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.’
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.’