Almanac Rugby League – Uncle Max: the coaches’ coach

Glen Humphries is a senior journalist at the Illawarra Mercury. He’s been a Dragons man ever since he was a young tacker. His Uncle Max had a long involvement with St George but Glen took a long time to pluck up the courage to talk with him about it. When he did, the information poured out!


You won’t find my Uncle Max in the club records for the St George Dragons, at least not if you know how to spell. He played there alright – for five seasons from 1965-1969. It was pretty much all as a Third Grade fullback but he did captain the 1966 Third Grade side that won the Grand Final on the same day as the First Grade won its eleventh straight premiership.


He managed to squeeze his way into First Grade for a few games in 1969 but, if you scour the club records for ‘‘Max Ninness’’, you’ll come up empty.


‘‘They spelt my name as Ninnis and I never told the club it was misspelt,’’ Max says. ‘‘They did for the whole of my playing career.  I used to joke that I did it for tax purposes, but I never got any money anyway. We used to get about $10 a game.’’


It’s a mistake that continues to this day. My copy of The Encyclopaedia of Rugby League Players says some bloke named ‘‘Max Ninnis’’ played a few games of First Grade in 1969. Ian Heads’ excellent club history, Saints: The Legend Lives On, refers to the same “Ninnis” character. *


That he would play for the club for five seasons and not be concerned enough to correct the spelling of his last name pretty much fits with the laidback, modest style of Uncle Max.


Through his coaching career with Cronulla, Souths, Illawarra and, for almost 20 years, the Dragons, he seemed happy to let others get all the attention. As a newspaper journalist in Wollongong, one of the merged team’s homes, I’d hear of the sports writers’ efforts to get some sort of comment from Uncle Max. Rather than take the chance to step into the spotlight, he’d shake his head and point them in the direction of someone more worthy.


‘‘I made out I knew nothing,’’ he jokes.


When I was a kid, he knew that I was a big fan of the Dragons but he never sought to big note himself by leaning down and saying, ‘‘Hey, you know I used to play for the Dragons’’. I knew which teams he was coaching at the time but, as for his days in the Big Red V, I knew nothing until I was in my 20s. One day I was visiting and saw, amidst the other family photos on the wall, a black and white image of him playing for the Dragons.


Many of his stories were unknown to me. Despite his presence at numerous family gatherings over the years (if there was no game on), I’d avoided asking him any footy questions. I reasoned that because he thought about footy all day every day, he might not want to be pestered about it on a night off.  It was only about five years ago that my Aunt Julie told me how stupid I was and that he absolutely loved to talk footy.


So that’s what has happened at every family gathering since – I’ve buttonholed him about footy and he’s obliged. I’d hear stories about which playmaker couldn’t stick to the game plan, the forward so well-endowed team-mates would insist he do the nudie run even if he had scored a try that year, and being in the  Brisbane watch-house trying to get Shaun Timmins out of the clink after he was pinged for riding a street sweeper.


But I was still playing catch-up. There were still loads of things I didn’t know about him. One thing I definitely knew was that I could hit him up for a player’s jersey. He nabbed me two Dragons jerseys, including one from the 2007 Charity Shield which was held on the day of my wedding. What’s special about that jersey is that it includes the date of the game and, therefore, my wedding date. There’s no way I can forget my anniversary now.


So writing a profile of him presented the perfect way to ask him lots of questions without seeming to be too intrusive and without him saying, “You know what? I’m actually sick of talking about footy now.’’




Uncle Max grew up in Wauchope playing footy in the backyard. He started his proper football career at Woodlawn College, a boarding school in Lismore. Between inter-school fixtures and knockout competitions, he reckons he played about 20 games a year and won every single one of them.


He failed English and had to repeat Year 12, ending up at Wauchope High School where it was thought he’d have a better chance of passing. They started up a school footy team when he got there and the team won every game except the one he didn’t play in.


