In Affectionate Remembrance
of Australian Sports Books,
Which died after a long illness
Deeply lamented by an ever-diminishing circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances
NB: The pages will be cremated, and the ashes recycled
in an occasional best-selling celebrity autobiography.
I STARTED WORKING IN sports book publishing nearly 30 years ago, at two small operations, first at Lester-Townsend Publishing and then at Ironbark Press. I was lucky — I got to learn from the great publisher Gary Lester and I worked on a succession of terrific books that usually had a first print run of 10,000 or more, and often eventually sold many more than that.
Those were the days. This year, for the second year in a row, no sports book sold more than 15,000 copies for Father’s Day in Australia, even though there were notable books published involving rugby league, the AFL, rugby union, the Olympics and horse racing.
Sports books were once a staple gift for Father’s Day — it was not unusual for a well-publicised new-release about a high-profile figure to sell 30,000 copies or more during August and the first few days of September. Christmas was even better. But a scan at the sales figures for the past few months show that just about every new sports book is struggling. As he did throughout his football career, Johnathan Thurston is proving exceptional. Overall sales will pick up in the fortnight before Santa comes to town, but not by enough. No wonder publishers these days are ordering print runs closer to one thousand than ten.
It’s not as if this year’s crop of sports books is no good. A vast range of titles have been published, by accomplished authors such as Greg Growden, Mike Colman, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton, Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, James Coventry, Peter FitzSimons, Martin Flanagan and George Megalogenis, and about subjects as interesting and diverse as Ralph Doubell, Cecil Healy, Peter Norman, Joe Darling, Bill Lawry, Rod Marsh, Shane Warne, Dylan Alcott, Sir Hubert Opperman, Lauren Jackson, Bob Murphy, Sam Mitchell, Greg Miles, Darren Gauci, Winx, Johnathan Thurston, Sam Thaiday, AFL Women’s, the Norm Smith Medal, the original Socceroos and the London to Sydney Marathon. There are plenty of good books on sale, and some are special, but too few people are reading them, or even know about them.
So what’s gone wrong? I have my theories, many of which are supported by a 2017 survey of Australia’s reading habits that was undertaken by David Throsby, Jan Zwar and Callum Morgan from the Department of Economics at Macquarie University for the Australia Council for the Arts. Among the survey’s findings was that men are now far more likely to be non-readers than women, which hurts sports books because it’s long been accepted that males are much more likely to read a sports book than females. (Gary Lester always stressed, after reminding me again that sports books are very often purchased as gifts, that they are usually bought by women for their men: from grandfathers to grandsons and everyone in between.) The survey also showed that almost 40 per cent of frequent readers are over the age of 60, compared to just over 15 per cent who are under 30, which is not good news at a time when the sports industry is focusing much of its energy on youth. A third finding was that Australians on average spend about seven hours reading each week — including books, the internet and other media — of which about 70 per cent is reading for pleasure. Which at first glance doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Books themselves are facing new forms of competition for readers’ time and attention,’ Throsby, Zwar and Morgan continued a little ominously. And then they added:
‘In particular, anecdotal evidence suggests that the proliferation of social media has drastically changed reading patterns and behaviour. Our data indicate that almost two-thirds of Australians read social media, blogs or content on the internet every day, compared to under 30 per cent who read some form of book every day. Accordingly, we asked respondents about their reading habits compared to five years ago and, if they answered that they are spending less time reading nowadays, how are they spending this time instead. Respondents were asked about both their time spent reading a variety of media for pleasure and about books specifically …
‘The results show that people appear to be spending slightly less time reading books compared to five years ago, but more time reading overall.’
I’ve deliberately italicised the previous paragraph. I can’t help thinking that this change of routine has hurt sports books more than other genres. The survey goes on:
‘Participants who spend less time reading books than five years ago because they spend more time on other leisure activities (almost two-fifths of our respondents) were asked what were the other activities that were absorbing more of their leisure time. The results affirm casual observation regarding the proliferation of social media: the data show that 52 per cent of respondents spend more time on social media these days, with as many as 76 per cent among under 20s and 20 to 29-year-olds.’
Why read a sports book when you can spend an hour reading or even posting on an online forum, or discussing the latest issue or rumour on Facebook or WhatsApp? It can be hard for a book that went to the printer two months ago to compete with ever-updating sports websites. Why buy a sports history book when the entire Sports Illustrated vault is online? Do you want to read a Melbourne Cup book, or watch every running of the great race on YouTube? Why read a Steve Mascord book when you can follow him on Twitter?
