He’d been thrown out of power. Trumper and Hoyle went shortly afterwards.
But again, it was the game on the field that got the League through. The tour of New Zealand, a Maori team to Sydney, in the space of one weekend, a Saturday and a Monday, brought in 50,000 fans and their money to the New South Wales rugby league.
That extra money helped them reinforce in the 1908 Wallabies team a confidence in the game to the point where half of them defected to rugby league. A lot of them got up to ₤300 each, which was, as I said, a lot of money. But, that would never have happened if the League wasn’t starting to get back onto its feet.
With the Wallabies in the League in 1910, an English rugby league team came to Sydney. Now, the League had been kept off the [Sydney] Cricket Ground (SCG) and kept off the sports ground. It wasn’t allowed to use those grounds. The rugby union had leases on them.
The Cricket Ground actually wanted to host those games, which meant that the League was still forced to use the old Sydney Showground. It’s still there if anyone wants to go and walk it and see a little bit of history. There are a couple of stands still there.
At that point, the league got crowds of 40,000 trying to cram into that small ground. There were 20,000 people turning up to club games. So, 1910 is really where the League started to take hold. By 1911, the League found, with the work of the SCG Trust, a loophole in the New South Wales rugby union’s lease agreement.
The Union had control of Saturdays and public holidays if they were on a Monday. There was a public holiday on a Thursday to do with the coronation of one of the kings, I think. So, they got that Thursday, and they got to use it - put New South Wales versus New Zealand on it, and 50,000 people turned up to watch the first rugby league game on that ground.
Dally Messenger was the first rugby league player to walk onto the field. And, as if to mark the fact that the war was over against rugby union and had been won, he performed the same feat. He ran at the New Zealand fullback, and rather than going left or right, for some reason he hurled over the top of him and landed in the in goal.
Now, it was seen as a death defying feat. He just loved doing it. But, it was actually a New Zealand footballer who tried it not too many years before Dally, who got flipped as he did it and went straight headfirst into the ground and broke his neck. Six weeks later, he was dead.
That was Messenger’s style. He was very thrilling. People felt they had to go and watch a game that he played in. Because if you didn’t go, you might miss something, which is what we want from all our footballers. You want to be able to go and watch and see something. You want to be able to see it and say, ‘Oh, I saw that’.
Because back then, you’ve only got newspaper reports. You’ve got what people say. There was no TV. There was no radio. There were films taken at that time. None of them, sadly, still exist as far as we know. The earliest films the guys had showing out here, in 1921 or 1922, was the Maori team here in Sydney.
If you’ve got the time, have a close look at that. There’s actually a ‘play the ball’ in there under the old original ‘play the ball’ rule. It’s not the clean idea of having two markers and a guy playing the ball in the dummy half. It’s actually a free for all. You just get to your feet, drop the ball, and all the forwards are sort of hovering around the ball - which is the biggest difference over 100 years in terms of the rules.
If you look at the ‘play the ball’ early, all the forwards are really contained in this one area; 12 forwards, which meant that all the backs had all this enormous room. It was effectively a scrum. They’d just space you from a scrum at every play the ball.
In 1926 the League introduced a new rule which streamlined the ‘play the ball’. And that gave us the modern form, where we only have four players involved and the other players were kept away. At that point, I should say, it wasn’t unlimited tackle football. It was more like one tackle football. The last thing you’d want to be doing, if you were a player, was being tackled with the ball, because you could lose the ball.
So, in a 50/50 opportunity you would pass it. You would drop it. You would throw it anywhere. So, it made for a lot more speculative play. But, by the 1950s and 1960s, players were learning how to drop the ball, place it back, drop it this far from the ground, and make sure they kept possession. That allowed the forwards to stream out across the defensive line, which took away a lot of those gaps and produced bash and barge football.
That led to the unlimited tackle football; first four tackles, and now six. But, you can see from that, instead of the forwards, everyone knows what is going to happen with the ball, and so every player can set themselves in the defense, and every players knows, ‘I can run up to the opposition and try and tackle them’.
So, in a hundred years, we have moved from the play of the ball having everyone around it to having three or four players in the backs opposing another three or four in all that space.
A hundred years ago, the players didn’t necessarily have the fitness or have the experience to make use of that space. But, now that space is gone. And in a way, the game might be lesser for it.
In conclusion, I would say that rugby league really, in the end it wasn’t about payment of players. It wasn’t about compensation. It was about producing a game that everyone wanted to enjoy, to play, and to watch. And for 100 years the game has delivered that. Thank you.
GUY HANSEN: Some other interesting items which relate to Sean’s talk, which are in the exhibition, you can see a series of objects relating to Messenger in the exhibition from 1907-1908, including his own New South Wales rugby football league cap.
And you can also see the pen used by JJ Giltinan in meetings, in planning of the rugby league, which was generously lent to us by Ian Heads. There are some wonderful objects that actually illustrate many of the points that Sean was just telling us about.
Our next speaker today, another person who has assisted greatly with the exhibition, is Geoff Armstrong. Geoff is a leading sports journalist and a die-hard St George fan. He has also done a lot of sports biography. He worked with the cricket of Steve Waugh. He has also worked on a definitive history on Phar Lap with Peter Thompson. And most recently, he has been a very important part of the team which produced this beautiful book, The Centenary of Rugby League, which is by Ian Heads and David Middleton.
A lot of the imagery search, if not all of the imagery search for this book, was done by Geoff. And it is in that context that I thought it might be very interesting - he having spent a lot of the last year thinking about what are some of the great images of rugby league in preparation for this book - I thought it might be great to get him here today to talk about rugby league photo journalism. And hence, that is why I have put the most famous of all rugby league images up behind you for his talk, The Gladiators.
