Almanac Rugby League – “Rugby League – the greatest game of all”

“Rugby League? The greatest game of all.” George Lovejoy, the doyen of 1960s/70s Brisbane football commentators, would end his colourful descriptions of Brisbane Rugby League (BRL) matches with those words when he signed off each week.

 

Last Sunday, for the first time in 40 years, I ventured to Langlands Park in the inner eastern suburbs of Brisbane to watch a local home and away rugby league match, to see if I could remember what George was on about. The local BRL has, over the last 25 years, been superseded by a competition that is unique in Australia.

 

Fourteen teams from Port Moresby, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan City, Gold Coast and Northern New South Wales now play in the Queensland Cup. And they play for 25 rounds including three byes. I doubt many semi-professional sport leagues anywhere in the world would span the distances covered by the teams in this competition.

 

On Sunday, traditional BRL club Easts Tigers were hosting their neighbours, and old BRL rivals, the Wynnum Manly Seagulls in the last home and away round. Easts were fifth on the ladder and Wynnum fourth, with new teams the Townsville Blackhawks, PNG Hunters, and the Ipswich Jets ahead of them in the race for the premiership. The “evolution” of the Queensland Cup has seen the demise of Souths Magpies, Wests Panthers, Brothers Leprechauns and Valleys Diehards. Some of these clubs with century-old traditions have morphed into other entities that maintain some of their original history (e.g. Souths Logan Magpies).

 

Easts are the feeder club for the Melbourne Storm and Wynnum fulfill that role for the Brisbane Broncos.

 

I missed the kick-off on Sunday, as there was no available park within 500 metres of the ground. I had seriously underestimated how much interest there would be in the game.

 

After paying my ten dollars at the gate I was confronted with a sea of green and red behind the city end goals. About 600 Wynnum fans had travelled the fifteen kilometres up Wynnum Road, and most of them had crowded into the well-patronised Can Bars behind the goals.

 

There was a fair bit at stake. These two teams would be playing each other in a qualifying final next week (4th v 5th). Whoever won on Sunday would finish fourth and claim the decided advantage of a home final. A win for Wynnum would be a big deal in the bayside suburb as they could expect 5000 home fans next weekend.

 

The 2500 plus spectators at Langlands Park last Sunday all stayed to the very end, and all walked away agreeing with George Lovejoy. The match was in doubt until the final three minutes. It was a fantastic spectacle played at high pace with high intensity, and plenty of interest shown by both team’s loyal supporters.

 

It took me back forty years. Not too much had changed. There was perhaps half the number of spectators of the earlier era, and one side of Langlands Park had been usurped for a car park to cater for the many who patronise the pokies at East’s Leagues Club. But the atmosphere was similar. The fans were up close and involved in a sport where you can hear the big hits … you can almost feel them. Rugby league is the most brutal of contact sports and strong young men with big arms, big legs and hard heads mostly play it.

 

There was a merchandise stand and a grandstand that weren’t there in the 1970s. Most of the Easts faithful sat in the stand. The Wynnum supporters were generally younger, and generally much louder than their inner city rivals. I don’t remember rugby league fans wearing club apparel in the 1970s, but in 2015 more than half the crowd was in the black and gold of Easts or the green and red of Wynnum.

 

Both teams were wearing blue socks in honour of the “Turn to Me” round sponsored by that fantastic organisation – beyondblue. I normally wince at the overuse of these themed rounds by football competitions, but this one fits with rugby league. There have been six suicides in the last two years of young men connected to the Queensland Cup clubs. It was a particularly poignant reminder for Easts coach Craig Ingebrigtsen and his charges who had lost their play making half back, and great mate, Grant Giess only a couple of months ago.

 

The two teams were in sky blue socks and Wynnum were wearing their away white jumper. The Easts jumper (the same as the Balmain Tigers) is striking. The predominantly orangey-gold top is the best footy jumper in Australia. New sporting teams in any code should consider copying the Tigers’ playing strip.

