Almanac Rugby League: Excerpts from a rugby league lover’s diary – The Early Years

 

 

The Footy Almanac continues its series of rugby league stories. Today, Paul Connolly shares his childhood rugby league lover’s diary. Paul is a Melbourne-based writer and journalist who grew up in the rugby league heartland of Wollongong – back in the days of brown footballs and hookers who hooked. Early on he chose St George as his team, and he’s stuck with them through thick and thin. Mostly thick, if we’re being honest.

 

May 8, 1975

Dear Diary, All the kids at school have teams they go for. I don’t. Easts seem popular, so maybe I should go for them. Dad likes Easts. I think it’s because of Russell Fairfax. He’s Easts’ fullback. I reckon Dad likes Russell because Russell used to play rugby union and Dad used to be a pretty good rugby union player when he was growing up in Ireland. Or maybe Dad just likes Russell’s hair. He’s got the hair of a film star I reckon. Goldie Hawn I think her name is.

 

April 16, 1976

My brother Niall loves Manly. He’d marry them if he could. He reckons Graham Eadie is choice. I like Russel Gartner the most. He’s fast. Dad says he looks like Marty Feldman but I don’t know who that is. Maybe it’s the man who works at the servo. What I really like about Gartner is that when he runs his eyes look like they are popping out of his head, like he’s just seen a lady without any clothes on. I hope I never see a lady without any clothes on. That would be disgusting.

 

September 18, 1976

Manly won the Grand Final today against Parramatta. 13-10 it was. Parra scored more tries but Eadie kicked five goals out of six. We’re learning fractions at school and five out of six is a good percentage. I could work it out exactly if I wanted to but I don’t want to. Niall is so happy. Me too. I think I go for Manly now.

 

December 25, 1976

I got a football for Christmas. Mum says I should be happy but the ball is made out of plastic. Brown plastic. It looks like a big Easter egg. It was hot but we played a game of tackle footy in the backyard. My little brother Kieran versus me. He’s five. I won. I threw a dummy pass towards Mum’s agapanthus and he fell for it. When I dived to score I landed on the ball and now it has a big dent in it. Why didn’t Santa get me a better ball?

 

March 27, 1977

I go for Saints now. I told Niall on the way to piano practice. He says you can’t go changing teams every five minutes but I don’t care. My next door neighbour Paul goes for Saints. He’s a teenager and is really good at athletics. He ever wears spikes. He’s so cool. We go for Saints, Paul and me.

 


Artwork by John Campbell used with permission.

 

May 1, 1977

I joined the school rugby league team even though the team jumper is brown. That’s right, brown and gold are the school colours! Who chose them I wonder? Some cruel nun probably. If they are not cracking you over the knuckles with the blade of a ruler, they are choosing brown and gold as school colours! But maybe our jumpers are brown because that’s the colour of dirt and we’re St Therese of the Little Flower and flowers grow in dirt. I don’t think kids from other teams will be scared of playing a team called Little Flower. I wish we were called the Dirty Harrys instead.

 

June 11, 1977

I scored the best try of my life today at Johansen Park in West Wollongong. We tried this amazing move called the run-around. I picked the ball up from the scrum and passed it to my friend Justin who is a centre. Inside, outside, I can’t tell the difference. Anyway, I passed him the ball then ran around the back of him and he passed the ball back to me! I saw a gap and ran as fast as I did the time I rocked the roof of that house near the creek and the owner saw me and started coming after me. I went right through them and then side-stepped around their fullback who had been way down the field tying his shoelaces. I went back to Justin’s house after the game. We looked at his footy cards and watched TV. He has a colour TV! We still don’t have one. I think we’re the only house in Australia still using an old black and white. It’s embarrassing.

 

 

September 24, 1977

Saints are the best! They beat Parramatta 22-0 in the Grand Final replay! I can’t wait to go to school tomorrow! Saints scored three tries and Ted Goodwin kicked six goals and a field goal! I am surprised he could even see straight. Last week in the first Grand Final —that one was a draw, did I tell you? — he scored a brilliant try after doing a chip over the top and winning the race for the ball. But when he put the ball down to score he went head first into the ground and knocked himself out. You should have seen him! He was just lying there, face down, like a sunbaker asleep on the beach. The crowd was going crazy and the Saints players were crowding around him but he just lay there, dead to the world. I’m glad he woke up in time for the Grand Final replay.

 

June 17, 1978

Football teams used to be chosen on how much you weighed. Now they are based on age. This is not good because I am quite small for my age. Like R2D2. Today we played a team from Warrawong. They had a boy playing for them called George. He was as big as my Dad and had lots of hair on his legs. Like a nun. When Big George got the ball, which was always, we could barely tackle him. At one stage he had six of us Little Flower kids hanging off him and he still scored. One parent said we were like burrs on a pair of socks. We got thrashed because of George. It was so unfair. To make us feel better, we went to this place in Figtree called McDonald’s. It’s a bit like Arnold’s in Happy Days. I liked the chips, which they call fries, but the hamburger had pickle in it! I don’t think McDonald’s will become very popular.

