Almanac Rugby League – Convent Kids in Clydesdale country (Part 1)

During the footy season, we’re featuring a series of rugby league stories which were the product of an attempt to produce a collection of rugby league yarns along the lines of the very successful Malarkey Publications, Australian football-focussed book, Footy Town. Today and tomorrow, Damian Roache recalls his 1970s childhood days playing in the Toowoomba-based Catholic Convent Schools competition. 

 

Winter 1971. I am only a couple of months past my seventh birthday and about to add a new experience to my life. After countless backyard games with my older brothers, I am about to become a ‘real’ rugby league player. A ‘Grade Two-er’, I was called into the school Grade 3 team!

 

Tree-lined Lindsay Street Oval nestled in a freezing corner of Toowoomba’s Queens Park, literally a stone’s throw from the city’s famous rugby league ground, the Athletic Oval. I was thrown into the fray on this field, debuting on the wing. The occasion provides my earliest memory of playing a rugby league match kitted out in team colours.

 

An opposition player, ball in hand, made his way out towards my position. I began herding my quarry as he tried to make his way around me and head for the try-line. Two or so years of tackling skills honed in that backyard with my older brothers had prepared me for this moment. When my target was within close proximity of the try-line, I took my chance at glory and launched myself at him. To my absolute delight and astonishment, I not only tackled him but also drove him into touch, both of us ending up covered in a colourful array of fresh autumnal leaves that had conveniently piled themselves just outside the sideline marked in sump oil. I had saved a try!

 

This was the first of many memorable childhood rugby league experiences I would accumulate playing for the pride of the parish, the Holy Name Convent School rugby league team.  Our Convent was a founding member of the Toowoomba Convent Schools rugby league competition, one of the Garden City’s great nurseries for the code.

 

Convent School rugby league in Toowoomba has a slightly hazy history. Holy Name appears to have introduced the code in 1960 when social matches were arranged with other Convents from around the district. This took place under the watchful eye of a Sister Conchessa, obviously the master coach of the Sisters of the Mercy Order that took residence at the school.

 

In 1962, a meeting of the representatives of the convent schools in Toowoomba agreed to formalise these games into an annual competition. Present at that meeting was a local manager of the Esso Oil Company who, seeing a sponsorship opportunity, proposed that his company would supply a trophy. So, with the naming rights nailed down, the Esso Cup was born.  Grade 3 boys would compete in this competition.

 

A few years later in 1966, several Convents continued schooling boys up to Grade 4 level and so they were also provided with a competition. A well-known watering hole of the time, the Gladstone Hotel, donated the first trophy (I’m not sure what the nuns thought of this!) before a local BP Service Station threw its hat in the ring and took over the sponsorship.

 

By the time I reached Grade 4, another battle for this much sought after trophy-naming gig had been fought and the successful party given the opportunity to promote their products and services. So, in 1973, the Grade 4 teams of Toowoomba’s Convents competed for the holy grail of Catholic parish rugby league supremacy, the Betros Brothers Trophy, named after the local Lebanese legends of the fruit and vegetable trade.

 

We Holy Name boys were gearing up for another campaign, keen to repeat our success of the year before when we had won both the six team Esso Cup and the Vince Carrol Memorial Trophy for being mid-season ladder leaders. Our school’s long serving coach, Harry Kunkel, had slotted me into the centres in that team. Harry was a man who loved to see his boys win and would often be seen running along the sideline in his sockless white Dunlop Volleys, willing his players on as they set sail for the try-line.

 

Thinly built, lanky and bald, old Harry (he just seemed eternally old) was prone to get overly enthusiastic in his conversations occasionally, a stream of spittle forming on his lower lip as he discussed the merits or misbehaviour of various members of the team. Thinking back, having to look after thirty-odd seven-to-nine-year-olds running rampant with energy levels rarely abating was no mean feat! I vividly recall asking Harry if I could follow the lead of my heroes, interstate fullback rivals Graeme Langlands for New South Wales and Alan Mills for Queensland, and be selected in the number one shirt for the new year. Harry looked down at me and told me that if I didn’t stop annoying him I wouldn’t be fullback, I would be ‘left right out’!

