A personal journey through rugby league in Brisbane from the 1950s to the 1990s

by Greg Mallory

‘’Doubles on the main game! One of the most enduring memories of going to rugby league in Brisbane was the sight of the double sellers assembled at the gates. At Lang Park they were the most vocal and theatrical — as you passed through the turnstiles you were confronted with about ten  to fifteen men all more or less singing ‘one on Brothers’, ‘one on Reddy in the main game’ or ‘one on Norfs’. Doubles were a major source of revenue for Brisbane clubs, and it was vitally important that the sellers grabbed the attention of the public and sold their product, a zipped up tiny envelope which, when opened, revealed two numbers, generally a number for the home team and a number for the opposition (although this varied in representative games where the names Brisbane, Queensland or Australia would appear.) The gamble you took on buying a double was that you were effectively betting on who would be the first scorers for each team. In the 1950s and 1960s, fullbacks were usually the kickers, so to get No.1 for each team was a real advantage. Getting a winger was also regarded as a good chance, as wingers often scored from good backline moves.

I have been to rugby league games in Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, Perpignan and many grounds in the north of England, including the now defunct Central Park at Wigan, but nowhere have I seen this spectacle. Once you bought your double and got to your seat – generally in the early days a slab of concrete behind the goal posts at the Milton Road – you opened your double and your program, also purchased at the gates. You were ready to become part of this great spectacle — total commitment to absorbing all aspects of a great game. Usually you arrived for club games around the start of the reserve grade, and for the curtain raisers for representative football. There was always a lot of chattering during these minor games, as everyone was gearing up for 80 full minutes of the main game.

My first memory of an international rugby league match was a World Cup game between France and New Zealand at the Exhibition Grounds in 1957. I was with my father John Mallory, my godfather John Byrne (Uncle Johnny) and a neighbour, Tom Cunningham. France kicked off, and the ball went between the goal posts. I asked Dad, why was that not a goal, and he said that this was the kick-off and play had to be restarted. I vaguely heard words coming from these older men – Puig Aubert, Jean Dop – and for years went around thinking that the great Puig Aubert had kicked the ball over the posts. My rugby league education was beginning from these three wise men.

My father was born in Barcaldine, a rugby league stronghold. As a young man, he was a commercial traveller and ended up in Atherton in far North Queensland before the war. Rugby league in North Queensland was a religion, and the local Foley Shield competition between towns was regarded as the greatest competition on the earth. My father met my mother in Atherton, as well as Johnny and Stella Byrne, who became my godparents. Dad went to fight in New Guinea in World War II, and married my mother on his return.

Later on the Byrnes and the Mallorys ended up living two streets from each other in Annerley in Brisbane. Every Saturday and Sunday during winter, my father, Uncle Johnny and I would venture out to various club grounds around Brisbane to watch ‘the football’. Given that this was the 1950s and 1960s, my mother Mavis, godmother Stella and sister Susan were generally excluded from this largely male activity.

The fourth member of our party was Tom Cunningham, a very strict Roman Catholic, who, when not following rugby league, would be not only fixing cars, but building them. We were picked up in an old half truck/half car which Dad had assured me Tom had made out of bits of other cars. I was relegated to the back of this vehicle, but could still hear the rugby league conversations.

It seemed like the whole world was rugby league — its players, referees, commentators. The Cold War was in full swing, nuclear destruction of the planet around the corner, the Cuban missile crisis upon us, but even in summer, rugby league was everything. Johnny Byrne had played rugby league for Atherton and North Queensland, and Dad and Uncle Johnny played administrative roles in the club shortly after the war before venturing to Brisbane but to be fair to Dad, his other passions were the ALP, trade unionism and the Catholic Church.

When we went to club football we travelled all over Brisbane, to far away places such as Oxenham Park, Nundah, and even to the Redcliffe Showgrounds, where I remember seeing the great Ken McCrohon at half-time, as the players used to be addressed by their coach on the field while spectators mingled around them. I attended the 1958 Australia v Great Britain Test at the Exhibition Grounds (one of the three games labelled The Battle of Brisbane[1]). Brian Davies, the only Queenslander in the team, was captain of Australia, but it was the ferocity of the English forwards, led by the infamous Vince Karalius, that made it such a brutal affair. The English captain, Alan Prescott, broke his arm fairly early in the game, but stayed on the field the entire match. I distinctly remember him going in to tackle with one arm, the other held to his side.