GEOFF ARMSTRONG: Thank you Guy, and thanks everyone for coming. Guy did list just a couple of books that I have worked on over the last few years. But, I need to ask, are there any rugby union spies in here today?
I ask that quite deliberately, because I am currently in the finishing straight with the George Gregan autobiography. And I have this great fear that George might have sent a few people along today to make sure I say nothing wrong about rugby union. So, perhaps I should apologise to George straight up.
The other thing that I need to say is that I am going to talk about a few photographs today, but not just about photographs. I am not a photographer. I don’t pretend to be. In fact, I would probably be one of the world’s worst. But, I did do a lot of the photo research for The Centenary History. I am also a fan. I am a very dedicated St George fan. And so consequently I have seen a hell of a lot of photographs over the years. I would like to think that I know the difference between a good and a bad photo in the same way as I am sure you all have your own individual opinions on what a good or a great photo is.
It is true that I think that the most famous photo is The Gladiators photograph. And I should just quickly describe how The Gladiators photo came about. It’s a photo taken at the conclusion of the 1963 grand final, which St George won. I was born in 1961, and it’s true that since I was born, St George has won more grand finals than any other club. I should remind everyone of that.
Saints won that game eight to three. It was a very controversial game. And as the two captains greeted each other at the end of the game on a very muddy Sydney Cricket Ground, a shaft of sunlight came down. It sounds a bit religious almost, but a shaft of sunlight came down on these two great players.
And John O’Grady, the great photographer from the Sun-Herald managed at that exact moment to get that photograph. It is just a wonderful photograph. But, a couple of bits of trivia about that photo. One is that Arthur Summons at that moment is saying to Norm Provan, ‘You were bloody lucky’.
The Johnny King try that won the game is a very controversial one. And it does appear, from oral history told by a few players who were involved, that Darcy Lawler, the referee, might have been, shall we say, biased toward St George slightly that day.
To give you an example of how Darcy Lawler was capable of doing this, one of my favourite rugby league stories concerns a weekend. I imagine it was 1958. It could have been 1954, but Great Britain played Australia on a Saturday. And as was the case through the 1950s, Keith Holman was the Australian halfback.
And then, on a Sunday, Wests played a premiership game, and Keith Holman was playing halfback for Wests as he always did, and Darcy Lawler was the referee. And first scrum, Holman puts the ball in the scrum, and Lawler whistles a penalty to the opposition. And then, second scrum, the same thing. And after the second penalty, Lawler looked at Holman and said, ‘You’re not playing the poms today’.
The other trivia about this photo is that it’s a wonderful photo. We all recognise it. It’s the most famous photo in rugby league history. But, it didn’t make page one - on a Sunday in the Sun-Herald, it was actually on page three. And the story that made page one, which seems quite incongruous today, was of a train crash that had occurred outside of Dubbo in which 20 people had been injured.
On page three of the Sun-Herald was that photo with a little story underneath, and alongside it, a slightly bigger photo, was the story of Lord Mayor Harry Jensen who had lost preselection for the federal seat of East Sydney. So, I don’t think the editor of the Sun-Herald quite realised what he had.
And the other great irony is that the caption they put above that photograph was, ‘Who’s that?’ I mean, ask any rugby league fan today, they know exactly who that is. But, in 1963, there was some conjecture. What I think this shows you is that over time, the value of a sporting photograph could increase dramatically. And I think this is one of the great examples of that.
But I think, in a way, it’s been true since 1907. I mean, the Town and Country journal in 1907 had a full page of photographs from the first New South Wales All Golds game. And it’s a wonderful collection of photos. There’s an impromptu team photo of the two sides.
There’s a great photo of Dally Messenger scooping the ball up, which shows just how athletic he was. And there’s also a great photo of one of the Kiwi players making a dash. And he’s wearing a wide brim cloth cap to keep the sun out of his eyes.
There are some great stories from 1908. I honestly wish that a photographer had been at the Balmain Newtown game at Birchgrove in 1908 when Frank Cheadle, the great Newtown centre who died in the First World War. He had a shot at a field goal, and as he kicked the field goal, the ball burst.
The first person to realise it was his Newtown teammate, Burt Andrews, who ran through, picked up the deflated ball, and put it over for a try.
And the referee awarded the try. There was nothing else he could do. So, at that point, Bob Graves, who was Balmain’s great front runner - he was the Balmain captain - he then went up to the referee and said, ‘OK. That’s a try. I concede that. But, he’s got to take the conversion with the same ball’.
The referee said, ‘No, you can take a new ball’, but just to add a punch line to the story, the kick at goal from right in front was missed.
Another great story I found when I was researching the East’s history, which I wrote with Ian and David Middleton. It’s a story from a Balmain East game in 1931. As some people may remember, in those days, Saturday papers were published all day. There was a new edition being published on the hour, usually to contain the latest race results.
But anyway, in the break between reserve grade and first grade, there was a paper boy in Eastern suburbs colors, and he was walking around and he was yelling out, ‘Paper! Paper! Get your paper! Terrible Balmain tragedy! Paper! Paper!’
So, obviously, the Balmain fans think what’s going on, so they rushed up and everyone bought this paper, and they’re flicking through it, and there’s nothing about any tragedy at Balmain. So, one of them says to the paper boy, ‘So, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Have a look at the stop press’. And in the stop press, there was the third grade score, which was East 23, Balmain nil.
It’s a funny thing with photos. That’s probably the most famous photo. I reckon if we were asked what our most favourite photo was, I think we’d all have different answers. I know the papers of today tend to want to have arty photos, and I don’t mean arty boots.