 

In the 1970s the Tigers not only looked good. They were a team stacked with some of Queensland’s best rugby league talent. Rod Morris, Jeff Denman and Johnny Lang were Australian representatives who played for the Tigers in this era. They were my sporting heroes (along with Queensland cricketers Sam Trimble, Geoff Dymock and Malcolm Franke). Rod Morris’s brother Des should have played for Australia, but a laughable New South Wales selection bias meant he only played for Queensland. Some of the selection faux pas and thrashings handed to Queensland in this era are part of the success of modern State of Origin.

 

Des Morris is now the Tigers’ CEO, and when I when I left the ground he was unlocking gates to let cars exit quickly. Des is apparently a “hands on” boss. He was a great captain for the Tigers in the 1970s.

 

One clear memory of my childhood at rugby league matches is the referees. They were always dressed and pressed immaculately. They wore a white rugby jumper and the cocky ones would turn their collar up. They also donned those ankle high boots and their shorts were pulled up very high, seemingly under their armpits. Their boots were polished to within an inch of their life.

 

My memory is of them blowing the whistle like it was a musical instrument. And they blew it loud, and, of course, they also received plenty of advice from the sidelines.

 

Plenty of advice was dished out to referee Peter Gough during the first half on Sunday. I remember being at Langlands Park with my grandfather (he was a Tigers selector and former premiership captain of the Valley Diehards) in the early 70s hearing similar advice being offered to international standard referees like Henry Albert and Bernie Pramberg. Queensland footy supporters are to the point when giving advice to referees:

 

“Gettem onside you dickhead … “

 

“… have a frickin look you goose … “

 

“Yes, he’s lying on the ground cos he had his head taken off … spastic!”

 

On Sunday, most of the referee advice was good-natured and the punters were just having fun. I didn’t see any aggression in a crowd where one-in-three adult patrons were drinking XXXX or Bundy Rum.

 

Just before half time I moved closer to the dressing sheds. I wanted to get a good look at the players before they went inside. All 34 players were well-conditioned athletes. So much more bulk and muscle than an Australian Rules footballer. But they did do a lot of walking during the match.

 

When the sick-sounding half time siren went, it sounded like the horn on the old Moreton Island Ferry, Wynnum held a 10-8 lead. Both teams had scored two tries and it seemed that the game was ready to open up into a free flowing affair.

 

The smell from the hamburger stand was beckoning but the queue was 50 metres long. It was a beautiful pre-spring 25 degrees, so I detoured to the Can Bar where the volunteer staff were doing rapid business. It was five dollars for a XXXX Gold, in the aluminum can, and not a plastic cup in sight. Nice and cold. straight out of the icy, swill-filled esky.

 

I started chatting to the two 35 year old Wynnum supporters who were standing next to me. One was drinking Bundy, the other XXXX heavy, and both were smoking Winfield Reds (not a designated smoking area in sight either). I told them I was an Easts supporter but that I hadn’t been to a game for a while. Without prompting they started describing how passionate they were about the Seagulls. Bundy Seagull asked me who I followed in the NRL.

 

“No one really”, I answered honestly.

“Good … I hate the NRL. Rugby League is the greatest game of all, but I would much rather come to local footy where the people are real and the footy is still good.”

 

I agreed with Bundy Seagull but knocked back his generous offer of a Winfield Red.

 

Just after half time Easts winger Michael Kai was tackled high and in a rage he jumped to his feet and threw the ball into the head of his assailant. It was on. It was to be the first of quite a few harmless mêlées.

 

Both teams were playing with aggression and spirit. When Shaun Nona kicked a penalty for Easts with 20 minutes to go it was 10 all. Easts then spent an inordinate amount of the next ten minutes pressing the Seagulls line. After soaking up the pressure applied by Easts the ball was whisked to the other end for Wynnum’s wiry and fiery winger, Jeriah Goodrich, to put the visitors six points ahead (16-10).

 

Both sets of fans were roaring on their charges. A hundred or so of the Wynnum fans had their own special chants. At one stage they broke into the club song.

 

The match was sealed with three minutes remaining when Wynnum half back Mathew Seamark slotted a neat left foot field goal from about 25 metres out. It was 17-10 to the visitors and Easts would be heading to the bayside next weekend to stay alive in the Queensland Cup.