‘‘Went to the Kempsey knockout and in the semi-final I got sent off because I hit a bloke too hard. So I didn’t play in the final. And we lost the final,’’ he says. He then laughs and points out that that means he had an undefeated record as a schoolboy. Never played in a losing side.


But that stellar record isn’t what got him into the Big Red V. That story involves rugby union, Balmain and a dad who liked a punt.


‘‘I came down here in 1964 to go to uni,’’ he says. ‘‘One of my advisors said the way to go was to play rugby union and then get a big sign-on fee over to rugby league. So they organised for me to go over to North Sydney to play rugby union.’’


He was living in Haberfield at the time and, being a country boy, managed to get himself lost while heading to North Sydney for his first training session. Bugger this, he thought, and made enquiries as to which league team was closest to home. That was the Balmain Tigers.


‘‘I trialled with Balmain – Dennis Tutty was trialling, too – and I was graded and they sent me home to get a clearance,’’ he says. ‘‘I went home and St George was in Wauchope. My father, on Saturdays, used to stand around the car with the radio on and bet SP with the bloke in the pub. A St George official called Ron Flood joined him and he talked my old man into St George taking me the next year.’’


In 1965 he played his first season as a Dragon wearing the same jersey as the likes of Norm Provan, Reg Gasnier and Poppa Clay, the last of whom he would share the field with during his playing career.


Coming along at the tail-end of those 11 premierships was a bit of good timing for Max as it helped him win a few in Third Grade for himself.


‘‘In 1965 and in 1966, I captained Third Grade and we won the Grand Final,’’ he says. ‘‘Those two years and the year after St George would win the club championship hands down. There were blokes playing Reserve Grade and even Third Grade who were as good as first graders. They were that strong.’’


While the three grades would share a football field at training, Firsts in the middle and the other two at either end, the locker rooms on game day were a very different matter.


‘‘They used to have two dressing rooms under the grandstand at Kogarah and, if you made it into First Grade, you’d be in the First Grade shed but if you didn’t you’d be back over on the other side,’’ Max says. ‘‘It was always a big thing to go over into the First Grade shed.’’


Not that Max got much of a chance to get into the First Grade shed, what with some guy named Langlands in the top grade taking up the fullback spot. For others, getting into the top grade and the top shed was a bit easier.


‘‘It depended on who actually spotted you or brought you there,’’ he says. ‘‘If it was Frank Facer, then you got the saloon passage. You went straight to the top. But if it was Ron Flood, well, they weren’t sure. So I battled my way through.’’


He did make it in there for a few games in 1969 but he had to play in the centres. He’s not sure which games he played – or who his centre partner was – because he didn’t keep any of the match programs featuring his misspelt surname as souvenirs.


There might only be the odd top grade appearance next to his name but Max was good enough to be a virtual certainty to win a best and fairest competition run in the local paper. That is, at least until someone at the club got involved and decided he shouldn’t win.


‘‘They used to award nine points over the club for best game and stuff like that,’’ Max remembers. ‘‘It was a $500 prize and I was out in front with about four or five games to go. I was sitting pretty. What happened next was Johnny Raper got four nines in a row and beat me by one.’’


While missing out on $500, a sizeable sum in the late 1960s, was a disappointment for Max (Aunt Julie gave legendary Dragons official Frank Facer a serve over it), he can now see the funny side.


‘‘Maybe Johnny Raper owed the club $500 and this was a good way of getting it back,’’ he laughs. ‘‘They never used to have a second prize, but they gave me a second prize that year, a set of golf sticks.’’


He quit playing for the Dragons in 1970 when he was 25 but not because he got angry every time he looked at those golf clubs. Having finished his Bachelor of Education, he got a job teaching science at Tech on Mondays and Tuesdays. Those two days of work paid more than the Dragons did so he quit playing.


Instead he started coaching, looking after the younger players at a Saturday morning coaching school at the Leagues Club. Over time, that led to Max being put in charge of the Dragons’ Third Grade side in 1973 where he found himself quickly on the outer with club officials.