Craig Golding and Tim Clayton from the Sydney Morning Herald are both magnificent photographers, but they take photos of arty moments, they love breast strokers with the water coming off, when I reckon the great photos of famous moments or dramatic moments, I’m not sure, I mean you’d have to help me out. I didn’t see the papers yesterday as yet, but I don’t know if Greg English’s great moment, whether it made any of the newspapers, or whether I noticed that the Telegraph’s front page was a glorious photo of the member’s stand, but so be it.
My favourite all-time photo, and I’m biased, is a photo of Ted Goodwin. It’s the photo that appeared on page one of Rugby League Week, in 1977 after our first drawn grand final. It was taken by another great photographer, John Elliot. And it’s a photo, Ted had blood down his face. It’s my favourite because it reminds me of my favourite day in football, sitting on the hill with 69,000 fans.
And it also takes me back to the first time I met at the football, which was at Cumberland oval in 1971, when my uncle took me to a Saints Para game and Ted dominated. One thing I remember about that is my grandparents lived at Westmead, and to get to the ground we had to walk over Parramatta Park.
And I remember seeing as we walked out of the ground, there was a kid there with a Corner Post. Remember the old paper Corner Post? And he was the guy who had won the dash for the corner post, and he sort of competed with Ted Goodwin to be my hero. And I thought one day, I would like to get that corner post.
But it also reminds me of the day Ian Schubert head-butted Ted Goodwin in the 1975 grand final and cost Saints the game.
And it also reminds of another moment, and this is a very personal moment, which was at Wynyard Station in 1979. Ted Goodwin was the star player of the 1977 season. He and Rod Reddy were the reasons Saints won in 1977. Then he had a horrible year in 1978 and left St George at the end of 1978, when he went to Newtown, then had another terrible year at Newtown in 1979.
But, Saints recovered to make the grand final in 1979, and there was a very meager promotion where the fans got to meet the players at Wynyard Station. And I, as a St George supporter, went to this, and I can remember Craig Young on the stage with his red St George shirt, which had his nickname ‘Albert’ under the badge.
But, the only autograph I got that day was after I walked out. Next door was a building site. They were building a building right next door to Wynyard Station, say about 20 metres from where the St George first grade grand final team was on the stage, and Ted Goodwin was working as a labourer there.
I had a five minute conversation. He wasn’t bitter. That was just life. Of course, Ted came back to have some good seasons with Wests after that, but it was just another ‘who’s that’ moment. That Ted Goodwin, who had been the star of the game in 1977, two years later, he was a labourer on a work site. Just again, a ‘who’s that’ moment.
[Shows image] Another ‘who’s that’ moment, which I know this photo Ian’s going to have as a feature in his presentation. It won’t be up there now. It was a photo that was taken in 1932 during the Ashes series, but it’s one of the wonderful photos from the State Library of New South Wales collection, but it’s captioned ‘Rugby league at Sydney Cricket Ground’, and it actually appears in the centenary history as well.
It took a fair amount of research to work out what it was, and I’d just like to quickly take you through it. The first thing we did was work out that, because of the jumpers the England team was wearing, it had to be 1932.
Fortunately the England player had a black armband on. So we were then, by going through game after game, able to identify there was only one game on the tour that the England team had worn the black armband.
Finally we were able to determine, luckily, the photo actually appeared on the front page of the Referee which is the sporting weekly. We were able to write a caption that then said, ‘Great Australian second-rower Joe Pierce competes with England’s centre Stanley Brogden for the ball’.
It was the England League Metropolis game at the Sydney Cricket Ground, which was the caption. But, the reason I say this is to demonstrate some of the work that goes into these historical books. It would have been easy just to put a caption, ‘rugby league test match’. It would have been wrong. It wasn’t a test match in 1932. But, we went to the trouble of finding out exactly what was appearing in that game.
Again, that meant instead of Pierce and Brogden being unknown players, ‘who’s that’, we were able to identify two great players in a really pivotal moment in an important game. It just shows how athletic these footballers were.
Another thing about that photo; in the background of that photo, the crowds are huge. I think it just shows just how entrenched rugby league was by the 1930s. Sean has alluded to that by the way the game grew. I think, between wars, club football grew into an important thing. It entrenched rugby league in the Australian psyche or at least in the New South Wales and Queensland psyche to the point that, I think, rugby league in the 1930s was as iconic; if iconic is the right word; as Phar Lap, as Bradman, as The Bridge, as Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. It was so entrenched in our psyche that not even super league could beat it.
As we’ve seen today, the game has grown. It tends to grow every year. It was quite silly talk in the papers during the lead up to the test in Sydney about crowd figures being down. I mean that was just silly. Crowds are actually up. Whether that means there are more people passionate about the game, I’m not sure. But, just in terms of faces through the gate, there is no doubt.
The star of the 1930s; the person; it’s quite extraordinary going through the photos. It’s a slow and laborious process. But, if you ever have the chance to go on the State Library in New South Wales website and just do a search for the rugby league, there are some wonderful images of the 1930s.
It’s astonishing how many times in those photos that Dave Brown appears. He wore headgear, which was his trademark, and he stood out. But, it was as if the photographers were drawn to him. I think it was because he was that good a player. Brown was known as the ‘Bradman of League’. He scored 385 points on a Kangaroo tour.
His records are mind-blowing, 45 points in a game. He scored 38 tries in one season. I’m not sure, but I’ll have to clarify that. He was Easts captain at 19, Australian captain at 22. He’s just a great, great player.
Which leads me to a bit of a bug bear of mine; I’d like to just go off on a random thought. It concerns the team of the century and the process of selecting the 100 greatest and the team of the century, which I was involved in.
The thought that Brown didn’t make it; I feel that was a great shame. I will get back to that because I’m not sure who I’d put out to put Brown in. Just talking about the 100 greatest, I just thought I’d explain a couple of things. It’s amazing how some players have, over the years in history, been forgotten and other players, their reputation has grown.
