Almanac Rugby League – Some push pianos, others play them

On Thursdays during the footy season, we’re featuring a series of rugby league stories along the lines of  Malarkey Publications’ Australian football-focussed book, Footy Town. Today we feature father and son team Col and Steve Wilson who were destined to be rugby league lovers. Col’s father Joe was Kangaroo #171. He played three Tests against the Poms in 1932, including the famous ‘Battle of Brisbane’  in which he scored a try that helped achieve a famous Australian victory. Col had a distinguished playing career with Ipswich Brothers where he achieved Life Membership and was named in the club’s Team of the Century. All four of Col’s sons wore the butcher stripes of Brothers proudly and have maintained interest and commitment to the greatest game of all throughout their adult lives. 



The 1932 Kangaroos. Joe Wilson is on the right in the front row.
Dan Dempsey is fourth from left in the back row.
Herb Steinohrt (C) is in the centre of the middle row (with ball).
Hec Gee is in the middle row on Steinohrt’s left.


The role of players in particular positions has changed significantly over the decades in rugby league.  Hookers no longer hook for the ball to win scrums, centres now play either side of the ruck rather than align in a backline, and wingers often take responsibility for the first carry after a scrum win. But while the game continues to change, the importance of the grunt men to carry the ball forward and establish momentum has remained fairly constant, as has the responsibility of the speed men to provide the flair and the points to win matches and captivate the fans.


My grandfather, who knew a thing or two about the greatest game of all, had a couple of favourite sayings when talking about footy. One of those Joe Wilson sayings was, “Some players’ job is to push pianos so that others can play them.” He was referring to the different roles played by forwards and backs in rugby league.


Joe Wilson was lucky enough to play three Tests for Australia before playing professionally in England at Wigan and Bradford Northern. He played in the fabled ‘Battle of Brisbane’ Australia versus Great Britain match in the 1932 Test series, a game remembered for violent forward clashes as the big men fought (pushed pianos) to gain the superiority that would allow their backs to attack (play the pianos).


With all due respect to the players of previous eras, modern training methods mean that players have never been bigger or stronger. The modern rugby league player would, by virtue of sport science, have a higher muscle mass to total body weight percentage. A check of the program from that 1932 series indicates that the biggest forwards weighed in at 14st 7lbs – 94 kg in metric-speak. In the modern game, many NRL wingers weigh more than 94 kgs. Enigmatic former Gold Coast Titan Dave Taylor is one of the heaviest forwards in the NRL at 125 kgs and, undoubtedly, born to push pianos, although he often seems to have other ideas.


However, the game has changed in other ways that must be considered when comparing eras. The ‘piano pushers’ in the 1930s, such as legendary prop forwards Dan Dempsey and Herb Steinhort, played a game in which there were no substitutes, unlimited tackles for the team in possession and no 10 metre rule for the team in defence. Every ruck and as every scrum was a contest. In that context, the capacity of the forwards to gain physical and territorial superiority was pivotal to team success. This also explains why many old timers believe that the players of that era were the toughest of all time. I recall a conversation with Wynnum Rugby League icon Lionel Morgan who played with great success in the 1950s and 60s and became the first Indigenous Australian to wear the green and gold. When I mentioned Petero Civoneciva’s great achievement of playing over 250 First Grade NRL games in the front row, Lionel replied “Yes, but remember he only plays half of each game!”


By way of contrast, Ipswich international front-rower Dud Beattie earned fame for instigating a fight with his Pommie opposite, Derek ‘Rocky’ Turner, in a 1962 Test match that resulted in both being sent from the field. Beattie had dislocated his shoulder in a clash earlier in the match and was aware that he would be unable to finish the game. His strategy ensured that the Australian team was not forced to play with one man less that the Englishmen.


Dud Beattie was a part of an all-Ipswich front row with Noel Kelly and Gary Parcell, the piano pushers for Queensland and Australia from 1959 to 1962. They form one part of a proud history of Australian rugby league representative players from the former coal-mining city. The honour board of Ipswich internationals includes other piano-pushing forwards such as Dan Dempsey and Monty Heidke from that 1932 series, and extends to entertainers including Alan Langer, Kevin Walters and Kerrod Walters in more recent times. Denis Flannery, a member of Ipswich’s Rugby League Team of the Century, was a fiery and powerful winger who was robust enough to push pianos but also had the capacity to play them as he was blessed with great pace and evasive skills.


