ONE OF THE VERY best sports books published in Australia in 2017 is Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, by Konrad Marshall. A senior writer with Fairfax Media and a devoted Richmond fan, Marshall attached himself to his favourite club for two seasons to produce a remarkable record of the Tigers’ path to grand final glory. The book is a publishing triumph for the Slattery Media Group — not because of the sales figures (which are strong), but because they took on the project long before Richmond emerged as a genuine premiership contender, and then had an exceptional book in shops not long after the flag was won.
It’s actually not difficult to get a book out quickly after a major event, but it is hard to do it well. Yellow & Black has been likened to The Coach, John Powers’ famous study of Ron Barassi and North Melbourne in 1977, and that is an apt comparison. It looks a bit like a mini Yellow Pages, and maybe it is a little too long, but it’s a fantastic story told with great passion and perception.
Sadly, in Sydney at least, it’s also very hard to find. Up here, there are plenty of copies of the autobiographies of recently retired players to be found, even though these books are pedestrian at best, while it took me ages to locate even one copy of Marshall’s outstanding work. Why? My guess is that back in the middle of the year, when upcoming Christmas books were being presented to the bookshops, the quality and excitement of Yellow & Black was a hard sell. Who’d have thought Richmond would win the comp?
Better to play safe with household names. The publishing industry decided a diary of a mid-table Victorian club’s season was too esoteric even for Swans and Giants fans. Similarly, the biographies of former VFL champions Phil Carmen and Roy Cazaly, both published mid-season in Melbourne, were deemed suitable only for aficionados in the southern states.
I’m really not sure why in the 21st century publishers have to ‘sell in’ books so early. The flavour of the month in May or June is often stale by November. It’s a crazy, antiquated system that in 2017 will lead to many AFL fans in NSW and Queensland receiving a book from Santa that they will never or hardly read, while a much better product remains, for them, unknown. Many people in professional sport and in publishing take the attitude that, with sports books at least, any book will do. I once had a high-profile player agent say to me, ‘Mate, it doesn’t matter what you write, we’ve already got the advance.’ The titles in the Christmas catalogues are not the best sports books of the year, but the ones for which the publishers have paid the biggest advances. Book buyers with little knowledge of sport need and want guidance, but they are not getting any — instead, as a reflex, they buy books for their husbands, fathers, sons and daughters with the name of a sporting celebrity on the cover, as if it’s a souvenir. They should be buying books by Konrad Marshall or, to use a rugby league example, by Ian Heads, because they are outstanding books that will actually be read; instead, they end up with a book that’s not much good, and the reputation of Australian sports publishing in the wider community drops another notch with every purchase.
I know from experience that it is very difficult to ghost a great book if the subject is not fully engaged. A few years ago, I was asked to write 70,000 words for a cricketer who gave me six hours of his time, including coffee breaks; I consider the end-result to be one of the better books I’ve worked on, because I made something out of nothing. Those who got it for Christmas probably thought it was rubbish. The best sporting autobiographies published in the UK in 2017 are streets ahead of what is being produced by Australia’s biggest stars — one sledge Jonny Bairstow might like to try with Steve Smith is, ‘My book’s a lot better than yours!’
The one exception to this trend in 2017 is Unbroken, Jelena Dokic’s story of her life so far, which from its simple yet striking front cover by photographer Simon Upton and designer Luke Causby to the final page is often brutal and harrowing, and always compelling. Dokic is not particularly likeable — her ghost Jessica Halloran has done an excellent job in presenting a complicated character in three dimensions — but that, in a way, is the point. Only a very stubborn and persistent individual could have survived let alone won on the tennis court as often as she did.
Not that Unbroken is the best Australian sporting autobiography of the year. That accolade, in my view, goes to Phil Jarratt’s Life of Brine: A Surfer’s Journey. The back cover describes Jarratt as ‘one of surfing’s foremost authorities [who has] worked in surf publishing and the surf industry for more than 40 years’ but as this rollicking and riveting book reveals, he is actually much more than that. Celebrity names jump off the page, but the yarn never gets too self-indulgent; the best paragraphs are the deeply personal ones. Like Steve Mascord, the author of Touchstones, Jarratt is originally from the Illawarra. Again like Mascord, Jarratt is obsessed, in his case with the perfect wave — finding it and writing about its magic and the men and women who are similarly entranced. As a seasoned journo who has reported on a wide variety of sports and cultures, I think Jarratt might get Mascord’s love of league and rock’n’roll. I’m sure they’d get each other.
Australian horse racing gave us two terrific books this year: Max Presnell’s Good Losers Die Broke and Tulloch: The Extraordinary Life and Times of a True Champion, by Ken Linnett. Presnell, a product of a bygone era in racing journalism, has written a genuine page-turner, though his book is more a collection of good racing yarns than a group-one memoir. Tulloch was one of Australia’s best thoroughbreds and perhaps our greatest ever three-year-old (yes, even better than Phar Lap), and at times his back-story is as fascinating as his wins were massive. Linnett handles all this in superb fashion; this is much more than just a collection of race commentaries. Just one gripe: whoever it was who decided to constantly put the metric equivalent in brackets after the imperial measurement — nine stone (57kg) … 3–1 ($4) … six furlongs (1200m) — please don’t do it again.
The Australian cricket books of 2017 are a mixed bunch. Austin Robertson’s Cricket Outlaws, which provides an insider’s account of World Series Cricket, looks and sometimes reads like a cousin of our very own Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, which means it’s pretty good. Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second is one of the weirdest books I’ve seen and read in a long time. A book that focuses on and features the work of the greatest of all cricket photographers, Patrick Eagar, it is small-format hardback printed on cheap stock, so the photos don’t jump out at you. That old line about a photograph being worth a thousand words is especially true with a genius such as Eagar, yet too often Ryan overwrites to the point that I had to re-read a sentence three or four times before I think I got the point. Yet for all the panache of the paragraphs, the author occasionally reduces champions such as Doug Walters to a cliché. Still, I read the book in one sitting and now that I’ve got through the pile of books all around me, I want to read it again.
The cricket book I enjoyed most this year was Chappell’s Last Stand, by Michael Sexton. Of course, I’m fifty-something now and I was fifteen then, but the cricket heroes of the ’70s seem so more rounded and interesting than the shrunken stars of today, and Sexton has done a mighty job searching out names such as Yagmich, Curtin and Prior to proudly stand next to Chappell, Mallett and Hookes. The book is flawed, with a cover photo of Ian Chappell wearing a baggy green and not a South Australian cap, no stats section, no photos and no index, which is why there is no cricket book in my top five for 2017.
Outside of Stoke Hill Press’s The Great Grand Final Heist by Ian Heads, the best rugby league book of the year is, as usual, David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual. The lack of a worthy rugby union book is another indication of the decline of a once fine sport. For golfers, I can recommend Matt Cleary’s A Short History of Golf, which often goes from very good to excellent even if it looks, to me, like it’s come straight out of a 1970s remainder bin. Fans of Olympic sports could try The Medal Maker by Roger Vaughan, a biography of the legendary sailing coach Victor Kovalenko.
Alternatively, they could turn to one of the more intriguing sports books of the year: Cold War Games, by Harry Blutstein, which recalls the ‘spies, subterfuge and secret operations of the 1956 Olympic Games’. The level of research in parts is quite remarkable, as Blutstein has trawled through sources from many countries, not all of them English-speaking, so he can give fresh perspective and fascinating insights on aspects of the Melbourne Games that we only thought we knew about. Like Chappell’s Last Stand, I really wanted to include this book in my top five books of the year, but unfortunately the descriptions of sport on the field are often laboured and simplistic, and some of the errors I recognised (all, of course, relating to Olympic records and athletic performances) eventually had me questioning the accuracy of everything.
Just one example: on page 206–207, Blutstein recalls the women’s 4x100m track relay, and how the German team, which competed as a ‘unified’ country, rather than as East and West, included West German Maria Sander-Domagala as a late replacement for her compatriot Erika Fisch. Blutstein describes Sander-Domagala as a ‘steeplechaser’, the implication being that she was a distance runner included as an act of sabotage by officials who did want the team to be made up of four East Germans. In fact, Sander-Domagala was a sprinter who won a silver medal in the relay, a bronze in the 80m hurdles and was fifth in the 100m final at the 1952 Olympics. When I saw ‘steeplechaser’, I wondered whether Blumstein’s lack of sporting understanding was letting him down, or was he gilding the lily?
I am always reticent to criticise books for factual errors, because I know — as hard as I try — that my books are not perfect. There is an element of pot-kettle-black about authors and publishers highlighting errors in other people’s work. One of Australian sport’s finest writers reviewed a book for The Weekend Australian in 2017, and in that review he complained about the book not having an index, a criticism that might have carried more weight if his acclaimed book from 2016 had included one. I remember how a cricket journal of some repute once featured a scathing book review, in which countless mistakes in a recently published book were highlighted. It might have been karma, fate or something similar that made for the first word in the first line after the review to be badly misspelt.
And then there was a Twitter exchange I saw during 2017 concerning Joe Gorman’s The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, when an online pundit tweeted indignantly: ‘Gorman's description of the Australia vs Uruguay match in Sydney in 1973 had them playing at the wrong stadium … if you know your football history, you know it was played at the SCG.’