The problem started in the first half of a game with an official telling Max a player was performing poorly and needed to be replaced. This was in the days of limited replacements where once a player came off, he could not return. Rather than lose a player, Max over-ruled the official. In the second half, several Dragons were injured and had to be replaced. Had Max yanked that player in the first half, he’d have ended up with 11 men on the field. After the game, when the official sidled up next to him at the urinals in the dressing sheds, Max couldn’t resist whispering, ‘‘I told you so.”


‘‘He didn’t say a word,’’ Max says. ‘‘He zipped up and walked away. Then you could see him go around to all the other officials – ‘Ninness is a smart arse, he’s got to go’. And I did. I was gone.’’


Not straight away – he still had to see out the season – but he said the officials did him no favours, even sacrificing the Third Grade side’s chances of a premiership just to get back at him. With five games to go, Max mentioned to an official that they’d win the premiership as long as he had his three star players. For the last five games of the season, those three players were all suddenly moved into Second Grade.


Without those three, the team almost fell out of the top five. At the end of the regular season, they faced a mid-week play-off against Penrith for fifth spot. Sensing the chance for a rare premiership win, the Panthers stacked their Third Grade side. Max, however, was confident because he was able to train with his trio of stars on Monday night.


The next day he lost his confidence. The League handed down a ruling that said his stars were ineligible and the club stood by and let it happen. So, with the game just 24 hours away, he had to bring in three new players. And the poor preparation showed in the result.


‘‘We were down two nil at half-time and we got beat 22-0,’’ he says. ‘‘I cried. What they did to those kids just to get at me was crap. That was the mentality of them – Third Grade didn’t matter, First Grade was the only team that mattered.’’


Then he was gone, off to play and coach the Helensburgh side in the local comp which was still quite strong at the time. It received back-page coverage in the local paper’s sport section while the Sydney rugby league was shunted to the inside pages.


A few years later, in 1979, he returned to the big leagues – but over at Endeavour Field, home of the Dragons’ arch rivals, the Cronulla Sharks – after being approached by committee member Peter Armstrong. With Tommy Bishop in the top spot, Max took over the Reserves for a year.


It was a different world from the Dragons, a world where some of his players would sometimes turn up to training drunk. Tiny half-back Greg Cox was the unfortunate straw that broke Max’s back.


‘‘He came to training under the weather because he’d had a big lunch,’’ Max remembers. ‘‘I got him before training and took him to the in-goal. I just tackled him – picked him up and dumped him – for about 20 minutes, then I said ‘don’t come to training again drunk’.’’


In the previous year, Bishop had taken his side all the way to the Grand Final which they eventually lost to Manly in a mid-week replay. So Bishop obviously knew a thing or two about coaching but sometimes his approach raised an eyebrow.


‘‘One particular time the boys slipped in a porno movie during a video session,’’ Max says. ‘‘There was all this yelling in the room they showed the videos in. That weekend they went out and won. So Tommy said, ‘I’m on a winner here, we have to show them a porno movie every week’. Next week he showed them one and they got beaten.’’


After one year in the Shire, Max followed his friend Bill Anderson to Redfern when Anderson got the head coach job with the Bunnies. Max went over and spent 1980-82 as the ‘‘conditioner’’, a title he was given because there was no such thing as an assistant coach back then. He was there for the Bunnies’ 1981 Amco Cup win over the Sharks, his second after Cronulla won in 1979.


By 1982 Anderson had had a gutful of dealing with pressure from the media and called it quits. Just before that, he was offered the coaching gig at Illawarra. He knocked it back but suggested someone else, the Bunnies’ Under 23s coach, Brian Smith.


Max had brought Smith, a friend and fellow school teacher, over from Newtown and, when the latter took up the offer to take charge at the Steelers, he wanted Max to come along, this time as ‘‘Coaching Co-ordinator’’. During his time at the Steelers, Max came across one of Supercoach Jack Gibson’s more curious tactics. When the Steelers travelled to Endeavour Field to take on Gibson’s Sharks, they found he’d painted their dressing room pink.


