THE EPILOGUE TO IAN HEADS’ The Great Grand Final Heist is written by David Trodden, CEO of the NSW Rugby League and a devoted Balmain fan.
A running theme of the book is what the Tigers' triumph in 1969 meant to the local community; Trodden, who grew up on the streets on Balmain, knows plenty about that ...
MY FATHER BILL is 90 now. He was born in a house in Bradford Street, Balmain, and lived virtually his whole life there, although his age doesn’t allow him to do so now. That was the house where I grew up as well. I went to Balmain Public School, and afterwards to Fort Street High School at Petersham. My whole childhood was Balmain.
The Balmain community back in those days was a real community, a place with a village atmosphere. Everybody’s social communications happened within the boundaries of the community. All your friends were there and everything you did was there. Growing up in that sort of environment, you developed a deep bond with that community.
I turned eight in 1969, the year we won the competition. For my birthday, I’d been given a Balmain jersey with the number one on the back, a tribute to Keith Barnes. The impact of the premiership win was a pivotal moment in forming my attitudes to a lot of things that subsequently happened in my life, based around connections to community. Before long, and in the years that followed, I genuinely believed that if you wanted to make something of your life, coming from Balmain gave you a good head start.
That team of ’69 had a real connection with the local community. They played footy the way it was meant to be played, with a smile on their faces and just having a crack, and their winning of the competition cemented the views I’d started to have, about Balmain being better than anywhere else. To me, it was the centre of the world.
The Tigers were my team, and once you fall in love with a footy team that’s it for life. They become a pillar of your life.
I watched the grand final at home, on television, wearing my jersey and with a footy in my hands. My recollections are still vivid … of the one try … of Balmain tackling Souths right out of it … of not giving them an inch.
The effect of the win was to lift and unite the entire district.
The grand final coincided with the opening week of the local cricket competition, and after fulltime I stood at the top of our street for what seemed hours, waiting for my dad to return home from his game so I could tell him that Balmain had won. He knew that already, of course, but I was determined to break the news.
Looking back at that bunch of young guys of ’69, they represented the reality of a changing era. They were there because the club had lost the likes of Keith Barnes, Laurie Moraschi, Dennis Tutty, Peter Jones, Laurie Fagan, Bob Boland, Bob Mara and Ron Clothier in the years before. This was a ‘regeneration team’, and susceptible to the coaching of Leo Nosworthy. The thought occurs: Would the older players have been as malleable? Of Nosa, I think of a man of quiet and steely determination. He was the leader, the dominant personality. Even Dave Bolton and Peter Provan, who were in the same age demographic, would defer to him. I think of Nosa, too, as ‘total Balmain’, so strongly linked to the district through family ties and his working life on the wharves.
I grew up in Balmain aware of a moral code that was reinforced everywhere you went. It modelled my life and I’m sure modelled the lives of the team of 1969, too. It was about sticking together, in line with the old Tigers motto: ‘Smile and Stick’. Now, the demographic has changed; go to pubs in Balmain these days and the Super Rugby is on the TV. But when the Tigers play at Leichhardt, the crowds still turn up on the hill, representing a concession to history: to get down there and support the local team.
Dad and I got real joy from the premiership wins of Balmain in 1969 and Wests Tigers in 2005. Both victories were against the odds, unexpected, and against a background of the absence of any sort of sustained success. Such achievements reinvigorate you whenever they happen. They renew your hope. And it’s not just to do with sport … it’s in relation to everything in your life.
THERE HAS BEEN TALK of a possible player strike during the upcoming Rugby League World Cup. Those involved in the negotiations could do worse than to remember the story of Dennis Tutty, who sat out the 1969 season over a contract dispute with his club, Balmain.
Tutty's experience is remembered by Ian Heads in The Great Grand Final Heist ...
