Almanac Rugby League – The 1973 NSWRL Grand Final: Manly v Cronulla

During the 1970s I lived in Adelaide and lost touch with what was happening in the code with which I grew up. Rugby league was, literally, hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away. Very brief visits ‘home’ to Queensland, more often in Summer than in Winter, reinforced the disconnect. But back ‘up north’ since 1984, I’ve had decades to re-engage with ‘the greatest game of all’ and to learn more and more of its history and culture, not least through the research and writing of my son, Liam, but also via my own interest and curiosity.

 

The reported rough and tumble era of the 60s and 70s contrasted with the increasingly ‘clean’ game that evolved through subsequent decades until the present day. Today’s harmless push and shove has replaced stiff arms, coat hangers, wild brawls, open fighting, kicking, kneeing and so on. But was it as bad as they say? My interest in that period has been rekindled in recent recent months following the death of legendary hardman Noel Kelly, my reading of Glen Humphries’ Biff, and an opportunity to watch a video of the infamous 1973 NSWRL Grand Final, widely regarded as the most brutal Grand Final of them all.

 

To be honest, I didn’t see what I expected, given the written descriptions I had read of the game. It probably didn’t help that the picture quality of the DVD was poor and very grainy – well, it was almost 50 years ago and television coverage of live outdoor sport in Australia was still in its comparative infancy. Picking up the finer detail was difficult. In more ways than one, it was a different game played in a different style in a different era using very modest equipment.

 

As a game of rugby league, the 1973 Grand Final was a shocker with very few of the finer skills of the code on display. The exceptions were: some excellent, around-the-legs tackling; the fearless, straight-ahead running of Graham Eadie; the sustained, strong rucking of the ball by Manly forward Bill Hamilton; the exquisite backhand flick pass from Fred Jones to Bob Fulton which resulted in the first try of the match; and the superb skills of future Immortal Bob Fulton, clearly the best footballer on the park.

 

Otherwise it was a sad indictment of the code at that time. Footy can be rough, tough, uncompromising and strongly contested with no quarter given or asked, all within the rules and spirit of the game. But this was just mayhem in a crass form that did no-one any credit whatsoever. Cheap shots, provocation and retaliation, the odd facial, knees in the tackle, and repeated off the ball incidents made for a forgettable game of rugby league. The roiling, heaving and chaotic scrums were a mockery of their purpose. How anyone could referee those convulsions is beyond me. The failure of the officials to use the sanctions available to them to counter and control foul play was unfathomable.

 

After all I’d heard and read about the 1973 Grand Final over the years, I was led to believe that it was an absolute bloodbath. But it was not nearly as violent as I anticipated, nor were there as many brawls as I expected. That’s not to say that I was disappointed that I didn’t see more of the biff. Rather, what I saw just didn’t meet the hype. If this was the worst that could be thrown up, then it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be. Far worse things did happen on the field in the 70s and 80s – read the relevant chapters in Biff about Piggins v Reilly, the Fibros and the Silvertails, Les Boyd, Bob Cooper et al. Perhaps the growing condemnation of the 1973 Grand Final down the years resulted from the not unusual embellishment that characterises sporting events viewed through the rear vision mirror.

 

In my review of Humphries’ book last week I wrote:

There is a basic dichotomy at the heart of Glen’s book. On the one hand, there has been the consistent, hand-wringing lament over the decades that ‘the biff’, or violence, is not a good look for the code. Commentators and officials have always been quick to moralise that parents will look at this on-field thuggery and steer their children towards other sports options with the result that the code will, eventually, wither and die. On the other hand, those promoting the game, especially in visual formats, have seemed only too happy to use images and videos of fisticuffs to advertise and promote both the code in general and some matches in particular. ‘It’s what the fans want’, they have been heard to say.

My contention today is that the 1973 Grand Final, and how it has been evaluated ever since, might well be the classic example to support Humphries’ view.

 

In the end, a few days after viewing the video and having the chance to mull it over in my mind, I’m left with two particular images from that match. The first is of legendary tough guy Cliff Watson during the ‘warm-up’ period before the game. There he stands, totally disengaged, leaning against the goalpost, hands on his hips, leg crossed, as nonchalant as you could be. You almost expect him to reach into his (non-existent) pocket to take out a packet of Craven As and light up for a quick drag before the opening whistle. What a hoot, all the more so given what was to follow on the field. The second image is that backhand flick pass from the old warhorse Fred Jones to create the first try – a split second of sleight-of-hand beauty. Thirty years later, Benji Marshall’s pass to Pat Richards in the 2005 Grand Final would become the stuff of legends. How come Fred’s pass doesn’t draw any comment whatsoever? A pass of such skill and cunning, coming as it did in the middle of that totally unsophisticated game from a player not renown for his subtlety, was a sublime moment.

 

The most brutal Grand Final ever? Perhaps. As bad as it’s been made out to be? I don’t think so. But I am grateful that the game now, for all its present day faults, has moved on a long way since those rough and tumble times.

 

Click the link below to watch the 1973 NSWRL Grand Final in full.

 

 

 

 

Read Ian Hauser’s review of Glen Humphries’ Biff by clicking HERE.

 

To return to the www.footyalmanac.com.au  home page click HERE.

 

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About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A Queenslander through and through, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. I enjoy travel, good coffee and cake, reading, and have been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. As well as being one of Footy Almanac's online editors, I moonlight as an editor for hire - check me out at www.writerightediting.com.au

Comments

  1. One particular incident from the 1973 decider that sticks in my mind is when Cronulla’s halfback and captain Tommy Bishop jabbed Manly prop John O’Neill, who promptly chased Bishop but was instantly confronted and thwarted by two Cronulla forwards.
    When I watched and reviewed this match for my grand finals book, it wasn’t as violent as I was led to believe. There certainly wasn’t as much brawling as I expected.
    I had the good fortune of meeting Bishop only a few years ago (just after the book was first released) as he lived only a few kilometres from me on the Redcliffe peninsula. Nearing his 77th birthday, he was working hard in a gym. He signed my copy of my grand finals book, and we had a bit of a chat. I didn’t mention his or his team’s antics from the 1973 grand final. “Fulton did us,” Bishop said.

  2. Thanks Ian for confirming my view that this GF is the most over-hyped of any I know. Over-hyped in the sense that it was ‘the most violent’ or ‘one of the most violent’, ever. Yes, rough, ugly and at times very spiteful but I’d baulk at the mayhem it’s been painted as.
    BTW, this was the first of my run of Manly Grand Final victories (six from six so far). I was eleven and went with my Dad and uncle. We sat in the Bob Stand. Don’t recall much more than a heavy leaden day and flashes of Bob Fulton brilliance and Eadie as steady as.

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