‘‘We wouldn’t go in there,’’ Max says. ‘‘Jack Gibson used to get all his ideas from the US and pink was a colour that was supposed to pacify people. So he painted the visitors’ dressing room pink. We decided not to go in there, so we got changed out in the hall.’’


By the way, the plan worked – the Steelers lost that game. Like they lost many others during Smith’s four-year stint. In a 13-team comp, they finished ninth, last, last and 11th. That poor record led to Smith’s downfall and a trip to the UK for a few years to reinvent himself. It was a successful reinvention and he came back to coach the Dragons in 1991 and called on Max to join him, this time as a full-time coach.


Two years later, Max played a part in one of the legendary Grand Final stories, that of Wayne Bennett and the doctored tip sheet. Before the 1993 Grand Final, Bennett got hold of a Dragons tip sheet from the 1992 decider and doctored it to say disparaging things about his players in an attempt to rile them up. The original author of that tip sheet? Uncle Max.


‘‘I used to write a tip sheet on a player – Alfie Langer, does this, does that. They doctored it to say ‘can’t tackle, can’t play’. I’d never write that about a player.’’


While Bennett will never say how he got that tip sheet, Max will. He reckons it was Ivan Henjak who handed it over. It makes sense. Henjak was a Dragon in 1992 and curiously turned up as the Broncos Reserve Grade coach in 1994, just months after the tip sheet handover. But, to hear Max tell it, maybe the doctored tip sheet wasn’t necessary. Maybe the Broncos would have won without it.


‘‘In 1993 we spent a lot of time and worked really hard on a game plan to beat the Broncos by slowing the game down,’’ he says. ‘‘The game before the playoffs, we beat the Broncos convincingly with that plan. During Grand Final week, Smith would go haywire and he did that with the ’93 team. We had the formula and we knew how to do it. He took them away – I never saw the team that week – had them training at different times.’’


Max reckons Smith overcooked them mentally, so much so that Tony Priddle forgot to take his tracksuit top off before he ran onto the field.




For most of Max’s time at the Dragons, he was in charge of recruitment. Smith felt that because recruitment was a big thing in US sport, it should be replicated here. It was a bit of an advance. Max says few teams were taking it seriously at the time.


Some players turned up at the Dragons after Max saw them on a playing field somewhere in the country. At other times, he’d just pull a name off a list. That’s where Gorden Tallis was, just a name on a list of players, one-and-a-half A4 pages long. A list that came from a guy Rod Reddy knew in Townsville and was dumped on his desk.


‘‘What am I supposed to do with this?’’ Max asked.


‘‘I don’t know, you’re the recruiter,’’ Reddy replied.


So Max ran his finger down the list before stopping about halfway.


‘‘Tallis, he might be able to fill the bill.’’


Reddy looked over Max’s shoulder and said, ‘‘Know him. I’ll get him down.’’


‘‘Four days later he was down staying at Rocket’s place. We trialled him and we had to pull him off, he was just too rough,” Max tells me. ‘‘I’ve told Gorden the story but he just won’t accept it. But that’s how he got recruited, that’s how lucky he was.’’


Then there was the spotting of Nathan Brown, a story which illustrates a secret trick of the recruiter. Max found him and put him in a trial match up against ‘’the biggest, fattest blokes you’ve ever seen’’. Then he called Smith to come and look at the kid. Of course, against the big, fat guys, the kid with the long blonde hair killed it.


‘‘Brian’s gone, ‘whoa, he’s good’. I wasn’t the recruiter who found him, see. Smithy sat there and watched him play, so he found him. This is the secret to recruitment. I didn’t find him, I set it up so the coach finds him and they get that affinity with him. That’s how I did it all the time.’’


But while he managed to snag some good players throughout his career, he missed out on some, too. Laurie Daley in a Steelers jersey, anyone? While at the Steelers, Max had seen Daley playing in the Country Championships at Gosford.