Of course, if you know your football history, you’d know the game was played in 1974. It is true that the game was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground and not the Sydney Sports Ground as Gorman states, but I can certainly live with that error because over the course of 372 pages Gorman’s work is important and magnificent. This is not just a book about soccer, though there is plenty of that, but also about our country’s uneasy relationship with multiculturalism. Early on, Gorman leans heavily on the contribution of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian refugee who settled in Australia after the second Great War and rarely stopped writing and dreaming about what soccer in his adopted country could be. The game’s good times and bad in the ’80s and ’90s, many of which I sort of knew about, are recalled with verve and clarity, as is the evolution of the national competition as it morphed into the A-League. How Gorman retains his optimism is, frankly, beyond me, but it’s a huge credit to him that he does so. This is not Australian soccer’s obituary but an incisive spotlight showing where it needs to go.
In my view, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer is the Australian sports book of 2017, ahead of Yellow & Black, Life of Brine, Tulloch and Unbreakable.
I read several outstanding books from overseas in 2017. The pick of them was How to Build a Car by Adrian Newey, one of the pre-eminent car designers in the history of Formula One. Like many, I’m sure, I went straight to the pages relating to the death of Ayrton Senna, which are written so adroitly and honestly that I quickly decided to start at the beginning. From that point, like Newey’s cars, I never stopped.
In most other years, I would have made Anquetil, Alone, by Paul Fournel — which was originally published in France in 2012 but was translated into English this year — my No. 1 overseas book. It’s a book like no other, eccentric, revealing and very clever, a book about hero worship almost as much as its hero, Jacques Anquetil, the five-time Tour de France winner. I also really enjoyed two high-quality football biographies: Andrew Downie’s Doctor Sócrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend and Ian Herbert’s Quite Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager. The ‘surprise packet’ was Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth, which explains how women in early 20th-century England had to fight for the right to swim in public places. I confess: I bought it for my wife and daughter. Then I began reading, just to see what it was about, and was entranced.
The best book from America was Jonathan Eig’s colossal study of Muhammad Ali, which adds much to the Ali story even though there have been countless biographies and profiles produced since the legendary fighter first emerged in the late ’50s. The book has a sensational cover, my favourite of 2017, but Eig’s biggest triumph is that he paints Ali as an imperfect character, yet still heroic. The goal is not to cut the legend down, but to humanise him.
I also relished and often argued with Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook, an analysis of who is and isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is surprisingly readable and deliberately provocative. I just wish that baseball’s stats gurus weren’t so smug.
There are many ways to measure greatness, not just numbers, but the ‘sabermetricians’, as baseball geeks like to call themselves, seem to think their numbers and acronyms matter so much more than traditional measuring sticks. In truth, sporting stats are like publishing sales figures — they help determine successes and failures, but they don’t always prove who or what is the best in the field.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2017
Joe Gorman: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer; University of Queensland Press
Konrad Marshall: Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond; Slattery Media Group
Phil Jarratt: Life of Brine: A Surfer’s Journey; Hardie Grant Books
Ken Linnett: Tulloch: The Extraordinary Life and Times of a True Champion; Slattery Media Group
Jelena Dokic (with Jessica Halloran): Unbreakable; Ebury Press (Penguin Random House)
IN EARLY 1953, RICHIE BENAUD was a 22-year-old all-rounder who had just been selected for his first Ashes tour. My grandfather, Francis Edwin Armstrong, who earned a Military Cross at Bellicourt during World War I, was the president of the Parramatta RSL in western Sydney. These two great men came together at a function that preceded the tour; I have used that meeting to introduce a profile of Richie, which is published here to coincide with the 59th anniversary of Richie’s first Test as Australian captain.
On December 5–10, 1958, five-and-a-half years after Richie and my grandfather met at Parramatta RSL, Australia and England met at the Gabba in the first Test of a series that would produce one of the most stunning results in Ashes history. England had won the previous three series and went into the opening Test of 1958–59 as strong favourites, but this Australian team — featuring names such as Harvey, Davidson, Grout, McDonald, Meckiff, Burke and O’Neill — was a much more dynamic combination than those of the recent past.
None captured this new vibrancy more than Richie Benaud, who began his reign as Australian skipper by dismissing seven English batsmen as the home team won by eight wickets. It was the first of four Aussie Test wins for the summer. One of cricket history’s greatest captaincy careers had begun in devastating style …
ON THE EVE OF the Australian cricket team’s tour of England in 1953, a function was held at the Parramatta RSL to honour Richie Benaud, who at age 22 had been chosen for his first Ashes tour.
Richie was the first cricketer from Parramatta to play for Australia. The Cumberland (now Parramatta) grade club had previously provided three Test players — Gerry Hazlitt, Frank Iredale and Bill Howell — but they had learned their cricket elsewhere before joining the club as established cricketers. It is impossible to underestimate the pride the district felt in 1953 for their new hero.
‘Richie,’ said Ted Armstrong, the president of the Parramatta RSL, during one of a series of speeches and presentations, ‘you are the first local boy to gain the honour of an English tour. I hope you never lose the common touch.’
As a youth, Richie was regarded as a prodigy. One day at Parramatta High School in the early 1940s, the sports master told an assembly that Richie would not only play Test cricket for Australia, he’d probably be captain. Richie was promoted to first-grade at Cumberland in 1946, not long after his 16th birthday, and played with his father Lou, a highly respected leg-spinner and local school teacher who was his son’s inspiration. Many stories are told of Lou and Richie getting to practice early to work together, and of the pair spending hours on the makeshift pitch in the backyard of their North Parramatta home. By the time of his Test debut, at age 21, Richie had been compared to all of Arthur Morris, Archie Jackson, Keith Miller and Warwick Armstrong. In 1947, a Sydney Morning Herald sports columnist had described him as ‘the most promising youngster since Bradman’.
Yet the reality was, as Richie knew, he had much to do if he was to fulfil his undoubted promise. A pivotal moment came on that first Ashes tour, when the great Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly agreed to have dinner with him. ‘What,’ Richie asked, ‘do I have to do to become a Test-class bowler?’
In essence, Tiger replied, you need a stock delivery on which you can rely. To this point, Richie had been a disciple of his father’s belief that a leg-spinner’s key weapon was variety. Keep the batsmen guessing. No two balls in an over should be the same. This new advice went against that strategy, but Richie had a good sense to listen to the master and Lou Benaud had a good sense to let his son go. Tiger warned Richie that it would take four years of hard work and dedication if he wanted his dreams to come true; Richie took this advice to heart.
Many of his famous team-mates have spoken almost in awe of his prodigious work ethic. Wally Grout wrote: ‘Richie earned this success with his sweat. He was the most enthusiastic and diligent member of the team, the first to practice and the last to leave.’ Bob Simpson remembers Richie bowling in the practice nets on the tour of South Africa in 1957–58, working with a schoolboy who would watch while Richie tried to land a dozen balls on a handkerchief positioned on a good length. Then the schoolboy would retrieve the balls and Richie would bowl them again. This went on for hours, day after day.
Landing a leg-break on a length became a habit he couldn’t break. In 1977, the great Fred Trueman recalled a charity game from 1975 when Richie was enlisted at short notice. ‘He hadn’t bowled a leg-spinner in anger since goodness-knows-when,’ Trueman said. ‘But in his first over he “dropped” all six right on the mark, and spun ’em too.’
By the end of his Test career, Richie’s economy rate as a bowler was 2.10 runs per over (calculated on all overs being of six balls). Of all wrist-spinners with 75 or more Test wickets, only one man has a superior economy rate: Bill O’Reilly (1.95 runs per over).
A little like Steve Waugh 30 years later, Richie stayed in the Australian Test team between 1952 and 1956 largely on potential. When he left England in 1956 after what for Australia had been a disappointing tour, his Test record read: 23 Tests; 755 runs at 20.97; 49 wickets at 34.44. To a degree, he had been a victim of circumstances, forced as a bowler to wait his turn behind the veterans from Bradman’s famous 1948 side: Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Bill Johnston, Doug Ring and Ian Johnson. A watershed came in India on the way home from England in 1956, when Richie found himself bowling first change during the opening morning of the first Test at Madras. He took 7-72, and then 6-52 and 5-53 in the third Test at Calcutta, giving him 23 wickets at 16.87 for the three-match series.
The real turnaround — for Richie and his great mate Alan Davidson — came on that ’57–58 tour of South Africa. The Australians were now a young team, led by 22-year-old Ian Craig. With the Invincibles all departed, Richie was suddenly a senior player and he responded with one of the finest all-round performances ever achieved in a Test series. He took five wickets in an innings in four straight Tests. In the fourth Test at Johannesburg, with Australia leading 1–0 in the series, he hit 100 batting four and took 4–70 (coming on second change) and 5–84 (first change) to inspire a 10-wicket victory. For the series, he took 30 wickets at 21.93 and scored 329 runs at 54.83 with two centuries.
After Ian Craig was struck down by hepatitis, Richie became Australian captain and first up he stunned England in 1958–59 by leading his men to a 4–0 triumph, taking 31 wickets in the process. In eight trying Tests in Pakistan and India in 1959–60, he took 47 more as Australia won both series. Then came his massive contribution to the clash with Frank Worrell’s West Indians in 1960-61, when the two skippers resolved to show that entertaining and hard-nosed cricket could be mutually conducive. Richie took 23 wickets in the five Tests, but most important for cricket history was his decision to go for the win when Australia needed 123 with four wickets in hand at tea on the last day at the Gabba. He and Davo had the batting skill to almost get Australia home, and then came the last-over drama that ended in Test cricket’s first tie.