While the game has certainly changed over the years, the role of piano pushers in helping clubs attain the ultimate prize of Grand Final victory underlines their importance throughout history. The record of eleven consecutive premierships established by the St George Dragons between 1956 and 1966 stands unmatched in our game. Legendary forwards including Norm Provan, Kevin Ryan and Billy Wilson were pivotal to the successes of those teams, again in an era of unlimited tackles and no interchange. The 1959 team remained undefeated throughout their campaign, culminating in a 20-0 thrashing of Manly in the Grand Final. The match report stated that ‘the result was never in doubt as Saints’ forwards demolished the Manly pack, paving the way for the backline.’ In fact, when ‘Killer’ Ken Kearney captain-coached the Dragons from 1957–1960, he introduced a strategy of ‘limited tackle’ football where the opposing team would sometimes be given possession at the scrum, only to be beaten into submission by the uncompromising St George ‘Brick Wall’ of defence. As the Saints marched in more premierships in the early 1960s, piano players of the calibre of Reg Gasnier, Eddie Lumsden and Johnny King starred behind the physically dominant forward packs and became household names as the great entertainers of their era.


Glen Lazarus, ‘The Brick with Eyes’, earned premierships at three different clubs and was recognised as pivotal to the success of all three. After lending his considerable weight to triumphant Canberra Raiders packs in 1989 and 1990, the arrival of Lazarus at Brisbane was considered by many to provide the missing piece to the puzzle that was solved when the Broncos won the competition in 1992 and repeated the achievement in 1993. ‘The Brick’ then crushed any doubts about his impact by leading Melbourne to claim their first title in only their second season in 1999.


For a considerable period of his career, Broncos coach Wayne Bennett was reported to set an upper limit on the amount that he would spend on a front-rower, perhaps indicating that he thought that the piano players deserved more reward within the limits of the salary cap. Many will recall that the loss of club favourite Civoneciva to the Panthers for several seasons was the result of the Broncos hierarchy being unwilling to meet the financial expectations of Petero and his manager. In more recent seasons, however, Coach Bennett may have changed his thoughts on the value of the big men as he was pro-active in his pursuit of pack weight at the Dragons, Knights and then back at Brisbane again.


In more recent seasons, Dragons fans tasted Premiership success in 2010 for the first time in 31 years with Michael Weyman and Trent Merrin providing the grunt that allowed them to run away with victory over the Roosters. Manly-Warringah claimed the 2011 title with Brent Kite, Joe Galuvao and George Rose as their principal go-forward men. In 2012, Melbourne Storm triumphed with a huge contribution from unfashionable bookends including Jesse Bromwich and Bryan Norrie, while in 2013 the input of forward giants including Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sonny Bill Williams was significant in the Sydney Roosters’ victory over the Sea Eagles. The monster pack of South Sydney drove them to victory in 2014, though many will more readily remember the speed and athleticism in the backline led by Greg Inglis, Luke Keary and Adam Reynolds as the highlight of that drought-breaking title. While the size of the players pushing the pianos may vary, the importance of their role within premiership-winning teams remains constant.


There is little doubt that the forward clash will go a long way to deciding who comes out on top in most matches, but even less doubt that the majority of punters pay their hard-earned to see the piano players in action once the piano pushers have established the necessary momentum. In a 2013 Cowboys-Bulldogs match in which the then Australian front-row of Matt Scott and Jason Tamou each ran for big metres, Jonathon Thurston delivered a masterclass behind them. In fact, one Thurston kick and regather following rolling rucks from the big men was so sublime that then Bulldogs captain Michael Ennis took a break from refereeing the game to acknowledge it!


As a dual Dally M medallist and crucial member of the Queensland State of Origin team that won eight consecutive series, Thurston has been identified as one of the true crowd favourites, an entertainer of magical skill and insight.  However it has been shown that even modern greats such as Thurston can struggle behind a pack that is itself struggling to assert dominance over their opponents. The Blues attribute credit for their drought-breaking 2014 Origin series win to the efforts of the go-forward men including Captain Paul Gallen and prop Aaron Woods (plus the brilliance of their own magic man in Jarryd Hayne).