A good example of that concerns Sean’s mate, Dally Messenger, who in 1940 picked a best-ever team. But the team he picked was a team of guys he enjoyed playing with; the guys he would most like to play with. It wasn’t his greatest team. So that every player in that team, he would have either played with or against, except for one.
The bloke he picked was a bloke called Harry Caples, who is an interesting story. Capples was a five-eighth who came into Sydney football in about 1916; played for Reece; went on the Kangaroo tour in 1921. By 1923 when East won the competition, he was probably the best player in the game. But then he went to Melbourne in 1924 to try with Harry Sunderland, the great administrator, to establish League in Melbourne. Then he went to Queensland in 1925, but was never quite the same player and has been forgotten.
I compare that to a bloke like - and I don’t like criticising players - a bloke like Steve Roach, who was an outstanding front rower, but I think, over the last 20 years his reputation has improved. If we think back to what Roach was as a footballer, I think he would have made the top 100 greatest players easily. And I found that a bit surprising. Whereas a bloke like Harry Caples, he got three votes out of I think, there was 70 people, 68 people voted.
So, it is interesting how the voting can change. I was privy to the voting of the 100 greatest. I was also involved in the selection of the Team of the Century. And it was interesting to see some of the biases that came about in those two teams. It was one really interesting process. I know that the Australian Team of the Century was announced recently and was the team that was paraded before the test on Friday. That Australian team includes ten players who played football in the 1950s and 1960s and three guys, Meninga, Lewis, and Johns who I would described as modern players.
Queensland have also picked a Team of the Century - I think they picked the last year. They also include ten players from the 1950s and 1960s, and three modern players. And I think that this says something about - we always go back to the heroes of our youth when we’ve got a difficult decision between a modern player and a really old player and the guys from the 1950s and 1960s. And that bias was enough to modify what the eventual Team of the Century was and squeeze guys like Messenger, who made the bench and Frank Birch, who made the bench and Brown who didn’t even make the seven team, squeeze them out.
Again, I’m cheating, because I’m not going to say who should have been left out to put these guys in. But I think that it is a shame. And it’s interesting because, when Ray Chesterton in the Daily Telegraph ran a line in the papers about a possible Queensland bias in the selections, I didn’t see that. But I did see that bias was toward the 1950s and 1960s. And yet, as Ted Goodman is my favourite player, if we were all honest with ourselves, we probably look back to the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, and think yeah the players then were pretty good.
One other thing is that the process of picking teams of the centuries is not the greatest. A great example of how this process is not definitive - and I don’t think anyone is pretending that the Team of the Century is definitive - is the situation that’s now occurred with the hookers. Noel Kelly was selected as the Team of the Century hooker. I think in 2005, maybe 2004, the rugby league had a promotion to pick the team of the 1960s. And Noel Kelly could have been the hooker in that, but he wasn’t, it was Ian Walsh.
The Team of the 1950s hooker, which was a promotion done the year after, is Kevin Schubert. And yet, Kelly, Walsh, and Schubert are not in the rugby league Hall of Fame, but Ken Carney is. So, you’ve got this crazy situation where it just doesn’t make sense in one sense. But, what it really does is underline how - well I was going to say undefinitive, but that’s not the right word - but how these processes just can’t be perfect. And no one should pretend that they are.
I just wanted to end with one final thought. I wasn’t going to suggest who should or shouldn’t be in the 100 greatest or the top team, but there’s one bloke that I reckon shouldn’t be. It’s Arthur Summons. I never saw Arthur Summons play; he was before my time. But if you look at his record, he played nine test matches, which is not a lot. He never won a premiership. He was captain coach of the 1963 Kangaroos, but he didn’t play in that series because of injury, and when I look at the fact that Barry Muir played halfback, and Earl Harrison was established as the five-eighth that season, I’m just not sure where Summons would have fitted into the 1963 Kangaroos.
Yet, since that photo was taken, since The Gladiators was taken over the last 40 years, Arthur Summons’ reputation has grown to the point that he made the 100 greatest, no problem at all. And you know what? I don’t think on playing ability he should have. But, his status in the game - purely from that photo - I reckon he’s entitled to getting it just for that.
I want to end with the thought that never ever can you underestimate the power of a great rugby league photograph.
GUY HANSEN: We come to our last panellist this afternoon, Ian Heads, who is one of the most distinguished rugby league journalists and historians we have. He is the author of numerous books. One which I particularly like is True Blue, which was a really important reference for the history of the New South Wales rugby league. Of course there is the new book which has just come out and numerous biographies of rugby league identities, I think, including Jack Gibson. Is that right Ian?
IAN HEADS: Four books.
GUY HANSEN: Four books on Gibson. I can’t really say much more than that - Ian is a very important historian of rugby league. The talk today is called ‘A game for racehorses’.
IAN HEADS: Hi, there everyone. Thanks for coming along. Thanks for your interest today. I’m going to do something very brave today. I’ll make an admission to this, but I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to the technology.
Matter of fact, I’ve only just worked out how the typewriter works after all these years. I’m quite impressed, I’ve got to say. My wife, being a bit more up-market than me, has prepared a bit of a PowerPoint presentation.
These are some images that reflect this great game. They go right back to the beginnings. Some of them cover the territory that Sean and Geoff have covered. If I can get things to work properly, I’m going to make my small contribution today.
It will be a little like a match, I suppose. It will be bits and pieces of things that have happened; a bit of a grab bag of events that have happened through the years as different events happen in a football match.
