ONE THING THE LEGENDARY St George coach Ken Kearney didn’t lack was confidence. He understood football as completely as any leader in the history of the game, applying the wisdom he’d learned while playing in England to build a red-and-white juggernaut. As he explained in Never Before, Never Again, the discipline he insisted on and the pride that came from it was the bedrock on which the Dragons’ dominance was built …
‘My job was to make sure we kept winning and that we were a harmonious team, and this meant dealing with conflicts and making sure the boys were playing to the best of their ability. It involved devising the right tactics and making sure they were carried out.
‘I made them follow my instructions to the letter in games. If my tactics got us beaten, I’d cop the blame. But if they didn’t follow my instructions and we lost, then I’d blame them. I knew the ins and outs of every player in the competition, so I could tell my blokes exactly the way to approach each match, who of the opposition players were dangermen and weak links, whether they’d play it in the forwards or the backs, or had a fullback who’d kick the leather off the ball.
‘Results show I wasn’t often wrong.’
ONE OF THE MOST amazing events to occur during St George’s 11-year winning streak came after the first grand final win in 1956, when Saints dismissed coach Norm Tipping, replacing him with captain Ken ‘Killer’ Kearney. The move is unprecedented in elite Australian rugby league, and there are very few other examples in the history of major sport across the planet of a club or franchise rewarding a winning coach or manager with the sack.
But the move worked. Kearney went on to create a dynasty. In Never Before, Never Again, he talked about how he approached the task …
‘They knew what their responsibilities were as St George players. They had to be professional in every way. That meant being at training, ready to go, at 5.30 on the dot. They had to be superbly fit and be able to play in pain because there were no replacements allowed. They had to perform their job to perfection on the field. I made sure that every player knew what we were up against and what he had to do when he ran on to play each week. And off the field, [Frank] Facer and I insisted they be worthy and reputable representatives of the club.
‘I recognised it was vital that we all got along well together and went to picnics and pubs and parties and restaurants as a group, but when I took over in 1957 the boys were drinking far too much and it was hurting their form. I cut that out, as much as I could.
‘Before I took over, they’d do half an hour’s training and then spend two hours up at the Royal Hotel at Carlton. I let them know early that if they wanted to drink to excess and play up they would not be in my side. Johnny Raper [who transferred from Newtown to St George prior to the 1959 season] was the only exception. He was the worst larrikin, but the best trainer of the lot. He was a rarity because drinking didn’t affect his performance.
NORM PROVAN WAS ST GEORGE’S captain-coach from 1962 to 1965. In Never Before, Never Again, he attempted to condense his coaching philosophy during these four seasons into a single paragraph …
‘Before every match I’d go through the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, work out our strategy accordingly, and I’d address our fellows before we went onto the field. We knew our opponents backwards. If I thought one of our men might have a problem with a rival player, I’d warn the others to keep an eye out for him. That didn’t happen often, but there were always teams, and individual players, who gave us trouble. ‘But we went into every game with great confidence. We always expected to win.’
ST GEORGE’S GRAND FINAL opponents in 1966 were Balmain, who were coached by Harry Bath. As one of the great thinkers in league history, a man who had helped design Saints’ winning blueprint, Bath was almost uniquely placed to counter the Dragons. He would go on to coach the first-grade team at Kogarah, winning premierships in 1977 and 1979.
In 1966, not even Harry Bath could prevent an 11th straight St George premiership. Fifty years to the day after this extraordinary achievement was completed, here is how the Old Fox remembered the lead-up to the match when talking to Larry Writer for Never Before, Never Again …
‘I told my blokes before the 1966 grand final to keep the ball away from Saints, eliminate mistakes, put yourselves in a position where [Keith] Barnes could kick a goal. [David] Bolton, [Peter] Provan and [Arthur] Beetson were our only top-class attacking players, but we had Golden Boots Barnes, who’d kicked us to victory over St George before.
‘The other thing I told each man to concentrate on was tackling his opposite number out of the game. If everyone did that job, we’d have no problems. Of course, against St George, this was easier said than done. In attack I told them they’d be wasting their time trying to crash through the brickwall defence and that the only way to penetrate was to run off each other, lengthen the pass, throw cut-outs to confuse their straight line.