‘‘We got him down to Illawarra and Bobby Millward was the boss. He says ‘Hello Laurie, good to see you. You want to come and play? You know we’ve got no money’. He just killed it like that … Laurie Daley wasn’t a bad player, and we could have picked him up.’’


At the Dragons, he was also part of the staff who opted to pick Joel Caine over a guy called Danny Buderus. In his defence, Max points out that Buderus was trialling as a five-eighth, not a hooker. Wendell Sailor was another one who got away. The Dragons had their eye on him but he went up to the Broncs. Max also liked Glenn Stewart but not his brother Brent. He figured the young fullback’s diabetes might prove too hard to manage.


The biggest fish who escaped the Dragons’ hook? Probably Johnathan Thurston. Max had spotted him up at Toowoomba but figured he was a bit young so he left him for a year. The next year, he sent a former player, who he was trying to turn into a recruiter, up to check him out. He came back raving to Max about young Thurston. But that ex-player also happened to rave on about Thurston in a casual conversation with Ricky Stuart who was over at the Dogs. Next thing you know, Thurston’s over there too.


‘‘When you’re involved in recruitment, you’ve got to watch yourself a bit. You’ve got to tell lies. I’d always make out ‘oh, he can’t play’ or ‘I think he can play’.’’


The players he’d spot and sign were seldom the complete package. They usually had some flaw in their game but Max took them anyway, betting he could fix that flaw.


‘‘When I was doing it, I’d see all the positives but that he’s missing this and this. And then you back yourself to teach him this and this to make them a better player. The philosophy always should be ‘I can make you a better player’. That was always the thing for me. It’s not in coaches’ minds these days. They tend to want to eliminate errors – if you can’t pass, don’t pass. Whereas I would be along the lines of ‘you can’t pass? I’ll show you how to pass, no problem’.’’


Or kick, as in the case of Mark Riddell. Max was the man behind the cult figure’s habit of raising his right arm as he came in to kick the ball. Max says that goal-kicking ace Daryl Halligan was doing the rounds of the club offering to teach their kickers – for a not insubstantial fee.


Max told the club to keep their money in their pockets, that he’d have a crack at teaching ‘Piggy’ Riddell. He took Riddell out onto the grass at WIN Stadium and watched as the forward sprayed the kicks all over the place. In an effort to get him to straighten up without relying on a hook to get the ball through the posts, Max suggested raising the right arm to give him some balance. And a cult figure was born.


In all of Max’s years, he never took the helm of a First Grade side. In fact, while he was part of the NSW coaching panel accreditation courses, he ran Wayne Bennett through his paces in the late 1980s.


‘‘I kept suggesting things to him and, in the end, he got sick of it and he said ‘You’re so smart. Why haven’t you got a team?’ ’’ Max laughs. ‘‘He jammed me.’’


The closest he came was looking after the Fiji team for the 2008 World Cup. While he was effectively running the show, it was Joe Dakuitoga who was officially the coach.


He would have liked to have had a crack at coaching the Dragons’ top side but he realised that it was a job that comes with a lot of shit. And a relaxed guy who had spent a lot of time dodging journalists probably isn’t keen to take a lot of shit.


‘‘I realised the problem is the recognition,’’ he says. ‘‘You’re just out there with your head on the chopping block if you’re the head coach. The press would have got me pretty quickly if success hadn’t come. I’m sure that whoever appointed me would look silly, too, appointing a low-profile person to take on a high-profile position.’’


Also, his interest lies in the little details of coaching rather than the ‘‘gibberish’’ most coaches offer the media and the public.


‘‘I didn’t want to talk about promoting the game.’’


Max left the Dragons just before the 2009 season when Bennett took over. The timing wasn’t a factor. It wasn’t like Max seethed inside at Bennett’s ‘‘Where’s your team?’’ slight or the doctored tip sheet back in 1993. Rather he said he opted to walk because he felt the bosses were pushing him out the door and that coach Nathan Brown wasn’t listening to his advice any more.


