IN THE DAYS AFTER Steve Mascord’s new book Touchstones was first released, I approached Tony Webeck, the highly respected chief Queensland correspondent for nrl.com, to see what he thought of the book.
At the time, a large part of Tony's working life was focused on the ongoing State of Origin series. So I wasn’t surprised that the first chapter he would turn to was Steve’s critique of Origin football. By the time he had finished the book, Tony was comparing it to one of the most popular books of its genre to be published in the last 30 years.
This is Tony’s report …
IF YOU HAVE READ the musings or heard him speak on the subject in various media outlets over the past decade, you will know that Steve Mascord has endured a tormented relationship with the most viewed and talked about aspect of rugby league: State of Origin.
As a purist, it has been hard for Mascord to come to terms with the commercialism that the Origin concept has come to embody. Origin’s sheer populist nature is actually a turn-off for an aficionado who has chased those chasing a football from Russia to Jamaica and everywhere in between.
But if you think you know what Steve Mascord really thinks of State of Origin you must read his astonishing new book, Touchstones.
This is unlike any rugby league book you have ever read. In fact, calling it a rugby league book — despite Mascord’s standing in a game to which he has essentially committed his life — is selling it far too short.
This is the exploration of a complex individual and how his uncertain beginnings in this big bad world shaped a life that by age 47 saw him accumulate nothing but memories, hundreds of records and CDs, almost every edition of Rugby League Week and $50,000 in credit-card debt.
What followed was a discovery of his true self and how Andrew John Langley — the name that was bestowed upon him at birth — viewed his adopted other self’s twin obsessions of rugby league and rock’n’roll.
Which brings us back to State of Origin, a game that each year stretches beyond the Telstra Premiership’s boundaries to captivate passive supporters en masse and which on Wednesday will likely draw more than 52,000 fans to Suncorp Stadium and be the highest-rating television program of the year.
Most rugby league lovers cannot imbibe enough of the adrenaline that Origin offers, but as its popularity grew from its humble beginnings 37 years ago Mascord struggled more and more with the concept.
‘Perhaps there are always clues that one will eventually encounter a crisis of identity,’ Mascord begins in his chapter devoted to State of Origin in Touchstones.
‘One such clue can be found in people who, even as they associate themselves with something mainstream, with ‘the crowd’, disavow themselves of the most mainstream aspect of that thing. They’re the most “out” part of the ‘in-crowd’.
‘That’s what it’s like for me and State of Origin.’
Although he has been reporting on rugby league for close to 30 years, Mascord had never sat sideline at an Origin game until 2013 when, in one of his myriad guises — this one with Triple M — he allowed himself to at least taste the intoxication of Origin that the rest of us consume heartily.
‘I’ve got to admit, being so close to something that others hold in such reverence was energising and almost intoxicating,’ Mascord writes.
‘I had always believed that Origin players knew, intellectually, that they had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches.
‘But, sitting on the sideline, I realised that committing mayhem was not just an intellectual decision. It was primal. It emanated from the 82,000 souped-up spectators who came not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding them.
‘I came away thinking that it was a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that an Origin series is not just one big 240-minute rolling brawl.’
But, and this is the genius of Touchstones, what does Andrew John Langley think of Mascord’s ambivalence to the game’s showpiece that drives so much interest and income?
‘I heard you went on a high-rating rugby league TV show and said you didn’t like the highest-rating rugby league games of the year. Are you insane,’ he asks of the author.
‘No wonder your segment on that show was canned and you’re broke.’
Like Nick Hornby’s seminal Fever Pitch, this book is not about rugby league but one man’s obsession with it and how the discovery of his true self forced him to question everything that he had held true for more than 40 years.
It’s going to make for a helluva film.
Tony Webeck can be found @TonyWebeck
IT’S BEEN ANOTHER PRETTY good year for Australian sports books. There are plenty of good titles currently on sale, with cricket books everywhere. This is my view on the notable sports books released this year in Australia, including a Top 5 and a book of the year ...