IN THE SUMMER OF 1968–69, Balmain and South Sydney readied themselves for the challenges of the season ahead to the backdrop of a ticking time-bomb within the game. The drama focused on a Balmain local product, a young man of principle and a tireless back-row forward. He was a cousin of the champion Saint Reg Gasnier, and had played his early seasons as an amateur to allow him to compete as a Kings Cup-winning rower. A greyhound-lean athlete, by 1969 he had played five impressive first-grade seasons with the Tigers, appeared in two grand finals and worn an Australian Test jersey.
Blond and supremely athletic, Dennis Tutty became a crowd favourite along the way.
It was during 1968 that Tutty took the first step to becoming a reluctant hero for all Australian rugby league players of his time and in the future.
Tutty made it clear to Balmain and the rugby league world what was on his mind. Early in 1968, having finished his existing playing agreement with the club, he sought a release from the Tigers. He had received expressions of interest from other clubs. He was told flatly by the Tigers that there was no chance of a release. Says Tutty:
I went and asked for a signing-on fee. I was told by a club official [secretary Kevin Humphreys] that I had to play for Balmain under what they offered me, or I didn’t play rugby league at all. That was the system that existed back then. You weren’t allowed to leave a club unless they chose to place you on a transfer fee. I believed back then I was done a wrong, a bad wrong … and I just wanted to right it.
Tutty eventually agreed to play in 1968, at the request of his coach Keith Barnes. During the off-season that followed, a similar process was played out. This time, Tutty took a stand and chose not to play at all. This decision would cost him what were potentially the three best seasons of his football life, ownership of his car, which he was forced to sell, his chance of continuing as a New South Wales and Australian player, and of playing in a grand final. It also left him with an ulcer and contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Throughout his period of exile, Tutty worked labouring jobs to keep the wolf from the door.
The proceeds from the sale of his car went towards the financing of the legal mountain he chose to climb: to challenge rugby league’s iniquitous transfer system, an ugly dinosaur of too many years in the game, in the country’s highest courts. The system appeared unfair, but to that point had remained officially unquestioned. Fortuitously, a well-respected solicitor, David McKenzie, a man who held a high-ranking position in the Australian Olympic movement and who believed that Tutty had right on his side, came on board. The first step was to commence legal action against the Balmain club and the NSW Rugby League in the Equity Division of the Supreme Court.
Two leading Balmain players — classy five-eighth Peter Jones, a highly rated rugby union convert, and Laurie Moraschi, a talented utility back from Griffith who had played for NSW at fullback and was the NSW Country player of the year in 1965 — actively supported Tutty’s stand. Both men walked away from Balmain in 1969 in protest at the unfairness of the transfer system, choosing to play no part in the rugby league year. Of all his Tigers teammates, not just Tutty and Moraschi, Jones says today, ‘They were terrific blokes, mate, terrific blokes.’ He would return for a brief cameo of five games with the Tigers in 1970 but then was gone for good. Moraschi came back to Sydney football, enjoying three solid seasons with North Sydney from 1970 to 1972.
During an edgy television appearance with the three players on TCN-9’s World of Sport program in early 1969, Kevin Humphreys quoted the amounts offered to the players for that season: $200 a win and $60 a loss for Tutty; $160 a win and $60 a loss for Jones; $120 a win and $40 a loss for Moraschi. The players expressed their belief that they were entitled to a guarantee. But Humphreys pointed out that, in ‘this day and age of professional football’, his club paid on results.