‘‘The message wasn’t getting through to Brownie and the others, so it was time to quit rather than keep banging your head against a brick wall,’’ he says.


His time in the coaching ranks at the Dragons started with some pettiness via a club official derailing his Third Grade side’s premiership chance to get back at him. It managed to end that way as well. Despite working at the Dragons for close to two decades, there was no official farewell for Max. As he says, they gave farewells to staff who worked there for six months, but not for him. While he’s a life member of the St George Football Club, no one’s offered him the same status when it comes to either St George or Illawarra Leagues Clubs. Perhaps nigh on 20 years of service isn’t enough.


The lowest blow? The only game-day tickets the club offers him are schoolboy passes.


‘‘We usually send them back,’’ he says. ‘‘Besides, if they get a big crowd they won’t let you use them.’’


So he usually watches the games on TV and enjoys it more now than when he had to wade through days of footage looking for weaknesses in that weekend’s opponent.


“When I was doing that, I probably got weighed down in a lot of crap,” he says. “I was probably looking into it too much whereas now I can just watch it and not have to worry about all that.”


But he doesn’t like everything he sees. He has a particular dislike for the way the officials have allowed the ruck to speed up, giving a team a chance to get a roll on with a few quick, and sloppy, play the balls.


“The play the ball is just rubbish. It may as well not be there,” he says. “It’s just destroying the game in my opinion. It’s gone haywire and it’s turning into a game of touch. They run up and get tackled and then roll the ball between their legs.”


Slow the play the ball down, he says, and you give the defenders a chance to set their line. That makes it more of a contest and the attacking team has to work a bit harder to gain ground rather than just run 10 metres, get tackled and look for a fast play the ball.


These days, most of the live games he sees involve the Helensburgh Tigers, his local team, which he captain-coached in 1974 after his first coaching stint with the Dragons ended.


“As a member of the community I thought I’d go down and contribute,” he says, tongue-in-cheek.


His time on the sidelines started in 2011 and was a case of good timing. That marked a strong period for the Tigers as they made the Grand Final for four of the five years between 2011 and 2015. It took them until 2015 to win the thing which made Max really happy for the young guys in the side.


“They started off with a lot of kids three or four years ago and they’ve stuck together and got the fruits of their labours this year,” he says.


As is his style, Max doesn’t want to take credit for anything at the Tigers and doesn’t want to suggest it was anything other than coincidence that their purple patch coincided with his arrival. All he did was shut up and wait for the coach to say something.


“You’re talking to the coach and he asks you, ‘What about this?’ If they ask, you tell them. If they don’t ask, you don’t tell them. You don’t want to go there and start telling them to do this and that. They say, ‘This is what we’re going to do’, and you say, ‘Yeah, that’s good, what about you do this, too?’ You don’t tell them, ‘That’s a lot of shit’, because you won’t be there for long.”


He’s been a coach for almost 40 years so he obviously knows a thing or two about what it takes to stick around for a long time.


He’s probably got a lot more stories about those times. In fact, I know he has. You can’t uncover a lifetime of stories in two interviews. Which is ok with me. I’d like him to have more stories to tell me the next time we meet up at a family function. And I think he’d like to tell them, too.


Editor’s note – The same misspelling of Max’s name appears in  Ian Collis, The A to Z of Rugby League Players (Sydney; New Holland, 2018).


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  1. It seems to me that your Uncle Max had his head screwed on well, Glen. He knew his strengths but he also knew where he was not equipped or prepared to go – a wise man! For all the public show, every club, at whatever level, has its grittier, somewhat less noble underbelly. Thanks for telling it like it is.

  2. Matt O'HANLON says

    How the game had changed- and how it hasn’t! Great yarn Glen and I met Max many years ago at a QSSRL match v CHS at Dapto. Max and he was a well respected recruiter. Glad to hear he still has an involvement in the game

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