(I genuinely enjoyed publishing Steve’s book Touchstones: Rugby League, Rock’n’roll, the Road and Me in 2017. His work was compared to writers as varied as Herodotus and Nick Hornby, and the book received plenty of publicity. But hardly anyone, it seems, had time to read it. Or maybe, with Steve almost omnipresent on social media, they already felt they had.)
Finally, the survey cited word of mouth as the most common driver of book sales. This, remember, is across all genres. But if people aren’t reading sports books, they’re not going to talk about them. On Christmas morning, books get unwrapped and then go quickly onto a bookshelf, after being briefly glanced at or maybe not at all. Some will end up in a Salvos store or a Lifeline sale. Few recipients will go back to the giver and say what a fantastic book it was; neither of them will ever know. I put together five Ricky Ponting cricket diaries between 2006 and 2010, all of which sold into five figures, but I always wondered how many of them were ever read. My guess was one in ten, which might have been optimistic.
One deterrent Throsby, Zwar and Morgan didn’t focus on, but for me it’s an important one, is the simple cost of buying books, which relates in a way to the fact so many stories on the internet are free, but also to the way the book industry distributes its product. Gideon Haigh, the best writer of cricket books of his generation, has just released Crossing the Line, an engaging 184-page small-format paperback which his publisher, Slattery Media, describes on the back cover as the first of a ‘Sports Shorts collection [that fits] into your back pocket on the way to the game’. I admire Haigh and Slattery Media for their enterprise, but with a retail price in independent bookshops of $24.95 their little book costs a dollar more than the much heftier autobiographies of Thurston and Warne at Big W. With sports books, because they are so often purchased as gifts, if the price is the same, size matters. Steve Waugh’s 800-page autobiography — which had a recommended retail price of $49.95 but was discounted to half that from the day of its first release, and then looked very impressive as it took up half the space under Christmas trees all over Australia —proved that for me.
Is the situation beyond repair? It might not be, but only if the sports industry gets behind sports publishing — not by injecting funds but by helping to create a conversation about sports books. By ‘sports industry’ I mean the top sporting organisations, the media, the fans, the sponsors, the authors, the stars of whom the books are about. A well-researched and well-written book is a terrific advertisement for a sport, but it’s rare for busy sports administrators to see it that way. It’s also uncommon these days to read a genuine review of a good Australian sports book, as opposed to a free plug. In London overnight, the 30th winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year was announced. Australian publishing is awash with book awards; sporting titles used to be among the best-selling books in Australia; there is no prize like the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in Australia. Which is a shame, because as sales of sports books in Australia diminish by the year, the need for an incentive such as that provided by a highly respected award becomes ever more apparent.
And that’s not just an ‘incentive’ for authors; such awards are also a very effective spur for booksellers, reviewers and buyers. A book on the William Hill shortlist is more prominently displayed in shops and is more likely to appear in the literary sections of the major newspapers.
As the leading UK sports literary agent David Luxton told The Guardian’s Sean Ingle: ‘Over 30 years it [the William Hill award] has shone some serious light on a genre of writing that was not appreciated as it should have been … Every time you enter a bookshop, and see the range and quality of titles on display, you understand the massive difference it has made.’
Crucially, the sports books themselves have to be excellent, especially the ones that are guaranteed to sell in at least reasonable numbers because of the high profile of the subject matter. This is why I was so disappointed by the three best-selling sports books of 2018 — the autobiographies of Johnathan Thurston and Shane Warne and the authorised biography of Winx. None of the three books are terrible. In fact, they are all fine, but none, in my view, are brilliant, the sort of work that gets sports journalists and commentators raving about all sports books, encourages bookshop owners to expand their sports sections, and convinces buyers and readers alike to return to those bookshops more regularly than they have done in the past.
All authors, but especially those responsible for guaranteed best sellers, must aim for the stars. But maybe, as sales decline, the opposite is happening. Even with the flaws in the top-sellers, I think the overall standard of Australian sports books remains very good, but in the last few years I’ve seen glimpses of a depressing future. I wish the catalogues of the big bookshops promoted the best books available, not the ones the publishers paid to put in. Never again, as happened to me not too long ago, do I want to hear a player manager say, ‘Mate, it doesn’t matter what you write. We’ve already got the advance.’ Similarly, I don’t want to work again with the high-profile author who presented to me a manuscript for a biography with significant chunks of the hero’s story missing and perhaps as many as 500 factual errors. That’s facts, not typos, inappropriate adjectives or missing commas. The ‘author’ can write, so I asked why the manuscript was so poor. ‘For the money I’m being paid, that’s what you get,’ he replied.