Going to the football with these three men provided me with an opportunity that I felt my other schoolmates did not have. It was not only the game, but the before and after conversations, some that went for hours. I heard about ‘The Terrible Six’, Mick Crocker, the Tyquins, Harry Bath and a range of people from the 1940s and the 1950s that I had not seen play, but felt that I had. Once I did see players like Norm Pope, Barry Muir and Lionel Morgan play, the conversations meant a whole lot more.

Two overriding factors stand out on reflection. Firstly, there was the passion for Brothers (Brothers Rugby League club). We followed them everywhere and cried and celebrated at their losses and wins. But rugby league was our love, and we followed all the representative games. We were also guided by listening to the great George Lovejoy commentating on the Lang Park match, the Bulimba Cup, interstate matches and Tests. He went to Sydney and sat beside Frank Hyde at the Sydney Cricket Ground to give the Queensland commentary. He went on Kangaroo tours to send back reports, particularly on how our Queensland boys were going.

There was the Friday night preview on 4BH, which Dad and I listened to religiously, and the replays at 6 o’clock Saturday night, with George calling all the tries and reliving the drama of the game. George would always follow his broadcasts with the statement ‘Rugby league football: the greatest game of all’.

There was no entertaining other codes in conversation. Their only comment about Aussie Rules was ‘who could watch that spectacle? there are too many knock ons?’ Rugby union was never mentioned, and I remember going past a soccer ground in Fairfield on our way to a Brothers game somewhere on the north side of Brisbane. I asked Dad what that game was (I knew it was soccer, but I wanted to know who was playing and other things), and Dad’s reply was that it a game played between Greeks, Italians and other nationalities; another example of the culture of the 1950s and 1960s.

A dramatic thing happened some time around 1963 — Tom Cunningham was told by his doctor he was not allowed to go the football. He got too excited, particularly when Brothers were playing, and there was a likelihood he would have a heart attack. He stopped going and Dad, Uncle Johnny and I went in taxis. Tom Cunningham subsequently died under his house, fixing or building a car.

I remember watching the 1965 grand final with a school-friend, a memorable game in which Redcliffe won their first grand final and Artie Beetson and Kevin Yow Yeh starred. Entering university in 1966, rugby league became slightly less important, as other more personal and social/political issues took my attention. But I was at Lang Park in 1967 to see Brothers win their first Premiership since 1958. They won again in 1968, but then Valleys, Wests and Easts seemed to dominate the 1970s and Wynnum Manly and Souths in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, I worked in Wigan and followed their fortunes in various competitions including virtually every Wigan home game at Central Park. I went to Wembley in 1987, one of the great rugby league experiences you can have.

On returning to Australia, all the talk was about the Broncos entering the NSWRL competition, and I became a Broncos supporter. But I did attend the last big Brisbane grand final at Lang Park in 1987, where the unofficial attendance was 40,000. This contrasted dramatically with the 1988 grand final, the year the Broncos had entered the NSWRL, where 13,000 people turned up to watch the Diehards and Ipswich. This represented a dramatic shift in the history of rugby league in Brisbane.

The Super League War and the increasing commercialism of the game led me to research and write about the history of the Brisbane competition. I began to write in a fanzine Loosehead and spoke at conferences. I won the Tom Brock scholarship in 2001 and published a chapter in  Football fever: moving the goalposts[2]. The Tom Brock Scholarship enabled me to interview leading identities of the Brisbane competition and this forms the basis of my book, Voices from Brisbane rugby league.

Voices from Brisbane rugby league: oral histories from the 50s to the 70s, pp. 1-4.)


[1] According to my research there are three games that were labelled ‘Battle of Brisbane’ – 1932, 1958, 1970. Many reports say that 1970 was the second, but this contradicts reports that include 1958.