For sheer number of ‘celebrity’ cricket books being published, there has never been a summer like it. Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Brad Hogg, Mitchell Johnson, Darren Lehmann, Dennis Lillee, Jim Maxwell, Mark Nicholas and Chris Rogers have all released life stories … Dean Jones has compiled a small coaching book … Ellyse Perry and David Warner have their names on kids’ books … from overseas come autobiographies by, among others, AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum and Jonathan Trott. Beyond the celebrity authors, there are several worthy titles, led by Brian Matthews’ fine and affectionate Benaud: An Appreciation and Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket.
Of all these cricket books, large and small, I think A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas is the best. It’s very readable, great fun in parts, with some poignant memories and important analysis. Who’d have known that Nicholas played a season with ‘Dutchy’ Holland in the early ’70s? The stories of Malcolm Marshall are brilliant, as are the memories of Kerry Packer, but what really got me in the end was Nicholas’ unwavering love of cricket. He has a great and genuine affection for the game that I used to have and that some of his fellow cricket authors of 2016 also seem to have misplaced. I blame working as a ghost writer for my estrangement; I wonder why the modern Australian cricketer often seems so jaded.
Chris Rogers’ Bucking the Trend is a case in point. Rogers is lucky to have an excellent co-author in Cricinfo’s Dan Brettig, and while their idea of having the ghost introduce each chapter is not new, in Brettig’s hands it really works, allowing others to complement and flesh out the main protagonist’s recollections. But while the story is interesting and comprehensive, and Rogers comes across as a good, intelligent man who is proud of his development and aware of his foibles, the life of a 21st century professional comes across as more grind than glamour. The real joy that pervades Nicholas’ page-turner is far less apparent in the memoirs of today’s cricketers.
Haigh’s tribute to Trumper and the renowned photographer George Beldam has been widely praised, and deservedly so. When you’re writing about the finest batsman who ever lived, how can you go wrong? But it is not perfect. Stroke of Genius is superb in parts, meticulously researched, though the absence of an index is weird and frustrating, and for a book that is in part about photography and features photographs throughout the pages, it’s a pity the publisher didn’t opt for a better paper stock. The legend of Vic has not always been accurately reported, and Haigh is quick to criticise those who in the past have accepted the folklore without checking the facts, so it is disappointing to see him fall for the same trap when it comes to Trumper’s involvement in the birth of rugby league in Australia. If only, among all the books and references listed in his ‘Guide to Sources’, he had also consulted Sean Fagan’s masterful 2007 biography of Dally Messenger. But it would be churlish to leave Stroke of Genius out of my Top 5, because it is way more good than flawed.
Fagan’s work is one of a number of outstanding rugby league books to be published in the last decade, but strangely there were very few league (or rugby union) books released in 2016. Of course, Stoke Hill Press published a 50th anniversary edition of Larry Writer’s Never Before, Never Again, which prompted the Courier-Mail’s Mike Colman to describe it as a ‘great book, arguably the best ever on rugby league’. Colman knows sport and knows books, so we’ll take the compliment. Writer also gave us Pitched Battle: In the Frontline of the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia, which author, historian and academic Sean Scalmer in the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed as ‘sensitive … impressive … artful in its arrangement and humane in its spirit’. David Middleton’s 2016 Official Rugby League Annual is no better or worse than previous years, which simply means it is as exceptional as ever. One of the feature stories in this issue, ‘The Mystery of Charlie Ross: the 59th Kangaroo’, is the league yarn of the year. This is the 30th edition of Middleton’s annual — a remarkable achievement — so, a bit like when Paul Newman and John Wayne received their best actor Oscars after many years in the business, I’m including the Official Rugby League Annual in this year’s Top 5.
In the AFL, three of the code’s most prominent identities of recent times — Brent Harvey, Mark Thompson and Dane Swan — produced autobiographies in 2016. In my view, Bomber’s is best, readable from first page to last. Having finished the book, I’m not sure I like the guy all that much, but that’s not the point, a reality captured brilliantly by Tim Bauer’s grim, highly effective cover photograph. (Compare Bomber staring at you to Chris Rogers hidden behind his helmet on the cover of Bucking the Trend and ask yourself: Which book do I want to read?) The use of the coach’s game-day notes and match plans is excellent and revealing. Maybe the text needed one more edit, but it’s still very good.