From the platform of attacking field position, the ball players create the point scoring plays that win matches and titles. With defensive lines required to retreat ten metres at every ruck, the opportunity to attack against a retreating defence is created by the forward pack that gains dominance. Rugby league’s modern superstars, including Billy Slater, Shaun Johnson, Matt Moylan and Luke Keary, can prove almost unstoppable when this situation arises.


Just as there are stars today who ‘play the pianos’, so there have been throughout the history of our game. Scrum-half Gee was a key figure in that 1932 Test series which was won by Great Britain when they clinched the decider in Sydney. In that era, the contested scrum created an opportunity to attack from anywhere on the field as twelve players were committed to provide the push so vital to winning possession. In the Brisbane Test match, Joe Wilson reaped the benefits of Gee’s brilliance when a blind–side play from a scrum win saw the dynamic half send Wilson racing in to score Australia’s second try. Gee himself had scored Australia’s first and clinched the match for Australia when he scored again late. The Wilson try proved vital in a tight match that the home side won by 15–6.


It is difficult to imagine the spectacle of the rugby league match in that era when teams could hold possession indefinitely and defensive lines needed only to retreat past the ruck to set themselves for the next play. The fact that a then world record 70,204 fans attended the First Test in Sydney indicates, however, that despite the parlous financial situation brought about by the Depression, there was enormous interest in the series. The formidable British forwards were led by Martin Hodgson, and their piano players included winger Alf Ellaby, whose speed was described as ‘blistering’, and five-eighth Ernie Pollard from Wakefield Trinity. The importance of the sweeping backline movement was paramount as it was one way to create space and capitalise on the momentum created by the forwards.


The fullback in that era was often required to provide long clearing kicks when the team was unable to gain territory or field position, and the kicking duel between rival fullbacks was popular with the crowds. Duels could sometimes extend to six or more kicks and British Captain Jim Sullivan was renowned for a mighty boot that often won the duels to set up a platform for attack. In the modern game, the kick return from giant wingers such as Manu Vatuvei and Wendell Sailor has replaced the kicking duel as maintaining possession has become a higher priority in the NRL.


While the game still needs those players who work specifically for territorial advantage and physical dominance, the players who can combine the grunt work with the skill and finesse that the crowds enjoy have become the genuine superstars of their era. In the 1980s, ‘King’ Wally Lewis endeared himself to a generation of long-suffering Queenslanders when he combined great strength with brilliant skills and reading of play to dominate State of Origin football like no player before or since. Sonny Bill Williams has demonstrated during his stints in rugby league that he can excel in the trenches of the forward battle and in the attacking play that his deft off-loads and gap running produce. The Bulldogs’ English prop forward James Graham brings the best of both worlds with the skills of a half and the strength of a bullock. Many of the 100 kilogram plus wingers that are now a common feature of NRL teams complete hit-ups early in the tackle count as well as finishing off attacking raids to bring the crowds to their feet.


In twenty-first century rugby league, statistics highlight and showcase the importance of the go-forward that creates attacking field position. Players’ contribution is measured in the number of carries and metres gained to confirm that establishing physical dominance and field position are of paramount importance. The modern interchange bench in most NRL matches contains three players of the four who are there to add ballast to the pack contesting the grind of the ruck and aiming to establish attacking field position. The fourth bench player, however, is often a replacement acting half to create space and go-forward against tiring defences. This identifies a shift in recent seasons away from barging ruck play towards strategic attack from the ruck, particularly late in each half. Scrum counts, once the cornerstone of hooker play in years gone by, are basically obsolete.


Apart from player size, another major change in the game over the decades has centred around their respective pay levels. While many current players claim salaries beyond the imagination of those who pay to watch them, those in depression-era Australia were often forced to forego representative play because of the financial burden involved. Many played for no payment and, in an era of high unemployment, players who travelled away for weeks or months in order to play risked losing their livelihood. At the time of his Australian selection, Joe Wilson moved between Ipswich, Beaudesert and Currumbin to pursue work, staying with members of his extended family as his own family could not afford to sustain him.


Wilson and his Ipswich and Australian team-mate Hec Gee created a scandal when they left Australia immediately after the 1932 series, having signed professional contracts to play with Wigan. Both men signed contracts for £400 with a job guarantee for four years at not less than £3 per week and £4 for each match win. In 1932, such earnings were beyond the dreams of even elite footballers in Australia. Wilson and Gee became the first international transfers. The Ipswich and Australian rugby league communities were outraged that the players were lost to the game in this country just after achieving international status. Hec Gee’s mother summed up the situation when she responded, “If they really wanted Hec to remain in Australia, why didn’t somebody give him a job here?” It seems unlikely that Daly Cherry-Evans’ mum will be suggesting that someone give him a job since he has recently signed a reported $1 million per season deal.