[Shows image] So, just for the title, some of you might be aware of that Arthur Hennessy was the great South Sydney hooker of the beginning years. When he first read the rule book; the Northern Union rulebook when it arrived out from England, probably the start of 1908; he read the rules and that was his quote.
He obviously saw it being a game for quickness and a game where there was going to be more movement of the ball. That quote has stuck down the years. It was interesting, the thing that evaded the media the other day, unfortunately, when we launched the big book. He captained the first Australian team to play a test match here against New Zealand in 1908.
The hooker, Arthur Hennessy; we had a hooker Cameron Smith, captaining the team the other night and we gathered the two of them together. Cameron Smith launched the book. There were nice photos taken. Arthur Hennessy, the grand-nephew of this Arthur Hennessy who has Arthur Hennessy’s cap; one of the beautiful caps. There is one in the exhibition right now.
But, the media moved on to other things - didn’t take a lot of interest in that. But it was a strange coincidence really, after 100 years.
Anyway, I won’t linger on that because I’ve got a few pictures and things to show you. So, we’ll start. The first couple of images are most historic. They are the New South Wales team against the New Zealand All Blacks known as the All Golds in 1907.
[Shows image] What you’re looking at, in my view, are the heroes of the early game. These are the Blacks, who took a punt on this new game - rugby union players who saw something different, something better. This is at Sydney showground with a crowd of 20,000 in the first match I think, Sean, that one?
SEAN FAGAN: That’s the Cricket Ground.
IAN HEADS: That’s the collected teams from that year, 1907. James Giltinan is sitting in the middle. Again, I come back to the point, absolute heroes. There was a chance that blokes putting their jobs on the line.
There was a bad feeling abroad, certainly in Sydney a division between the two - the old rugby game and the new one. The game owes an everlasting debt no doubt to Giltinan and Albert Baskerville, the New Zealand founder and these players who did what they did.
[Shows image] That’s the great player, of course, Dally Messenger, the master. That jumper, which we saw the other night, which I thought looked terrific. He was a marvelous player. Sean’s touched on that; some of the freakish feats. No doubt about that. He was a champion. His nickname indicates that.
I’m probably as interested in his life after football; all aspects of it - the fact that he is probably representative of the players who sometimes struggled to match, in their later life, their continuing life after 30, when they finished their football careers. It’s not an easy thing to do.
It’s interesting. I’m just doing a second book with Shane Webcke who is a popular bloke and he’s got a lot of things to say about football. He sees today’s players are probably going to hit the wall even harder than some of the others because he thinks they live in something of an unreal world; boys in a bubble, that type of syndrome.
Being full time professionals their whole life is focused on rugby league and suddenly they wake up one morning at 31 and there is a whole lot of living to do. Some of them really do struggle with it. Dally was one of those probably, although he had a pretty fair life. He managed a couple hotels and he had a banana plantation. He had a bit of a falling out with the League here in Sydney and died finally in 1959, but he is remembered with great affection and should be.
[Shows image] These cartoons, I think you saw this one a little earlier. They just give an idea of the division back then. They are the wealthy rugby union arguing against the tempted player going across to the new game. Again, notice the rugby league is represented by the devil here. The bloke with all the bags of money; whereas the angel is on the rugby union side of the fence. That was the [news] paper split down those sorts of lines. The traditional and so on. Some were supportive of the new game; some were not. Some didn’t want to see. They thought it was the most dreadful thing that happened in the history of Australia. So, these sorts of cartoons emerged.
[Shows image] This is what Sean talked about; the Maori team that came here in 1908-1909. I wanted to reinforce the point and it’s been long forgotten over the years. Geoff and I are on the centenary committee and it was raised that there is a debt owed to the Maori teams of those two years too, by rugby league in Australia.
By coming out here, by being extremely popular with the crowds, drawing big crowds, they helped fill the coffers of the rugby league code. They helped the game build the foundation for what it became in the years ahead. Yet it’s been overlooked to an extent.
I actually argued for perhaps a Maori team and Aboriginal team to be added to the World Cup at the end of the year on an invitational basis, just as a special one-off thing to thank both indigenous groups for their contribution to the rugby league. But that was shot down. I do think there is a match going to be played - probably before one of the State of Origin games – of a Maori team against an Australian Aboriginal team and I think that’s right.
[Shows image] The next four pictures are all of the same thing. I just thought I’d share it with you. This is the RMS Macedonia which sailed 15 August 1908 and took the 34 players plus manager Giltinan to England. It was one of 10 steamers built for the P&O line in the first decade of the twentieth century. It carried 377 first-class passengers and 187 second-class. You can probably guess where the Kangaroos travelled.
They travelled second-class on one way tickets in fact. When the money ran out, which it did over there; some of them had to stay back. Quite a group of them, 10 or so, stayed back to play football for English clubs to get enough money to come home. The English league had to fund the rest of them to come back, so it was a very tough tour.
But, what a great adventure. They took off from Sydney; they went via Colombo, Aden, Port Said, and Marseille. They attended a bullfight there. They got very involved in shipboard life - attended fancy dress balls and concerts. They played cricket against the first-class passengers and beat the first-class passengers. To keep fit, probably some of you will have read this; they worked regular shifts at stoking the ship’s boilers.
The other thing they did was to practise the war cry, the sort of forgotten thing about Australian rugby league. For many years, the Australian team - same as the New Zealanders - the Aussies had a war cry. It lasted until 1967. The Kangaroos used it actually. Some of those old Kangaroos can still chant it. They can’t do the jump at the end any more owing to their knees having long since collapsed. I’ve tried that out with fellows like Noel Kelly and others.
But, it was a symbol of that team. They did it when they arrived at the Tilbury Docks in 1908. It was described by the media as having a ‘weird and awful effect’.