 

April 15, 1979

Niall has been bugging Dad to take him to see Manly but Manly is a long way from Wollongong. But Dad agreed to take us to see Manly play at Penrith. If you don’t know, Penrith is exactly like Wollongong but without the beach. We sat in the grandstand and Dad kept pointing out a Manly player with red hair. You couldn’t miss him, really. His name is Paul Vautin. He seemed a bit chubby, like Joe and Frank Hardy’s best friend, Chet, in the Hardy Boys books, but he went alright. Niall was happy because Manly won easy. 32-17. It was a long drive home from Penrith. I wanted Dad to put the radio on ‘cause I was hoping to hear that ‘Heart of Glass’ song by Blondie. I heard it first on Countdown. But Dad played a Burl Ives cassette instead. It was a long drive home. Did I say that already? Sometimes I think life isn’t fair. When I’m a dad I will let my kids listen to their music in the car.

 

September 1979

I am almost too excited to write this. St George won the Grand Final again today! I thought they were going to win easy because they were winning 17-2 at half-time. But Canterbury played hard in the second half and the score got closer and closer. I bit my nails so much in the second half they started to bleed but it was worth it. Saints ended up winning 17-13. It was even better because Steve Morris got the man-of-the-match. ‘Slippery’ is just so unreal. He’s small and fast like me and when he runs his hair flies back behind him like Goldie’s ears when Uncle John takes him for a drive in the car and Goldie sticks his head out the window. Labradors are hilarious. I think Steve Morris is probably the fastest person in the world. Definitely the fastest person in the world with a moustache.

 

July 9, 1980

All the kids at school are singing a song called ‘You Can’t Stop the Music’ by a group called The Village People. They are five men dressed up as a cowboy, an Indian, a construction worker, a bikie, and … I always forget the other one. They look pretty cool, I reckon. I bet they get all the girls. The other thing kids are talking about is last night’s game between NSW and Queensland. It’s called State of Origin because the players play for the State they grew up in, not where they play footy now. There was an excellent fight, which was good, but Rod Reddy was playing for Queensland which I didn’t like at all. I also didn’t like that Queensland won. And they had this player called Wally Lewis who made me angry just to look at him. I can’t work out what it is about him. Maybe he killed my dog in a past life or something.

 

August 24, 1980

Two big things happened in Australia recently. One: They say a baby was taken by a dingo at Ayers Rock last week. It’s a real mystery. I’ve been cutting out all the newspaper stories about it. I reckon if I study them hard enough I’ll be able to solve the crime. Two: Yesterday, Little Flower played in the Catholic schools footy knockout in Goulburn. We didn’t win or anything but when we played our first game it started snowing! Our hooker, Merko, was so cold he had to leave the field and sit in this caravan and drink hot chocolate while one of the mothers rubbed his thighs to warm them up. There’s a girl at school called Tanya. I wonder if she would have rubbed my thighs if she’d been there. I think I might ask her out on a date. Mum can drop us off at the movies.

 

 September 27, 1981

Steve Edge just won the Grand Final. But he plays for Parra now! I can’t believe he would play for Parra when he should still be playing for Saints. Why don’t players love their teams as much as us fans do? If I played for Saints I would never leave. They would have to shoot me to get rid of me. Or else they would have to take me for a long drive in the car through the bush and give me heaps of Coke to drink and when eventually I got out to wee they would then take off and leave me for dead. Still, I reckon I’d find my way back, though. I’m doing really well in Geography.

 

Feb 28, 1982

The Illawarra Stealers Steelers played their first game today! They are a new team in the comp. So are the Canberra Raiders. The Steelers are my local team now. Also John Dorahy plays for them and his cousins live round the corner from us so I practically know him. But I can’t go for them. I feel bad about it but I can’t go changing teams now, can I? What would Steve Morris say? I suppose they can be my second team. Is it okay to have a second team? Anyway, the Steelers got beat 17-7 by Penrith at Wollongong Showground. I’m sure they’ll get better. They’ll win the comp one day I reckon.

 

September 26, 1982

It’s my little brother Kieran’s birthday today. More importantly, it was Grand Final day. Bad news for Niall, though. Parramatta beat Manly 21-8. Niall disappeared into his room straight after, stomping up the stairs like he was crushing cockroaches every step. He was in a terrible mood. Worse than usual. I think he’s going through puberty which Mum says makes people angry. I should be going through puberty by now but I’m not. Not a hair on my chinny chin chin. Or anywhere else. It’s so unfair. Heaps of the guys at school have got hair under their arms and Adam’s apples the size of grapefruits. And they are covered in muscles and pimples. But I look like Luke Skywalker’s little sister. And no-one thinks that’s cool. Especially girls. Sigh. We don’t have any girls at high school, so I only see them at Mass. On the up side, I get a good view of them from the altar. On the down side, I’m wearing an altar gown at the time. Anyway, stay away from Niall tonight. He’s dangerous.