[2] Nicholson M, Stewart B and Hess R (eds) 2006, Football fever: moving the goalposts, Maribyrong Press, Hawthorn, pp. 133-145. Also available at www.rl1908.com /Rugby -League-News/Brisbane.htm.

About Greg Mallory

I am a labour and sports historian having published three books. My last book was 'Voices from Brisbane rugby league: oral histories from the 50s to the 70s.

Comments

  1. Mick Jeffrey says:

    The sad news is that the now State League comp (that superceded the Brisbane comp in the mid 90’s) is now effectively Reserve Grade much like the VFL is. Souths merged with Logan, who came in about the late 80’s and are now Canberra’s reserves, the Sunshine Coast team are independent after Manly were forced by New South Wales to withdraw or have their juniors banned from playing in NSW), the Gold Coast based teams (Tweed Heads, Burleigh) and Ipswich are basically where the Titans reserves play, teams in Cairns (Northern Pride) and Mackay are North Queensland’s reserves, and pretty much everyone else is a Broncos reserves team (Norths were once Melbourne’s reserves team, and has provided a number of Queensland representatives, more on that later). The standard though is much higher than the Sydney equivalent or the Newcastle league (where the Knights players surplus to requirements play).

  2. Greg Mallory says:

    Mick,

    yes it is a sad state of affairs. I realise that this has happened but there is still a committment to preserving the club identity. For example I know that Souths have merged with Logan & are regarded as the reserve grade of Canberra, but the club Secretary & committee still see Souths having a continous history from 1909. I attended their Centenary Dinner & their 100 year team was named, which included Meninga & Bennett as coach. I would be intereted in your comments on VFA/VFL clubs such as Port Melbourne, Coburg & how they have gone down the same path as the Qld Cup clubs.

    Part of my writng the book was to preserve some history. I am hoping to do a similar thing on the 80s, where real change occurred.

    DGM

  3. Ian Syson says:

    FWIW — here’s my review of Greg’s book https://footyalmanac.com.au/?p=14478

  4. Ray Morgan says:

    Hi Greg, I was a mad Brothers fan when i was a kid and i remember my dad taking me to the 1968 grand final. Its funny you talk about doubles, my dad won it that day, Wayne Abdy 8 scored our first try and Peter Lobegeiger 1 kicked what would be the first of only 2 goals on the day for Easts. I used to go to most of our home games at Corbett Pk and because i lived near the Showgrounds , went to a few Redcliffe games too. I still own a Brothers jersey and a white t`shirt with a leprachuan on the front. Ive lived most of my adult life in Melbourne but the Bretheren will always be close to my heart, its a shame events worked out the way they did. My favourite player in the later years was Lenny Dittmar, a tough foward who played hard. Yours was a great read and its nice to reminess about the good old days. cheers Ray.

  5. Greg Mallory says:

    thanks Ray,
    it’s good to hear from you – the Bretheren are not dead, having a very large junior (600+) club and are running around in Ipswich, Bundy, Cairns etc. However I don’t see a Qld Cup team emerging though. You can get hold of my book through Boolarong Press on the internet. I have virtually sold out of my copies. Brothers are represented by Brian Davies & Peter Gallagher – really good stories.

  6. martin copelin says:

    The entry of the Broncos, Gold Coast, Crushers and Cowboys into the NSWRL knocked the stufffing out of the old BRL. I believe channel nine want a new team from Brisbane to replace the long defunct Crushers. As the Qld state league has risen in standard and provide fair ratings to the ABC who have a match of the day on Saturdays, I hope this does not happen. Three Qld NRL teams are enough, any expansion should wait until teams such as Cronulla go bust. The NSW central coast should be first reserve as that should be a large catchment for rugby league. Finally as for the Brisbane Brothers club going bankrupt, at the time I could not believe that as they had a history of being well run clubs state wide. They certainly had a lot of support especially from ex catholic school people. Also the late, great commentator George Lovejoy was spot on when he used to say “rugby league football, the greatest game of all”. Right then, right now.

