Almanac Rugby League – NSW Country Rugby League……Then and Now

Michael Croke was a broadcaster with ABC Radio Orange (Saturday Breakfast) for almost 30 years but unplugged the microphone  last year “to see what a normal Saturday morning looked like”. He was the Contributing Editor of Peter Jackson’s book of Rugby League trivia and the author of A Question of Rugby League. His father (who owned a carpet shop) would spend his Saturday afternoons  in Dubbo in the 1960s painting the corner posts for Dubbo CYMS RLFC. The posts were, in a “previous life”, the internal cardboard tubes of carpet rolls. Michael is the Principal of Catherine McAuley School in Orange. This is his recollection of following rugby league in a country town in the 1960s and 1970s.


Things were simple in the country in the 1960s and before. The town landscape was not cluttered in any way. No rushing traffic, no beeping mobiles. No Bunnings, no KFC, no McDonalds. Every bush town had a ‘Red Rose’ café as its only takeaway mecca, normally serving the staple fish and chips. No Fitness First or Fitness Last! Tension was related strictly to wire and fence posts. Corner shops were the central neighbourhood point of the town’s commercial and social worlds. With the passing of time, such corner shops are resurfacing as boutique coffee shops offering “old fashioned service’. What was residential is now commercial. One could always grab a pound of SAOs at the side door when the store was officially closed. Train travel was still at its peak while motor cars were coming into vogue – mainly Holdens and Falcons. Nothing was bought from any country we had been at war with.


The local paper was truly local. Online meant something related to the railway system. Every syllable was a window to the town’s social happenings, sporting results, council matters and commercial world, and the paper even contained the television guide relating to the hours when there was no test pattern. The television shows seemed to stay the same for the whole year, I Love Lucy, McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, all preceding the National Anthem at the close of transmission. Pay TV, Netflix and Stan were a world or, indeed, a solar system away. The only Stan we knew was the Persil white St George flyer, Stan Gorton. As the world changed and Armstrong was practising his moonwalk, television aerials were popping up on rooftops like fresh beans pushing their way through the spring soil. Nowadays it is important to have an aerial and a dish.


But there was one other common denominator that bound the town at many levels – the great game of rugby league. Rugby Union had not really made it to the soul of country towns. It was a game that was played on Saturdays between former private school boys and any ‘blow-ins’ in professional jobs (and, of course, some of the farming fraternity). VFL – what was that? The local rugby league competition and the Sydney competition made up the rugby league menu. It was the main topic of conversation for boys in the school yard, families at dinner tables and important people at civic meetings. Discuss the game. Assess the selections. Memorise the results. Irish Catholic priests entwined the ability of Gasnier and the durability of Raper into their homilies.


It must have been the Gaelic rules connection for those Irish priests. Indeed, some cut their life lessons short on a Sunday morning if it meant a speedier getaway to a nearby town to watch the local Catholic team against a foe whose supporters found great enjoyment, during the game and following a referee’s decision, in reminding such travellers of their Lenten and Friday obligations with regard to the non-eating of meat!


There are still the remnants of the church connection in many teams. They were formed to keep young lads out of trouble and into fitness! The Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS) teams of Dubbo and Orange have become powerhouses in country league but I wonder how many of the playing personnel truly know the origins of the club or even what the acronym means. Or are they of the same knowledge as a Sydney Morning Herald writer who once mentioned the feats of ‘Dubbo Simms’, thinking the team name was paying homage to the great Rabbitohs fullback?


Country citizens followed their local side and their favourite teams in the Sydney competition. Many country folk had literally never been to ‘the big smoke’ and had most certainly never been to Cumberland Oval, Henson Park or even the Sydney Cricket Ground. These days the confusion is remembering which stadium is ‘Allianz’, which is ‘Etihad’ and which is ‘Spotless’ – all very confusing for the bush patron.


Sydney games were played on a Saturday. Shops in country towns were open on Saturdays until lunchtime. Dubbo was a country town, my country town. My memories of growing up there and following rugby league are strong. My St George poster was cut out from the Women’s Weekly. My brother had his South Sydney one, also courtesy of the Weekly. The make-up of the First Grade sides rarely changed. The posters remained current for a long time. For Souths, it always seemed to be Simms (not the Dubbo one), James, Cleary, Branigan etc. My brother glued his poster onto white cardboard and fastened it to his bedroom wall.


The prized possession in my bedroom was my Dally Messenger leather football. I polished it religiously and made sure that, like a prized pup, it was safe in my bedroom every night away from the frost and other external forces. It seems these days that it is possible to get a football from every fast food promotion and product sideshow event there is. But not leather and lace!


On the supporting front, I would be pushed into the depths of depression if the ABC’s John O’Reilly called a St George loss. Such feelings would stay with me for the whole week until O’Reilly informed me the following week that they had won and that Frank O’Rourke had awarded all his best and fairest points to St George players and that one point would go to a boy from Canowindra, Peter Fitzgerald, who had moved to Sydney to play with the mighty Saints. For the record, O’Reilly’s only sidekick at games was the technician. There were no teams behind the microphone. He called the game, nothing more nothing less. These days there are commentary teams who seem at times more interested in presenting a variety show than calling the football.