The game of rugby league at its highest levels has certainly changed a great deal as it has evolved into the world’s premier collision sport. But the importance of the go-forward men to ‘push the pianos’ and the playmakers to ‘play them’ are as much a part of the fabric of our game today as they were when the greatest game of all kicked off in this country in 1908. The highly-paid giants of the modern game emphasise the changing physical demands of playing and the changing identity and status of those who are privileged to play it.



The 1932 Kangaroos. Joe Wilson is ninth from the left.
Steinohrt and Dempsey are the first two players from the left.


Photos sourced from Wiki Commons.

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  1. Well done, Col and Steve! It’s a good metaphor for the way the game has always been played. The old adage that forwards win matches is so true. Remember when they used to be called ‘pigs’? I think it must have been because they got down and dirty doing the grunt work to allow the show ponies in the backs to prance, dance and strut their stuff.

  2. Matt O'Hanlon says

    Excellent read. I find it really interesting and an insight reading your article that games and rules change because of dominance -and the great St George run of premierships was an example of what was almost the perfection of the unlimited tackle rule balanced by piano players and pushers. To win consistently like they did with 4 coaches over the 11 years with a lowest winning percentage of 67.5% (Tipping- who coached in 53 and 56) and highest (Kearney – 80% which includes seasons 54 and 55 where they didn’t win an 57-61 where they did and I’m not including his coaching at Parra) shows how that balance must have been near perfect and there was an imminent rule change-5yards and 4 tackles to stop it. Strangely the rule change emanated out of England (where I think it was not uncommon for sides not to touch the ball for a half) but was quickly accepted here. Also it is still evident that Joe’s view still holds-without piano pushers the star halves find it difficult to play in a dinner suit!

  3. I like your last point, Matt. When was the last time you saw even a genuine star halfback able to steer his side to a win behind a beaten pack? Not even JT or Alfie could do that. On the other hand, some comparatively ordinary halfbacks were winners (made to look good) when they had their pack dominant.

  4. “Some players’ job is to push pianos so that others can play them.”
    Terrific summation of players back in the ‘olden days’. Which I miss. Yes, it was a more black and white playing structure – the piano metaphor sure fits neatly – but it seems the game was far more democratic once upon a time, that different body types were more acceptable and readily absorbed into team structures. These days the emphasis is largely on an ideal body type, someone able to play in multiple positions. That said, there’s little doubt skill levels have improved, and the game has more fluidity, if less drama overall.

  5. Steve Wilson says

    That is a great point Adam, that different body types were more accepted back in the earlier days. I recall the near hysteria when Lattrell Mitchell returned to training carrying some extra weight. In days gone by the majority of forwards carried a bit of additional pudd, and were still expected to play the full 80 minutes. Lightweights were always going to be playing in the backs, and some genuine lightweights played successfully at the higher levels. Perhaps Brett Hodgson, who was an outstanding player, being rag-dolled by Gorden Tallis in that famous Origin moment was the beginning of the end for players under 90kg. Gorden Tallis described wingers as ‘blokes that hang around with footballers’, but 173cm and 78kg Ken Irvine, and later the great Kerry Boustead certainly made their marks at the highest level. Further, I’m sure we all remember that some of the beefier players became crowd favourites as well. The game was better for the fact that it had roles for all shapes and sizes.

  6. Damian Roache says

    Great read guys. Being the son of a former talented piano player I love the analogy.

    Watching old pre WW2 footage of games it is plainly evident that the forwards were the game’s tireless workers as one out runs were a regular occurrence.

    Going by the youtube and other video clips I have seen of developing frontier nations I find it interesting that the ‘piano pushers’ once again are at the forefront. Possibly because the skill levels in attacking backline play are still be developed in these new league playing nations.

    As a sideline to the Ipswich references, I recall being in a pub in that town early 80’s and seeing a great photo of a 1940’s player wearing a stylish hat of the day whilst playing ! Larrikin Uncle who played around the same era as the photo reckoned he would fling the hat to a teammate to dupe the opposition defence before dashing the opposite way with the ball. Ref quickly put a stop to this tactic !

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