Richie’s second famous performance in nine months came on the last day of the fourth Test at Manchester, the Test that decided the 1961 Ashes series, when he went around the wicket to aim at the rough outside the right-handers’ pads, and took 5-12 in 25 balls to win a game most thought lost. It was after this triumph that some people said he was a ‘lucky’ captain. The truth was that he had the courage to back his players, and himself, which sometimes turned around games, even series. He himself said that successful captaincy was 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill, ‘but don’t try it without that 10 per cent’. He never lost a Test series as captain.
Richie retired in 1964 with 248 Test wickets, 2201 Test runs and 65 catches from 63 appearances. He would remain the only man to complete the 200 wickets/2000 runs/50 catches treble in Tests until Garry Sobers joined him in 1971. Most remarkably, his days as a highly influential figure in world cricket had only just begun.
Richie’s first job outside of cricket had been as a 16-year-old clerk in a chartered accountant’s office. In 1950, he took a job in the accounts department at The Sun newspaper, where he stayed six years until he approached Lindsay Clinch, the paper’s editor, about a transfer to editorial. He was offered the chance to write a sports column, but declined, saying he wanted to work on news and police rounds. This led to him working under Noel Bailey, The Sun’s legendary crime reporter. ‘The finest training of all was to trail on the coat-tails of Noel Bailey,’ Richie would say years later. ‘It was wonderful to see and hear him in action.’
Richie would go on to write for a number of newspapers across the world, most notably the News of the World in Britain and The Sun in Australia. His words would be syndicated across the cricket world. He was also a columnist for numerous magazines, wrote 10 books, and contributed to or edited many more.
His career as a broadcaster had its origins in a decision he made before the Australians left for the subcontinent in 1956. Instead of touring around the UK or Europe, Richie opted to participate in a BBC television training course in London. During that Ashes summer he had been intrigued by the work of now-celebrated TV commentators such as Henry Longhurst (golf), Dan Maskell (tennis) and Peter O’Sullevan (horse racing), and while that course didn’t immediately lead to a career in this new media, it did provide a launching pad for all that followed. ‘Many are called and surprisingly many are given the opportunity behind the microphone,’ the famous sportswriter Ian Wooldridge observed in 2005. ‘Very few have served the slogging apprenticeship that makes a master cricket commentator.’
Richie dabbled in radio commentary in 1960, when he spent the Australian winter in England, working predominantly as a journalist and sub-editor, and playing a little cricket, including a series of televised one-day matches. His first TV commentary experience came in England in 1963. He would work with the BBC (1963–1997) and Channel 4 (1999–2005) in the UK, while in Australia he did some stints with Seven and then Ten when those commercial channels briefly covered Test cricket, before joining the Nine Network for World Series Cricket in 1977.
He became a cricket constant during Australian and English summers, a hugely respected and admired figure. He never lived in the past and always preferred to praise rather than criticise. His involvement as a consultant and commentator in WSC, controversial at the time, added to his reputation. A players’ rights man from first to last, Richie backed Kerry Packer’s cricket revolution because he truly believed in it. The credibility his support gave the new venture was priceless.
In return, Nine gave Richie a literal lifetime contract. ‘We never had a cross word,’ remembered James Packer on Richie’s death in April 2015. ‘His word was his bond.’
‘He never quibbled about money or asked for pay rises,’ recalled Nine’s current CEO David Gyngell. ‘He had no manager and arranged his own business. Agreements were reached on a simple handshake.’
Richie was an exceptional cricketer, a great captain and the greatest commentator. He mixed with the sporting and media elite, and with royalty and prime ministers. For 40 years, he and Daphne lived in summer all year long, at Coogee, in London and from 1992 in the south of France. He was positively and profitably mimicked by satirists and supporters, and like Dawn, Betty and The Don, his first name brought instant recognition. Yet, for all this, he still managed — as Ted Armstrong asked of him at Parramatta RSL in 1953, to retain the ‘common touch’.
The result is that the adjective that best captures Richie Benaud and the impact he had on people over more than 60 years goes beyond his cricket and his commentary, as brilliant as they undoubtedly were. For everyone — family, friends and fans — he was ‘much-loved’. We will never see his like again.
‘WE CAN’T BE SURE what causes these things,’ Bob Honan says. ‘But the evidence is mounting.’
Honan, a rugby league star for South Sydney and Australia in the late 1960s and early ’70s, is talking about the likelihood of a link between collision sports, concussions and subsequent, serious health problems, including dementia. It is an issue that has become almost perennial in most football codes, highlighted this week by the cases of Corey Oates, the Brisbane winger who was brutally knocked out in a game but was then cleared to play the following week, and Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL star who was convicted of murder in 2013. Hernandez suicided in jail; it is now being claimed that he was fighting a severe case of the brain disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
The matter is analysed in some detail in The Great Grand Final Heist, Ian Heads’ story of the 1969 rugby league grand final. In the book, Carol Provan remembers her late husband Peter, Balmain’s winning captain in ’69. Peter Provan died in 2010 …
‘The game was tense until Syd Williams scored. Peter threw the second-last pass before Terry Parker put Syd over, and after he had passed it, John Sattler caught Peter with a stiff-arm tackle, high and late. Peter was left unconscious, but recovered; back in those days players just carried on.
‘It was serious, though. He dulled the pain with some after-match celebrating, and they told me to keep an eye on him. So I stayed up through the night watching over him, just to make sure he was all right.
‘After the long night, I had to take Peter to the doctor next day to get the fluid drained from his ear. He ended up with a “cauliflower” from that tackle. But he had won a premiership, and placed alongside Norm’s record I think it is the only time two brothers have been captain of premiership winning sides, and for different clubs.
‘Peter spent the last four years of his life in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, and died in 2010. The Balmain boys remained close through that time. Every reunion day, they would travel to the nursing home, just to be with him. Peter was a much-respected captain.
‘The football was very tough back then. Getting knocked out was not exactly rare, and concussion was not treated with the caution it is today. I don’t know how that all affected Peter … but you wonder.’
IN THIS EXTRACT FROM The Great Grand Final Heist, Heads focuses on the cases of two of the stars of ’69: Souths' Gary Stevens (pictured at the top of this story, being tackled by Balmain's Arthur Beetson during the 1969 major semi-final) and Balmain’s Keith Outten …
FOR THE SAKE OF this story, it would be a fairytale ending to report that all the remaining Boys of Winter 1969 are ‘goin’ strong’, as Jack Gibson might have put it. But that would not be the truth of it. At a time when the media, and the game itself, are intensely and rightly focused on head knocks and the damage done, the fact is a number of players from both sides are wearing the badge of having been involved at a high level in what has been fairly called ‘the toughest of all ball games’ … and having played it at a time when fists and elbows and stiff-arm tackles flew with weekly certainty. Some have paid a very high price.
A duty-of-care now sits squarely on the shoulders of the clubs that employ footballers; and it is a responsibility shared by those who run the game. Fortunately, the NRL and club medicos around rugby league are addressing this ongoing challenge with the utmost seriousness. At the elite level, all the major football codes in Australia have made significant changes to their protocols in line with the consensus reached at a major international conference on head injuries, held in Zurich in 2012. At the same time, the players of past eras wake almost daily to news of famous players from their time who are ‘doing it tough’ because of health problems that might be linked to their days in football.
Bob Honan, the quick-stepping, elusive Souths and Australian centre of the late ’60s and early ’70s, holds painful memories of 1969:
‘I believe the events of the semi-final against Balmain played a bigger part in our defeat [in the grand final] than a lot of people thought. I, for one, was still suffering the effects of a concussion from a head-hit that Artie Beetson gave me. For the rest of that game, I didn’t even know where I was and a week later I still wasn’t 100 per cent.
‘I shouldn’t have played that grand final. Artie flattened me with a high tackle just before halftime, and when I got to the dressing-room I was out of it. I remember asking Mike Cleary where I was. He said, “Mate, we were in Central Park having a jog, and you ran into a tree.”
‘I genuinely didn’t know what was happening. With two weeks to the grand final, I was pretty thoroughly checked out, scans and all. Almost unanimously, I was told I shouldn’t play. But it was my decision, and in those days you were considered a bit soft if you let something like concussion stop you. So I played, and while I felt I did all right, I probably wasn’t at my best.’
The Men of League Foundation was founded in 2002 to support members of the rugby league community who have fallen on hard times. Today, it boasts more than 26,000 members and provides tangible support to players, coaches, referees, officials and administrators from all levels of the game and from the broader rugby league community. As Bob Honan acknowledges, the work of Men of League has played a part in highlighting the problems of many former players:
‘The issue of playing in such circumstances is more relevant among my peers today than it was back then. Working these days with Men of League, we are running into many old players who have dementia. It is the same in the United States, where traumatic concussion syndrome has been blamed for a lot of problems and some deaths among former American footballers. There is a lot of litigation going on there as a result.’