The question of rising player payments was a major issue in rugby league at the time. At the Balmain RLFC annual meeting prior to the 1969 season, the highly regarded Alec Mackie, a vice president of the NSW Rugby League, told the gathering at Balmain Town Hall, ‘There can be no doubt that increasing costs are creating many headaches in the game.’ Former Tigers treasurer Arthur Toby went further, declaring that ‘the ever-increasing demands of players for increased payments is a matter of grave importance. Deputy chairman Latchem Robinson noted that the Tigers, although not in the first four in 1968, had earned and spent more than $100,000 during the season. In Rugby League World, Bill Buckley wrote of his fear that clubs were ‘operating beyond their means’. When he argued that ‘good things have been done under the transfer system’, the League president was alluding to the concern that if players could move easily from club to club, country to city, state to state, or country to country, the weak would be overwhelmed by the strong. He cited the examples of the post-war ‘poaching ban’, which prevented Clive Churchill leaving Australia, and the ‘retention funds’ of the 1930s, which stopped country clubs pillaging city teams during the Great Depression. ‘The instinct of self-preservation has influenced the NSW League,’ Buckley asserted. On the eve of the 1969 season, Kevin Humphreys spoke of his pride at the fact that of Balmain’s 52 graded players, 32 were local products, backing up an ancient boast of the Tigers: ‘We don’t buy ’em, we breed ’em.’
Balmain’s only current international of the time, Arthur Beetson, eventually became caught up in the conflict. By the end of the 1970 season, Beetson was aggrieved by the terms offered to him by Balmain — a meagre deal based strictly on match payments. Years later, Beetson would tell of a blow-up row between him and Humphreys at Leichhardt Oval.
I was furious and stormed out of the dressing-room. ‘Fuck you … that’s it for me,’ I shouted at Humphreys. Then I said, ‘Kevin, I feel like hitting you on the chin … or words to that effect. I’m walking out of here and you won’t see me again. I would rather retire than be treated like this.’ I walked out and didn’t come back.
Unsurprisingly, Beetson and Humphreys were never close after that exchange. But there remained a shared respect, with Beetson solid in his belief that, notwithstanding what had taken place in their squabble, Humphreys was ‘arguably one of the better administrators we’ve ever had in the game’.
Eventually, Balmain imposed a transfer fee of $15,000 on Beetson, which the wealthy Eastern Suburbs paid. Having been in discussions with the Tigers at a yearly figure of around $3000, Beetson, who by then had a wife and child, found himself on $5500 at Easts, and with some golden years ahead. He told film-maker Graham McNeice in an interview some years ago, ‘I felt I really got underpaid and wasn’t highly regarded. When I left Balmain, I was very bitter because I had some good friends there.’
In October 1970, the Supreme Court addressed Dennis Tutty’s challenge and deemed that the NSW Rugby League’s transfer system was invalid and a restraint of trade. The League promptly appealed to the High Court. In December 1971, the High Court ruled that the League’s retention system was ‘a restraint of trade that was both unreasonable and unjustified’.
Dennis Tutty, the man who took on City Hall, had won. Thanks to him and his committed legal team, headed by McKenzie, the playing field had changed forever for professional rugby league players, who were now able to ply their trade in a much fairer environment. And all of it had been virtually a one-man show. Tutty did not receive a single dollar of support in his fight, which stretched over three years, and little even in the way of thanks or support from fellow players.
Strapped for cash and struggling, he came back to rugby league and played 17 games for Balmain in 1971 with no financial guarantees, just match payments. He would estimate later that the overall cost in potential money he lost from football, plus that which he spent on his legal crusade, ran into tens of thousands of dollars. Delays in payments granted by his supportive legal team helped him get through.
An intriguing sidelight emerged some years later in a note from Kevin Ryan, the admired iron-man front-rower of St George’s great era, who had a fight of his own before he was allowed to move to Canterbury, as captain-coach, in 1967. The former state parliamentarian, local mayor, barrister and advocate indicated opposition to the entrenched unfairness that instigated Tutty’s defiance had been happening in other places in the mid-’60s.
In March 1992, I wrote a column recalling Tutty’s case for the Sydney Morning Herald. In response, Ryan wrote:
Just by the way of history, when I applied for transfer from St George in 1966 I was met by the transfer ban and through Jim Comans (Sydney solicitor) I was taking steps to legally challenge the transfer system when St George relented and put me on transfer. I have always been a great admirer of the courage and determination shown by Dennis Tutty, particularly in the light of the very grave consequences suffered by him as a result of the despicable conduct of some league officials at the time.