In many ways, this blog is a cry for help. ‘There was a time when high street bookshops were a wasteland for sports writing,’ Sean Ingle recalled of British sports book publishing, as he wrote of the impact of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. ‘The entire subject was usually relegated to a single shelf in a dusty corner.’
Australian sports book publishing hasn’t reached that stage yet, but there have been times — as I walk the streets looking for a book that I know has been published, I expect will be good, but I can’t find on the shelves — when I fear that one day soon it will. Maybe what’s happening is just natural attrition, and out of the ashes a smaller yet somehow stronger business model will emerge. But I still remember certain sports books I read when I was a kid, and important books that spurred my love of sport as a teenager and helped shape and provoke my thinking as an adult. Simply put, sports books are important. We can ill afford to lose them.
At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Cecil Healy produced a sporting gesture which was described at the time as ‘an unsurpassable example of sportsmanship’. The great American swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, the race favourite for the men’s 100 metres freestyle, was disqualified, and by the rules in place this decision was correct. Whether it was just is another matter. Cecil, the second favourite, did not question the validity of the rules, or the ethics of the judges who enforced them, but he did not think the punishment fitted the crime and appealed to the authorities’ sense of fair play.
He wanted to win, but in the pool not out of it.
In a sense, a similar conundrum is being played out in the lead-up to the 2018 National Rugby League Grand Final. The Melbourne Storm’s great fullback Billy Slater has been charged with using an illegal shoulder charge in the preliminary final, which could see him suspended the grand final against the Sydney Roosters. Slater’s absence would inevitably improve the Roosters’ chances of claiming the premiership. But do they want to win that way?
In the following extract from their biography of Cecil Healy, John Devitt and Larry tell the story of what Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates recently described as the most outstanding example of great sportsmanship ever displayed by an Australian at the Olympics. The implication is that Cecil, who was born and lived much of his life in Roosters territory, would have wanted Slater to play …
CECIL HAD LITTLE TIME to change from his team uniform into his swimming costume before he was called to compete in the heats of the Stockholm Olympics’ first swimming event: the men’s 100-metre freestyle heats, the first of which began at 7pm in the still-warm glow of a summer twilight. Duke Kahanamoku was hot favourite to win the gold medal, but there was plenty of depth in the field, with competitors such as Harold Hardwick, Billy Longworth, the six-time English 100-yards champion Rob Derbyshire, Germany’s highly rated Kurt Bretting, who had been schooled in the crawl by Cecil in Hamburg back in 1906, Sweden’s Harald Julin, the bronze medallist from 1908, and three crack Americans all in the field. The top two from each of the eight heats and the fastest third place-getter would proceed to the second round, which put much attention on heat four, where Cecil was drawn to meet the USA’s Perry McGillivray and Ken Huszagh. The Duke was in heat five.
The first surprise was the elimination of Derbyshire, who finished third in tepid time behind Les Boardman in heat three. Then Cecil started slowly, but he was able to work his way past Huszagh to ensure his qualification in 1:05.2. McGillivray’s winning time was exactly one second faster, while Huszagh’s 1:06.2 was enough to get him through. Hardwick looked good as he dominated heat six, just as Bretting had impressed in his swim, but by then all the chatter was about Kahanamoku, who had scorched down the straight course in 1:02.6. Longworth was well beaten in second place, even though he recorded the same time as Cecil had done in the previous heat. The Duke’s time was quickly announced as a world record, though in fact it was one-fifth of a second slower than a time recorded by Bretting in a 25-metre pool in Brussels, Belgium, during the previous April. The German’s performance would be ratified by FINA immediately after these Games.
Still, the Duke was clearly all he was cracked up to be. Maybe more. Experts were calling him the ‘human fish’. Longworth would say, ‘He’s not a swimmer, he’s a motorboat.’ The official Olympic report noted:
The performance of the phenomenal Kanaka quite came up to expectations. He employs a special kind of crawl, with the motor-power derived from the ankles alone, and not from the hip- or knee-joints. The soles of his feet work up and down; both the upper and under sides of his feet pressing backwards against the surface of the water.