  7. Greg Mallory says:

    I am in 2 minds as to the second brisbane team. I think there is room for one & it would get a fair amount of support. I am not sure if it would erode the following of the Queensland Cup. As long as the ABC keeps the Saturday broadcast going it should maintain a fairly good interest. There was talk about it folding up at the end of last year, I have not heard anything since.

  8. Mark Doyle says:

    Thanks for an interesting article on Brisbane rugby league Greg! I always find the history of rugby league in NSW and QLD to be the same culture as aussie rules in West Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. The state of the Brisbane rugby league comp. is similar to the Sydney rugby league comp. and the VFL in Melbourne. The underlying reason for these capital city comps. to be struggling is that there are too many NRL teams in Sydney and too many AFL teams in Melbourne with the result that most of the financial resources are being taken by the unviable professional clubs in Melbourne and Sydney. It is unfortunate that informed rational debate is impossible in both codes and in a few years the capitalist market will determine that AFL clubs such as North Melbourne, Richmond, Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and St. Kilda and NRL clubs such as Cronulla, West Tigers, South Sydney, Canberra and Newcastle will not be viable. The best way that semi-professional and community based rugby league and aussie rules comps. can survive is to be independent from the professional comps. of the NRL and AFL. The best semi-professional aussie rules comp.in Australia is the Ovens and Murray League which is based in Albury, NSW.

  9. Brian Roberts says:

    Morning Greg I am the president of theConfraternity of Brothers Clubs Inc. now in my 18 year in this position. I have received an old photo from one of our member clubs found following the floods around the Pundaberg/MArybrough region hitch shows a BRohers CLub way back in 1912. They had defeated WAllaroos 16 9 in the GRand FInal. We believe they were formed in 1911 IF this is the case they would be the oldest Brothers CLub and may well be the oldest CLub in QLD. Is there any way you could check this out and let me know as we would like to have this info on our COnfraternity web page. My contact numbers are 3208 1168 / 0418 380 059 THanks in advance for your assistance in regards to this most important matter
    Brian Roberts
    President
    Confraternity of Brothers CLubs INc.

  10. Hello Ray Morgan
    I was at the g/f between Easts and Brothers in 1968. I was sitting on the field behind the goal posts at the Milton Road end. Bloody Johnny Gleeson. He was just so good. I remember him 45 years later. Brian Fitzsimmons was also a pain….
    We were masons so used to love to “hate” the catholics….
    Dad played C Grade in 1947 I think. With a name like Payne who else would I support.
    Brothers always seemed to have the wood on Easts even when Brothers were way down the ladder.
    I am off to the Easts vs Mackay G/f today. Tigers in all grades. We went to the footy every weekend and dashed home to see the replay on ABC.
    It is just not the same game. Better is some ways but what has been lost is the club mentality and loyalty. Broncos are really just a team – not a club. They do a lot of good work but there is no Broncos under 7’s, etc…

  11. Michael McShane says:

    I was a program seller at Lang Park during the 1970’s, aged about 13. The doubles sellers would call out “8 for 10, 16 for 20 on with (Easts, Wests)” etc, which meant, for 10 cents you could win $8, 20 cents to win $16. The boxes of doubles were in number order, 1, 1; 1, 2; 1, 3 etc with the home team the first number. You had to buy your doubles just after the seller opened the new box, or you would be stuck with higher numbers, less likely to win. If you timed it right (and the seller sold from the top of the pile without shuffling the pack) you could get the fullbacks and wingers. Few of the sellers shuffled – I guess they did not realise this fact, but some did.
    I think the most memorable game I saw there was a grand final in about 1977 Valleys 9 Brothers 2. No tries scored, all penalties and field goals.

  12. Gary Blond says:

    Congratulations Greg on a wonderful book! The memories came flooding back – particularly from Barry ( Garbo ) Muir. Barry was one of the greats of the game and great to see that was recognised by a number of the contributors to your book.

    When I finished the book ( purchased at the State Library bookshop ) I realised what a buzz it would be to see some TV footage from the BRL games covered in the book. Is anyone aware of the availability of such a DVD?

    Rugby League…the greatest game of all!!!

