Almanac Rugby League – The 1965 Grand Final: St George Dragons v South Sydney Rabbitohs

John Campbell grew up watching footy on the hill at Henson Park but, instead of the Bluebags, he fell in love with the Bunnies when he saw the Cardinal and Myrtle run onto the field for the first time. As a player, it didn’t take John very long to realise that he was too small for the forwards, too slow for the backs and too distracted by Jimi Hendrix, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll to be successful as a player – some people were born to be on the other side of the fence. But John has remained a Rabbitoh tragic all his life and managed to get to the Olympic Stadium for that glorious Sunday night in 2014 when Souths finally racked-up their 21st Premiership. Here he takes us back to a distinctive childhood memory.


We left straight after lunch, a bit earlier than usual. It was not just any old Match of the Day at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Dad had taken me and my little brother Lonno there on numerous occasions, beginning with Eric Ashton’s touring Great Britain side of 1962 playing a Sydney rep side. as the bullocking Wigan winger Billy Boston the first black man that I saw playing footy? I was mesmerised by him and thrilled by the primeval booing that greeted the pale-thighed Poms as they marched in single file onto the field.


But now it was three years later. September 18th, 1965, the Grand Final – and not just any old grand final either. A young South Sydney side, led by the debonair Jimmy Lisle, was threatening to dethrone Norm ‘Sticks’ Provan’s mighty Saint George Dragons, who were aiming for their tenth consecutive premiership.





Dad, who taught me everything I know about rugby league, hated the Dragons, not just because of their relentless crushing of opponents, but also because of a socio-economic resentment that I, as a thirteen-year-old, was only beginning to absorb. My father was what was known as ‘unskilled labour’, born and bred in Tempe and a rusted-on Labor man. On the other side of Cooks River, St George territory, were the tradies and working class Tories who, election after election, voted in ‘Pig Iron’ Bob Menzies as Prime Minister. Saints had also pilfered Johnny ‘Chook’ Raper and Brian ‘Poppa’ Clay from the Newtown Bluebags, which got up Dad’s nose, and had recently opened their grotesque temple of poker machines, gauchely known as the ‘Taj Mahal’, opposite their home ground of Kogarah Oval. If ever anybody wanted to be the Man who shot Liberty Vallance, it was my Dad, me and Lonno on that Saturday afternoon.


We found some red and green ribbons in Mum’s sewing box to tie to the aerial of the blue FJ (BAA 478) and set off with high expectations, for the Bunnies had got the better of the Premiers a couple of times during the competition rounds. It was at a time that preceded the onslaught of intensive club merchandising so, apart from our car’s ribbons, nobody would have known to which faction anybody else belonged. Dressed in everyday mufti, you would not have seen a jersey or even a scarf on the hordes who approached the ornate and historic ground.


Dad, as canny a parker as George Costanza, found a spot for us in a laneway behind the Langton Clinic in Surry Hills, a drug and alcohol rehab centre. I instinctively knew that there was something not normal about the place – my wide-eyed and coddled innocence felt threatened by it. From there we walked across Moore Park, Dad striding ahead in the khaki greatcoat that he kept when he was de-mobbed after serving in WWII, while Lonno and I passed a rolled-up footy programme between us, me being Ron Coote and Lonno Arthur Branighan.


From Anzac Parade, approaching the ground, it soon became apparent that the mob had arrived before us and taken up every vantage point.


The minute we got inside and passed the bar under the Sheridan Stand, with its scary rumble of red-nosed beer drinkers and Craven A smokers, we knew that we would not have a clear view of the game. Squeezing through the rabble on the Hill, below that gorgeous, literary grandstand, we were somehow separated from Dad. Suddenly it was just me and Lonno surrounded by giants. At one point there was a tidal surge and our feet were lifted off the ground – we were like corks in a volatile, seething sea. And we were frightened, Lonno especially, being smaller than me.


At some stage during the first half, the Rabbitohs’ full-back, Kevin ‘Lummy’ Longbottom, kicked one of his famous long-range goals. The ball soaring over the heads of the blokes in front of me was all I saw of that Grand Final. In my mind’s eye, I can still see it reaching the top of its soaring arc.


I was having no fun at all and Lonno was clearly distressed by the crush, so we left at half-time. It was a relief to get out. Disconsolate, Dad told us that St George had won 12-8 when he got back to the car. The official crowd that day was 78,065 in a ground that struggled to contain 50,000.


Far too many ‘I was there’ stories are misremembrances at best, wild fabrications at worst. But with rose-coloured glasses and in my own indulgent re-imagining of history, I have painted that day, sitting me and Dad and Lonno safely in the old Bob Stand.


My father died in a nursing home at the age of 94. The last time I saw him I told him I loved him. I had never said it to him before and, as I left the nursing home, I couldn’t help remembering that day he took his adored sons to the 1965 Grand Final. Lonno’s gone too, and the tears I shed for them are prompted by those arvos, golden or otherwise, we shared together at the footy.


The artwork above is an original painting by John Campbell himself and appears here with his permission. Now based in Byron Bay, John has lived in the UK, Greece and the USA at various times. He is also a cricket tragic! You can view more of John’s art on his Instagram page by clicking 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.


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  1. Enjoyed the read, John. Simpler days when you could decide to go to the Grand Final at the last moment and still get in. Imagine trying to do that now! Also an interesting point that two little boys, literally swept up in the surge, could (and did!) negotiate their way out of the maelstrom and get back to the car safely. And poignant in its remembrance of special times spent with your father and brother. Great stuff!

    Love the artwork.

  2. Matt O'Hanlon says

    That’s a great read John. I think lucky boys have iconic sports moments with their Dad’s. I concur with Ian that nowadays if 2 kids were lost there would be 100 phone and text messages. Life was definitely simpler.

  3. Mark Courtney says

    This is a beautiful piece, John. I especially love how there’s so little actual footy in your story (actually only the sight of a ball on its way to the posts), yet footy is the emotional centrepiece of your tears for your departed family members. Lovely.
    (PS Also very glad you made it to the 2014 GF. It was quite a night, wasn’t it? #sstid)

  4. Ken Washington says

    Ken Washington says
    May 6,2020 at 9.41am

    Legendary John
    Me and my brother snuck through the security gates and saw it from the top of the Sheridan Stand.There were
    scores of people watching it from the roofs above.

  5. Stephen Castieau says

    i was in year 6 at the time.Some of my classmates went to the match and had a similar experience to John.I think tou’re being a bit harsh on the St George area voters.Labor luminaries such as Doc Evatt and Robert Mclelland have been local members.The current MP for Barton which is partly in the St George area is Linda Burney.

  6. Adam Muyt says

    Great stuff John. I was there for the 1975 Easts slaughter with 63000 others and could barely move. Hard to see how another 15000 could fit in to the ground – but you’ve given us that picture!

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