The second round — three races, with the first two in each race and the quickest third through to the semi-finals — was programmed to begin the next day at 1.30pm. For 90 metres in the first of these races, Bretting and Longworth, who was now suffering from a severe headache as well as excruciating pain in his ear, were neck and neck, before the German edged clear. Hardwick was third. Kahanamoku romped home from the German Walter Ramme in the second race, after producing a remarkable spurt in the last 30 metres, and Huszagh and McGillivray beat Cecil by a whisker in fast time, with Boardman a close fourth. The official report reads:
There was a very hard struggle between the first three men, all of whom did the distance under 1 minute, 5 seconds. As best third in the second round, C. Healy became entitled to take part in the semi-finals.
The draw was kind to Cecil: he and Longworth were joined by Ramme in the first semi-final; the three Americans and Bretting were in the second. The first two home in each semi and the fastest third-placed competitor would make the final. The races were scheduled for 8pm, a time that might not have suited some of the swimmers. On his return to Sydney, Longworth would tell the Daily Telegraph that no member of the US team was allowed on shore after 7 o’clock without a special permit. ‘No such restriction,’ the Aussie added, ‘was imposed upon the athletes of other nations.’
There are different accounts of exactly what led to the kerfuffle that happened next.
AT THE ASSIGNED TIME, the two Australians and Germany’s Ramme marched from the dressing sheds to the starting zone. At the starter’s signal, the trio hit the water simultaneously and were level for 80 metres, at which point Cecil surged to win narrowly in 1:05.6. Longworth, though suffering terribly from what doctors would soon discover was a large abscess in his head, between his ear and his brain, swam a gallant third, less than a second from his teammate.
The spectators at the pool now started shifting in their seats and murmuring to each other, as they were anxious to see the mighty Kahanamoku in action. But something was wrong.
Bretting appeared on his own. There was no sign of the Duke, nor his teammates, just a panicked flurry of activity among the organisers, who left the pool deck to contact the US camp. When they returned, they ordered Bretting to swim the semi-final alone.
The official report says: ‘Owing to some misapprehension, the three representatives of the USA did not put in an appearance, from their belief that all the seven men who qualified in the second round would swim in the final on the Monday.’ Elsewhere, it was claimed that the American coaches and officials had ignored the program of events that had been widely circulated and simply assumed that the semi-finals would be swum the next day. Bretting swam solo, recording an impressive 1:04.6. As he was doing so, the Duke was on the Finland, fast asleep.
Back at the pool, the judges chose to adhere strictly to the rules and disqualify the no-show Americans. Suddenly, the German Bretting and his old mentor, Cecil, seemed to have the gold medal between them. Ramme could not be dismissed based on his semi-final effort, but few rated him in the same class as his compatriot. Longworth was through to the final but his health was deteriorating by the minute, to the point, he would admit later, where his very life was in danger. The next morning, he would be admitted to hospital for an operation. His Olympic campaign was over.
US swim coach Otto Wahle and AAU secretary James E. Sullivan, the manager of the American team, tried to bluster their way out of the disaster, insisting that their three swimmers had not turned up to the semi-final because of that ‘misapprehension’. When this plea didn’t wash with the Olympic officials, the Americans changed tack and claimed that they couldn’t understand the program because they knew no Swedish. It was pointed out to them that the program was printed in English and French as well as the language of the host country.
While the officials argued, Cecil made the selfless decision for which — perhaps more than anything else in his remarkable life — he is revered. Any victory, he told himself, in a final in which the fastest swimmer in the world cannot compete would be hollow. He could not live with that. A gold medal won in those circumstances would be tarnished metal. His moral obligation was to refuse to swim in the final unless he could race Duke Kahanamoku, even though he knew that this meant he had much less chance of winning. Self-respect and good sportsmanship were worth more than golden glory.
The San Francisco Call’s matter-of-fact report of the affair confirmed that Cecil’s actions received international recognition:
The semi-final heats of the 100-metres swimming proved a fiasco as the Americans, McGillivray, Huszagh and Kahanamoku remained on the steamer Finland in the belief that the event was to be contested Monday. Some of the competitors protested against the semi-finals being held, saying they would be valueless without the three fastest competitors. The round, however, was completed …
Cecil went straight to ES Marks — who as well as travelling with the Australasian team had also been nominated to sit on a jury of officials from competing nations to adjudicate on contentious issues — and made his feelings clear: that in the spirit of the Olympics the Americans should be given a second chance. Marks then convinced his fellow jury members to offer Kahanamoku, Huszagh and McGillivray a reprieve. As the official report documented:
At a meeting of the International Swimming Jury, it was declared that no mistake had been committed by the leaders of the competition, but that the three representatives of the USA should be allowed to swim in a special heat to qualify for the final, the first man in this extra heat having to swim the distance in better time than the third man in Heat 1 of the semi-final, while, in the event of this being done, the second man in the extra heat would also be allowed to swim in the final, which was put off until Wednesday, July 10.