‘In the end, we tried hard, but we didn’t have the class.’
TOMORROW, SEPTEMBER 17, 2016, is the 50th anniversary of the 11th and last grand final in St George’s unique premiership winning streak.
You can see large parts of the ABC’s telecast of the match on YouTube. The commentator is the late, great Norman May, with expert analysis by Trevor Allan.
Exactly 11 years after this famous day, St George would appear in another grand final on September 17: the 9–all draw with Parramatta in 1977. Saints would dominate the replay a week later, winning 22–0, the Dragons' first premiership since the 11 straight.
St George’s captain-coach in 1966 was Ian Walsh, who told Larry Writer in Never Before, Never Again: ‘If Saints had lost the premiership in my first year at the helm I would have looked for a rock to crawl under. I would have left the district and never come back. Thankfully, we beat Balmain in the grand final that year and although I was in charge when we were dethroned in 1967, they can’t take 1966 away from me.
‘We won the competition and we won it well.’
MONTY PORTER PLAYED IN six grand finals (1958–1960, 1962–64), and while he didn’t win the representative honours awarded to many of his teammates, he was a relentless and an important figure in the premiership run.
In Never Before, Never Again, he remembered an era where you really did have to be tough and brave to survive …
‘We’d knock the fight out of our opponents in that first, vital 20 minutes. Those of us who played on the left side competed with the guys on the right. I reckon I’d have topped the tackle count because opponents ran to my side of the ruck to avoid running into Norm Provan on the right! He was all elbows and legs and arms.
‘It was simple. In defence, we moved up in a straight line and we all had the ability, and the inclination, to tackle and tackle hard. Each man in our pack could knock an opponent backwards. Part of the reason is that we were conditioned to be hard. There were never any soft tackles.
‘We really did crunch blokes. We were not a dirty side, but high tackles were in. You’d be very unlucky to get sent off for a stiff-arm tackle in those days. Most of us wouldn’t last five minutes playing under today’s rules. That’s why Harry Bath was so good. He could absorb the stiff-arms yet still get the ball away. He had a knack of covering up. Later on, playing against Sattler and the Souths blokes, we still drew our man and put a support through a gap, but you were always a chance of copping a cracked jaw. There were many broken jaws in my day.’
EDDIE LUMSDEN SCORED AT least one try in nine consecutive finals matches between 1957 and 1960. He also scored two grand final hat-tricks, in 1959 and 1961, and was on the wing for nine of the 11 grand finals, missing only the first (he joined the Dragons from Kurri Kurri at the start of the ’57 season) and 1960, when he suffered a knee injury. ‘Give him the ball ten metres from the other team’s tryline and put the glasses down,’ is how Johnny Raper captured his friend’s tryscoring ability.
In Never Before, Never Again, Lumsden wondered if modern players were better prepared for rugby league than the greats of 1956–66 …
‘I could be wrong, but I also think we were fitter. Sure, blokes today have all the hi-tech gym equipment and special diets, but we led outdoor lifestyles with lots of running and surfing and rowing surfboats. And most of us did heavy manual work for a crust, working on building sites, on the wharves, driving trucks. That’s not the case today. Players today don’t drink. We did. But I’m sure the fact that we were drinking buddies worked in our favour on the field. So much of our spirit in a game was engendered by playing up together as mates.
‘And we were naturals, unlike many modern players who are taught skills and fundamentals from specialist coaches. Yes, we learned plenty from Harry Bath and Killer [Kearney], but we could all attack and defend and could read a game. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they were playing today, Gasnier, Raper, Provan, Smith, Langlands, King would be the game’s superstars.’
NO ONE CAN KNOW for sure what was the greatest ever reserve-grade side in the history of the Sydney premiership. But some of the St George ‘seconds’ from 1956–66 would be strong contenders.
In Never Before, Never Again, Harry Bath remembered the fierce rivalry for positions in Saints’ top side ...
