NSW’s State of Origin victory has led to dominance in a Kangaroos merit team picked by Australian selectors from performances in the interstate series.
The season has finished, and for the rugby league enthusiast, we look forward to the World Cup with glee.
As I glanced over the names within the Australian squad, I could not help but compare it to previous Australian outfits. Although I believe that this team will win the World Cup and win comfortably, I began to compare it to former Kangaroo teams and wondered which Australian team was the best.
Three teams came to my mind. The 1982 and 1986 Kangaroos and, maybe a surprise for some, the 2013 World Cup champions. So I thought, on the eve of the World Cup, I would revisit the past and offer insights into the history of our great game.
This is the story of the 1982 Kangaroos.
During the 1980s Britain was going through political and social change under Margaret Thatcher. The north of England was hit particularly hard. The steelworks and mines were closing, many men and women lost their jobs, and an economic hardship followed.
There has always been a north-south divide in England, but during Thatcher’s reign, this escalated. She was accused of increasing inequality and causing further division in England. Whatever the different views that are held about her rule, one thing is for sure; the north of England – rugby league heartland – did suffer.
So when the 15th Kangaroos team arrived in England, the people of the north were hoping for some relief of their hardships by seeing the Lions reverse the results of previous years and once again obtain the Ashes.
Australia, on the other hand, was in a much stronger position than many had realised. Australia was growing in the 1980s, and with the creation of State of Origin, Australia now had its toughest opponent – itself.
This contest was to prove beneficial to Australia’s chances on the tour. Frank Stanton was reappointed coach after leading the 1978 touring party and subsequently named Hooker Max Krilich captain and Wally Lewis vice-captain.
Despite winning the State of Origin series only 11 of the 28 players selected were from Queensland. Although it was argued this had more to do with New South Wales having the stronger competition than Queensland, questions of bias in squad selections carried over into the Test.
Parramatta and Manly fans were happy. The two clubs were the dominant teams of the year and played in the NSWRL grand final. Consequently, Parramatta was rewarded with six players selected while Manly achieved seven selections.
Ever since 1908, Australia had sent a team to the United Kingdom to compete for the Ashes of rugby league. No Australian team had ever managed to go a tour undefeated. Under the strict coaching of Frank Stanton, the Aussies did not take one backward step.
They trained hard and prepared well for an arduous tour that would, in fact, begin so very close to home. The squad was split, with some players travelling to Western Australia while others participated in the first ever Test Match against Papua New Guinea.
In front of 15,000 passionate fans, the Australian team was to come away with the victory 38–2. John Ribot was to be the leading try scorer in the game with four tries to his name. It was after this contest the Australian team would finally make their way to England.
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The first game of the English leg saw the Australian team travel to East Hull to play Hull Kingston Rovers. Ten thousand fans packed Craven Park to see their team take on this young and inexperienced Australian team.
During the late 70s and early 80s, Hull KR were challenging to be the dominant team in England, so they were confident of putting up a robust challenge against Australia. However, with Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny in the halves, the Australian team ran out comfortable 30 – 10 winners.
Three days later the Kangaroos travelled to the opposite side of England where they would face Wigan at Central Park. Wigan was one of the founding members of rugby league having broken away from the Rugby Football Union in 1895.
It is a famous club and easily the most successful English team. Although, not the superpower of the English game yet, the cherry and whites put up a tremendous effort against a classy Australian team going down 13–9.
The first two games gave the hosts optimism that their Test team could use the momentum gained by the clubs sides and win the first Test.
This optimism was shattered at Barrow as the Australian team ran riot 40–nil. Remember, this was a time when tries were worth three points, and the defence only had to retreat five metres.
So, although it seems low, it was an absolute drubbing. This drubbing was backed up two days later when St Helens were crushed 32–nil at Knowsley Road.
Unfortunately for the people of northern England, they could not get respite from the social chaos happening around them as they witnessed the tourist inflict another humiliating defeat, trampling Leeds 31–4.
The defensive resolve of the Australians was evident. In fact, many fans started to believe this Australian team consisted of full-time professionals. This belief was not true.
Wally Lewis led the Australian team out against Wales on the 24th of October in front of just over five thousand fans.
The game of rugby league had never really managed to gain traction in Wales due, in part, to the Welsh Union clubs secretly paying their players. The outcome of this match was never in doubt with Australia winning 37–7.
Although playing well and being vice-captain, Wally Lewis was to be looked over for the First Test. This again highlighted the divide between the Queensland and New South Wales team selections.