On ES Marks’ death in 1947, The Sydney Morning Herald would argue that he ‘probably did more for amateur sport in Australia than any other man’. Here, like Cecil, he covered himself in glory. And the ailing Longworth, too. In an interview in the early 1930s, Marks recalled that Cecil, with his teammate by his side, didn’t just ask for the Americans to get a second chance, he told him bluntly that he and his comrade would not participate in the final if Kahanamoku, McGillivray and Huzsagh were disqualified. Marks backed his men unconditionally. As far as he was concerned, their strong view ‘settled the opposition’. Marks also confirmed that German team management, no doubt anticipating medals for Bretting and Ramme, were unhappy that the Americans were being let off the hook. British officials, for what it was worth, agreed with the Germans. Their combined view was that the decision contravened Olympic rules, which clearly stated that anyone not arriving for their event on time could not compete. To no avail. The US contingent heaved a collective sigh of relief that may have been heard back in Manhattan, perhaps even in Honolulu.
The third semi-final was held on the Tuesday, July 9, and involved not just the three Americans but also Italy’s Mario Massa, who claimed he, too, had been confused by the programming (Massa had missed his second-round swim). The Duke made the most of his reprieve, winning the special swim-off in a blistering 1:02.4, equalling Bretting’s world’s best time. Behind him, there was only a ‘hand’s breadth’ between Huszagh and McGillivray, who were both credited with the same time: 1:06.2. The decision, and a place in the final, went to Huszagh. Massa failed to finish.
Before the final, the official Olympic newspaper Dagens Nyheter placed the Swedish and International Olympic bodies’ appreciation of Cecil’s uncommon sportsmanship on the record in an article which addressed Cecil directly:
Not only Stockholm, but the whole world of sport, rings with applause for your sporting action in permitting the semi-final of the 100 metres to be re-run. You, as well as anybody, realised the prowess of the swimmers you voluntarily admitted to the final test …
What Cecil had done, in the words of Dagens Nyheter, was provide ‘an unsurpassable example of sportsmanship for other Olympians to emulate’.
THE FINAL WAS SCHEDULED for 7pm. When the hour arrived, the evening sun was still shining on the 2400 spectators who’d come to see the medal race. Among them, in their royal eyrie, sat King Gustav and his queen, Victoria, their eldest son, Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, and his wife, Crown Princess Margaret, a cousin of the King of England. If they’d been following the form, the royals would have agreed with swimming aficionados everywhere that Kahanamoku was the overwhelming favourite.
Then the unthinkable. When the finalists lined up in their starting positions, the Duke was not among them. Incredibly, the laid-back Hawaiian was once more dozing but not, thankfully, on the Finland this time. His teammate, breaststroker Mike McDermott, found him under a bleacher at the side of the pool and hustled him to join his rival swimmers. The story entered family folklore. Kahanamoku’s younger brother Sargent would tell Sports Illustrated:
Brother Duke slept 99 per cent of his time. He could sleep while he was sitting there talking to you. And I always thought that was what made him a great swimmer. He was clear in the head. So at the Olympic finals, they found him asleep, snoring. He got up, said sorry, [and] got in the water to loosen up …
The pre-race drama seemed never-ending. Just as the competitors were settling for the start, Kurt Bretting held up his hand, left his mark and approached Kahanamoku, who was beside Cecil at the opposite side of the starting platform. The German ostentatiously shook both their hands and thanked Cecil for introducing him to the crawl. Cecil interpreted Bretting’s action as gamesmanship. The Duke did, too. Bretting, they suspected, was thanking Cecil for contributing to his own downfall in the impending race. When their rival resumed his place, Kahanamoku quipped to the Australian next to him, ‘Say, Healy, he must think he’s going to deliver the goods.
To which Cecil offered one of his favourite aphorisms: ‘Then blessed is he who expecteth nothing!’