Tutty reflects today on the moment of victory after the ordeal he had been through. ‘I had no choice,’ he says. ‘The system was an unjust one and had to be challenged. It was all about that principle.’
He left Balmain immediately after the High Court verdict, playing for Penrith (1972–1974) and Easts (1975) before returning to the Tigers. With the game ‘in his system’, as he puts it, he turned to coaching and administration. He coached Balmain’s reserve-grade side for two years, winning the premiership in 1978 and losing narrowly to Canterbury in the preliminary final of 1979. He then took over as coach of the Tigers’ firsts in 1980, in what proved to be a difficult year.
An essay written in 2008 by Braham Dabscheck, a senior fellow in the faculty of law at the University of Melbourne, captured the essence of Tutty and his place in rugby league, in both the article’s content and its simple, strong headline: ‘Dennis Tutty: An Australian Hero.’ Dabscheck, a former president of the Australian Society for Sports History and an expert on players’ rights in professional sport, has written extensively on the Tutty case.
John Quayle, who in the wake of an excellent playing career with Easts, Parramatta and Australia, would become an effective and well-respected administrator, is a man with a clear view of Dennis Tutty’s place in the scheme of things:
Back then, the League was a strong organisation and there was no real challenge to the way things were. It was just the way the game was run, and as a player you accepted it. Dennis Tutty changed all that. I believe the generations of players that followed should be indebted to him forever for the stand he took. For Tutty to stand up against the administration in the face of all the negativity he copped was incredible. The League was something of a cartel at that time, and I believe they pretty much black-balled him. As for the players, I think a lot just didn’t realise exactly what a committed guy he was or the importance of what he was doing. Reflecting on it now, the players should have stood up and supported him much more than they did. Dennis Tutty was the man who freed up the transfer system, and enabled all players to begin to move and to get fair financial reward for doing something that they really enjoyed.
‘Dennis Tutty’s brave stance changed my life and the lives of many other players,’ said Arthur Beetson. Bob McCarthy describes Tutty as ‘the linchpin’ when discussing the changes to the way clubs negotiated with their players in the ’70s and beyond.
In an interview with Graham McNeice in 2008, champion centre Harry Wells, a hugely popular league man, said he believed that modern-day players owed Tutty ‘everything’. Said Wells, ‘If no one had taken the game on, we’d still be where we were back then. Everybody should be paid fairly for what they do.’
The Rugby League Players Association, representing young men who today benefit from Tutty’s brave stance, decided in 2008 to make an annual presentation in his honour. The ‘Dennis Tutty Clubman of the Year’ award is presented to the person who has ‘demonstrated the same qualities of self-sacrifice and courage as Dennis Tutty to achieve a better working environment for his fellow players’.
When he made his stand, the future for Tutty should have shone with bright promise. But this man of principle chose to take a far darker and more painful path. In the strength of his stance and his quiet determination, Dennis Tutty disqualified himself from the 1969 season and any prizes it might offer. For sure, the Tigers would have wanted such a player on the paddock.
IN THE DAYS AFTER Steve Mascord’s new book Touchstones was first released, I approached Tony Webeck, the highly respected chief Queensland correspondent for nrl.com, to see what he thought of the book.
At the time, a large part of Tony's working life was focused on the ongoing State of Origin series. So I wasn’t surprised that the first chapter he would turn to was Steve’s critique of Origin football. By the time he had finished the book, Tony was comparing it to one of the most popular books of its genre to be published in the last 30 years.
This is Tony’s report …
IF YOU HAVE READ the musings or heard him speak on the subject in various media outlets over the past decade, you will know that Steve Mascord has endured a tormented relationship with the most viewed and talked about aspect of rugby league: State of Origin.