But they then headed into a brutal winter. One of the iciest, coldest winters in many years in England. Also, the strikes that closed down the cotton mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire kept many of the fans away. It was a tremendously tough tour of 45 games. They played for a pound a week. It was cut back to 10 shillings a week.
[Shows image] Again, the fellows who went away - that’s a lovely colour shot of that ship - were pioneers. We all owe them a debt too.
[Shows image] These are a couple of things I just thought I’d show you because they are very pretty and very special. They are touch judges flags from rugby union actually. But beautifully woven pieces that were presented to the presidents of the respective leagues around 1911, something like that.
Again, there was a suggestion that the League might have done something like that this year. They haven’t done it. But these are treasures from the past, obviously. [Shows image] This is a picture of the East team of 1913. In fact, Dally Messenger is in front. That’s the great shield that is in the exhibition; the Royal Agricultural shield presented to the game, 1908; a beautiful thing. It was presented to Dally Messenger by Easts in recognition of his contribution to the club; they had won three competitions in a row.
Geoff Armstrong became involved in this very many years later when the shield became an object of dispute between the Messenger family and the rugby league. But it had been loaned to the Hall of Fame in Sydney and the rugby league attempted to retain the shield.
Ferreting in the library one day, Geoff found a paragraph in the Sydney Sun - wasn’t it Geoff? - of Claude Corbett, the great journalist of that time who had recorded the fact that the shield was presented to Dally Messenger in 1913. The League took that, Jon Quail was in charge then, a straight shooting bloke, he took that on board. The shield came back to the Messengers and now it lives comfortably within this great museum.
[Shows image] That’s just an example of early media, I guess - beautiful thing. Town and Country journal - they are the captains of 1914, I think, it is, involving some of the great players. Chris McKivat up the back, on the left; Boxer Russell in the Newtown gear; Bob Craig of Balmain; Sandy Pierce, as Geoff’s been talking about; Albert Bruman, the North’s captain; Billy Cann from Souths; and Tedda Courtney. A lovely piece of artwork.
That’s probably my favourite photo from the book; the centenary book. If any of you get to see the book - there is something, to me, wonderfully atmospheric about that photo. It’s an afternoon in 1928 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It was St George versus West; just a game of footy being played on the ground; a few people on the hill. The old grandstand is still there.
This rather ominous figure in the foreground with the shadows cast onto the ground. And you can probably guess, that that is, in fact, the photographers. Two of them, standing there and they used to shoot with those old cameras. So, they had to hunch over to shoot. There is just something about that atmosphere of that photo that I really love.
[Shows image] That is something that Sean uncovered in his relentless trawling for rugby league history. It’s just a lovely pin that was part of the Kangaroo Adventure of 1929. If we had one now, it would probably be worth a lot of money, I’d imagine.
[Shows image] That’s Dally Messenger with Sandy Pierce. Sandy Pierce, the great hooker. You’ll notice he’s got crutches there under his right arm; that’s coming home from the Kangaroo tour, 1921-22. He broke his leg on that tour, but Dally was there to greet him.
[Shows image] That’s the photo; Geoff, I think, you were talking about - Joe Pierce and Stanley Brogden. It’s a most unusual angle. I’ve seen Joe looking better than that. That’s Joe making the tackle.
Again, it shows the quality of the photography at that time, 1932. It’s a lovely shot capturing the atmosphere of the day and the great crowd there in the background.
[Shows image] This is the following year, no, a decade later actually. This is the last day of 1933. It’s the beginning of rugby league in France. We’re not quite sure who that is; possibly Alan Ridley.
AUDIENCE: Cliff Pierce.
IAN HEADS: You think it is Cliff Pierce? Yeah, the Australian’s three-quarter, playing for Australia obviously, against England in Paris. This was the game that began rugby league in France. We talked about Dave Brown earlier.
That’s Dave Brown in the very distinctive headgear backing up down the middle. Australia had lost the ashes that year, but they won in a handy canter this day. They won 63 to 13, I think it was - a great game for Australia. A match played in ice and snow as they so often are in those Northern winters.
[Shows image] That’s just a shot from the 1930s. It’s Jack Lynch, the Easts winger. His moment in history came when he managed the 1963 team - the team that set all sorts of records - captained by Arthur Summons. Jack died in a very rugby league way I suppose. He was a committee man for the New South Wales rugby league and he collapsed and died one Monday night at a committee meeting about the mid-1960s.
[Shows image] That’s the war cry we’re talking about. Not sure of the year, but based on an almost certainly genuine Aboriginal war chant from a tribe on Stradbroke Island so it had the genuineness about it. It was certainly a very popular part of those teams; of the tours. I don’t know about the players, probably had mixed feelings about it.
There’s a group, Clive Churchill in the middle with his tie flying. A group in the 1950s doing it with their gear on, which must have been a little bit harder, I’d say.
As I said, 1967 was the last time it was done. The famous ‘bowler hat’ tour when strange events took place in the streets of Ilkley. And then, from 1973, there wasn’t another Kangaroo tour for six years after that because the World Cup came in the middle of that.
It was dropped for reasons that have never been explained. I think, perhaps, the team leadership just didn’t want to do it. The team was led by Graham Langlands; such a great player and a great captain-coach. But, a very shy man; not demonstrative at all. I don’t think the war cry would have sat very comfortably with him and I have the feeling that he might have had something to do with it being left off the agenda for the future.
So, we’ve never seen it from that day. The words still exist about going to battle and fight, fight, fight; all sorts of things like that.
[Shows image] That’s just a very destructive shot of Ray Stehr, who had the distinction of being sent off in two out of three tests in 1936. The only time that has ever happened. But he also had the distinction one day of nicknaming the great Clive Churchill.