If the German unsettled anyone, it was himself. No doubt to the delight of Cecil and the Duke, Bretting broke the start. As he lifted himself out of the water, he seemed extremely nervous.
Finally, the race was underway. At the 50-metre mark, nothing separated the swimmers. It seemed anybody’s race. The crowd bellowed as one; could there be an upset? The Duke made his move and snatched the lead, with Huszagh, Bretting and Ramme battling for second place. The Australian was last. Suddenly, Cecil clapped on the pace and flew past Huszagh and the Germans as if they were swimming on the spot. The spectators rose again, and cheered the underdog. It was grand theatre, but it wasn’t enough. Kahanamoku was far enough ahead to hold Cecil at bay. He won in 1:03.4; Cecil claimed the silver medal in 1:04.6; Huszagh was third, in 1:05.6; Bretting fourth in 1:05.8.
William Henry, who was poolside, claimed that Cecil ‘gave that great Honolulu swimmer a fright, as he was catching him fast in the last few yards’. Harold Hardwick concurred: ‘The Duke seemed to be tiring as he finished, and Cecil was coming on at a tremendous pace.’ Cecil himself said at the finish that the Duke’s feet were level with his head. The official report lamented the absence of Longworth but regarded it as ‘a grand race between the swiftest swimmers in the world’.
The fans went wild for Kahanamoku; he had shown them greatness. And then something happened that puzzled those who knew nothing of Cecil’s insistence that the Duke compete, and surely brought a glow to those who did. The Hawaiian extricated himself from the mob of backslappers and went to Cecil. He thanked him for his sportsmanship and held his arm in the air in the time-honoured athlete’s show of respect for an opponent. The Duke would wear the gold medal around his neck and Cecil the silver, but there were two winners this day.
Indeed, a Swedish reporter wrote, ‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts.’ A group of local fans lifted him onto their shoulders. Les Boardman would claim that ‘Healy’s swim in the final of the 100 metres at Stockholm was undoubtedly the most popular event of the swimming section of the Games’.
Many decades later, when recounting Australia’s most illustrious sporting moments, the Australian Olympic Committee’s official historian Harry Gordon wrote: ‘Healy gave a demonstration of the immaculate sportsmanship which characterised his career. He in fact sacrificed the prospect of an individual gold medal to ensure that his own version of justice was served.’ Gordon could not imagine such a sacrificial act occurring in the cut-throat modern Olympics. ‘Healy’s was a classic sporting gesture, but it belongs to another age.’
Cecil Healy was one of the heroes of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, not just because he won a gold medal in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay but especially for his gallant sporting gesture — when he refused to swim in the 100m final unless Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian, was allowed to swim. Kahanamoku, the race favourite, had been disqualified after US officials got the start time wrong. Cecil knew it wasn’t the Duke’s fault and refused to swim without him.
‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts,’ wrote a Swedish reporter.
‘In terms of great sportsmanship by an Australian at an Olympics,’ says John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Committee, ‘Cecil Healy’s is certainly the most outstanding.’
Six years after Stockholm, Cecil found himself in a far more perilous place. He had enlisted in 1915 and spent the first two-and-a-half years of his military service in a relatively ‘cushy’ job, as a quartermaster sergeant. But that same sense of honour that had been on show at the Olympics compelled him to do more, and against the advice of friends and his commanding officer he sought and obtained a transfer to the front, as a second lieutenant with the 19th battalion. In a recent speech, the NSW Governor General David Hurley pointed out that Healy must have known that he was taking on a role with one of the highest mortality rates among Australian soldiers in the Great War.
On the early morning of 29 August 1918, as the Anzacs prepared for what would be an epic assault on Mont St Quentin, Cecil was leading his platoon across open ground when they were surprised by German machine-gun fire from a nearby wood. A colleague would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’. Healy was 36. He remains the only Australian Olympic gold medallist to die on the battlefield.
Cecil’s remarkable life and death is celebrated in a major biography, co-authored by two-time Olympic gold medallist John Devitt and award-winning author Larry Writer. The following extract describes the final few days of a great Australian’s life …
UNIT COMMANDING OFFICERS WERE summoned to 5th Brigade headquarters in Rivery Town Hall at five o’clock on the afternoon of August 25 to receive orders passed down from corps commander Sir John Monash. When the senior officers returned, units were assembled and informed that they would be part of a massive Allied push that would ultimately force the German Army back to the Hindenburg Line. Success would almost certainly spell defeat for the enemy, which by now had neither the numbers, the weaponry nor, increasingly, the will to mount another counterattack.
