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My memories ahead of the NRL’s Retro Round

The Roar logo The Roar 28/07/2016 David Lord

Reg Gasnier, right, in action for Australia in 1967. © Press Association Reg Gasnier, right, in action for Australia in 1967. Tonight the Roosters will embrace the NRL’s Retro Round by sporting a head shot of one of their favourite sons, Artie Beetson, on the front of the jersey.

As I’ve been watching and covering rugby league for over 65 years, these are my retro memories.

The first is Clive Churchill. It is little wonder he was called ‘The Little Master’. It was amazing how such a small man with long jersey sleeves past his elbow could be so dynamic in every facet of the code.

He could attack, defend, kick goals and find touch – all in an era of unlimited tackles.

Then there was Kenny Irvine, still to this day the greatest winger I’ve ever seen in both codes.

We were Mosman boys and good mates. I first came across him when he and Reg Gasnier were selected in the NSW under-16 baseball team.

Little did anyone realise then they would become rugby league legends, with Irvine still the NRL’s leading try-scorer. He scored 212 from 236 games for North Sydney and Manly. Irvine was pure poetry in motion at express speed.

There’s been no greater sight in rugby league at all levels since.

Gasnier was poetry in motion as well. He was ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ during St George’s record run of 11 successive premierships from 1956 to 1966 and Gasnier is still the best centre I’ve ever seen.

He went on to become an Immortal in 1981 with Churchill, Bobby Fulton, and Johnny Raper. They were joined by Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis in 1999, Beetson in 2003 and Andrew Johns in 2012.

But it angers me Irvine is still not an Immortal. He should have been inducted in 1981 in the first intake.

But all those Immortals have been superb to watch.

Johnny Raper was always surrounded by an army of supporters every Friday night in a city hotel as ‘Chook’ was constantly buying to all hours.

The champion lock would arise early Saturday morning, run 10-12 miles, and drive to the SCG for the match of the day and play yet another blinder. He was an extraordinary footballer throughout his stellar career.

Lewis was a member of the 1977 Australian Schoolboys rugby squad that toured Europe and Great Britain unbeaten, but the Queenslander couldn’t get a spot in the Test side with Mark Ella at his brilliant best.

Lewis decided he was never going to tip Ella out of a Wallaby jumper, so he switched codes to become rugby league’s greatest five-eighth. Not surprisingly they are still the closest of mates.

I once asked Bobby Fulton how he played in his first grade debut at 16 in Wollongong?

“I didn’t play, the surf was so good I didn’t turn up”.

“You did what?” I replied.

“When I got home my dad was ropeable, and he told me in no uncertain terms I had to decide right now whether to play rugby league or surf – and stick with it.”

Luckily for rugby league, ‘Bozo’ chose the 13-man code.

Artie Beetson and Wally Lewis in 2003. © AAP Image/Gillian Ballard Artie Beetson and Wally Lewis in 2003. In the same interview, I asked him who was the greatest player he ever played with, and against?

The reply was instant – “Changa Langlands in both categories, he was the complete footballer”.

My retro rugby league memory bank is working overtime with unlimited tackles during the Dragons’ long reign, when the Red V virtually owned the ball.

The likes of Ken Kearney, Norm Provan, Ian Walsh, Poppa Clay, Johnny King, Eddie Lumsden, Billy Smith, and Kevin Ryan spring to mind.

An era when when scrums were scrums with the halfback feeding the ball in the middle of the tunnel, and the hookers actually hooking for possession. This is now banned.

I have vivid memories of markers raking for possession at the play-the-ball, with George Piggins and Mario Fenech masters of the art.

Other memories include English dual international hooker John Gray becoming the first around the corner goal-kicker in Australia when he started with North Sydney.

How about Dick Thornett and Mike Cleary becoming the only triple Australian internationals since World War 2. Rugby, rugby league, and water polo for Thornett; rugby, rugby league, and track for Cleary.

Or in 1978 controversial referee Greg Hartley, better known as ‘Hollywood’, with his decisions in favour of Manly over the Eels by awarding a try on the seventh tackle, followed by denying Wests two tries in Manly’s 14-7 victory. He followed that up by controlling the grand final 11-all draw with the Sharks, before Manly won the replay.

Then there was Bobby Fulton in 1987 ripping into referee Bill Harrigan in only his second season, calling him a “blight on the game”, and hoping he gets “run down by a cement truck”.

That stated a long-simmering feud between the two.

Or again in 1987 when Parramatta’s teak-tough winger Eric Grothe picked up Raiders centre Laurie Daley early in his career and threw him over the touch line at Cumberland Oval. He threw him right into my lap as the sideline eye for 2KY callers Geoff Prenter and Roy Masters.

I was sitting on a plastic modular chair that disintegrated into thousands of bits, with Daley on top of me.

Daley said brightly, “Hi, I’m Laurie Daley”. I replied “I’m David Lord.”

“‘Nice to meet you’ said Daley shaking hands before he untangled himself and headed back into the action.

Or 1990 when Steve Roach patted Eddie Ward on the head after the ref had sent the affable Balmain prop off at Brookvale. ‘Blocker’ copped four games and a $5000 fine, but the head pat was memorable with no malice whatsoever.

There are many other memorable moments and players, but I’ve left the best until last –Controversy Corner.

It was was compulsory rugby league viewing every Sunday morning on Channel 7, hosted by dual international Rex Mossop with former Kangaroos forwards Ferris Ashton and Noel Kelly.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s chief league writer Alan Clarkson, and refereeing legend Col Pearce were also on the panel; two gentle men who were gentlemen, that’s for sure.

The mix was brilliant for the bulk of the segment’s 20-year history from 1970 onwards.

Sadly, 80-year-old ‘Ned’ Kelly, the hooker in rugby league’s Team of the Century, is the only survivor.

Col Pearce died in 2004, aged 86.

Rex Mossop died iin 2011, aged 83.

Ferris Ashton died in 2013, aged 86.

And Alan Clarkson died last year, aged 85.

Guests from other sports thoroughly enjoyed being in the wings for Controversy Corner and the Commonwealth Bank passing competition.

The most famous was 1972 when Manly skipper Freddie Jones was successful.

He had led Manly to the premiership on Saturday, and that evening was long.

Rex started to get concerned when Freddie hadn’t fronted, so he rang the Manly Leagues Club asking if the skipper was still there?

“He’s asleep on the floor,” was the barman’s reply.

“Get him in a cab immediately and send him to Channel 7 at Epping,” Rox roared.

Freddie arrived but had no idea why he was at Channel 7. Rex physically lined Freddie up to throw four hospital passes from the right and four from the left.

Unbelievably, Freddie threw six bulls from eight attempts to walk away with the competition – and the $700 cash that went with it.

Freddie returned to the Manly Leagues Club and when he surfaced on the Tuesday, he couldn’t workout how he was able to drink so much for three days and still have a pocketful of cold hard.

Team-mates eventually told him on the Friday about the passing competition.

Freddie was still none the wiser.

I look forward to Roarers’ memories ahead of this Retro Round.

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