As a purist, it has been hard for Mascord to come to terms with the commercialism that the Origin concept has come to embody. Origin’s sheer populist nature is actually a turn-off for an aficionado who has chased those chasing a football from Russia to Jamaica and everywhere in between.
But if you think you know what Steve Mascord really thinks of State of Origin you must read his astonishing new book, Touchstones.
This is unlike any rugby league book you have ever read. In fact, calling it a rugby league book — despite Mascord’s standing in a game to which he has essentially committed his life — is selling it far too short.
This is the exploration of a complex individual and how his uncertain beginnings in this big bad world shaped a life that by age 47 saw him accumulate nothing but memories, hundreds of records and CDs, almost every edition of Rugby League Week and $50,000 in credit-card debt.
What followed was a discovery of his true self and how Andrew John Langley — the name that was bestowed upon him at birth — viewed his adopted other self’s twin obsessions of rugby league and rock’n’roll.
Which brings us back to State of Origin, a game that each year stretches beyond the Telstra Premiership’s boundaries to captivate passive supporters en masse and which on Wednesday will likely draw more than 52,000 fans to Suncorp Stadium and be the highest-rating television program of the year.
Most rugby league lovers cannot imbibe enough of the adrenaline that Origin offers, but as its popularity grew from its humble beginnings 37 years ago Mascord struggled more and more with the concept.
‘Perhaps there are always clues that one will eventually encounter a crisis of identity,’ Mascord begins in his chapter devoted to State of Origin in Touchstones.
‘One such clue can be found in people who, even as they associate themselves with something mainstream, with ‘the crowd’, disavow themselves of the most mainstream aspect of that thing. They’re the most “out” part of the ‘in-crowd’.
‘That’s what it’s like for me and State of Origin.’
Although he has been reporting on rugby league for close to 30 years, Mascord had never sat sideline at an Origin game until 2013 when, in one of his myriad guises — this one with Triple M — he allowed himself to at least taste the intoxication of Origin that the rest of us consume heartily.
‘I’ve got to admit, being so close to something that others hold in such reverence was energising and almost intoxicating,’ Mascord writes.
‘I had always believed that Origin players knew, intellectually, that they had a licence to be more physical, more brutal, more violent, than in club matches.
‘But, sitting on the sideline, I realised that committing mayhem was not just an intellectual decision. It was primal. It emanated from the 82,000 souped-up spectators who came not just expecting stiff-arms and fisticuffs but demanding them.
‘I came away thinking that it was a miracle of restraint on the part of the 34 players that an Origin series is not just one big 240-minute rolling brawl.’
But, and this is the genius of Touchstones, what does Andrew John Langley think of Mascord’s ambivalence to the game’s showpiece that drives so much interest and income?
‘I heard you went on a high-rating rugby league TV show and said you didn’t like the highest-rating rugby league games of the year. Are you insane,’ he asks of the author.
‘No wonder your segment on that show was canned and you’re broke.’
Like Nick Hornby’s seminal Fever Pitch, this book is not about rugby league but one man’s obsession with it and how the discovery of his true self forced him to question everything that he had held true for more than 40 years.
It’s going to make for a helluva film.
Tony Webeck can be found @TonyWebeck
IT’S BEEN ANOTHER PRETTY good year for Australian sports books. There are plenty of good titles currently on sale, with cricket books everywhere. This is my view on the notable sports books released this year in Australia, including a Top 5 and a book of the year ...
For sheer number of ‘celebrity’ cricket books being published, there has never been a summer like it. Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Brad Hogg, Mitchell Johnson, Darren Lehmann, Dennis Lillee, Jim Maxwell, Mark Nicholas and Chris Rogers have all released life stories … Dean Jones has compiled a small coaching book … Ellyse Perry and David Warner have their names on kids’ books … from overseas come autobiographies by, among others, AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum and Jonathan Trott. Beyond the celebrity authors, there are several worthy titles, led by Brian Matthews’ fine and affectionate Benaud: An Appreciation and Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket.