Honan laments the days when less was known about head injuries and concussion, and consequently players were not protected as they should have been. He urges more action from League headquarters on the issue, telling of a prominent footballer who played more than 150 first-grade games and is now suffering traumatic concussion syndrome. He is 46. ‘We can’t be sure what causes these things,’ Honan says. ‘But the evidence is mounting.’ Sometimes he despairs, and wonders if litigation is the only way to get some attention.
Some of the tales told publicly of players from the past who are now struggling to varying degrees involve famous and popular footballers — names such as Graeme Langlands, Ian Roberts and Mario Fenech. There are plenty of others. In a television interview in 2017, former Test prop Roberts revealed he was suffering from brain damage and estimated that on average during his playing career he copped a heavy knock every two weeks. Roberts declared he had been knocked out six times during his career and talked of the ‘wet sponge treatment’ and a ‘dab on the face’ for head injuries suffered during the games of his era.
Apart from the prominent players who have spoken out about their post-football problems, those close to the game know today of a shadowy accompanying list that includes a significant number of men, and some of them near famous, too, who are suffering health issues that are most likely, though not always certainly, linked to rugby league careers dating back years. In some cases, no doubt, other age-related factors are at play. But too often, when discussing the frailties of old footballers, past concussions are mentioned. The lessons of the American football experience are relevant here, too, illuminated as they have been in some superbly researched stories, documentaries and the 2015 film Concussion.
‘We were like boxers in those days,’ says Syd Williams, the man who scored the only try of the ’69 grand final. ‘You would cop a very heavy head knock and you’d just go straight back on. There were none of the precautions of today about things like concussion, and there were plenty of high tackles. I am sure a lot of people are suffering today because of all that.’
THERE IS NO INTENTION in this chapter marking fulltime in the story of The Great Grand Final Heist to provide a clinical profile of those players from the Balmain and Souths ‘Class of ’69’ who are waging health battles. Suffice to say that some are struggling, and that at times in the making of this book, Norm Tasker and I were politely advised that it was ‘probably not worthwhile’ troubling this player or that because of their poor health or memory problems. We found the terms ‘early dementia’ and ‘memory loss’ cropping up too often, and heard sad stories of once outstanding athletes leading diminished lives, living in small rooms at the backs of houses, their lives and physical health a shadow of what once had been.
The examples of two admirable players from 1969 — Souths’ Gary Stevens and Balmain’s Keith Outten — capture the problems of a few more. Gary sat on the Souths bench on grand final day, while Chicka kept an extremely close eye on Denis Pittard.
Their specialty was bruising defence.
The Stevens story, while sad, inspires because of his stoicism, his attitude that ‘this thing’ will not beat him. On a dedicated and rigorous daily fitness program of long walks allied with workouts in his home gym, Gary, with strong family support, makes his life as good as it can be. At age 73, he looks good, weighing in today at 74kg, the same mark as when he was playing. ‘I’m all right,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’m still getting up every morning! And I’m not in any pain. It’s just my short-term memory. Ask me what I did five minutes ago and I couldn’t tell you.’
Gary has football memories that have stayed the course, and in his genial way he shares them. His sense of humour remains and he chuckles as he recounts of ’69, ‘We beat Balmain twice that year and I was in the team both times. The big one I missed was the grand final — and we got beaten!’
Stevens was a man who played a hard game very hard, notably through his high-impact power-tackling delivered via a brilliantly effective technique. He was a devastating fronton tackler for Souths, Canterbury, New South Wales and Australia, but today he is paying a price that is too high. At the epicentre of his story is a terrible blow he took from the giant Welsh forward Jim Mills during the second Ashes Test of 1974 at the SCG, a blow which poleaxed him. His older brother Wayne paints a graphic image: ‘It was a bad one. When they picked him up that day, he had swallowed his tongue, and it was black.’ Gary Stevens, of course, continued playing in the match. It was the way with football then.
Hooker and champion goalkicker John Gray, playing for Britain that afternoon, remembers the moment: ‘Jim Mills gave Stevens a helluva clout. He was gaga … absolutely shot.’ Referee Keith Page allowed the tackle to go without caution. In the Sun-Herald the next day, former Test referee Col Pearce wrote, ‘Australian second-rower Gary Stevens was knocked cold early in the match and never quite seemed to be his normal self.’
The Mills tackle lit the fuse for a monumental blow-up between the packs. Gray remembers, ‘The scrum formed, we were five metres apart and then we came together in a tremendous collision.’ It was, Gray reflects, ‘a massively tough game’. Stevens would play for Souths the following day and in the deciding Test a fortnight after his clash with Mills. Years later, he was diagnosed with a shadow on his frontal lobe.
Wayne Stevens’ view is that the source of his brother’s health problems is not one hit, but the cumulative effect of the way Gary played rugby league and the fact that he was playing a game that is, by its nature, explosive. He adds the thought, ‘It seems to be the forwards who have the problems now, the blokes who were around the “hard stuff”.’ On his brother, and his fight to stay on top of things, Wayne says, ‘I think he’d still play for them [Souths] today!’
Balmain’s livewire fullback of 1969, Bob Smithies, retains some hard memories of the way football was ‘back then’:
‘I remember Mick Alchin trying to knock my head off in the first trial that season, and Bill Noonan doing the same to Artie Beetson. I spent a week in hospital around that time after getting knocked out. They thought I had fractured my skull. I can’t remember the game or the tackle. The thing I do remember is Kevin Humphreys bringing me a lobster mornay lunch in hospital.
‘One of the worst I recall was a match at the Sports Ground against North Sydney, when Davey Bolton was badly knocked out. His nose was broken, and he needed about 15 stitches in his mouth as well. It happened too much to Davey and he is struggling today. It was par for the course then. It happened all the time.’
It happened to Chicka Outten. In a newspaper interview in 2012, Chicka reflected on the fierceness of his battles with Souths’ Denis Pittard, saying, ‘Pittard and I would go at each other. He’d try to rip my head off, then I’d try to do the same to him.’ Chicka won that battle on grand final day, and became a Tigers hero. Sadly for a man who was once adept at sharing stories, he is now struggling with encroaching dementia and memory loss, but the care he receives from good men such as his one-time clubmate Peter Duffy smooths the path for him. Duffy, a Balmain halfback from 1973 to 1980, is such a Tigers loyalist and tireless worker for the club that the great Balmain second-rower Paul Sironen says of him, ‘Duff loves the Tigers so much he bleeds black and gold when he nicks himself shaving.’ Duffy unveils a tale his good mate once told him about an onfield exchange that occurred just before kickoff in the ’69 grand final, when Chicka threw out a challenge to Souths’ feared iron men, John Sattler and John O’Neill.
‘Don’t run away from me,’ Chicka said. ‘Run at me. You won’t get through!’
It’s a story that says a lot about the spirit and toughness of Keith Outten, and it magnifies the sadness around the state of his health today. For his birthday in 2016, Duffy organised for a group of old football mates to take him out. ‘In five hours, Chicka didn’t speak more than a couple of words,’ he says. ‘But he seemed happy.’
At a gathering in 2009 during the NRL’s Heritage Week, 40 years on from the Balmain premiership win, Chicka was in good enough form to handle a few media questions, and recall his army experience in the 1960s, saying, ‘I never got to fire a gun the whole time I was in nashos, nor did I see any action in Vietnam.’ Instead, he was a driver stationed at the School of Artillery at Sydney’s North Head, and kept fit by playing rugby union. He ended up playing eight years of first grade in the Sydney premiership — five for Balmain (1968–1971, 1975) and three for Norths (1972–1974) — before heading to the bush, coaching at Dubbo CYMS and Yanco-Wamoon in the Riverina. He finally hung up his boots after captaining Yanco-Wamoon to the Group 20 premiership in 1979. Another member of that side, a young front-row tearaway named Kerry Hemsley, moved to Balmain in 1980 on Chicka’s recommendation and stayed at Leichhardt for nearly a decade, appearing in the 1988 grand final.
KEITH PAGE WAS THE referee in charge of the 1969 grand final, the first of three grand finals he would control between 1969 and 1973. A controversial figure, Page’s career is profiled in depth by author Ian Heads in The Great Grand Final Heist.
‘In my experience as a league journalist, I found Page a difficult man to pin down,’ Heads writes. ‘I can recall only occasional brief exchanges with him at the door of the match officials’ dressing-room.’
During his research for the book, Heads found one rare insight into Page’s makeup: a story by Frank Goss that appeared in the November 1970 issue of Rugby League World. ‘Page weighs his words carefully before he says anything,’ Goss told his readers. ‘[He is] a fairly quiet, even introspective man
At one point, Goss reminded Page that critics had branded him as ‘everything from short-tempered to arrogant’. ‘I’m determined,’ the referee replied. ‘If I had to sum it up in a word, that’s what I would say.’
Rugby league in Australia was a different game in 1969, not least in the way it was adjudicated by the men in white. Keith Page went on to comment on several subjects relating to refereeing, including the following:
The rules: ‘[They] are in the book and I try to play them as they are stated in the book. In a lot of cases, the interpretation of these rules is a matter of the referee’s personality. But I play them as I see them. Once you start letting breaches go, the game can get out of hand. For instance, you might let a little punch-up go; it might not mean very much at the time. But it could develop into a bigger punch-up.’
Crowds: ‘[I] never give them a thought. If your mind starts wondering about things other than the game then you can’t do your job properly. My thoughts are not concerned with what the crowd wants, but with adjudicating the game. The rules are in the book and I try to play them as they are stated. I can only hope that the public gets its entertainment from the standard of play, not from the standard of refereeing.’
