THE FORMER ST GEORGE Illawarra forward Mike Cooper has had a few things to say about the Dragons' 2016 season in Rugby League Week.
One line stood out — when Cooper commented, ‘They always revert back to the glory years of 11 in a row. That was a long time ago, the club’s sort of built on that and still talking about that, and I think they maybe need to move on from that era because that isn’t where the club is at the minute.’
Rather than 'moving on', we reproduce some words from Norm Provan that first appeared in Never Before, Never Again and were featured a few weeks ago in this blog ...
‘I always thought it was stupid when I heard Saints coaches of the ’80s and ’90s say that the deeds of the St George premiership-winning sides put unfair pressure on their teams to succeed. I say these coaches didn’t use the great tradition enough. That winning tradition should be a very strong attraction to young players. Saints’ tradition in the ’50s and ’60s attracted players from everywhere to trial with us and be a part of it.
‘That tradition shouldn’t be killed.
‘You’ve only got to put the film up and see how Billy Smith could put a player through a gap, and how Raper could go all day, and the speed and acceleration of Gasnier. You’ve only got to look in the record books and see what we achieved. I guess those [latter-day] coaches just wanted to be judged on their own merits, on what they accomplished on their own.’
THE NEW EDITION OF Never Before, Never Again was published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 11th straight premiership. It is, of course, also the 60th anniversary this year of the first of the 11 grand final wins.
In 1956, St George were coached by Norm Tipping, who despite winning the competition would lose the job to Ken Kearney at season’s end. Tipping (pictured at left in 1994) talked to Larry Writer about the importance of his team …
‘What made Saints’ great run was my team that won the competition in 1956. Not me, mind you, but my team. Because we won that premiership good players came from everywhere to join us: Lumsden, Clay, Raper, Harry Bath came to a winning team. I started the ball rolling in 1956.
‘These blokes didn’t come because [Frank] Facer was there, they came because they would earn winning money, accumulate premiership blazers and make the rep teams from a strong side. They were attracted by success. Good players go to good teams ...’
FRANK FACER, ST GEORGE’S secretary during the 11 straight premierships, didn’t make many mistakes. Perhaps his worst was to let Kevin Ryan leave for Canterbury in 1967, though the reality is that Ryan wanted to coach and Ian Walsh was entrenched in the role at the Dragons. Facer’s other major error came later, in 1972.
As Saints long-time treasurer Glyn Price (pictured) explained to Larry Writer in Never Before, Never Again, ‘Steve Rogers came to us when he was a teenager. Told Frank he wanted to play for us, because his father was a great St George supporter, but Frank told Steve, “You’re not ready, son, now go back to the juniors for 12 months and then we’ll take you on.” Steve ended up at Cronulla and became one of the best centres of all time.’
Rogers was struck by Facer’s ‘businesslike aura’. He commented: ‘Frank told me I was a bit young and advised me to go back to the Gold Coast juniors for a year. I was very disappointed because my dad and I were so keen to see me in the red and white, but Frank gave me no choice.’
Cronulla have never won a premiership. They have only been runners-up twice — in 1973 and 1978 — with Rogers, unquestionably the club’s greatest ever player, a key figure on both occasions. It’s hard to believe that the Sharks would have reached either grand final without him.
Cronulla are currently celebrating their third appearance in a premiership decider, which will occur this Sunday when they take on the Melbourne Storm. Had the great Frank Facer not made one of his rare misjudgements, most likely it would be their first.
RUGBY LEAGUE IN THE 1950s and ’60s was rugged and brutal in a way that modern league players and fans can only imagine. Never Before, Never Again has many stories of wild affairs. The St George champions of this era were not just highly skilled; they needed to be tough, brave and resilient to survive in a game where head butts and stiff-arms were dealt out on a regular basis.
The 1958 and 1959 grand finals were both peppered with violence: in ’58, Saints battered Wests from the kick-off, in response to the Magpies’ strong-arm tactics that had proved successful in the major semi-final; a year later, Harry Bath and Rex Mossop conducted a private war that culminated in the pair being sent off late in a game the Dragons won 20–0. But for sheer violence, arguably the ugliest game of the 11 years occurred in 1966, when Souths decided to ‘turn it on’ at the Sydney Showground. Kevin Ryan told Larry Writer about one moment he remembered from the match, which involved the Rabbitohs forward John Sattler …
‘Ian Walsh reeled out of the scrum with his eye opened up, and I said, “What happened?” And he said, “Sattler got me.” I said, “Look, I’m sorry, it shouldn’t have happened. I’m the prop here, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen when I’m around.”
‘So next scrum we packed down and I dropped my arm to throw a short left at Satts. I can still see his reaction. He saw me and pulled right out of the scrum and wouldn’t pack in.’
ONE OF THE MOST important events in the history of the St George rugby league club occurred in 1956, when Frank Facer became secretary. Today, we would call him the CEO. Facer (pictured at left on the day Harry Bath signed his contract to join the Dragons) had been a good and rugged first-grade footballer with Norths and St George, and from the jump he was a tough and pragmatic administrator. Facer was a ruthless operator who made enemies, but his record is extraordinary — almost all the tough calls he and his fellow committeemen made during the 11 years proved to be correct.
‘With Facer, you gave your word and so did he and that was it. His handshake was his word,’ says Johnny King. In Never Before, Never Again, the former Saints lower-grader Paul Broughton, who went on to coach first-grade at Balmain and Newtown, remembered the man known as ‘Fearless’ …
‘Frank had management skills he didn’t know he had. Thanks to him there wasn’t a bit of shit in the whole joint. If he had something to say to you, he’d say it bluntly but in private, man to man.
