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John Fahey honours League and the Tom Brock legacy

Expert
27th September, 2010
13
1898 Reads

Rugby league has been described as “the Labor Party at play.” But on Thursday night, at the NSW Leagues Club in Phillips Street in the CBD of Sydney, the headquarters of the code, the unquenchable spirit of the game was honoured by a former NSW Premier and leader of the NSW Liberal Party, John Fahey.

Fahey acknowledged this curious case of a Liberal Party leader delivering the Twelfth Annual Tom Brock Lecture by telling the story of what happened when he was nominated for a life membership of the Canterbury Bulldogs club: “When my Irish background came up, I recorded a green light. My working class background recorded another green light. But when my membership of the Liberal Party came up the lights went into a red melt-down.”

The Tom Brock Lecture honours a great and unsung hero of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Tom Brock. Brock lived and breathed the Rabbitohs. He became the club’s historian and archivist.

His collection of documents, newspaper clippings, notes and interviews are now in the State Library of NSW, as one its great sports collections.

The unassuming rugby league tragic left his estate as a bequest for an annual lecture and scholarship for research on aspects of the history of rugby league. There have now been 12 Annual Lectures. They have been collected into a book, Tales of Coathanger City (a great title from a lecture by Alex Buzo), which is edited splendidly by Richard Cashman of the University of Technology, with a terrific introductory essay by Andrew Moore.

The Andrew Moore of the essay is the real Andrew Moore of rugby league fame, an academic and North Sydney Bears tragic, not the verbally excessive, loud-mouthed commentator. 

Moore’s essay on the lectures and the luminaries who have delivered them (including Tom Keneally, Roy Masters, Lex Marinos, Alan Clarkson, Ian Heads and Alex Buzo) is wonderfully titled, ‘Whither the Squirrel Grip?’ A Decade of Lectures on “The Greatest Game Of All.”‘

The story behind the essay title is illustrative of the unfortunate disconnect between the so-called academia and thinkers of stature on matters that interest the public. To honour the centenary of rugby league in Australia in 1908 a group set up by the ARL called for papers that recognised ‘the cultural, historical and social significance of rugby league in Australia from 1908 to 2008.’

A wag (Moore’s word, I’d prefer something like a ‘fool’) thought that the suggestion that a game like rugby league would have any social, historical or social significance was so ludicrous that he/she suggested an appropriate and mocking essay subject: “Whither the squirrel grip: issues of gender, indentity and discourse in rugby league 1979 – 1989.”

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For those who don’t know what a squirrel grip is, suffice to say it is painful, especially around the groin area, and was/is a favourite form of punishment meted out by enforcers to curtail the free running of more gifted and skilled opponents.

Ouch! It hurts even to think about it.

Now back to John Fahey.

The former premier gave a fascinating account of his playing and coaching days for Canterbury Bankstow, Camden and Oakdale in the Country Rugby League. He remains a patron and director of the Men in League and the chairman of the Australian Rugby League Development committee.

As Premier, Fahey cancelled the Newcastle Knights $3 million debt over the development of their stadium. As he pointed out, Parramatta and the Eastern Suburbs got their stadiums for nothing. Why did Newcastle have to pay out for theirs when they contributed so much to their community?

Interestingly, Fahey was born in New Zealand and represented Wellington in the midget grade before an All Blacks – Wallabies Test in 1955.

The family came to Sydney not long after. Sister Kevin at St Anthony’s Convent at Picton selected and coached him in his first rugby league match.

Fahey was moving when he explained his early experiences of the game: the smell of rubbing lard on the ball, putting petroleum jelly on his knees to ease the pain of scrapping them on concrete hard grounds (“we have made orthopedic surgeons wealthy men”), and making their own goal posts.

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He raised some interesting talking points for his audience and the wider rugby league community to consider. The change to the 6-tackle rule is the most significant change to the code, allowing for a ‘fast and furious’ game.

The rule forced rugby league players to learn how to kick. This explains, in his opinion, the success of many of the converts from rugby union in the 1960s: Phil Hawthorne, Phil Smith and John Brass among others.

Bob McCarthy was the ‘most influential’ player in his lifetime. McCarthy was big, extremely fast and powerful, and was a forward/back rolled into one player.

The benefits of the rugby league code to society’s well-being, especially in the country area, has never really been acknowledged by the wider community. And even within the rugby league community there is not enough concern about the growth of the code (or the lack of it) in the country areas.

There is not enough emphasis by the officials running the game on encouraging indigneous talent. There are more rugby league players in Melbourne than there are AFL players in the western suburbs of Sydney.

Rugby league has an unquenchable spirit. When great disasters befall it, like the Super League, somehow the game rises like a phoenix from the bitter ashes.

The salary cap is a good and necessary financial discipline, but there needs to be forensic auditors investigating all the clubs all the time. Club should be able to play their star players whatever their sponsors are prepared to play them. There should be special concessions, too, for players who come from the ranks of juniors and stay for a number of years with their club.

The stripping rule should go.

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The greatest threat to rugby league comes from the huge taxation on poker machines. The rugby league code should use its powerful position as the major winter code in NSW to pressure governments to cut back on their poker machine tax.

The lecture was well received, by a good crowd. We then moved onto the spread of meat pies, fish fingers and other goodies that had been laid out for consumption.

There was good talk to go with the good tucker.

Best of all, though, was the chance to pick up a free copy of Tales from Coathanger City and a copy of last year’s Tom Brock Lecture, ‘The Lost Tribes of League,’ a humourous and brilliantly-researched study of “the fate of axed and merged clubs and their fans” by Terry Williams.

In my view, the book and the lecture represent the best writing about a sport in Australia that has been published in the last decade. Tom Brock’s legacy is superbly honoured by these publications.

Details of the Tom Brock Bequest are located on the website of the
Australian Society for Sports History
.