Repeat offenders: ‘It’s so wrong for a player to do this because it is so unfair to his teammates. You must accept that a player is going to try to put it over you. But if he’s caught trying to do this, you at least expect to find him trying to vary his tactics next time.’
Criticism: ‘You read this criticism and you try to think to yourself where you have gone wrong. But, honestly, I can’t see what I’m doing wrong. All I am doing is playing by the rules.’
Praise: ‘If you go into refereeing expecting to get pats on the back then you are going to be very badly disappointed. You are told when you go into refereeing that you won’t get as much out of it as you put in.’
Improving the game: ‘I never give it a thought. That’s not my job. That’s up to the men who run the game. My job is to adjudicate.’
THE EPILOGUE TO IAN HEADS’ The Great Grand Final Heist is written by David Trodden, CEO of the NSW Rugby League and a devoted Balmain fan.
A running theme of the book is what the Tigers' triumph in 1969 meant to the local community; Trodden, who grew up on the streets on Balmain, knows plenty about that ...
MY FATHER BILL is 90 now. He was born in a house in Bradford Street, Balmain, and lived virtually his whole life there, although his age doesn’t allow him to do so now. That was the house where I grew up as well. I went to Balmain Public School, and afterwards to Fort Street High School at Petersham. My whole childhood was Balmain.
The Balmain community back in those days was a real community, a place with a village atmosphere. Everybody’s social communications happened within the boundaries of the community. All your friends were there and everything you did was there. Growing up in that sort of environment, you developed a deep bond with that community.
I turned eight in 1969, the year we won the competition. For my birthday, I’d been given a Balmain jersey with the number one on the back, a tribute to Keith Barnes. The impact of the premiership win was a pivotal moment in forming my attitudes to a lot of things that subsequently happened in my life, based around connections to community. Before long, and in the years that followed, I genuinely believed that if you wanted to make something of your life, coming from Balmain gave you a good head start.
That team of ’69 had a real connection with the local community. They played footy the way it was meant to be played, with a smile on their faces and just having a crack, and their winning of the competition cemented the views I’d started to have, about Balmain being better than anywhere else. To me, it was the centre of the world.
The Tigers were my team, and once you fall in love with a footy team that’s it for life. They become a pillar of your life.
I watched the grand final at home, on television, wearing my jersey and with a footy in my hands. My recollections are still vivid … of the one try … of Balmain tackling Souths right out of it … of not giving them an inch.
The effect of the win was to lift and unite the entire district.
The grand final coincided with the opening week of the local cricket competition, and after fulltime I stood at the top of our street for what seemed hours, waiting for my dad to return home from his game so I could tell him that Balmain had won. He knew that already, of course, but I was determined to break the news.
Looking back at that bunch of young guys of ’69, they represented the reality of a changing era. They were there because the club had lost the likes of Keith Barnes, Laurie Moraschi, Dennis Tutty, Peter Jones, Laurie Fagan, Bob Boland, Bob Mara and Ron Clothier in the years before. This was a ‘regeneration team’, and susceptible to the coaching of Leo Nosworthy. The thought occurs: Would the older players have been as malleable? Of Nosa, I think of a man of quiet and steely determination. He was the leader, the dominant personality. Even Dave Bolton and Peter Provan, who were in the same age demographic, would defer to him. I think of Nosa, too, as ‘total Balmain’, so strongly linked to the district through family ties and his working life on the wharves.
I grew up in Balmain aware of a moral code that was reinforced everywhere you went. It modelled my life and I’m sure modelled the lives of the team of 1969, too. It was about sticking together, in line with the old Tigers motto: ‘Smile and Stick’. Now, the demographic has changed; go to pubs in Balmain these days and the Super Rugby is on the TV. But when the Tigers play at Leichhardt, the crowds still turn up on the hill, representing a concession to history: to get down there and support the local team.
Dad and I got real joy from the premiership wins of Balmain in 1969 and Wests Tigers in 2005. Both victories were against the odds, unexpected, and against a background of the absence of any sort of sustained success. Such achievements reinvigorate you whenever they happen. They renew your hope. And it’s not just to do with sport … it’s in relation to everything in your life.
THERE HAS BEEN TALK of a possible player strike during the upcoming Rugby League World Cup. Those involved in the negotiations could do worse than to remember the story of Dennis Tutty, who sat out the 1969 season over a contract dispute with his club, Balmain.
Tutty's experience is remembered by Ian Heads in The Great Grand Final Heist ...
IN THE SUMMER OF 1968–69, Balmain and South Sydney readied themselves for the challenges of the season ahead to the backdrop of a ticking time-bomb within the game. The drama focused on a Balmain local product, a young man of principle and a tireless back-row forward. He was a cousin of the champion Saint Reg Gasnier, and had played his early seasons as an amateur to allow him to compete as a Kings Cup-winning rower. A greyhound-lean athlete, by 1969 he had played five impressive first-grade seasons with the Tigers, appeared in two grand finals and worn an Australian Test jersey.
Blond and supremely athletic, Dennis Tutty became a crowd favourite along the way.
It was during 1968 that Tutty took the first step to becoming a reluctant hero for all Australian rugby league players of his time and in the future.
Tutty made it clear to Balmain and the rugby league world what was on his mind. Early in 1968, having finished his existing playing agreement with the club, he sought a release from the Tigers. He had received expressions of interest from other clubs. He was told flatly by the Tigers that there was no chance of a release. Says Tutty:
I went and asked for a signing-on fee. I was told by a club official [secretary Kevin Humphreys] that I had to play for Balmain under what they offered me, or I didn’t play rugby league at all. That was the system that existed back then. You weren’t allowed to leave a club unless they chose to place you on a transfer fee. I believed back then I was done a wrong, a bad wrong … and I just wanted to right it.
Tutty eventually agreed to play in 1968, at the request of his coach Keith Barnes. During the off-season that followed, a similar process was played out. This time, Tutty took a stand and chose not to play at all. This decision would cost him what were potentially the three best seasons of his football life, ownership of his car, which he was forced to sell, his chance of continuing as a New South Wales and Australian player, and of playing in a grand final. It also left him with an ulcer and contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Throughout his period of exile, Tutty worked labouring jobs to keep the wolf from the door.
The proceeds from the sale of his car went towards the financing of the legal mountain he chose to climb: to challenge rugby league’s iniquitous transfer system, an ugly dinosaur of too many years in the game, in the country’s highest courts. The system appeared unfair, but to that point had remained officially unquestioned. Fortuitously, a well-respected solicitor, David McKenzie, a man who held a high-ranking position in the Australian Olympic movement and who believed that Tutty had right on his side, came on board. The first step was to commence legal action against the Balmain club and the NSW Rugby League in the Equity Division of the Supreme Court.
Two leading Balmain players — classy five-eighth Peter Jones, a highly rated rugby union convert, and Laurie Moraschi, a talented utility back from Griffith who had played for NSW at fullback and was the NSW Country player of the year in 1965 — actively supported Tutty’s stand. Both men walked away from Balmain in 1969 in protest at the unfairness of the transfer system, choosing to play no part in the rugby league year. Of all his Tigers teammates, not just Tutty and Moraschi, Jones says today, ‘They were terrific blokes, mate, terrific blokes.’ He would return for a brief cameo of five games with the Tigers in 1970 but then was gone for good. Moraschi came back to Sydney football, enjoying three solid seasons with North Sydney from 1970 to 1972.
During an edgy television appearance with the three players on TCN-9’s World of Sport program in early 1969, Kevin Humphreys quoted the amounts offered to the players for that season: $200 a win and $60 a loss for Tutty; $160 a win and $60 a loss for Jones; $120 a win and $40 a loss for Moraschi. The players expressed their belief that they were entitled to a guarantee. But Humphreys pointed out that, in ‘this day and age of professional football’, his club paid on results.
The question of rising player payments was a major issue in rugby league at the time. At the Balmain RLFC annual meeting prior to the 1969 season, the highly regarded Alec Mackie, a vice president of the NSW Rugby League, told the gathering at Balmain Town Hall, ‘There can be no doubt that increasing costs are creating many headaches in the game.’ Former Tigers treasurer Arthur Toby went further, declaring that ‘the ever-increasing demands of players for increased payments is a matter of grave importance. Deputy chairman Latchem Robinson noted that the Tigers, although not in the first four in 1968, had earned and spent more than $100,000 during the season. In Rugby League World, Bill Buckley wrote of his fear that clubs were ‘operating beyond their means’. When he argued that ‘good things have been done under the transfer system’, the League president was alluding to the concern that if players could move easily from club to club, country to city, state to state, or country to country, the weak would be overwhelmed by the strong. He cited the examples of the post-war ‘poaching ban’, which prevented Clive Churchill leaving Australia, and the ‘retention funds’ of the 1930s, which stopped country clubs pillaging city teams during the Great Depression. ‘The instinct of self-preservation has influenced the NSW League,’ Buckley asserted. On the eve of the 1969 season, Kevin Humphreys spoke of his pride at the fact that of Balmain’s 52 graded players, 32 were local products, backing up an ancient boast of the Tigers: ‘We don’t buy ’em, we breed ’em.’