‘The competition was so strong, everybody had to give their best the whole time. Don’t forget that the reserve grade would be winning their comp too, and there would be plenty of blokes in that team sweating on a first-grade position. I can remember even blokes like Billy Wilson and Monty Porter, important cogs in the side, waiting nervously outside the dressing room for the first-grade team list to be pinned on the wall.’
A FEATURE OF THE mighty St George sides of 1956–66 was the famed brickwall defence. In the 1956 grand final, Brian Staunton scored Balmain’s two tries in their 18–12 loss to the Dragons. Saints would concede just three more grand final tries in the next decade: one each by Manly’s Peter Burke in 1957, Wests’ Darcy Russell in 1958 and Wests’ Gil MacDougall in 1963.
In Never Before, Never Again, Ian Walsh, who joined St George in 1962 and was captain-coach in 1966, explained how this defensive juggernaut operated …
‘You had your forwards and inside backs all running up flat out in a line beside each other, the bloke on the outside a little bit in front of the man inside him to create an umbrella effect. Opposition players would be driven back inside into the middle of our ruck where they would be dealt with.
‘Depending on play, the wingers would come in and inflict terrible damage on the outside centre, or hang back to help the fullback, and the cover-defending lock mopped up any rare breaks that came against us. Clay was a master of tearing up on his opposite number and sending him scurrying back among the forwards. Sometimes the poor fellow would be panicked into a silly kick to try to save his skin.
‘Gasnier and Riley were adept at moving up fast slightly on the outside of their man and herding him back infield. Graeme Langlands once played an entire grand final without making a tackle.
‘As for forward defence positions, if you were a left second rower, you hunted in defence with your left front-row partner on the left side of the ruck. The right prop and second rower would patrol the right of the ruck. As hooker, the centre of the ruck was my responsibility. The first couple of metres off the ruck was the prop’s and a few wider still, the second rower’s. Raper would sweep in cover.’
THERE IS A TENDENCY to divide the great St George era into two periods: 1956–58 and 1959–66. This is because Reg Gasnier and Johnny Raper came to Kogarah in 1959. What was already the best side in the premiership now also featured two prodigiously talented rookies who would go on to Immortality.
In the seasons that followed, St George retained a happy knack of replacing outgoing veterans with newcomers who were just as good, in some cases even better. Kevin Ryan came in for Harry Bath, Ian Walsh for Ken Kearney, Graeme Langlands for Brian Graham, Billy Smith for Bob Bugden, Elton Rasmussen for Billy Wilson. Gasnier in the centres and Raper at lock were unique, irreplaceable.
In 1994, Never Before, Never Again author Larry Writer asked Gasnier to explain what set him apart …
‘One of the main reasons for my success in rugby league was my acceleration. From my first days as a lad in athletics, I had speed off the mark. On your marks … get set … go! I could motor from a standing start to flat out in a flash, and cover that first ten metres faster than most defenders could react. I also had a change of pace, and could think fast. I was always mentally alert and could think quickly, make a quick decision, and if I could think twice as fast as my opponent; say, decide to do something in a quarter of a second while he takes half a second to work me out, I’ve got two or three metres on him and that was enough to get me through the gap and looking for support. I was fast enough to run away from defences and if pressed by the cover defence I could go up a gear. I always liked to keep a little extra pace in reserve in case I found a speedy cover defender like Ron Coote bearing across at me. I could also kick — the grubber, the chip over the top — and I was fast enough to retrieve and be off before the defence could turn around.
‘I just think I was blessed with all the skills. They call them skills today, but in my day they were known as fundamentals. A lot of what I did in attack was done instinctively and this always gave me the chance to take opponents by surprise. You can pre-plan many things, call moves and everybody does what they know they have to do. But sometimes you have to react immediately and that’s where instinct comes in, and I could do the right thing without thinking. If you don’t know what you’re going to do, what chance does the defence have?
‘I loved setting up my outside men. Of course, I enjoyed scoring tries, especially in front of a big crowd, but if I had players to beat and unmarked men outside me, I always gave them the ball. If there’s just a fullback between you and the tryline, it’s silly to try to sidestep him and risk bombing the try if you can draw him and put your support over the line. Take the defence, unload and your mate’s over unimpeded. I was never a hog.’