  13. Garry Kay says:

    Brothers played Valleys in the 1974 Grand Final not 1977 that year Easts beat Redcliffe

  14. I remember in 1977 Easts defeated “Norths” I think in a semi at Lang Park and went onto win the GF that year. I remember as I was at that semi representing Easts jrs in the u10s as an honour guard for the Rothsmens medallist Alan Curry. The new Grandstand had been opened, but the building wasn’t finished, I stepped in a hole full of “Sulphuric Acid” as I was walking up the cement stairs to where the parents were sitting (we played in bare feet those days and we still were in bare feet) it melted my right big toe to near the bone. Played until I was in my 30th with it taped. Those Easts sides were great as were their opposition, great times as a kid, I’ll always be “From Tiger land”

  15. Do you remember Ian Lamb, once described by Allan Thomas as ‘smaller than a seven ounce beer’

  16. A BARRY MUIR STORY I WILL NEVER FORGET …. After the 1968 Dale Coogan incident at Lang Park … Barry ended up in 1970 in Nth Qld. Ayr I think. When the State Trials came around that year Barry captained Nth Qld against Brisbane at Lang Park. There was trouble getting a referee for the game. I will never forget and can almost still hear, the almighty great roar that went up when Barry led Nth Qld out onto the field. Thousands who were died in the wool Brisbane people cheered for Nth Qld that day because of Barry Muir. We all wanted Nth Qld to win against our own city team because we all still claimed Barry Muir as our own. Nth Qld led for nearly the entire game until the last few minutes when another Wests boy – Wayne Stewart aged 19 years playing wing for Brisbane – either set up or scored the winning try for Brisbane and then kicked the goal. Everyone was disappointed for Barry and Nth Qld and that game will live on in my memory forever.

  17. Michael Balcomb says:

    Do you have any information on a competition in the late 70s called the Commercial League which consisted of teams such as Main Roads/ Firefighters/Council/Taxation and Woolworths . Thankyou, Mick Balcomb .

  18. I am sure this is the competition that the Police Dept later joined (and an SGIO team) and games were played at the Kalinga Park fields which were situated near to the Toombul Railway station. There were about 4 fields all side by side with the main field up on a higher level of ground but only about 50 metres at the most from the lower level 4 fields.

  19. I got my last comment wrong, when I checked up with some old Police players from that era and I was told …. Commercial league was different from the Public Service League which had Brisbane City Council,Main Roads,Qld Fire,Qld Police and I think Qld Health had a team ….BUT THE COMP WAS AROUND THE SAME TIME

  20. Ron Wynn says:

    Malcolm
    The teams you name (except for maybe Woolworths) were in the Public Service League played at Kalinga Park on Sunday’s following a public service touch footy competition. the main oval was called Bertha Street. It was seperate to the Cimmercial League. I understand the The QPSL folded in 1996 when Lord Mayor Sorley declined to renew the lease opting for public space use instead. The fields including dressing sheds sit unchanged and vacant.
    I played with the Healh side in 1976 D grade Geoff Lacey ex-Norths was coach, 1977 C grade Alan Ware ex-Redcliffe, 1978 C Grade John Young ex-Valleys. In 1979 the name changed to Health Education because the number of players from that Dept in the side. Coach was again John Young and won B grade. 1980 and 1981 A grade and the coach was Alan Hendricks ex-Redcliffe. The health education side folder after the end of 1981. HTH

    Ron Wynn

  21. Kerry Fraser says:

    BRL,Public service,Metropliton ,Commercial,Church,Deaf Compitions. Everyone had teams during the 60/70s. Myers, David Jones ,Commonwealth bank , Wharfies, Night Clubs and just about every Pub. They were great days, some BRL A-graders earnt more playing commercial league on a Saturday than A-Grade on a sunday. GREAT DAYS sad to see clubs like my local Bros St Brendans on it’s knees.

  22. g.day KERRY FRASER…..just reading your post mate. i have a old autograph book im trying to compete of the brothers players featured. would it be possible to meet in person for you to sign it please. contact me if you like my email is caminorose08@hotmail.com

    regards chris

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