Though, with Sterling and Kenny’s form on tour, it was hard to argue against their preference in the team.
October 1982, Boothferry Park, Hull – the first Test.
Australia and Great Britain were to go to battle. The young Australians against an old, experienced British outfit. The public was unsure, but they stood shoulder to shoulder in the terraces. Although the ground was under construction, the crowd were jammed in like sardines to witness history.
A tight battle ensued with the traditional softening up period setting the standard for the game. Penalty kicks opened the scoring, and a tight tussle followed.
Australia defended wave after wave of the British attack and eventually counter punched their way to a try. Craig Young delivered a beautiful offload that allowed play to continue and Mal Meninga to easily swat away the covering defender to score.
The game during the 80s was brutal. If you get the chance to watch the footage, you will see Wayne Pearce is hit extremely late after passing the ball to Les Boyd for a try that would send Australia to the lead 10–2.
The first half had it all, late hits, excellent running and outstanding passing – from the Australian team at least. A late penalty allowed the British to have some hope of a comeback as they trailed at halftime 10–4.
That hope was destroyed in the second half. This half was where the skillful youth of the Australian team shone through. Their fitness was far superior to the ageing British team as they ran away with the game. Solid tries littered throughout the second half.
By full-time, there were eight different try scorers; Kerry Boustead, Boyd, Eric Grothe, Brett Kenny, Meninga, Pearce, Ray Price and Rod Reddy and, with Meninga’s eight goals, Australia comfortably won 40–4.
Two interesting points to this game and the series was that the referee was a Frenchmen who spoke very poor English. No one understood a word he said and the five-minute sin-bin was used.
Oh, how you have to love rugby league.
From here, the Australian team travelled back to Greater Manchester to compete against another founding club Leigh. It was a no contest as Australia won 44–4.
After this it was off to Bradford to challenge Bradford Northern – later changed to Bradford Bulls. In the foothill of the Pennines, the Bradford outfit challenged Australia in an extremely physical and close contest that very much entertained the ten thousand strong crowd.
Fortunately, a late try sealed Australia’s 13–6 win.
Cumbria, a county that offers a charming rural retreat from many of the industrial towns in the north was the location of the next tour game.
Although, individually, no Cumbrian club can maintain a presence in the higher levels of the game, when they come together they can usually create a formidable opposition.
Just not against this great Australian team. They were thumped 41–2.
The Australians then travelled south to London. There is a lot of bias against rugby league in England, especially from the south, so it surprised many that a team was founded in the capital.
Fulham was to represent the expansionist ideals of some in the game. As with most expansion plans in rugby league, it failed to take root to a significant effect. The Fulham team paved the way for the creation of the London Broncos.
Regardless, a substantial crowd turned out to see the game. By this time, however, the southern audience that attended did so more out of word of mouth than any set advertising campaign.
This Australian team had shown such dominance that people wanted to view the contest merely to watch the best that rugby had to offer. The speed, strength, and skill of the Australian team far outweighed anything the British had to offer. Fulham was brave in defeat 22–5.
In the lead up to the second Test, Australia visited the Boulevard to take on the mighty Hull team. A vocal crowd of 16,000 attended to see a close contest.
Unfortunately, for the British, many of the club teams put up a better performance than the national team.
The people of Hull were entertained on this cold English night. Their team battled and fought for every inch and did not cave into the onslaught of the Australian attack.
Then, near halftime, a chip and chase resulted in a try right near the posts. The Hull team went into the half leading 7–nil.
In the second half, the tables turned, and the brilliance of the Australian team came to the forefront. As the final siren sounded, Hull and their fans were proud of their team’s efforts despite losing 13–7.
By this point in the tour, the English could only hope that their national side was to play far beyond themselves and that this devastating Australian team was to have an off-game.
The British made a host of changes for the Second Test at Central Park, Wigan. Over 23,000 people crammed into Central Park, and they were to witness some brilliant football – just not by their team.
Australia raced to an early lead, and for some reason, the British decided to take penalty goals to try and close the gap. Although they got within 15–6 they were to be no match for the Australian team.
To hammer home their dominance, the Australian team won the game with 12 men on the field after Boyd had been sent off for kicking. To add salt to their wounds, Australia had lost Grothe to injury which resulted in Wally Lewis coming onto the field.
The King did not disappoint. Moving into five-eighth, he dominated play and showcased to the British public the depth of the Kangaroo’s talent.