 

At the end of the match the Wynnum players ran to the city end of the ground to acknowledge their fans. Big forward David Stagg got closer to one group of about 100 who were wearing black tee shirts with the words STAGG PARTY emblazoned on the front. Most of the group was also wearing green shorts and red tights. Stagg had earlier in the week announced his retirement from a 200 game NRL career with Canterbury Bulldogs and the Brisbane Broncos and the Wynnum supporters were acknowledging him.

 

I had an enjoyable day at the Queensland Cup. I will be back for more in the next few weeks. Maybe George was right.

 

NEXT: MORE ALMANAC RUGBY LEAGUE CELEBRATING THE GAME AT THE GRASSROOTS LEVEL: PATRICK O’BRIEN RECALLS THE TIME HIS MIDDLE-CLASS RUGBY LEAGUE TEAM TOOK ON THE STREET-HARD BOYS FROM DOWN INALA WAY in: FORZA INALA!

 

 

Comments

  1. Russell Griggs says:

    Hi Murray

    This brings back memories! Jumping the fence at Lang Park to swarm the players as they walked off at full time.

    I was a Wests Panthers fan and recall Richardson (the hooker) carving them up. They won the premiership in the mid-70s from my recollection.

    I also recall the local vendors getting behind their team, specifically orange and black streamers all through East Brisbane.

    A Brisbane team joining the NSWRL didn’t do the BRL any favours.

    Finally, I’ve long believed that no matter the code, the ‘Fortitude Valley Diehards’ is/was the best ever name for a footy club.

    Cheers

    Russ

  2. Tom Cranitch says:

    Good to see you putting a spotlight on local rugby league Murray.

    A Broncos game at Lang Park (I refuse to call the ground the corporatised name) is the most sterile (and expensive) environments.

    Give me the colour and the contest or real community football any day.

  3. Ripper Muz,

    Bringing back such great memories.

    Hot contender for Almanac line of the week:

    “When the sick-sounding half time siren went – it sounded like the horn on the old Moreton Island Ferry – Wynnum held a 10-8 lead.”

    I am an old Wynnum fan and a great believer in the all-round skill of Neville Hornery.

    I’ll dig out an old photograph of Oakey rugby league and bang it up on the homepage.

  4. By the way Muz, last time I was at Langlands Park was to see Billy Bragg in concert. Sensational. Were you there? What year?

    And great to have two Easts cricketers on the site on the same day: You and A.R. Dell. From just round the corner at Bottomley.

  5. Hi Robin,

    My Grandfather captained the Diehards to their 1937 Premiership. I have the premiership medallion … I have great memories of Grand Finals at lang Park … we ran onto the ground with our Easts banner at one in the late 70s … Boris the Black Knight was on his horse … we spooked the horse and Boris told us to f#ck off!!! We were shocked … we went back to the crowd and told our mates … our best fielder in the school cricket team then him Boris in the head with an apple from 70 metres … we were all 15 and pretty happy with our first experience of drinking warm beer … good memories mb

    Harmsy … I saw Billy Bragg at Festival Hall and the Uni Refectory (I think) …

    I used to pick up glasses at Easts when it was the ZZZ venue in the early 80s … made more money picking up coins off the ground than I did from my wages …

    some great bands played there …

  6. Muz

    Saw that Festival Hall concert – a beauty. Radical Qld gathered in one place – owned by John Wren’s Stadiums Limited.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    How can you lie there and think of Wynnum
    When you don’t even know who’s in the team?

  8. that is VERY funny ‘Swish’

  9. shane johnson says:

    Wonderful Read Muz
    Sorry I didnt get to chat to your more on Sat
    Gee it rained didnt it.
    Wet and cold me at the end.
    Agree with Bundy Seagull…local footy is a big part of the fabric of our society

  10. Great line Swish! I laughed out loud.

  11. Patrick O'Brien says:

    ‘When the sick-sounding half time siren went, it sounded like the horn on the old Moreton Island Ferry’

    I can hear it! Remember quite a few great gigs at Easts as well, Pogues (twice), Jesus and Mary Chain, the Fall. No Winnie Reds, though. One drag is enough to rip your throat out!

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