Balmain’s only current international of the time, Arthur Beetson, eventually became caught up in the conflict. By the end of the 1970 season, Beetson was aggrieved by the terms offered to him by Balmain — a meagre deal based strictly on match payments. Years later, Beetson would tell of a blow-up row between him and Humphreys at Leichhardt Oval.
I was furious and stormed out of the dressing-room. ‘Fuck you … that’s it for me,’ I shouted at Humphreys. Then I said, ‘Kevin, I feel like hitting you on the chin … or words to that effect. I’m walking out of here and you won’t see me again. I would rather retire than be treated like this.’ I walked out and didn’t come back.
Unsurprisingly, Beetson and Humphreys were never close after that exchange. But there remained a shared respect, with Beetson solid in his belief that, notwithstanding what had taken place in their squabble, Humphreys was ‘arguably one of the better administrators we’ve ever had in the game’.
Eventually, Balmain imposed a transfer fee of $15,000 on Beetson, which the wealthy Eastern Suburbs paid. Having been in discussions with the Tigers at a yearly figure of around $3000, Beetson, who by then had a wife and child, found himself on $5500 at Easts, and with some golden years ahead. He told film-maker Graham McNeice in an interview some years ago, ‘I felt I really got underpaid and wasn’t highly regarded. When I left Balmain, I was very bitter because I had some good friends there.’
In October 1970, the Supreme Court addressed Dennis Tutty’s challenge and deemed that the NSW Rugby League’s transfer system was invalid and a restraint of trade. The League promptly appealed to the High Court. In December 1971, the High Court ruled that the League’s retention system was ‘a restraint of trade that was both unreasonable and unjustified’.
Dennis Tutty, the man who took on City Hall, had won. Thanks to him and his committed legal team, headed by McKenzie, the playing field had changed forever for professional rugby league players, who were now able to ply their trade in a much fairer environment. And all of it had been virtually a one-man show. Tutty did not receive a single dollar of support in his fight, which stretched over three years, and little even in the way of thanks or support from fellow players.
Strapped for cash and struggling, he came back to rugby league and played 17 games for Balmain in 1971 with no financial guarantees, just match payments. He would estimate later that the overall cost in potential money he lost from football, plus that which he spent on his legal crusade, ran into tens of thousands of dollars. Delays in payments granted by his supportive legal team helped him get through.
An intriguing sidelight emerged some years later in a note from Kevin Ryan, the admired iron-man front-rower of St George’s great era, who had a fight of his own before he was allowed to move to Canterbury, as captain-coach, in 1967. The former state parliamentarian, local mayor, barrister and advocate indicated opposition to the entrenched unfairness that instigated Tutty’s defiance had been happening in other places in the mid-’60s.
In March 1992, I wrote a column recalling Tutty’s case for the Sydney Morning Herald. In response, Ryan wrote:
Just by the way of history, when I applied for transfer from St George in 1966 I was met by the transfer ban and through Jim Comans (Sydney solicitor) I was taking steps to legally challenge the transfer system when St George relented and put me on transfer. I have always been a great admirer of the courage and determination shown by Dennis Tutty, particularly in the light of the very grave consequences suffered by him as a result of the despicable conduct of some league officials at the time.
Tutty reflects today on the moment of victory after the ordeal he had been through. ‘I had no choice,’ he says. ‘The system was an unjust one and had to be challenged. It was all about that principle.’
He left Balmain immediately after the High Court verdict, playing for Penrith (1972–1974) and Easts (1975) before returning to the Tigers. With the game ‘in his system’, as he puts it, he turned to coaching and administration. He coached Balmain’s reserve-grade side for two years, winning the premiership in 1978 and losing narrowly to Canterbury in the preliminary final of 1979. He then took over as coach of the Tigers’ firsts in 1980, in what proved to be a difficult year.
An essay written in 2008 by Braham Dabscheck, a senior fellow in the faculty of law at the University of Melbourne, captured the essence of Tutty and his place in rugby league, in both the article’s content and its simple, strong headline: ‘Dennis Tutty: An Australian Hero.’ Dabscheck, a former president of the Australian Society for Sports History and an expert on players’ rights in professional sport, has written extensively on the Tutty case.
John Quayle, who in the wake of an excellent playing career with Easts, Parramatta and Australia, would become an effective and well-respected administrator, is a man with a clear view of Dennis Tutty’s place in the scheme of things:
Back then, the League was a strong organisation and there was no real challenge to the way things were. It was just the way the game was run, and as a player you accepted it. Dennis Tutty changed all that. I believe the generations of players that followed should be indebted to him forever for the stand he took. For Tutty to stand up against the administration in the face of all the negativity he copped was incredible. The League was something of a cartel at that time, and I believe they pretty much black-balled him. As for the players, I think a lot just didn’t realise exactly what a committed guy he was or the importance of what he was doing. Reflecting on it now, the players should have stood up and supported him much more than they did. Dennis Tutty was the man who freed up the transfer system, and enabled all players to begin to move and to get fair financial reward for doing something that they really enjoyed.
‘Dennis Tutty’s brave stance changed my life and the lives of many other players,’ said Arthur Beetson. Bob McCarthy describes Tutty as ‘the linchpin’ when discussing the changes to the way clubs negotiated with their players in the ’70s and beyond.
In an interview with Graham McNeice in 2008, champion centre Harry Wells, a hugely popular league man, said he believed that modern-day players owed Tutty ‘everything’. Said Wells, ‘If no one had taken the game on, we’d still be where we were back then. Everybody should be paid fairly for what they do.’
The Rugby League Players Association, representing young men who today benefit from Tutty’s brave stance, decided in 2008 to make an annual presentation in his honour. The ‘Dennis Tutty Clubman of the Year’ award is presented to the person who has ‘demonstrated the same qualities of self-sacrifice and courage as Dennis Tutty to achieve a better working environment for his fellow players’.
When he made his stand, the future for Tutty should have shone with bright promise. But this man of principle chose to take a far darker and more painful path. In the strength of his stance and his quiet determination, Dennis Tutty disqualified himself from the 1969 season and any prizes it might offer. For sure, the Tigers would have wanted such a player on the paddock.
IN THE DAYS AFTER Steve Mascord’s new book Touchstones was first released, I approached Tony Webeck, the highly respected chief Queensland correspondent for nrl.com, to see what he thought of the book.
At the time, a large part of Tony's working life was focused on the ongoing State of Origin series. So I wasn’t surprised that the first chapter he would turn to was Steve’s critique of Origin football. By the time he had finished the book, Tony was comparing it to one of the most popular books of its genre to be published in the last 30 years.
This is Tony’s report …
IF YOU HAVE READ the musings or heard him speak on the subject in various media outlets over the past decade, you will know that Steve Mascord has endured a tormented relationship with the most viewed and talked about aspect of rugby league: State of Origin.
As a purist, it has been hard for Mascord to come to terms with the commercialism that the Origin concept has come to embody. Origin’s sheer populist nature is actually a turn-off for an aficionado who has chased those chasing a football from Russia to Jamaica and everywhere in between.
But if you think you know what Steve Mascord really thinks of State of Origin you must read his astonishing new book, Touchstones.
This is unlike any rugby league book you have ever read. In fact, calling it a rugby league book — despite Mascord’s standing in a game to which he has essentially committed his life — is selling it far too short.
This is the exploration of a complex individual and how his uncertain beginnings in this big bad world shaped a life that by age 47 saw him accumulate nothing but memories, hundreds of records and CDs, almost every edition of Rugby League Week and $50,000 in credit-card debt.
What followed was a discovery of his true self and how Andrew John Langley — the name that was bestowed upon him at birth — viewed his adopted other self’s twin obsessions of rugby league and rock’n’roll.
Which brings us back to State of Origin, a game that each year stretches beyond the Telstra Premiership’s boundaries to captivate passive supporters en masse and which on Wednesday will likely draw more than 52,000 fans to Suncorp Stadium and be the highest-rating television program of the year.
Most rugby league lovers cannot imbibe enough of the adrenaline that Origin offers, but as its popularity grew from its humble beginnings 37 years ago Mascord struggled more and more with the concept.
‘Perhaps there are always clues that one will eventually encounter a crisis of identity,’ Mascord begins in his chapter devoted to State of Origin in Touchstones.
‘One such clue can be found in people who, even as they associate themselves with something mainstream, with ‘the crowd’, disavow themselves of the most mainstream aspect of that thing. They’re the most “out” part of the ‘in-crowd’.
‘That’s what it’s like for me and State of Origin.’
Although he has been reporting on rugby league for close to 30 years, Mascord had never sat sideline at an Origin game until 2013 when, in one of his myriad guises — this one with Triple M — he allowed himself to at least taste the intoxication of Origin that the rest of us consume heartily.
‘I’ve got to admit, being so close to something that others hold in such reverence was energising and almost intoxicating,’ Mascord writes.
‘I had always believed that Origin players knew, intellectually, that they had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches.
‘But, sitting on the sideline, I realised that committing mayhem was not just an intellectual decision. It was primal. It emanated from the 82,000 souped-up spectators who came not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding them.
‘I came away thinking that it was a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that an Origin series is not just one big 240-minute rolling brawl.’
But, and this is the genius of Touchstones, what does Andrew John Langley think of Mascord’s ambivalence to the game’s showpiece that drives so much interest and income?