I was star-struck when completing my final years of schooling in Sydney to find that Mr O’Rourke would be my history teacher. It wasn’t hard to move his mind from the Treaty of Versailles to the importance of Jack Gibson’s coaching.


But the Sydney rugby league scene was a world away when you grew up in the bush. We knew every minute detail about it but it was almost a fictional entity. The Saturday ritual was to welcome home the family breadwinner who always had the Sydney Morning Herald in tow with the last minute game preview. We read it on the back verandah where the July sun would taint the paper like a magnifying glass. This same paper would bring us the teams through the week and show us pictures of the Sydney sides training (always at night as the players had day jobs) in their T-shirts and jerseys of their former clubs. Clubs now train almost every day and, indeed, some seem to be back at training in the shadows of the Grand Final.


Saturday lunch would follow. The radio would be warmed up. Most homes only had one. ABC radio broadcast the games on Saturday afternoons from the SCG interrupted by races from Randwick, Doomben and Flemington, and Geoff Mahoney’s boxing round-up. The same radio would bring us the night-time interstate games from Lang Park, normally heard through the intermittent and fading haze of a Brisbane station like a wartime music show. The names were as distant as the broadcast. We wondered whether Lobegeiger was a strange machine for finding metal on a Gold Coast beach or a Queensland fullback.


The Monday papers had coverage of the games. No Broncos, no Knights, no Raiders back then. We all knew something about the Balmain area because we had all seen My Name’s McGooley on our black and white screens on Friday night. We knew the show was filmed somewhere near Leichhardt Oval and hoped that Arthur Beetson would make a cameo appearance.


The 1969 Grand Final was telecast in living black and white into country lounge rooms. It was the first live telecast I remember. After that, the local commercial station would telecast the second half of the previous week’s minor game on a Friday night – six days after the game! But it was still a chance to see our heroes parade on the screen. North Sydney and Newtown always seemed to feature.


The ABC then extended its once a year coverage to Saturday night highlights. The Sydney Cricket ground always seemed to be the main venue. Then we had Channel Rex on Sunday nights. But that was much later.


For most of us growing up in the bush, we had never seen a Sydney grade player let alone a Sydney First Grader. They remained characters brought to life by John O’Reilly and, later, by people like Brian Surtees and Ray Warren when the Macquarie network decided that a brief and intermittent match coverage was better than none. They were mainly a horse racing station and the callers were Howard and Cary.


Rugby league broadcasts on commercial radio were normally confined to Reg Ferguson from Radio 2DU bringing us the Sunday afternoon match from Number 1 Oval in Dubbo. But, of course, we were always at the game. The whole town went to the Sunday game. If you wanted to park your car at the ground and view the game from the front seat, the trick was to take it down on Saturday night. On Sunday you would watch the Under 18s, duck home for lunch and be back in time for the second half of the Reserve Grade.


Those lads who were not particularly interested in the game would spend their time collecting bottles. The redeemable five cent deposit was not to be scoffed at and could buy you a packet of chips from the ground canteen.


The Dubbo Liberal would have extensive coverage of every game in the Monday afternoon edition. If your team was playing away in a town that had no radio game coverage, there would be a radio result service following the 6 o’clock local news that night, including highlights of the match of the day. The results would bring agony and ecstasy. The results would be followed by the Holden Dealers’ Top Ten songs for the week. The commercial station had further merit. Being Sydney based, it was always the only one that would give us the City Firsts and Country First teams within minutes of them being selected. We sat by the radio with bated breath, pencil and paper in hand, as the family dissected the team selections. It also came good with the NSW teams while the ABC was involving itself with more important issues.


The magic moments of those times still remain as clear as the bush sunset. Like the day that the postman delivered The Sun supporters kit. Why did my mother not call the school to tell me the kit had arrived? I would not have dawdled home. It contained a photo, a badge, a pin, a flag and other goodies related to the team. It was a moment that could only be beaten by Christmas morning. I now had something in common with the youth of Sydney as they supported their team. We would sing from the one hymn book. To supplement the kit we had the Scanlens footy cards. The odour of opening the pack to trawl through the six cards still remains. Everyone wanted to be the first one in the school yard to get the entire set of 100 plus. Why were Gary Leo and John Wittenberg always the difficult ones? And if very few people have kept their sets, where have they all gone?


The world got closer when our near neighbours, the Musgrave boys, purchased their Sydney football jumpers from Mick Simmons’ sports store. Strictly mail order. Peter had a Balmain one and Neil a Western Suburbs one, the only lads in the whole school who had genuine Sydney football jumpers. I was inspired. I had to save my money and do my jobs and then I would be the proud owner of a St George jumper. The task was completed and the jumper arrived. Oh no, the crest was a large plastic one, not the small material one used by the players. I was literally crestfallen but I got used to it. My mother sewed a number on the back. I wore the jumper with pride every day after school and would play in the backyard and try to emulate my heroes.