The 2nd Division’s first objective was to cross the Somme and snatch the town of Péronne from its German occupiers. Péronne was about 50 kilometres to the east of Rivery. But before it could be liberated, the Germans had to be driven from Mont St Quentin, 1.5 kilometres to the north, which though only about 100 metres high, held huge strategic value as it overlooked not just the town, but the river and the territory for kilometres around. The Hindenburg Line was another 25 kilometres further east.
Péronne, an ancient town protected by a star-shaped fort built in the 17th century by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, served as a vital transport and communications hub for whoever was in control. The 2nd Division, with the 19th Battalion prominent, would seek to advance to Péronne along the south bank of the Somme. It would be accompanied by artillery companies, field engineers and ambulances, all the while keeping in close touch with the 3rd and 5th Divisions on either flank.
The weather was rainy and humid, which turned the tracks and fields of the region into thick, sticky, boot-gripping mud. The units had more than 20 kilometres to cover before reaching the Somme, where they would be forced to conduct an opposed river crossing.
The 19th spent the night of August 26 near the village of Morcourt, ten kilometres east of Villers-Bretonneux. On August 27, they occupied old German dugouts north-east of Chuignolles, still 40 kilometres from Péronne. The entry in the battalion’s war diary for that night reads in part: ‘Men help themselves liberally to large German stack of straw and make comfortable sleeping positions. Night dark and cloudy, but quiet. Scattered enemy shelling by long-range and other guns.’
What sleep was had was broken just before dawn by welcome news. The Germans were being forced back towards the Somme at Péronne by the 6th Brigade, and the 19th was ordered to make haste to support them, continuing along the Somme’s south bank to Salmon Wood (an area of trees and other vegetation known today as Bois Nanteuil). Battalion headquarters were established in nearby huts at Eclusier Quarry, just east of the village of Cappy. The plan was to spend the night there before linking with the 6th Brigade at Péronne during the following day, August 29. The town centre was now 25 kilometres away.
The battalion was pressing forward across farmland through late summer showers to Salmon Wood where it was detected by the Germans and shelled. This action might have slowed the men of the 19th’s progress, but it did not stop them. There was a certain excitement in being engaged in the rapid movement of mobile warfare, pursuing the enemy, which was a far cry from the foetid trench warfare of, say, the Ypres Sector in 1917. However, after four years of war, every AIF unit was understrength. The 19th’s ‘bayonet strength’ was less than 300 men. In C Company, the strength was about 40 men, including four officers; Cecil’s platoon was about 20 strong, although every platoon was carrying extra Lewis guns to beef up their firepower.
Cecil must have been grateful for his fitness. Each man was dressed in ‘Battle Order’, which for a rifleman included rifle, bayonet, entrenching tool, webbing ammunition pouches with at least 120 rounds, water bottle, small pack, some tinned rations, soap, razor and toothbrush, a multi-purpose rubberised groundsheet, a steel helmet and a gas mask in a bag worn across the chest for easy access. This gear, including the uniform and boots, weighed more than 20kg. Lewis gunners carried the gun and their No.2 men had extra 47-round magazines. Officers dressed almost exactly as the men, but were armed with a service revolver (some also chose to carry a rifle) plus a compass, binoculars, whistle and map case. For this rapid mobile style of warfare, everything you needed was on your back.
Cecil spent the night of August 28 in the company of his comrades, eating cold bully beef (for no camp fires were allowed), perhaps playing cards by dim candlelight, yarning about better, safer times to keep his nerves at bay. Tomorrow, he would be commanding his C Company platoon in his first ‘stunt’: an attack on a flagging but desperate and still lethal enemy. The camp was targeted by sporadic shelling throughout the night, and by a chemical irritant known colloquially as ‘sneezing gas’, but no damage was done. Sleep was fitful.
Well before dawn, the men of the 19th rose, packed up their groundsheets, wolfed down what food was handy, donned their equipment and at zero hour, 5am, moved out of Salmon Wood. Their orders were to ‘mop up’ the German-held village of Halle, just west of Péronne, and support the 17th Battalion by guarding its right flank.
The first part of the move was a road march by a column of companies, from Salmon Wood towards the village of Frise, in the dark before sunrise. They were led by men from the battalion’s Intelligence Section, who had reconnoitred the intended assembly area on the south-eastern side of Frise. This was a quick move and on arrival there companies shook out into their open formation for the advance towards the River Somme.