The highlight of the game was a phase during the second half where the Australian team offloaded on mass and at will. In a period that stretched from one-quarter of the field to the other, twelve passes in total revealed to the rugby community the complete skill possessed by the touring party.
The performance of the team left the British media in no doubt that this was the greatest rugby team on the planet. The final score saw Australia triumph 27-6.
If you ever have the luxury of travelling to England, one town you don’t need to visit is the industrial town of Widnes in Cheshire. Not much happens in this town, so they place a lot of importance on the performance of the football team.
The Chemics, as they were known at the time (nicknamed after the chemical plants the town used to house), were not the power they were to be in the late 80s, but they were no pushovers either.
One concern the Australian team management might have had was for their players to slack off, considering they had retained the Ashes. Those fears were allayed when the Kangaroos bounced to a 19–6 win.
The final game on English soil was the third and final Test match at Headingley, Leeds.
In contrast to the hopes of the English fans at the beginning of the series, by this game, the English were not expecting much from their team.
The Kangaroos had blasted their way through the tour. Despite this, for this match, they were finally met by a Lions outfit worthy of their status.
Andy Gregory was the new British half, and his kicking game continually turned the Aussies around. Moreover, Brian Noble at hooker offered the Lions stability and direction that they lacked in the first two games.
The game went back and forth, and only penalty kicks were to determine the outcome of the first half. Second rower Lee Crooks plotted a penalty kick to make it 6–4 and what followed can leave one shaking their head. A scuffle ensued right on the half-time siren.
What was interesting was that the French referee Julien Rascagneres decided to sin bin both Boyd and Mick Crane at the beginning of the second half.
This delayed start to the second half did not subdue the heat in the contest. Both sides were pushing for the win. Pearce was once again at his best with many solid runs and offloads, while the British countered with their attacking raids.
Surprisingly, Crooks decided to close the gap with a field goal and, at 6–5 the game remained in the balance. A blow out looked on the cards as the Australian team scored two quick tries to extend the lead out to 14–5.
Though, the British were not defeated yet.
So far throughout the tour, the Lions had been unable to score a try against the Australian team. The 17,000 fans present on this day had their prayers answered when Steve Evans crossed out wide.
The conversion was unsuccessful, so the British needed two scores to gain the lead. The required two tries did not happen.
The Kangaroos romped home with a flurry of late tries to seal the game 32–8. Although it looked like another lopsided game, the Lions had finally competed against the tourist. The problem for the British was that, although they had finally unearthed some genuine talent, this talent did not go through the whole team.
Whereas, for the Kangaroos, every player on tour was of international standard.
Before the tour, British rugby league fans had not heard of the many young players selected. However, once the tour had completed the British were left aghast at the apparent skill divided between the two countries – a divide they have been aiming to close ever since.
After completing their tour of Britain, the Australians travelled to France to round off the tour.
They had lost in France four years earlier due to some questionable refereeing, but two things had changed since; the game in France had fallen into further decline, and the Australian team was a superior outfit.
Small crowds gathered to watch the Australian team trounce all before them.
Racing Club was humiliated 65–0, before fewer than 10,000 fans witnessed the French national side lose 15–4. Questionable refereeing decisions and foul play still plagued this leg of the tour, though the Australians continued with the humiliation.
They beat Aquitaine 67–2, Les Espoirs 42–3, Catalan 53-2 and Midi-Pyrenees 26–0, before completing the tour with a 23–9 win in the second Test against France.
It was a shame the French game had become almost non-existent. Currently, in France, the game is improving so hopefully one day it can be a power once more.
The Australians returned home heroes, and the names of Sterling, Kenny, Meninga, Pearce, Miles and Lewis still reverberate around the rugby league community today.
All the individuals in the Australian side had proven themselves worthy to wear the green and gold. They were simply the best.
Leading into the current World Cup, the 2017 Kangaroos are presented with the task of retaining the Cup. If they win, people will say that it was expected and they won’t be remembered for their greatness.
Therefore, the key for the current Australian team is how they win. How many teams do they stop from scoring? How many tries do they score? How many points can they accumulate?
If they smash records, then not only will they win the Paul Barrière trophy, but they may etch their name into history and rugby league folklore.
They may come away from the tournament and genuinely claim to be the best Australian team ever.
For the record the 1982 Kangaroos achieved the following:
Points Scored: 1005 – an average of 45.6 per game
Points Conceded: 120 – an average of 5.4 per game
The Australian Kangaroos – 1982 Invincibles
Coach: Frank Stanton
Captain: Max Krilich
Vice-Captain: Wally Lewis