‘I heard you went on a high-rating rugby league TV show and said you didn’t like the highest-rating rugby league games of the year. Are you insane,’ he asks of the author.
‘No wonder your segment on that show was canned and you’re broke.’
Like Nick Hornby’s seminal Fever Pitch, this book is not about rugby league but one man’s obsession with it and how the discovery of his true self forced him to question everything that he had held true for more than 40 years.
It’s going to make for a helluva film.
Tony Webeck can be found @TonyWebeck
IT’S BEEN ANOTHER PRETTY good year for Australian sports books. There are plenty of good titles currently on sale, with cricket books everywhere. This is my view on the notable sports books released this year in Australia, including a Top 5 and a book of the year ...
For sheer number of ‘celebrity’ cricket books being published, there has never been a summer like it. Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Brad Hogg, Mitchell Johnson, Darren Lehmann, Dennis Lillee, Jim Maxwell, Mark Nicholas and Chris Rogers have all released life stories … Dean Jones has compiled a small coaching book … Ellyse Perry and David Warner have their names on kids’ books … from overseas come autobiographies by, among others, AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum and Jonathan Trott. Beyond the celebrity authors, there are several worthy titles, led by Brian Matthews’ fine and affectionate Benaud: An Appreciation and Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket.
Of all these cricket books, large and small, I think A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas is the best. It’s very readable, great fun in parts, with some poignant memories and important analysis. Who’d have known that Nicholas played a season with ‘Dutchy’ Holland in the early ’70s? The stories of Malcolm Marshall are brilliant, as are the memories of Kerry Packer, but what really got me in the end was Nicholas’ unwavering love of cricket. He has a great and genuine affection for the game that I used to have and that some of his fellow cricket authors of 2016 also seem to have misplaced. I blame working as a ghost writer for my estrangement; I wonder why the modern Australian cricketer often seems so jaded.
Chris Rogers’ Bucking the Trend is a case in point. Rogers is lucky to have an excellent co-author in Cricinfo’s Dan Brettig, and while their idea of having the ghost introduce each chapter is not new, in Brettig’s hands it really works, allowing others to complement and flesh out the main protagonist’s recollections. But while the story is interesting and comprehensive, and Rogers comes across as a good, intelligent man who is proud of his development and aware of his foibles, the life of a 21st century professional comes across as more grind than glamour. The real joy that pervades Nicholas’ page-turner is far less apparent in the memoirs of today’s cricketers.
Haigh’s tribute to Trumper and the renowned photographer George Beldam has been widely praised, and deservedly so. When you’re writing about the finest batsman who ever lived, how can you go wrong? But it is not perfect. Stroke of Genius is superb in parts, meticulously researched, though the absence of an index is weird and frustrating, and for a book that is in part about photography and features photographs throughout the pages, it’s a pity the publisher didn’t opt for a better paper stock. The legend of Vic has not always been accurately reported, and Haigh is quick to criticise those who in the past have accepted the folklore without checking the facts, so it is disappointing to see him fall for the same trap when it comes to Trumper’s involvement in the birth of rugby league in Australia. If only, among all the books and references listed in his ‘Guide to Sources’, he had also consulted Sean Fagan’s masterful 2007 biography of Dally Messenger. But it would be churlish to leave Stroke of Genius out of my Top 5, because it is way more good than flawed.
Fagan’s work is one of a number of outstanding rugby league books to be published in the last decade, but strangely there were very few league (or rugby union) books released in 2016. Of course, Stoke Hill Press published a 50th anniversary edition of Larry Writer’s Never Before, Never Again, which prompted the Courier-Mail’s Mike Colman to describe it as a ‘great book, arguably the best ever on rugby league’. Colman knows sport and knows books, so we’ll take the compliment. Writer also gave us Pitched Battle: In the Frontline of the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia, which author, historian and academic Sean Scalmer in the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed as ‘sensitive … impressive … artful in its arrangement and humane in its spirit’. David Middleton’s 2016 Official Rugby League Annual is no better or worse than previous years, which simply means it is as exceptional as ever. One of the feature stories in this issue, ‘The Mystery of Charlie Ross: the 59th Kangaroo’, is the league yarn of the year. This is the 30th edition of Middleton’s annual — a remarkable achievement — so, a bit like when Paul Newman and John Wayne received their best actor Oscars after many years in the business, I’m including the Official Rugby League Annual in this year’s Top 5.
In the AFL, three of the code’s most prominent identities of recent times — Brent Harvey, Mark Thompson and Dane Swan — produced autobiographies in 2016. In my view, Bomber’s is best, readable from first page to last. Having finished the book, I’m not sure I like the guy all that much, but that’s not the point, a reality captured brilliantly by Tim Bauer’s grim, highly effective cover photograph. (Compare Bomber staring at you to Chris Rogers hidden behind his helmet on the cover of Bucking the Trend and ask yourself: Which book do I want to read?) The use of the coach’s game-day notes and match plans is excellent and revealing. Maybe the text needed one more edit, but it’s still very good.
Cadel Evans’ autobiography, The Art of Cycling, is another well written big book that really should have an index. Evans comes across as a man totally focused on his own preparation, performance and fate. Throughout the pages, he is true to himself, but the result is a read that is safe and sure but lacking in adventure or revelations. The book carries the sub-title ‘The Autobiography of Australia’s Greatest Cyclist’, which is at least debatable — I’d put Anna Meares and Russell Mockridge, the two-time gold medallist from Helsinki in 1952, ahead of him. Earlier in the year, the Queensland-based Hunter Publishers gallantly re-released Mockridge’s posthumous 1958 autobiography, My World on Wheels; if you are going to buy one cycling book for Christmas, that’s the one. The chapters on his one Tour de France are far superior to anything in Evans’ tome. On his 27th birthday, July 18, 1955, during the climb up Ventoux, an almost delirious Mockridge was so desperate for water, sugar and support that he jumped off his bike and made for a nearby farmhouse, where a local family revived him and sent him back on his climb. A little more than three years later, Russell Mockridge was killed in a bus accident while competing in the Tour of Gippsland.
We need to ensure the great books of the past remain available for current generations. Sports history is important. I’m so impressed that Mockridge’s marvellous but for too long hard-to-find book is back in print that I’m including the new edition in my Top 5 for 2016.
If horse racing is your preference, try Adam Crettenden’s Subzero: More Than a Melbourne Cup Hero. For football, Ange Postecoglou’s Changing the Game: Football in Australia Through My Eyes is thought provoking in parts, while tennis fans should enjoy The Pros: The Forgotten Heroes of Tennis, by Peter Underwood, which at $66 is severely over-priced but does tell the story of a largely ignored period in the history of the men’s game. What did Ken Rosewall do between 1957 and 1967? Was Rod Laver dominant between 1963 and 67? How did they compare to Pancho Gonzales? Underwood has the answers.
The two best books from overseas I read in 2016 were Rick Broadbent’s Endurance: The Life and Times of Emil Zatopek (John Wisden & Co. Ltd, London) and The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend (Thomas Dunne Books, New York), by Glenn Stout. Broadbent had me from the opening chapter, where he beautifully retells the story of Zatopek giving one of his Olympic gold medals to Ron Clarke, because Clarke deserved it. Like Haigh, Stout seeks to set straight an important part of an iconic figure’s story, and he does so forensically and splendidly. I always thought Ruth was traded to the Yankees for the money, but it was more complicated and compelling than that.
But back to the best Australian sports books of the last 12 months. Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1895. Three years earlier, near Mornington, south-east of Melbourne, a ghastly disaster occurred, which led to a squad of footballers losing their lives after their boat home from an away game sunk in Port Phillip Bay. As the fruitless search for survivors continued, the Melbourne Argus commented: ‘Similar cases may have occurred in other countries, but never in Australia.’ In Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, Paul Kennedy writes of that gloomy sentence, ‘It was true then and remains true today.’
Three members of one family, the Caldwells, died together. Their sister Annie cried, ‘The cream, the very cream of Mornington is lost; the pick of the whole district was in that boat.’
Over time, especially outside Mornington, the memories of this catastrophe faded away. Some things can be just too painful. Now, Kennedy remembers it with a historian’s eye and a tender pen. It is an important story in good hands, one that deserves best-seller status. In my view, Fifteen Young Men is the Australian sports book of the year.
I recall Christmas Day 40 years ago, when I received Ian Chappell’s just published autobiography, Chappelli. I must have received other gifts, but I can’t remember them. I was 15, younger than most of the footballers who drowned off Mornington in 1892 but not by much. I went straight out the back to start reading. I had to get dragged to lunch and the book was read by sunset. It was magnificent. If you are fortunate enough to find books by any of Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton or Russell Mockridge under your tree this year your Christmas Day should be similarly set.
If you get to unwrap Fifteen Young Men, you might shed a tear or two, but you’ll probably be the most satisfied of all.
IT'S BEEN A VERY good year for sports books.
Yet when Australia’s independent booksellers recently revealed the long lists for their annual book-of-the-year awards, not one sports book was included. None. Zilch. Zero. At the time, there were five sports books among the top 16 best-selling Australian books (with a recommended retail price of $25 or more). The public, it seems, enjoy and appreciate Australian sports books more than the industry does.