 

As it happened, I did get handed the coveted number one jersey. However, this was only the first piece of joyous news Harry bestowed on me. He then proceeded to tell this wing-nut eared nine-year-old that I was to be captain of the team!!!

 

This honour became very real when we all received the ‘Holy Name Convent School Rugby League Teams Souvenir Programme and Fixture List – 1973 season’. A simple, four page, 6 x 4 inch, beige-coloured piece of cardboard, it listed the names and jersey numbers of all the players on the inside of the front cover. My name was placed at top of the list with the number 1 on the left. More importantly, after my name, in brackets, was that magical word for any junior rugby league player…Captain! Sponsorship of such an illustrious programme was an opportunity not to be missed by its back page occupants Roberts Menswear and Boysworld, and Hannas – Toowoomba’s Family Drapery Store.

 

Our Grade 4 Team had a unique mix of speed, support play and footy shorts. Barry Hopper, our reading glasses wearing winger, can possibly blame poor sight for the choice of his lower attire. Faded to an almost bright white, his ‘blue’ cotton shorts were hitched up so high that he risked getting nipple chaffing from the elastic waistband. This peculiar sartorial style, however, did not interfere with his ability to run sideways from one side of the field to the other, only to turn around and repeat the journey back to his original location, all the while searching for that elusive gap. He was never alone in this quest as he was followed closely for the entirety of his travels by twelve wide-eyed, fleet-footed team-mates all yelling ‘Go Barry’ as well as thirteen confused opposition players and one exasperated referee.

 

Our Grade 3 captain, leading try scorer and most potent attacking weapon held two of these three titles again in Grade 4. Despite the liability of a dodgy hip that developed from a very young age, Gerard Blades was a speed machine with a more accurate sense of direction than our ‘wanderlust’ winger Barry.  Picking up the ball from the base of the scrum (whilst playing at five–eighth, mind you), he would make a bee-line for the try-line. We all ran behind him, madly screaming ‘Go Bladesy’, hoping in vain that he would pass it to one of us who rarely ever had our name recorded on the scoresheet.

 

Not to be outshone, our hooker Pat Mallet made the most of the God-given right of his position to be the dummy-half at all times and make his scurries down field. He pretty much modelled his game on the legendary Valleys Diehards hooker, Hughie O’Doherty. The buzz cut hairstyle he sported even looked a bit like Hughie’s balding noggin. The comeback kid of Convent footy, Greg Schneider, returned to the fold after an off-field injury derailed him the previous year. (Taking on cars with your pushbike always tends to end in a win to the motorised combatant.)  Rehab for ‘Schneids’ must have been based mostly around building up his bulk and muscle as he had left us as a half-back option and came back as a front rower! (His mum sure could bake a mean chocolate cake!)

 

Four teams prepared themselves for the nine week round robin series, Our Lady of Lourdes, St Anthony’s, St Joseph’s and Holy Name. We had encountered the first two in our Grade 3 campaign. ‘Lourdes’ was the big hope of the Ursuline Order of nuns. Resplendent in their royal blue jersey with red epaulettes on the shoulders (the boys, not the nuns), they were sons of parents from the working class suburb of Newtown. Many of their players would go on to play for the Toowoomba club representing the same area. Their coach, Brian Goltz, must have had some form of ‘Talent Identification Scheme’ happening as their star player had been in the system for four years already by 1973. Picked from Grade 1 to play Esso Cup, presumably after impressing at tunnel ball, future St George Dragon and Gold Coast Seagull Peter Gill made an awkward start to his illustrious career when he weaved his way through defenders to score a great try. Unfortunately, the defenders were his own team-mates and the try-line his own! (Fortunately, this error in directional judgement was corrected by the time he scored the opening Brothers try in the 1987 Brisbane Rugby League Grand Final.) As events played out later that year, ‘Gilly’ became a central figure in a defining moment for Toowoomba Convent rugby league.