‘And he never told a player a lie. If he promised you something, he’d deliver, and if the committee tried to vote him down he’d threaten to resign. So he always got his way.’
THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION of Never Before, Never Again features two new forewords, by Craig Young and Mark Gasnier. Young, of course, is one of the legends of the Dragons’ modern history: a premiership player in his first season at Kogarah, in 1977; captain from 1979 — when he was again part of a grand final-winning side — to 1988; first-grade coach, Kangaroo, icon.
In the book, Young recalls playing under coach Harry Bath, and with a man who’d been a member of the final four of the 11 straight competition wins …
‘Another of the Saints greats from the premiership run, Billy Smith, was still playing in 1977. In my debut game in first grade, during the preseason, Billy took me under his wing. A halfback showing the ropes to a prop? Yes. Billy hit the ball up like an extra forward. He and Harry taught me to use the ball and put a teammate through a gap.
‘And Billy put me through gaps. He’d run at the defence, draw a man and pass, and he didn’t mind if he got bashed or coat-hangered if he could put you into space. Next thing, I’d be running in fresh air.
‘He was so tough ...’
ST GEORGE’S MOST EXPENSIVE player acquisition during the 11-year premiership run occurred in 1964, when they signed the great English second-rower Dick Huddart from St Helens. Huddart had some good days wearing the Red V, but it is true that he didn’t have the major impact many expected of him. He played in just the one grand final: in 1966, when he was one of the Dragons’ best in their 23–4 defeat of Balmain.
In Never Before, Never Again, Huddart recalled the end of the winning sequence and offered his view on what would have happened if St George had managed to survive the 1967 preliminary final …
‘We could have won the final against Ryan’s Canterbury-Bankstown in 1967 and if we had we would have won our 12th grand final. We were invincible in grand finals and I’m sure we could have outlasted Souths.
‘In the final, we were leading 9–0 but we were beaten, and the reason we got beat is that we had two injured internationals in our side who shouldn’t have played that day. Two fit men of lesser ability would have been better value and that would have won us the game.’
ONE OF THE FEATURES of St George’s 11-year winning run was how rarely a player left the club before the club was ready to let him go. It is true that a number of players left Kogarah and went on to contribute well for their new team — Peter Provan at Balmain, Bob Bugden at Parramatta, Billy Wilson at Norths, Johnny Greaves at Canterbury and Brian James at Souths are good examples — but only Kevin Ryan, who led Canterbury to the 1967 grand final, was a traumatic loss.
In Never Before, Never Again, Eddie Lumsden explained what kept him a Saint …
‘Saints looked after me. The money wasn’t the best, but why play with a losing team? Easts offered Ian Walsh big money and I asked him why he didn’t switch. He said, “Well, for starters, it’s much easier playing with you, Poppa and Billy Wilson, than against you.”
‘If you wanted to win premierships and play for Australia, St George was your club. The Western Suburbs players in my era were paid far more money than me, some were on a flat £1000 a season, but I have ten premiership blazers in my wardrobe. They don’t have one.
‘I’m way ahead.’
MORE FROM HARRY BATH, as he provides hints in Never Before, Never Again to what he brought to St George when he joined the club from Warrington in 1957 …
‘Gradually Saints learned how to play smarter. I gave them the benefit of my experience and taught them short cuts. In England, I worked out that one doesn’t beat one, two beats one. You draw a man, suck him in, and put your teammate into the gap the defender you’ve drawn has left. It’s simple.
‘Rugby league is physical draughts. In attack, you have to change the angles, stand deep and have a man either side of you and behind you, backing you up, so you can create indecision in the opposition and give yourself options.
‘I’d never run far or get out too wide, I’d set it all up from in close. But from first receiver, getting the ball from Kearney at dummy half, I could use a short pass, a flick, a long cut-out, change the point of attack ...’
THE EPILOGUE IN THE new 50th Anniversary edition of Never Before, Never Again is built around an interview Larry Writer conducted with Johnny King and Eddie Lumsden. In the words of Writer, these two fine men, once great wingers in the famous St George teams of the ’50s and ’60s, admire many parts of the modern rugby league, not least the skills and strength of the footballers, and the colour and excitement of the matches.
‘It’s a tough game played by tough men,’ says Johnny King. ‘Each generation throws up its champions.’
‘I love the game, and I always will, it’s been so good to me,’ says Eddie Lumsden. ‘I still follow St George and Kurri Kurri, my team before I went to the Big Smoke in 1957. There’s plenty that’s good about rugby league today but, boy, I wouldn’t swap my time for now.’
It is true that King and Lumsden are critical of some aspects of 21st-century rugby league …
On uncontested scrums, King is fired up: ‘Don’t talk to me about Cameron Smith, he’s never won a scrum in his life! Killer would kick his rival hooker to death to get the ball.’ And they both cringe when they asked about teammates consoling a player who has dropped the ball or kicked into touch on the full. ‘We’d be right up ’em,’ King exclaims. ‘Wouldn’t matter if it was Ed or me or Gaz or Chook or Billy who’d stuffed up. Mistakes cost you matches.’
‘You’d never see a halfback slapping or mouthing off to a forward like you see in these no-punching days,’ he continues, ‘because he’d be straightened out quick smart. Nobody ever taunted us. We stood up for ourselves and if that meant throwing a punch or a coat-hanger to defend ourselves or dominate an opponent, then so be it. We loved the confrontation and so did the spectators. We’d shake hands with the bloke we belted after the match and that’d be the end of it.’