In one way, perhaps the weirdest omission was the winner of this year’s Walkley Book Award and the William Hill Australian Sports Book of the Year: Chip Le Grand’s superb and well-balanced study of the Essendon drug saga, The Straight Dope. If those awards rated Le Grand research and writing so highly, who are the Indies to think otherwise? Or maybe Something for the Pain, Gerald Murnane’s unique and wonderful horse-racing memoir, is a stranger oversight, because Murnane is a name we don’t usually find on the back pages. (I read Murnane’s treasure-trove in one glorious sitting, and found a bit of myself in many of his tales of the turf. I bet a lot of other punters — but my guess is unfortunately not many Indie Award judges — would feel the same.)
In my view, there are at least two of three other sport books that are equally as good as the work of Le Grand and Murnane, maybe even better. As I said, it’s been a good year for sports books.
I must stress that this is not a criticism of the works that have been nominated for the Indie Awards. I’m sure they are all terrific. I’m equally sure the people organising the Indie Awards are good people. But it is a pity the publishing industry is so reluctant to give due credit when good sports books come along. It happens every year.
Of course, we in the sports publishing industry don’t always help ourselves. Take, for example, a review that appeared last weekend of two of the four Richie Benaud books that have been released in 2015. I presume the reviewer likes his sport. Yes. it was disappointing that Richie: The Man Behind the Legend wasn’t mentioned, especially given how well the book has been received, and also a bit peculiar that the reviewer didn’t acknowledge Rob Smyth’s impressive Benaud in Wisden. But what really grated was the reviewer’s easy dismissal of modern sports books, the sweeping suggestion that controversy has become the ‘stock-in-trade’ of today’s sports books and the reference to ‘the chummy informality favoured by too many sporting autobiographies’.
Sports books — like beauty and commentators — are often in the eye of the beholder. It is true that not all sports books published are excellent. Some need more care; some are published for the wrong reasons. I imagine this is true across all genre. It is also true that many sports books cater for an audience of all ages. I was always aware, for example, that when helping Steve Waugh with his cricket diaries that they were read by kids as well as adults, and while this didn’t mean we had to dumb the books down, it would have been equally wrong to turn Steve into Tolstoy. The diaries kept selling in good numbers, and then Steve’s autobiography, Out of my Comfort Zone, sold more than 200,000 copies, which suggests we were doing something right.
For some reviewers, bagging sports books is a habit. If only the Richie reviewer from a couple of paragraphs back had read ‘Inside’, the autobiography of Chris Judd, he’d have found a best-selling sports book that is neither controversial for its own sake nor informal to a fault. Arguably the best footballer of his generation made the wise decision to ask Greg Baum, arguably the best sports writer in Australia, to help him, and the result is a book that I, predominantly a league fan, found compelling and revealing. Baum, like all good ghosts, is clever enough to let Judd tell his own story, which doesn’t make the book chummy. It makes it true.
Far different to ‘Inside’, but just as good in its own way, is Dangerous Games: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, by Larry Writer. The late Basil Dickinson, who competed in the triple jump at Berlin and who died at age 98 in October 2013, is just about my sports hero of the year. He was interviewed at length by Writer; his recollections provide the basis for a compelling study of the most controversial Olympics of them all.
I am impressed that Allen & Unwin took a chance with Dangerous Games. There are many editors and publishers in Australia who want sports books to stay in a certain ‘comfort zone’, fit a particular mould. More than once, I have had editors insist on sports books being strictly chronological, as if there is no other way, to the point of putting dates at the start of each chapter. The editors’ desire was to ‘help’ the reader (who they clearly thought was not very bright); the truth was they wanted to help themselves, because they know nothing of sport. I can’t imagine Gerald Murnane copping dates at the start of each chapter of his memoir; nor would Paul Kent, the author of what I reckon is the Australian sports book of the year: Sonny Ball: The Legend of Sonny Bill Williams.
It’s some trick producing a book better than those of Le Grand, Murnane, Judd and Writer. Kent took on his project knowing he’d get no co-operation from the man himself, but this actually adds to the book’s appeal. Sonny Ball is not a conventional biography. The unusual cover and the absence of photos tell a story in itself. The overall result is as much a saga of 21st century sport in Australia and the relationship between heroes, fans and media as it is a book about Sonny Bill. I love the way it ends (the book, I mean; Sonny Bill’s journey is far from over). Kent knows his subject, is appropriately cynical, sceptical and sympathetic, and is an outstanding scribe. He’s written a page-turner of the highest order.
The best cricket book I’ve read this year (apart from Richie, of course) was Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography by Jarrod Kimber. If an author’s enthusiasm for his or her subject matter was the only criteria, I would have included That Night: A Decade on, the Story of Australian Football’s Greatest Night, by Adam Peacock. Just about everyone who matters is interviewed, including Lucky Guus. But if depth of research is the key, David Middleton’s ‘Official Rugby League Annual’ wins every time.
The second-best book from overseas I read in 2015 was Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Simon & Schuster, New York), by Charles Leerhsen, a brilliantly researched story that dispels many of the myths that have tarnished Cobb’s reputation. A legend like the Georgia Peach deserves a biographer like Leershen. The absolute No. 1 sports book of 2015 from overseas, in my view, is Professor Tony Collins’ tour de force, The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby (Bloomsbury, London), which is staggering in its detail, but rich in anecdote, too.
If I’m showing my league bias by advocating Sonny Ball and The Oval World, please forgive me. I don’t think I am. There was a time, about 30 years ago, when many people in the Australian publishing industry honestly thought league fans couldn’t read. Thankfully, those times are gone. Next step is to convince those same publishing types that some of the sports books they release each year are more than just money-spinners; they are actually very good.
It’ll happen one day. Probably.
(This story was originally published on December 18, 2015)
GIVEN THE RATINGS SUCCESS of the just completed third Australia-South Africa Test in Adelaide — and the quality of the contest — it seems that day/night Test cricket might be here to stay. If only the tourists had managed another 50 to 75 runs in the second innings, and the match would have been set up perfectly … from a TV producer’s point of view. Australia would have had a tricky run-chase that would have culminated at about 9.30pm, Sydney time, prime time, under lights.
As it was, the cricket was excellent. The ball seamed around under lights, but Faf du Plessis and Usman Khawaja proved that run-making against the pink ball under lights is very possible. Now, many of the questions critics asked about Test cricket under lights have been answered, though it remains true that, sooner or later, a game will be played on a grassless pitch that might make the pink ball too difficult to see; ODI cricket had that problem and I’m not sure that even now they’ve found a proper solution.
Curators have always had an important part to play in Test cricket. Day/night games will only accentuate this reality.
There is a certain symmetry to the day/night Test match being held in the last week of November. Today, November 28, what would have been the fifth day of the game just completed in Adelaide, is the 38th anniversary of arguably cricket’s most significant day/night game — the limited-over World Series Cricket encounter between the Australians and the West Indians that was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground at the start of WSC’s second season.
This was the ‘rebel’ troupe’s first game — day or night — at the SCG, and it resulted in a five-wicket victory for the home team. During 1977–78, WSC had staged their Sydney matches at the nearby Showground.
Richie Benaud, one of the principal figures in WSC, described the innovation of night cricket as ‘breathtaking’. The first game at the SCG, he said, was ‘something I will never forget’. Indeed, this was the night when the tide in cricket’s ‘great war’ turned. However, as is now the case with day/night Tests, not everyone was happy, at least initially.
Some critics claimed that it was so difficult to pick up the white ball in the twilight period between day and night, a batsman would eventually be seriously hurt, even killed. One prominent architect described the SCG’s new light towers as a ‘disaster’. When the lights were first switched on, a woman at Balgowlah Heights, 10 kilometres away, complained that the glare ‘hurt the back of my eyes’. A resident at nearby Moore Park complained: ‘We turned off every light in the flat and could still read the newspaper by the lights on the ground.’ Another local wondered if the lights would diminish the value of her property.
But up in the press box, the legendary leg-spinner turned cricket writer, Bill O’Reilly, was reminded of football finals and the boisterous crowds that had watched the acrimonious bodyline series 46 years before.
The official crowd was announced as 44,377. The actual attendance was more than 50,000, after Kerry Packer asked SCG officials to open the turnstiles so everyone queuing up outside could get in. He admitted that he had been hoping for half that number. The WSC players had been treated as pariahs in some circles for more than year. Now, wrote John Woodcock, the long-time cricket correspondent for the London Times, they were ‘idols’ again. Six months later, the Australian Cricket Board and WSC came together and a new cricket era began.
Given his comments at the time of the first night game and in the seasons that followed, it seems almost certain that Richie Benaud would be a supporter of day/night Test cricket. As former England captain Michael Atherton writes in the new book, Richie: The Man Behind the Legend: ‘He loved twenty20 and all the technological advances (and) recognised that times change.’
Similarly, Greg Chappell (pictured above, with Richie, in 1976) reckons the great captain-turned-greatest commentator ‘never lived in the past’. There has been no decision about whether any of next summer’s Ashes Tests will be played under lights, though Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland is a fan. ‘I like the idea,’ he said on ABC Radio during the Test. ‘It's a continued progression, it's good for the game.’
It will be interesting if the crowds next season for Adelaide’s Ashes Test can match or even better the 50,000-plus who joined Richie at the SCG on November 28, 1978. Hopefully, the administrators will find a way to make this happen. It does appear clear, as clear as the pink ball under lights, that 38 years on another new and exciting revolution is underway.