Almanac Rugby League: ‘Rugby league – the greatest game of all’

Murray Bird writes: My interst in rugby league came from my grandfather and great-grandfather. Great-grandfather Tom Bird played rugby for Queensland before rugby league commenced and went on to be a founder of the Coorparoo rugby league club – later Easts. He became its President and was a benefactor – he owned the Stones Corner Hotel. My grandfather, Dudley Bird, played in a premiership with Valleys in the early 1930s, I think. He was a selector at Easts in the early 1970s and would take me to games at Langlands Park, Lang Park and all of the suburban grounds. He died soon after taking me to the 1972 Brisbane Rugby League Grand Final when Jeff Fyfe kicked the field goal. I played Aussie Rules for Coorparoo but have always maintained an interest in rugby league.


“Rugby League! The greatest game of all.” George Lovejoy, the doyen of 1960s/70s Brisbane football commentators, ended his colourful descriptions of Brisbane Rugby League (BRL) matches with those words when he signed off each week.


Last Sunday, for the first time in 40 years, I ventured to Langlands Park in the inner eastern suburbs of Brisbane to watch a local home and away rugby league match to see if I could remember what George was on about. The local BRL has, over the last 25 years, been superseded by a competition that is unique in Australia, the Queensland Cup.


Fourteen teams from Port Moresby, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan City, Gold Coast and Northern New South Wales now play in the Queensland Cup. During the season, they play 25 rounds including three byes. I doubt that many semi-professional sport leagues anywhere in the world span the distances covered by the teams in this competition.


The ‘evolution’ of the Queensland Cup has seen the demise of Souths Magpies, Wests Panthers, Brothers Leprechauns and Valleys Diehards. Only one of these clubs with century-old traditions has morphed into another entity that maintains some of its original history, the Souths Logan Magpies.


On Sunday, traditional BRL club Easts Tigers hosted their neighbours, and old BRL rivals, the Wynnum Manly Seagulls in the last home and away round. Easts are the feeder club for the Melbourne Storm and Wynnum fulfil that role for the Brisbane Broncos. Easts sat fifth on the ladder and Wynnum fourth, with new teams the Townsville Blackhawks, PNG Hunters and the Ipswich Jets ahead of them in the race for the premiership.


I missed the kick-off on Sunday as there was no available car parking within 500 metres of the ground. I had seriously underestimated how much interest there would be in the game.


After paying my ten dollars at the gate, I was confronted with a sea of green and red behind the city end goals. About 600 Wynnum fans had travelled the fifteen kilometres up Wynnum Road and most of them were crowded into the well-patronised Can Bars behind the goals.


There was a fair bit at stake. These two teams would play each other again in a qualifying final the following week. Whoever won today would finish fourth and claim the decided advantage of a home final. A win for Wynnum would be a big deal in the bayside suburb as they could expect 5000 fans for a home finals match.


The 2500 plus spectators at Langlands Park last Sunday all stayed to the very end and all walked away agreeing with George Lovejoy. The match was in doubt until the final three minutes. It was a fantastic spectacle played at a high pace, with great intensity and with plenty of interest shown by both teams’ loyal supporters.


It took me back forty years. A few things had changed. There were perhaps half the number of spectators of the earlier era and one side of Langlands Park had been usurped for a car park to cater for the many who patronise the pokies at East’s Leagues Club. But, like the old days, the atmosphere was similar. The fans were up close and involved in a sport where you can hear the big hits … you can almost feel them. Rugby league is the most brutal of contact sports and is played by strong young men with big arms, big legs and hard heads.


There was a merchandise stand and a grandstand that weren’t there in the 1970s. Most of the Easts faithful sat in the stand. The Wynnum supporters were generally younger and much louder than their inner city rivals. I don’t remember rugby league fans wearing club apparel in the 1970s but, in 2015, more than half the crowd was in the black and gold of Easts or the green and red of Wynnum.


Both teams wore blue socks in honour of the ‘Turn to Me’ round sponsored by that fantastic organisation, Beyond Blue. I normally wince at the overuse of these themed rounds by football competitions but this one fits with rugby league. There have been six suicides in the last two years of young men connected to Queensland Cup clubs. It was a particularly poignant reminder for Easts coach Craig Ingebrigtsen and his charges who lost their play making half-back and great mate, Grant Giess, only a couple of months ago.


Wynnum wore their away white jumper. The Easts jumper (the same as the Balmain Tigers) is striking. The predominantly orange-gold top is the best footy jumper in Australia. New sporting teams in any code should consider copying the Tigers playing strip.


In the 1970s the Tigers not only looked good. They were a team stacked with some of Queensland’s best rugby league talent. Rod Morris, Jeff Denman and Johnny Lang were Australian representatives who played for the Tigers in that era. They were my sporting heroes (along with Queensland cricketers Sam Trimble, Geoff Dymock and Malcolm Franke).


Rod Morris’s brother Des should have played for Australia too, but a laughable New South Wales selection bias meant he only played for Queensland. Some of the selection faux pas and thrashings handed to Queensland in that era are part of the success of modern State of Origin. Older Queenslanders remember the humiliation, the derision and the selection bias of the 1960s and 1970s. Des Morris, in his role as Chairman of Selectors for the Queensland State of Origin team, no doubt reminds the players of those times.


Des Morris is now the Tigers’ CEO. When I left the ground he was unlocking gates to let cars exit quickly. Des is apparently a “hands on” boss. He was a great captain for the Tigers in the 1970s.