Of all these cricket books, large and small, I think A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas is the best. It’s very readable, great fun in parts, with some poignant memories and important analysis. Who’d have known that Nicholas played a season with ‘Dutchy’ Holland in the early ’70s? The stories of Malcolm Marshall are brilliant, as are the memories of Kerry Packer, but what really got me in the end was Nicholas’ unwavering love of cricket. He has a great and genuine affection for the game that I used to have and that some of his fellow cricket authors of 2016 also seem to have misplaced. I blame working as a ghost writer for my estrangement; I wonder why the modern Australian cricketer often seems so jaded.
Chris Rogers’ Bucking the Trend is a case in point. Rogers is lucky to have an excellent co-author in Cricinfo’s Dan Brettig, and while their idea of having the ghost introduce each chapter is not new, in Brettig’s hands it really works, allowing others to complement and flesh out the main protagonist’s recollections. But while the story is interesting and comprehensive, and Rogers comes across as a good, intelligent man who is proud of his development and aware of his foibles, the life of a 21st century professional comes across as more grind than glamour. The real joy that pervades Nicholas’ page-turner is far less apparent in the memoirs of today’s cricketers.
Haigh’s tribute to Trumper and the renowned photographer George Beldam has been widely praised, and deservedly so. When you’re writing about the finest batsman who ever lived, how can you go wrong? But it is not perfect. Stroke of Genius is superb in parts, meticulously researched, though the absence of an index is weird and frustrating, and for a book that is in part about photography and features photographs throughout the pages, it’s a pity the publisher didn’t opt for a better paper stock. The legend of Vic has not always been accurately reported, and Haigh is quick to criticise those who in the past have accepted the folklore without checking the facts, so it is disappointing to see him fall for the same trap when it comes to Trumper’s involvement in the birth of rugby league in Australia. If only, among all the books and references listed in his ‘Guide to Sources’, he had also consulted Sean Fagan’s masterful 2007 biography of Dally Messenger. But it would be churlish to leave Stroke of Genius out of my Top 5, because it is way more good than flawed.
Fagan’s work is one of a number of outstanding rugby league books to be published in the last decade, but strangely there were very few league (or rugby union) books released in 2016. Of course, Stoke Hill Press published a 50th anniversary edition of Larry Writer’s Never Before, Never Again, which prompted the Courier-Mail’s Mike Colman to describe it as a ‘great book, arguably the best ever on rugby league’. Colman knows sport and knows books, so we’ll take the compliment. Writer also gave us Pitched Battle: In the Frontline of the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia, which author, historian and academic Sean Scalmer in the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed as ‘sensitive … impressive … artful in its arrangement and humane in its spirit’. David Middleton’s 2016 Official Rugby League Annual is no better or worse than previous years, which simply means it is as exceptional as ever. One of the feature stories in this issue, ‘The Mystery of Charlie Ross: the 59th Kangaroo’, is the league yarn of the year. This is the 30th edition of Middleton’s annual — a remarkable achievement — so, a bit like when Paul Newman and John Wayne received their best actor Oscars after many years in the business, I’m including the Official Rugby League Annual in this year’s Top 5.
In the AFL, three of the code’s most prominent identities of recent times — Brent Harvey, Mark Thompson and Dane Swan — produced autobiographies in 2016. In my view, Bomber’s is best, readable from first page to last. Having finished the book, I’m not sure I like the guy all that much, but that’s not the point, a reality captured brilliantly by Tim Bauer’s grim, highly effective cover photograph. (Compare Bomber staring at you to Chris Rogers hidden behind his helmet on the cover of Bucking the Trend and ask yourself: Which book do I want to read?) The use of the coach’s game-day notes and match plans is excellent and revealing. Maybe the text needed one more edit, but it’s still very good.
