Almanac Rugby League: Brian Burke thinks outside the box


Jason Buffier’s mate Brian Burke runs a coffee shop in Maitland. He writes a weekly sports column for the local onlineMaitland MercuryThe cancellation of many local football competitions for the whole of the 2020 season got Brian thinking after he read comments in the Mercury by local coach Matt Lantry. In response, he wrote the following. First published in the Maitland Mercury, Brian’s contribution appears here with the permission of both the Maitland Mercury and Brian Burke.


Pickers coach Matt Lantry said in The Mercury earlier this week that he reckons the NSW Rugby League needs to do a bit of ‘thinking outside the box’ in order to get some football played this season. Lantry was responding to the fact that, due to the virus, the Newcastle First Grade competition has been cancelled for 2020. Lantry reckons the game shouldn’t just lose an entire season.


It’s a fair point.


He has suggested the creation, perhaps, of an interim inter-regional competition whereby the stronger Newcastle clubs (such as Maitland, Wests, Souths, maybe Cessnock) play against First Grade clubs from further afield – Central Coast, Wollongong, teams from Sydney’s Ron Massey Cup etc. If travelling is an issue, Lantry proposes holding it in a ‘conferences’ type arrangement, around the areas, before centralising for the finals, which should be played somewhere prominent, hopefully as NRL lead-ups.


It seems a fine idea to me. A promising solution.


In fact, I’d like to see it taken further. Make it bigger and further reaching. I mean, look at the facilities available and about to be under-utilised with the cancellations of the competitions: Maitland has a new ten million dollar ground; there’s the rejuvenated Scully Park in Tamworth; and then there’s the beautiful Glen Willow Stadium at Mudgee. With the distancing restrictions being fairly quickly lifted, you’d think it has to be a good thing to have football being played in these spaces, and to have people there to watch it.


The other reason I like the idea of the creation of such a competition is because, particularly if you expand the initial concept a bit, it looks quite a lot like what used to be the NSW Country Rugby League Championships, which was an eight division competition composed of the likes of Newcastle, Illawarra, Riverina, South Coast, Northern Division etc.; a yearly representative knock-out comp/showcase from which the best thirty players would be picked to represent Country, who would then play City’s best thirty, who were, bluntly, the best players in the world.


It was a great way of going about things. It both created a thriving ‘football in the bush’ and acted in many ways as the larger Leagues’ ‘nursery’, providing a great deal of the talent that ended up in the Sydney competition.


I know those days are gone but, still, I think using this crisis as an opportunity for a revamp and to maybe restore aspects of what was an extremely well-functioning system should certainly be explored. I firmly believe that the demise of Country rugby league is a key factor in much of what plagues the League these days.


Hopefully Lantry’s suggestions may gain some traction with the powers that be.


A digression:


It was the Sunday of the October long weekend, 1963. Geelong had just flogged Hawthorn 109- 60 in the VFL Grand Final. The Beatles were about to sing ‘She Loves You’ live on British TV for the first time; John F. Kennedy had 47 days to live… and one Paul Hassab, of Boggabri, whose 21st birthday it was, was running very late to the party being hosted for him by his parents at the family home.


Sounds like trouble… but, on the contrary, nobody had a problem with Paul being late. They started without him. They had good reason to celebrate, birthday or not, because Paul Hassab had, that afternoon, played second row in the now legendary underdog Boggabri side that beat the mighty West Tamworth 22-10, giving tiny Boggabri its first ever Group 4 Premiership.


‘We didn’t get back to Boggabri until about 8 o’clock,’ Hassab said later. He had the entire team in tow and pretty much every one of the 850 residents of the town.


It was a late one…


From the ‘Boggabri Roos’, Hasssab was selected to play for Country that year and then went to Sydney. He began training with the Rabbitohs but, due to some problem resolving a 600 pound transfer fee between Boggabri and Souths, he ended up trialling for the Canterbury ‘Berries’. Canterbury coach Clive Churchill put him in the side and Hassab played two seasons in Sydney in the blue and white. Career moves in his other area of employment (Agriculture) then took Paul to Grafton where he played for and coached the South Grafton Rebels. Then he went and did the same for the Gunnedah Bulldogs, taking them to a 1973 Premiership.


I’m talking about all of this for two reasons: the first being that Paul Hassab’s football career is, for me, the perfect example of how Country Rugby League used to work, with players going from the bush to the best and then back again to play with and coach the next lot.


The second reason is because I caught up with Paul this week! Paul, our captain, was the only ‘name’ player in our Country Seconds side which, as I’ve mentioned here before, did the impossible and beat the best City Seconds side (it contained five internationals) ever to run onto a park. That was in 1969.




Above photos from Brian Burke’s private collection used with permission


Fifty-one effing years ago!


I’ve only seen Paul once since that game. So, with him turning up this week, we had a coffee and a good chat.


Paul Hassab and Brian Burke (Photo: Jason Buffier)


My favourite remembrance: the Country team assembled in Bondi on the Monday before the game for training, medicals and the rest of it. Amidst all this, Hassab kept telling everybody that he was going to see Cardinal Gilroy on Friday and that he thought he might join the priesthood. We laughed at his nonsense. But he kept on about it all week, how he’d always had a hankering towards joining the clergy. We kept laughing.


On the morning of the game, the side met for breakfast in the dining room of the hotel. We were eating steak and eggs, which is what you did on match day in those days. It was serious. We had quite the day ahead of us – proper old-style tough football against Bobby Fulton, Johnny Raper, Billy Smith, George Ambrum, Freddy Jones…


We were a little tense… And then down the stairs came Paul Hassab. He was attired in full clerical regalia: collar, gown…Beatific…


It was only his R.M.Williams that gave him away. It turned out that he’d raided Father John Cootes’ suitcase for the rest… It was a very, very funny thing to do, and it somehow really set us up for the afternoon.


Paul Hassab – a great player, and not shy about going the extra yards for a prank. Good to have him as a local now.


Editor’s note: Not all of the photographs which appear in this article were a part of Brian Burke’s original submission to the Maitland Mercury. They are used here with the permission of Brian Burke and Jason Buffier.


To access The Maitland Mercury  click HERE.


Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



  1. A very enjoyable read, Brian, and thanks to Jason for helping to bring it to us. It must be awful for all those regional and country areas, where sport is a part of the heart beat of the community, that they’ve simply had their season cancelled.

    Interesting history surrounding Paul Hassab. Country beating City at any level is huge. And fancy tiny Boggabri conquering the big boys of Group 4 back in 1963! No wonder they celebrated long and hard. In my imagination, that’d be a bit like Laidley winning the old BRL competition!

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