Cadel Evans’ autobiography, The Art of Cycling, is another well written big book that really should have an index. Evans comes across as a man totally focused on his own preparation, performance and fate. Throughout the pages, he is true to himself, but the result is a read that is safe and sure but lacking in adventure or revelations. The book carries the sub-title ‘The Autobiography of Australia’s Greatest Cyclist’, which is at least debatable — I’d put Anna Meares and Russell Mockridge, the two-time gold medallist from Helsinki in 1952, ahead of him. Earlier in the year, the Queensland-based Hunter Publishers gallantly re-released Mockridge’s posthumous 1958 autobiography, My World on Wheels; if you are going to buy one cycling book for Christmas, that’s the one. The chapters on his one Tour de France are far superior to anything in Evans’ tome. On his 27th birthday, July 18, 1955, during the climb up Ventoux, an almost delirious Mockridge was so desperate for water, sugar and support that he jumped off his bike and made for a nearby farmhouse, where a local family revived him and sent him back on his climb. A little more than three years later, Russell Mockridge was killed in a bus accident while competing in the Tour of Gippsland.
We need to ensure the great books of the past remain available for current generations. Sports history is important. I’m so impressed that Mockridge’s marvellous but for too long hard-to-find book is back in print that I’m including the new edition in my Top 5 for 2016.
If horse racing is your preference, try Adam Crettenden’s Subzero: More Than a Melbourne Cup Hero. For football, Ange Postecoglou’s Changing the Game: Football in Australia Through My Eyes is thought provoking in parts, while tennis fans should enjoy The Pros: The Forgotten Heroes of Tennis, by Peter Underwood, which at $66 is severely over-priced but does tell the story of a largely ignored period in the history of the men’s game. What did Ken Rosewall do between 1957 and 1967? Was Rod Laver dominant between 1963 and 67? How did they compare to Pancho Gonzales? Underwood has the answers.
The two best books from overseas I read in 2016 were Rick Broadbent’s Endurance: The Life and Times of Emil Zatopek (John Wisden & Co. Ltd, London) and The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend (Thomas Dunne Books, New York), by Glenn Stout. Broadbent had me from the opening chapter, where he beautifully retells the story of Zatopek giving one of his Olympic gold medals to Ron Clarke, because Clarke deserved it. Like Haigh, Stout seeks to set straight an important part of an iconic figure’s story, and he does so forensically and splendidly. I always thought Ruth was traded to the Yankees for the money, but it was more complicated and compelling than that.
But back to the best Australian sports books of the last 12 months. Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1895. Three years earlier, near Mornington, south-east of Melbourne, a ghastly disaster occurred, which led to a squad of footballers losing their lives after their boat home from an away game sunk in Port Phillip Bay. As the fruitless search for survivors continued, the Melbourne Argus commented: ‘Similar cases may have occurred in other countries, but never in Australia.’ In Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, Paul Kennedy writes of that gloomy sentence, ‘It was true then and remains true today.’
Three members of one family, the Caldwells, died together. Their sister Annie cried, ‘The cream, the very cream of Mornington is lost; the pick of the whole district was in that boat.’
Over time, especially outside Mornington, the memories of this catastrophe faded away. Some things can be just too painful. Now, Kennedy remembers it with a historian’s eye and a tender pen. It is an important story in good hands, one that deserves best-seller status. In my view, Fifteen Young Men is the Australian sports book of the year.
I recall Christmas Day 40 years ago, when I received Ian Chappell’s just published autobiography, Chappelli. I must have received other gifts, but I can’t remember them. I was 15, younger than most of the footballers who drowned off Mornington in 1892 but not by much. I went straight out the back to start reading. I had to get dragged to lunch and the book was read by sunset. It was magnificent. If you are fortunate enough to find books by any of Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton or Russell Mockridge under your tree this year your Christmas Day should be similarly set.