It was Ray Stehr on radio who said, famously, ‘I never saw the master play, but today, I have seen the little master’. That, of course, stuck forevermore with Clive. Certainly one of the greatest players any of us have ever seen.
[Shows image] These are wonderful pictures, organised by Geoff and the photographic team he had with him, which show how rugby league played on during the War. There are three of these pictures, quite amazing really.
This first one is at Hiroshima about 14 months after the dropping of the atomic bomb. It’s Australian soldiers from the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, crew members of the HMS Shropshire, playing on a cleared field in Hiroshima, 6 August 1946. Really a remarkable photo and I’m sure you’d agree, I know if you could switch the clock back, you wouldn’t want to be playing there. That’s for sure, with what we know about the nuclear world. You wouldn’t want to be there.
[Shows image] This is Armistice Day, 1943, Papua, New Guinea; probably Port Moresby. And there is a 1937-38 Kangaroo, Charlie Hazelton. I think, that’s Charlie behind the cup; Geoff is it not?
GEOFF ARMSTRONG: No, he’s the one with the shirt off.
IAN HEADS: On the left, that’s right, with the shirt off, looking onto the field. The match was described as the final of the New Guinea rugby league football competition between a field ambulance team and the Hazelton-led artillery side.
[Shows image] Then, the third in that triad of photos; this one takes us to Syria; Tripoli in Syria, March 1942. A really boggy field there. The game being played in teeming rain on a quagmire between the 2nd Thirteenth Field Company and the Royal Australian Engineers.
There is a familiar face there you’ll recognise, John Raper. He was in great form the other night. He became a life member of the Sydney Cricket Ground, which meant a lot to him.
I’ll tell a quick story. The badge, marvellous honour. It puts him with [Donald] Bradman and [Richie] Benaud and so many famous people. But it gives him carte blanche to the Sydney Cricket Ground. Chook had it in his mind, he talked about he’d spent a lot of time in the bar downstairs, which he certainly had. It was his belief that it probably meant free beer. You actually get free beer.
So during the evening of the test match, he actually went down and tried it out and was severely rebuffed. ‘We appreciate that you have that, but sir, you have to pay for your beer’.
I’ll tell a quick story about John. He’s such a character and he shines rugby league. He loves to play. He’d still be playing if he could. My favourite story with him is the day he took his very understanding wife, Carol, back to England to relive the Kangaroo tours that he’d been on. He wanted to take her to the Troutback Hotel in Ilkley, where the team, a few teams stayed there in fact back in 1963, just to show her what it was like.
They arrived at this grand Yorkshire pile on the corner and it was now a nursing home. So - he’s pretty good on the chat - so he went in and spoke to them at the front desk and said, ‘I’d like to stay here’.
They were a little perplexed, but said, ‘By all means, have a look through’. So John took Carol through and showed her various rooms. ‘This is where Billy Smith brought the sheep up here. This is the room that So-and-so axed down the door’. And all that stuff.
But it was great. So, he said good-by to the staff. They had spent an hour or so. They headed off down the driveway and there on the next corner was a big sign, ‘Troutback Hotel’.
He’d been in the wrong place. It’s a very John Raper story. [Shows image] That’s the Great Chang, the ultimate Warrior, obviously. Great controversy about him missing the team of the century in the top 13. He made the 17, he was always going to make that. One of those impossible choices - how do you leave him out? I don’t know.
It must have been a terribly close vote. We are never going to know because the 28 or 30 of us all voted independently. We don’t know the answer to that. The votes may be released one day. I suppose his omission from the team was probably the biggest shock of the lot. I’m sure you’d all agree, those who saw him play, what a fabulous player he was. We’ve probably never seen a side-step like it.
[Shows image] That’s John Brass; sort of that link between the rugby union; one of those players who crossed over very successfully and had great success really.
There is just something I heard the other day that I didn’t know. You learn little bits as you go along. He was the victim of a bomb threat before the grand final of 1975. John, quite wittily tells the story about when the team ran out onto the field, how he suddenly noticed there was a lot of space around him.
It was a death threat. I’m sorry. It was a death threat so there was a lot of space around him. He figured that the other players might have been a bit worried that the threatener might have been a bad shot. So they gave him a wide berth.
Ron told me something the other night that I never knew; that the photograph for that match was not done in the traditional way because of the threat to Brass. They were photographed in some enclosed space, probably the dressing room. I’m not quite sure and I haven’t had a chance to look at the photo to check that. But he was a very good player, John Brass -lovely hands.
[Shows image] These are three famous identities, if I could put it that way. John Kurl, remarkably sober there, I have got to say. The grand final of 1975. Arthur Beetson, such a great player, Arthur. He has missed a couple big events lately, which is a bit sad. He is a wonderful player. He is just a little impulsive at times.
It was a shame not to see him at the Team of the Century dinner. In the background, Kevin Humphrey is such a strong leader in the game who was brought down perhaps by his own problems. But he led the game strongly for 10 years and now sadly is doing it very tough. He had a bad stroke recently and he is certainly not well.
I was just going to tell you two quick stories. You can hook me off, Guy, if you want to. [Shows image] That is a photo I am not quite sure when or where it was. There are some identifiable people in it obviously. That is Ron Willey in the middle of the background, Ken McAffrey next to him and Harry Wells in the front row.
And I will just concentrate on McAffrey and Wells. With the death of Jack Gibson, I thought again of this photo because of Ken McAffrey, a terrific player and a terrific league bloke. He represents a link with a great coach of the past, with Duncan Thompson, who was the inspirational coach at Toowoomba days. And Ken played up there and created this contract football, which was a very exciting brand of football. Everybody had a responsibility to get the ball to a man in a better position.