One clear memory of my childhood at rugby league matches is the referees. They were always dressed and pressed immaculately. They wore a white rugby jumper and the cocky ones would turn their collar up. They also donned those ankle high boots and their shorts were pulled up very high, seemingly under their armpits. Their boots were polished to within an inch of their life. My memory is of them blowing the whistle like it was a musical instrument. They blew it loud! And, of course, they always received plenty of advice from the sidelines.


Plenty of advice was dished out to referee Peter Gough during the first half on Sunday. I remember being at Langlands Park with my grandfather in the early 70s. He was a Tigers selector and former premiership captain of the Valley Diehards. We heard similar advice being offered to international standard referees like Henry Albert and Bernie Pramberg. Queensland footy supporters are to the point when giving advice to referees:

“Get’em onside, you dickhead … “

“… have a frickin look, you goose … “

“Yes, he’s lying on the ground ‘cos he had his head taken off !”


On Sunday, most of the advice to the referee was good-natured and the punters were just having fun. I didn’t see any aggression in a crowd where one-in-three adult patrons were drinking XXXX or Bundy Rum.


Just before half-time I moved closer to the dressing sheds. I wanted to get a good look at the players before they went inside. All 34 of them were well-conditioned athletes with so much more bulk and muscle than an Australian Rules footballer. But they did do a lot of walking during the match.


When the half-time siren went, sounding like the horn on the old Moreton Island Ferry, Wynnum held a 10-8 lead. Both teams had scored two tries and it seemed that the game was ready to open up into a free flowing affair.


The smell from the hamburger stand was beckoning but the queue was 50 metres long. It was a beautiful pre-spring day and about 25 degrees so I detoured to the Can Bar where the volunteer staff were doing rapid business. It was five dollars for a XXXX Gold in the aluminum can with not a plastic cup in sight. Nice and cold, straight out of the icy, swill-filled esky.


I started chatting to the two 35-year-old Wynnum supporters who were standing next to me. One was drinking Bundy, the other XXXX heavy, and both were smoking Winfield Reds (with not a designated smoking area in sight). I told them I was an Easts supporter but that I hadn’t been to a game for a while. Without prompting, they started describing how passionate they were about the Seagulls. Bundy Seagull asked me who I followed in the NRL.


“No one really,” I answered honestly.


“Good … I hate the NRL. Rugby League is the greatest game of all, but I would much rather come to local footy where the people are real and the footy is still good.”


I agreed with Bundy Seagull but knocked back his generous offer of a Winfield Red.


Just after half-time, Easts winger Michael Kai was tackled high and, in a rage, jumped to his feet and threw the ball into the head of his assailant. It was on! It was to be the first of quite a few harmless mêlées.


Both teams played with aggression and spirit. When Shaun Nona kicked a penalty for Easts with 20 minutes to go, it was 10-all. Easts then spent an inordinate amount of the next ten minutes pressing the Seagulls line. After soaking up the pressure applied by Easts, the ball was whisked to the other end for Wynnum’s wiry and fiery winger, Jeriah Goodrich, to put the visitors six points ahead, 16-10.


Both sets of fans were roaring on their charges. A hundred or so of the Wynnum fans had their own special chants. At one stage they broke into the club song.


The match was sealed with three minutes remaining when Wynnum halfback Mathew Seamark slotted a neat left foot field goal from about 25 metres out. It was 17-10 to the visitors and Easts now have to head to the bayside next weekend to stay alive in the Queensland Cup.


At the end of the match, the Wynnum players ran to the city end of the ground to acknowledge their fans. Big forward David Stagg got closer to one group of about 100 who were wearing black tee shirts with the words STAGG PARTY emblazoned on the front. Most of the group were also wearing green shorts and red tights. Earlier in the week Stagg had announced his retirement after a 200-game NRL career with Canterbury Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos and the Wynnum supporters were acknowledging him.


I had an enjoyable day at the Queensland Cup. I’ll be back for more in the next few weeks. Maybe George was right.


Read more stories by Murray Bird and about his book More of the Kangaroo by clicking HERE.


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  1. Murray, there’s nothing like the old suburban grounds, their atmosphere, ‘modest’ facilities, the canteen, the can bar, the local characters and their wry comments, etc. The ‘Chook Pen’ at Wynnum-Manly was particularly vocal and a tad intimidating when in full voice. My haunt was Dolphin Oval where I loved sitting out on the western mound. I even won the 50cent double on the first scorers one day! Its transformation into a ‘stadium’ in recent years has been sad to observe, even though I understand the commercial imperative. Langlands Park is another with a major transformation that loses much of the atmosphere. We’re showing our age!

  2. Matt O'Hanlon says

    Great read, Murray. The Brisbane club grounds were unique. The players names associated with those clubs were also household ones. Morris and Lang at the Tigers- Struddy and Hughy at Valleys, Bob Cock and Dauth with his high step on the way to a conversion with the Bretheren, Vievers and Astill at South, Conescu and Bernadin at ‘Norffs’, Obst and Bunny at Reddy! Great days!

  3. Greg Mallory says

    Excellent writing, reminds me of the days spent with my father at these grounds

  4. A really enjoyable read Murray, ecapsulates a lot of what’s special about local footy in Queensland.

  5. Patrick O'Brien says

    I remember Easts being a great venue for touring bands in the late 80s and early 90s. I saw the Pogues there twice. Shane MacGowan seemed to have found his way to that Can Bar as well.

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