It was around this time that I remember seeing my first Rugby League Week newspaper. It was in 1970 and I was perched in the stand at Number 1 Oval in Dubbo. I was curious to know about the paper that was being read by the man in front of me. It seemed to contain only news and photos about rugby league. I was hooked from five yards.


I’m sure I did not miss a single copy for the next twenty years and was always the first person on Wednesday morning to greet Joe Snare at the South Dubbo newsagency as he opened the bundle of 50 or more copies. By the end of the week, I knew every morsel of the magazine from cover to cover.


There were other starlit moments. There was the time Dubbo CYMS player Tom Jordan signed with St George. He was going to be the next Johnny Raper. Not quite – let the record show that he played one First Grade game for the Dragons in 1970 and scored no points! Then Kel Brown from the same club made the NSW side and played Queensland on a weekday afternoon at the SCG. I heard of his inclusion on the 9 o’clock news on the Sunday night. I remember my first visit to Sydney as a 12-year-old, aching to hear pop music and Frank Hyde on 2SM only to find that for the days of Easter it would be 24-hour religious programs from the Vatican!


Life goes on. Some of the priests have passed away or gone home to Ireland. Many Catholic parishes now have Indian and Vietnamese priests as their main preacher. John Ribot promised us they would be here preaching about the great game of rugby league as it was the major Asian sport. But alas!


There is no real need to put the car into the ground on Saturday nights in the country anymore. I’ve lost my St George jumper. Rugby League Week is in full colour and I haven’t bought a copy in years. Sadly, Joe Snare, the affable newsagent, passed away this year. News of his death filled the whole front page of the Dubbo Daily Liberal.


John O’Reilly has gone to the great broadcasting box in the sky. The Musgrave boys and their nephews became the backbone of the Dubbo CYMS club which has become a juggernaut in country rugby league and is a lesson to all clubs, city and country, about a stable committee and a loyal following. The Country sides don’t really play City any more. All games are on television and most are at night time.


Newspaper coverage is often about some scandal involving players at the club or why the coaches and chief executives should be sacked after one month. Some teams barely have a player born in Australia let alone Dubbo or Narromine or Tamworth or Gundagai. The team photo is relevant for about a month until a player announces in February that he will be at another club the following year or, indeed, playing in another code!


There is an interest in rugby league but I no longer observe a rabid following among school children. There are other things to do and other games to follow. Cheer, Cheer the Red and the Whites!


Players all seem to look the same, speak the same and have the same haircut. If a country player has not been nabbed by a city club from the Under 6s, he is really no chance of making it! The local bush teams seem to have lots of ‘blow-ins’ and very small crowds at games. Some towns now have no team at all. Ironically, the NRL games are on the box at the same time. Like Christopher Pyne, the NRL keeps promising they will fix it!


The memories are vivid, the feelings are warm. Now, where is that Supporters kit, perhaps with my treasured Tony Branson card?


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.


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  1. Ah, Michael, those were the days when radio was king. Up here George Lovejoy was the premier commentator; then, to a large extent, ‘video killed the radio star’ with the advent of TV and its initial flickering images in glorious black and white.

    Enjoyed this immensely!

  2. Dr Rocket says

    Thanks Michael, really enjoyed this read.
    A very good social analysis of the changes in country life.

    The priests tried to take religion and rugby league to southern NSW.
    They succeeded in the bigger towns but not in the smaller towns and villages where Aussie Rules was already well established.

  3. Tom Cranitch says

    Different state and era but a common heritage and recollections coming through. The article was well enjoyed and much appreciated.

  4. Russel Hansen says

    A great read Michael. Yes, a simpler time. Even for me, as a child of the 70’s in Kingaroy-Toowoomba, I relate to a lot of what you wrote. I still love listening to the ABC radio, now Grandstand digital. As my father did, as his father did.

  5. Michael…what can I say. You have always had a way with words. I know you are a man of action…but did you ever proudly wear a CYMS jersey…or was that a jumper? Most disappointed that the great Don Parish did not rate a mention…I know he played for Dubbo Macquarie. Where is the great Don nowadays? I always love your writings and how you intertwine humour with the serious. I collected marbles and not footy cards. The cards were after my time. However, like the Musgrave boys, I had a genuine Western Suburbs jersey (or was that a jumper). I saved my shillings and pence working after school delivering medicines for a pharmacy on Macquarie St. I bought it from a Mick Simmons shop in Sydney…no mail delivery or plastic badge!! Sorry to say it publicly, but I am a red and white fan. My best RL memory is the Sunday afternoon I played my one and only game for CYMS in the U/18 team. Didn’t score a try but I still have the treasured memory. Write another book!

  6. Adam Muyt says

    Lovely piece Michael. Like you I treasured my dose of Rugby League Week each Thursday. And thanks for reminding me of those jersey emblems – Manly’s was vinyl. And Frank Hyde – what a great broadcaster. ‘If it’s high enough, if it’s long enough…it’s right between the posts!’

  7. What a great read Michael, thank you!
    Much of the narrative pre-dates the days when Gerard Hughes had his long locks tugged as he packed down in a scrum… but he will enjoy this school days reminiscence.

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