 

September 27, 1983

It was my little brother Kieran’s birthday yesterday. More importantly, Australia II won the America’s Cup this morning and Bob Hawke says no-one has to go to work. Everyone in Australia is happy. Except Niall. Yesterday Manly lost another Grand Final to Parramatta. We were afraid to go into his room to tell him to get ready for school this morning. I told Mum to slide some toast under his door. She told me not to be stupid. She tells me that a lot.

 

July 14, 1984

Saints won their fifth game in a row today. It was their eighth win in nine matches. One of those wins was against Manly at Brookvale. Niall and I listened to the match on radios. He was in his room, I was in mine. My heart was pounding the entire game but Saints won which meant that until Saints and Manly play again I can make Niall cross just by raising an eyebrow at him. He’ll know what that means. I reckon Saints are going to win the comp this year. They have a great coach (Roy Masters) and so many choice players. Like who? Steve Morris! Michael O’Connor! Steve Rogers! Craig Young! Graeme Wynn! Pat Jarvis! Brian Johnson! Brian Johnston! Mick Beattie, Chris Johns, Graeme O’Grady, Steve Gearin, Billy Noke! Johnny Fifita. He’s called The Tongan Terror! How can they lose?

 

September 16, 1984

I’ve been upset before, like when Dad had his heart attack earlier this year and we thought he was going to die, but this is something else. Saints were destined to win this year. They had the best team, the best coach, and I have spent so much time reading about them, talking about them, thinking about them, dreaming about them, that I couldn’t contemplate any other conclusion but Craig Young carrying the big shield around the SCG. But they lost in the semis to Parra and I can’t believe it. It’s like a horror movie, scarier than ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ —and I nearly pissed my pants watching that. We were using a friend’s caravan at Lake Conjola when the game was on. I listened to the whole thing on the radio which is always hard because the commentators make it feel like the other team is attacking your team’s line even when they are 50m away. Saints were winning 7-4 because Slippery scored a try early in the second half and Brian Johnson made an unbelievable cover tackle on Eric Grothe. But then, with less than three minutes to go, Parra got the ball out wide and, with my heart jumping out of my chest, Grothe scored in the corner to win it for the Eels. Think of all the bad emotions a person can have, Dear Diary. I experienced every one of them at the same time. All I could do was get into my sleeping bag, pull it over my head and cry hot salty tears. I then got my Walkman out and listened to Steve Perry’s ‘Oh Sherrie’ over and over and over again until I was lying there in the dark.

 

September 30, 1985

I couldn’t bring myself to write anything last night. I was too upset, even after the long trip home from Central with my mates Warren and Tim, who went to the Grand Final with me. It was supposed to be my greatest moment, being at the SCG to see Saints win a Grand Final. They were the best team all year. So were Saints’ lower grade teams and they both won their Grand Finals. But Canterbury just wouldn’t let Saints play. Steve Mortimer kept putting up bombs and even though Glenn Burgess kept catching them Saints had to take one drop-out after another. They couldn’t get any ball. And after the ref let a Canterbury forward pass go, Peter Mortimer scored in the corner and Saints were down 6-0 at half-time. It was 7-0 after Andrew Farrar kicked a drop goal during the second half. Saints just didn’t look like winning and I was trying not to cry in front of my friends. But then there was hope! We were sitting down near the fence and it was in our corner when (who else?!) ‘Slippery’ Morris scored out of nothing, kicking the ball ahead and diving on it just before Mick Potter could get a hand to it. Michael O’Connor then kicked the conversion from the sideline. It was 7-6 now and for just a second I thought Saints could do it. But that was as close as they got. It was cruel of the gods to give me that late flicker of hope only to blow it out again, don’t you think? What have I done to deserve this, God? Is it because I had impure thoughts watching ‘Weird Science’? It hasn’t been the best couple of years, DD, has it? But I’ve still got hope. Saints are so close and after the past few years I just know that another Grand Final win is just around the corner.

 

To read more of the Almanac’s library of wonderful rugby league stories, click HERE.

To see more of John Campbell’s artwork, click HERE.

 

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Comments

  1. Paul, you capture the innocence and vagaries of a child’s mind so well. And what better way to ‘expose’ it than through the choice of a favourite footy team. I’m an Adrian Mole fan so I just love the style you’ve used here. And in this sentence – ‘My heart was pounding the entire game but Saints won which meant that until Saints and Manly play again I can make Niall cross just by raising an eyebrow at him. He’ll know what that means.’ – you sum up that often unspoken but strongly felt sibling rivalry as we seek a bit of one-upmanship wherever we can find it. Thoroughly enjoyed the piece – more please!

  2. Mark Courtney says

    I remember reading all the Adrian Mole books many years ago and this is beautifully told, and pretty accurate I reckon. Although not a Saints fan, I remember most of the games mentioned, and the descriptions of specific moments are terrific. A great piece!

  3. Niall Connolly says

    Paul, you know that I’m a lawyer don’t you? I feel like my character is in ruins. Also, I was waiting for Adrian’s note for September 1987 to arrive and it never did. Was that deliberate?

    Love Niall

  4. Daryl Schramm says

    A cracker of a read. Thanks

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