Duncan Thompson was certainly one of the most influential coaches in history. I don’t know where he ran in that Coach of the Century thing, but he could well have been second to Jack Gibson. The lovely thing is that, blokes like Ken McAffrey and Wayne Bennett, today, Wayne Bennett is steeped in the Duncan Thompson story and philosophy too, that those things are carried on. I think that is very important.
Harry Wells, a wonderful bloke, and he was a great centre obviously. One of my full time favourite stores about rugby league involves Harry. Harry is a very genial, lovely fellow. And if any of you have met him you will know that. He had a couple great interests in life. He loved his football certainly, but he loved birds more. He has been a big bird collector over the years and he is always had aviaries, and still has them in fact. Parrots were his particular fancy I have got to say.
He told a story one day about a match down somewhere in this region. He may have played at Crookwell or somewhere. I am not quite sure. I am not able to track down the exact details.
AUDIENCE: It was at Young.
IAN HEADS: Young, was it? OK. Good. But, anyway, it was a grand final, the match. Apparently Harry was towards the end of his career, but he was still playing in the centre that day. And in a very tight game his team was behind near the end, and the ball came out along the line, and Harry made a half break, as he could; a really strong powerful centre. He passed to the winger and the winger shot off down to the touchline with a great roar from the crowd.
But at the moment he passed the ball, Harry heard a noise overhead. And he stopped on the half line and looked up, and there is a flock of Gang Gang cockatoos flying over the ground. So, anyway, the play carries on and the winger keeps going; flurry of action in the corner and the winger scores the try.
It is the winning try as it turned out. Great excitement. The crowd is up in the air as you can imagine. They were looking for Harry to congratulate him and they turn back and there is Harry on the halfway line looking at these beloved Gang Gang cockatoos.
He did love birds. He said once, ‘I love my football, but I think I love birds more’. And more just very quickly on that. Norm Provan tells a great story about Harry too, about when the state team used to go to Brisbane, Harry would fly.
Those are the days they would start to fly up. Harry would inevitably go to the Brisbane market the day before the match. And he would inevitably purchase some cockatoos or parrots or galahs or something. So, he would now have these birds that he would have to bring back to Sydney on the plane, which is not the easiest thing to do.
So, anyway, they used to smuggle the birds on to the plane and they would have to be tucked under the seat. The players were under instruction, if and when the birds started to squawk, the players had to kick up a fuss or start singing, or make a racket as a distraction so Harry could get his birds home.
So, that’s Harry Wells, a lovely, genial, great rugby league man, Harry. [Shows image] That’s of course Noel ‘Ned’ Kelly, one of the great characters of the game. Now the hooker of the century. As Jeff said, that was a controversial selection, but Ned would not have let anybody down.
He’s the only front rower to go on three Kangaroo tours. Terrific player, but a bigger personality probably. Invented the philosophy of football which comes under the heading, retaliate first.
That was always Ned’s policy, and he was sent off, I think, 18 times. Although he always argues strenuously that quite a few of them were for technical scrum breaches. He was in the hands of Darcy Lawler and people like that. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and Ron Koertut. The function at which they announced the 100 players of the century recently at Kirribilli. I probably made a mistake, actually, but I asked Noel about how he’d go in scrums now, what he thought about the game.
So, he gets a bit stirred up about this. He’s not too happy with the trends in the modern game. I’m going to use the phrase as he used, so excuse me if I do. So, he finally got steamed up to the point, he was at sort of white heat about this.
He’s not happy with a lot of things, with the forwards and the weak scrums and that sort of thing. And he paused and he took a breath and he said, ‘You know what the scrums are these days?’ He said, ‘They’re a poofter’s paradise!’
And it brought the house down. It was quite a distinguished crowd. That was just Noel saying what he thought, and he always did that.
[Shows image] I will finish with these two images, because they’re about - what a lot of people are talking about now in the game is what Noel Kelly was talking about - about aspects of the modern game.
And it’s probably always been a situation where players of particular generations have thought it was better back then. But, there’s quite a lot of it now, and I think, Sean and I have been doing some work on a film that’s upcoming. That generation of players - I think it’s fair to say unanimously - they’ve all got reservations about the scrums and various other things that are interfering with the scrums.
[Shows image] That’s Laurie Spooner sort of semi-fading. Laurie Spooner and Greg Alexander a few years ago. The other aspect that often comes up in discussion is that the game at times can be too formulaic - that some teams with these 10 yards, easy 10, get the 10, get the 10. Then kick, get the space, and eventually put the kick up. Then, a lot of tries are scored by that, by the ball in the air.
Competition for the ball is gone from the scrum, gone from the play of the ball. The competition in the air is about the only true competition for the ball. And a lot of tries are scored that way now. It’s the evolution of the game. It’s just what we have.
I think Sean would agree, it’s been a very interesting exercise, that to a man almost, the players of that era - and we’re talking about some of the great players - have got reservations.
And maybe it’s time the League - this year would have been a good year to do it - had some sort of a really high level meeting to just step back from it a bit and say, ‘Look. Have we got it right? Are there things we could do to make it better?’
Anyway, I’ll leave that thought with you. And again, thanks very much for your interest, and thanks for coming along today. Cheers.
GUY HANSEN: I’d like to thank you very much for coming along today and being involved in this little of celebration of rugby league history. It’s been a wonderful exhibition at the Museum. We’re really happy with it. Next stop is Brisbane, The Queensland Museum. We’ll be up there for the State of Origin.
We’re then coming down for the finals at the Powerhouse Museum and the World Cup. It will be very interesting to see how the World Cup goes this year. And then we’re going to Townsville, and then on to Melbourne. So, League of Legends, the tour goes on. Thank you again, and thank you to our panellists.
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Date published: 13 October 2008