If you get to unwrap Fifteen Young Men, you might shed a tear or two, but you’ll probably be the most satisfied of all.
GIVEN THE RATINGS SUCCESS of the just completed third Australia-South Africa Test in Adelaide — and the quality of the contest — it seems that day/night Test cricket might be here to stay. If only the tourists had managed another 50 to 75 runs in the second innings, and the match would have been set up perfectly … from a TV producer’s point of view. Australia would have had a tricky run-chase that would have culminated at about 9.30pm, Sydney time, prime time, under lights.
As it was, the cricket was excellent. The ball seamed around under lights, but Faf du Plessis and Usman Khawaja proved that run-making against the pink ball under lights is very possible. Now, many of the questions critics asked about Test cricket under lights have been answered, though it remains true that, sooner or later, a game will be played on a grassless pitch that might make the pink ball too difficult to see; ODI cricket had that problem and I’m not sure that even now they’ve found a proper solution.
Curators have always had an important part to play in Test cricket. Day/night games will only accentuate this reality.
There is a certain symmetry to the day/night Test match being held in the last week of November. Today, November 28, what would have been the fifth day of the game just completed in Adelaide, is the 38th anniversary of arguably cricket’s most significant day/night game — the limited-over World Series Cricket encounter between the Australians and the West Indians that was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground at the start of WSC’s second season.
This was the ‘rebel’ troupe’s first game — day or night — at the SCG, and it resulted in a five-wicket victory for the home team. During 1977–78, WSC had staged their Sydney matches at the nearby Showground.
Richie Benaud, one of the principal figures in WSC, described the innovation of night cricket as ‘breathtaking’. The first game at the SCG, he said, was ‘something I will never forget’. Indeed, this was the night when the tide in cricket’s ‘great war’ turned. However, as is now the case with day/night Tests, not everyone was happy, at least initially.
Some critics claimed that it was so difficult to pick up the white ball in the twilight period between day and night, a batsman would eventually be seriously hurt, even killed. One prominent architect described the SCG’s new light towers as a ‘disaster’. When the lights were first switched on, a woman at Balgowlah Heights, 10 kilometres away, complained that the glare ‘hurt the back of my eyes’. A resident at nearby Moore Park complained: ‘We turned off every light in the flat and could still read the newspaper by the lights on the ground.’ Another local wondered if the lights would diminish the value of her property.
But up in the press box, the legendary leg-spinner turned cricket writer, Bill O’Reilly, was reminded of football finals and the boisterous crowds that had watched the acrimonious bodyline series 46 years before.
The official crowd was announced as 44,377. The actual attendance was more than 50,000, after Kerry Packer asked SCG officials to open the turnstiles so everyone queuing up outside could get in. He admitted that he had been hoping for half that number. The WSC players had been treated as pariahs in some circles for more than year. Now, wrote John Woodcock, the long-time cricket correspondent for the London Times, they were ‘idols’ again. Six months later, the Australian Cricket Board and WSC came together and a new cricket era began.
Given his comments at the time of the first night game and in the seasons that followed, it seems almost certain that Richie Benaud would be a supporter of day/night Test cricket. As former England captain Michael Atherton writes in the new book, Richie: The Man Behind the Legend: ‘He loved twenty20 and all the technological advances (and) recognised that times change.’
Similarly, Greg Chappell (pictured above, with Richie, in 1976) reckons the great captain-turned-greatest commentator ‘never lived in the past’. There has been no decision about whether any of next summer’s Ashes Tests will be played under lights, though Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland is a fan. ‘I like the idea,’ he said on ABC Radio during the Test. ‘It's a continued progression, it's good for the game.’
It will be interesting if the crowds next season for Adelaide’s Ashes Test can match or even better the 50,000-plus who joined Richie at the SCG on November 28, 1978. Hopefully, the administrators will find a way to make this happen. It does appear clear, as clear as the pink ball under lights, that 38 years on another new and exciting revolution is underway.
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.’