Cadel Evans’ autobiography, The Art of Cycling, is another well written big book that really should have an index. Evans comes across as a man totally focused on his own preparation, performance and fate. Throughout the pages, he is true to himself, but the result is a read that is safe and sure but lacking in adventure or revelations. The book carries the sub-title ‘The Autobiography of Australia’s Greatest Cyclist’, which is at least debatable — I’d put Anna Meares and Russell Mockridge, the two-time gold medallist from Helsinki in 1952, ahead of him. Earlier in the year, the Queensland-based Hunter Publishers gallantly re-released Mockridge’s posthumous 1958 autobiography, My World on Wheels; if you are going to buy one cycling book for Christmas, that’s the one. The chapters on his one Tour de France are far superior to anything in Evans’ tome. On his 27th birthday, July 18, 1955, during the climb up Ventoux, an almost delirious Mockridge was so desperate for water, sugar and support that he jumped off his bike and made for a nearby farmhouse, where a local family revived him and sent him back on his climb. A little more than three years later, Russell Mockridge was killed in a bus accident while competing in the Tour of Gippsland.
We need to ensure the great books of the past remain available for current generations. Sports history is important. I’m so impressed that Mockridge’s marvellous but for too long hard-to-find book is back in print that I’m including the new edition in my Top 5 for 2016.
If horse racing is your preference, try Adam Crettenden’s Subzero: More Than a Melbourne Cup Hero. For football, Ange Postecoglou’s Changing the Game: Football in Australia Through My Eyes is thought provoking in parts, while tennis fans should enjoy The Pros: The Forgotten Heroes of Tennis, by Peter Underwood, which at $66 is severely over-priced but does tell the story of a largely ignored period in the history of the men’s game. What did Ken Rosewall do between 1957 and 1967? Was Rod Laver dominant between 1963 and 67? How did they compare to Pancho Gonzales? Underwood has the answers.
The two best books from overseas I read in 2016 were Rick Broadbent’s Endurance: The Life and Times of Emil Zatopek (John Wisden & Co. Ltd, London) and The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend (Thomas Dunne Books, New York), by Glenn Stout. Broadbent had me from the opening chapter, where he beautifully retells the story of Zatopek giving one of his Olympic gold medals to Ron Clarke, because Clarke deserved it. Like Haigh, Stout seeks to set straight an important part of an iconic figure’s story, and he does so forensically and splendidly. I always thought Ruth was traded to the Yankees for the money, but it was more complicated and compelling than that.
But back to the best Australian sports books of the last 12 months. Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1895. Three years earlier, near Mornington, south-east of Melbourne, a ghastly disaster occurred, which led to a squad of footballers losing their lives after their boat home from an away game sunk in Port Phillip Bay. As the fruitless search for survivors continued, the Melbourne Argus commented: ‘Similar cases may have occurred in other countries, but never in Australia.’ In Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, Paul Kennedy writes of that gloomy sentence, ‘It was true then and remains true today.’
Three members of one family, the Caldwells, died together. Their sister Annie cried, ‘The cream, the very cream of Mornington is lost; the pick of the whole district was in that boat.’
Over time, especially outside Mornington, the memories of this catastrophe faded away. Some things can be just too painful. Now, Kennedy remembers it with a historian’s eye and a tender pen. It is an important story in good hands, one that deserves best-seller status. In my view, Fifteen Young Men is the Australian sports book of the year.
I recall Christmas Day 40 years ago, when I received Ian Chappell’s just published autobiography, Chappelli. I must have received other gifts, but I can’t remember them. I was 15, younger than most of the footballers who drowned off Mornington in 1892 but not by much. I went straight out the back to start reading. I had to get dragged to lunch and the book was read by sunset. It was magnificent. If you are fortunate enough to find books by any of Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton or Russell Mockridge under your tree this year your Christmas Day should be similarly set.
If you get to unwrap Fifteen Young Men, you might shed a tear or two, but you’ll probably be the most satisfied of all.
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.’