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.’
IN NEVER BEFORE, NEVER AGAIN, Billy Smith — the greatest halfback St George has ever had; maybe the greatest halfback any rugby league team has ever had — remembered the first time he met a giant who would have an enormous influence on his career …
‘In 1958, when I was 16, I played in a President’s Cup grand final at Prince Edward Park, where the St George Leagues Club now stands. After the game I ran across the Princes Highway to Kogarah Jubilee Oval to watch Saints firsts play.
‘At full-time, instead of jumping the fence to race for the corner posts like all the other kids, I went straight to Norm Provan and shook his hand. I couldn’t afford an autograph book at the time, so I just shook his hand. He and I have been best friends ever since. He recognised me later when I came up through grade and he took me under his wing.’
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.’