Within the battalion, A Company was left forward, Cecil’s C Company right forward, B Company was in depth behind them and D Company was the battalion reserve. On the 19th’s left flank was its sister battalion, the 18th; on their right flank, the 23rd Battalion of 6th Brigade. In front of them were several kilometres of generally open, gently rolling hills that led down to the Somme Canal, west of Péronne. This was the arena into which Cecil would lead his men.
The immediate obstacle of Mereaucourt Wood was easily cleared and the advance moved steadily forward in the early-morning gloom, but at 6.58am, as the sun rose, 19th Battalion patrols were fired on by riflemen and machine-guns in and around Bazincourt Wood and Ticker Copse, dense thickets on high ground just west of the Somme Canal. These positions were occupied by veteran soldiers of the 25th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered to halt or at least slow the ‘British’ advance.
THE BAVARIAN COMMANDER HAD chosen his position well. The ground in front of Ticker Copse sloped gently upwards and provided an almost unrestricted 180-degree view to front and flanks, allowing — from the German perspective — ideal fields of fire. The whole area was covered with trench systems left over from the 1915 skirmishes between French and German forces. Arnaud Alley, Callis Trench, Olmutz Trench and others provided excellent defensive positions — it was much easier to temporarily refurbish old trenches than dig new ones. And the tree-lined heights provided excellent withdrawal routes to the Somme Canal and the foot-bridges that were covered by small arms and artillery fire from positions in and around the village of Halle. They would provide protection for withdrawing troops after they had delayed the oncoming advance.
The key to the Bavarian commander’s delaying tactics was the positioning of his machine-guns. His principal weapon was the 7.92mm Maschinengewehr 08 (MG08), a heavy machinegun mounted on a folding four-point sled and manned by a six-man crew. Its rate of fire was about 450 rounds a minute, with an effective range of more than two kilometres. At this point in the war, he also had available a number of MG08/15, a lighter bipod-mounted machine-gun with a crew of two.
We will never know exactly how many of these weapons were on the battlefield this day: possibly ten or more. It is well recorded that one MG08 was firing from Bazincourt Wood to the north of Ticker Copse. What else is known is that these weapons were always sited in pairs and positioned to work together, by firing across each other’s front. The experienced German commander and his men had the ground in front of Ticker Copse well covered with both machine-gun and rifle fire.
AUGUST 29 WAS, ACCORDING to the 19th’s war diary, a ‘fine, bright day’. In the minutes immediately after 7am, with Péronne and squat Mont St Quentin, which stood sentinel above it, visible on the horizon a few kilometres away, the Australians walked into a killing zone. Some movement was noticed at the top end of a long, thin stand of trees known then, and today, as Sword Wood, and Cecil’s platoon opened fire. There were probably no more than a few grey-clad German riflemen concealed there, for this was low ground, and they were sent scurrying down the tree line to the canal to make good their escape. The Australians pressed on.
Only now the Germans by Ticker Copse, a kilometre to the north, had the advancing men well within range and in their sights. They waited expectantly in their trenches, invisible to the Australians who, coming from the west, had the rays of the dawn’s sun shining in their faces, accentuating their presence. As Cecil and his men moved down the gentle slope towards Sword Wood a machine-gun fired upon them. A member of his platoon would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’.
Cecil might have heard the dreaded percussive clatter of the machine-gun. He was hit in the back of the neck by a single bullet. The impact sent him sprawling and he lay bleeding from the wound, as a comrade, possibly 19-year-old Private Carl Bentin of Hobart, scrambled to his fallen leader’s side and tried to drag him to cover. The frantic movement drew another burst of machine-gun fire from near Ticker Copse. The second soldier fell dead, and Cecil was hit again, the bullet tearing into the right side of his chest. Prone on his back, Cecil lay breathing raggedly, unable to speak. His eyes, which were open, were losing their light. His heart beat on, and on. It took him an hour to die.
It may be that as he lay dying he was beyond thinking, or perhaps in his last moments he thought of home … of his close friend Muriel … of his family and mates … of good times on the beaches of Manly, some of Sydney’s finest … of the grand days when, in Sydney’s baths and ocean pools, he was Australia’s finest swimmer … and of the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 when he raced the great Duke Kahanamoku, and thousands cheered …
He died about 8am. At this hour, in peace-time in another land, Cecil Healy would likely have been careening down the face of a Manly wave.
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