 

Carrying the hopes of the local Presentation Sisters were the maroon clad kids of St Anthony’s. John Carey, another buzz cut hairstyle devotee, and Michael Reiken were their speed men, while scheming half-back Doug Brennan was also a constant threat. They were always our main adversary. This was mostly due to the fact that, after their unsuccessful 1972 Esso Cup campaign, they had upgraded their coach when the nun who had held the reins in Grade 3 was tapped on the shoulder by the footy-loving parish priest. The father of one of the players stepped in to ‘refine the skills’ that had been misinterpreted by the habit-wearing, ‘Henry Holloway’ protégé. (One can only wonder if there might not have been a bit of friendly wagering between these holy women in white. Maybe the beltings we got were more about our performance on the field and the loss of their pocket money.)

 

Our new, unknown opposition was an amalgam of three of the Convents we had taken on in Grade 3. St Joseph’s, not actually a convent but a Christian Brothers College, drew most of its Grade 4 pupils from the nearby Convents of Mater Dei, St Thomas More’s and St Patrick’s where schooling for boys ended in Grade 3. This gave ‘Joeys’ the distinct advantage of being supplied with all the footballing talent of these three schools, making them a potential ‘super team’ for the season ahead. They were coached by a Christian Brother on staff who, one could say, was a wee bit biased when called on to share the refereeing of games involving his team – although, it must be said, he wasn’t alone in this activity! They sported the garish colour combination of purple and gold decades before the Melbourne Storm. Like us, they had a home ground, a luxury unavailable to our ‘poor cousins’ at Lourdes and St Anthony’s. Maybe they had better Altar Boy outfits than us to compensate for this?

 

The last weekend in May ended the four month preseason where training centred around lunchtime games of ‘red rover red rover come over come over’ or stomping around the playground in a pressgang formation drumming up support for a bit of wild west fun with the chant of ‘Who wants to play cowboys and itchy bums’?

 

To be continued tomorrow…

 

Damian Roache, aka LeaguePartisan, is an amateur rugby league historian with a particular interest in his Toowoomba roots. The Toowoomba League and its feeder schools have been a breeding ground for many of the code’s greats over the years, most recently the future Immortal, Johnathan Thurston, himself a product of the Toowoomba schoolboys system.

 

To read more stories in our rugby league series, click 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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Comments

  1. Ah, Damian, some of those names – Betros Brothers, Hannas (where, just a few years ago, they still did hand-written receipts!), Roberts Mensware and Boyswear (for all our College uniform supplies) – all institutions in themselves and good memories from my years at boarding school in the second half of the 60s. I also had a liking for the Tourist Cafe which was somewhere near the Betros store, if I remember correctly. I once had a custard flavoured thick shake there that was one of the taste highlights of my adolescence. Looking forward to tomorrow’s piece.

  2. Tom Cranitch says

    Very interesting article. Brings back memories of rugby league at its rawest – local, community and Catholic!

  3. Matt O'Hanlon says

    Damian -so true. You could be talking about the Rockhampton Catholic Primary Schools R.L. Same people, same kids, same SAINTS! Heaven help the National Junior Pathways Participation Program being implemented at the Jimmy (Gymnasium Ground ) Ground Nth. Rocky on a Saturday morning circa 1960-70. This was a place where the meek certainly would not inherit the earth and catholic boys were treated to a deep understanding of the fundamental tenet of Catholicism ” do unto others as you would have them do unto you” which in catholic primary league meant get up and hit him harder! My father coached St Joseph’s Park Avenue and as a Grade 1 student I begged him to let me debut even though Grade 1’s could not play. Dad knew how to give a lesson. He let me play and Sister Olga gave me the strap on the Monday. That was a season ending suspension with no complaint. I look forward to the next edition.

  4. Peter Gill says

    Would luv to read the full book I remember sister Amy was a big help in rugby league
    It was a great time to learn & enjoy the great game

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