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Immortals are laughing to the end

Jenko new author
Roar Rookie
5th November, 2018
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Jenko new author
Roar Rookie
5th November, 2018
17
1485 Reads

This is a cautionary tale, relevant to all mortal rugby players – even backs.

However, it must be said that only a few exceptional under 50s will relate it to their own futures.

Fourteen Wallabies, five of them octogenarians and the rest not far behind, assembled in Newcastle this month (October) to celebrate an outstanding Australian sporting achievement 55 years earlier.

Test mates and stroke survivors CP Crittle, AO, and John Freedman, AOM, meet in Newcastle.

Headlines churned out by now-extinct Linotype machines had once lauded the 1963 Wallabies as ‘immortals’ following a drawn four-Test series against the world champion Springboks in South Africa.

Now team survivors were laughing over their Hunter Valley wine at their collective resemblance to a biblical gathering of the ‘poor, the crippled, the halt and the blind’.

(None was actually blind in this era of spectacles and cataract surgery, but hearing aids were almost de rigueur).

The most famous of the 31-member ’63 squad, Ken Catchpole, AOM, and John Thornett, OBE, were absent.

Rugby’s most Bradmanesque Australian hero, Catchpole, had faced mental health problems by the time of his death in December 2017.

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Thornett, the modest, engaging captain of the Wallabies from 1962 until 1967, was languishing in a nursing home in southern NSW, physically broken by a rare degenerative muscle disease and only a day-by-day proposition mentally.

On some days, the much-loved Thorne, who breezed through three degrees at Sydney University and was widely respected for his manliness, wisdom and modesty, simply doesn’t bother to wake up.

There was no way he could have made it to Newcastle and no way he could have appreciated the significance of being there.

Seven other ’63 tourists did not attend for various reasons.

Of the 14 veterans who made it to Coal City, seven were accompanied by their wives. More than half of them would not have made it without such back-up.

Two of the attendees were stroke survivors whose short-term memories are affected. Another had been hit even more cruelly by Alzheimer’s.

Three were mixing smiles and grimaces because of serious back problems. Five-eighth John Klem is facing a second round of spinal surgery after a life of heavy work on the land.

The only Newcastle-based attendee, Terry Casey, had just begun chemotherapy for lymphoma. He had to wait until the morning of the Newcastle Club luncheon to decide whether he would be well enough to handle it.

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Retired Wellington farmer, Jon White, defied neuropathy of his hands and feet as well as an ulcerated heel to undertake a six-hour bus trip to join the party.

‘It might well be our Last Supper,’ Australia’s greatest loose-head prop explained.

White, 83, was the oldest attendee.

Rob Heming, the oldest team member at 85, missed the event on doctor’s orders.

Jim Lenehan, the dashing, handsome GPS athlete and precocious Wallaby of the late 1950s, was a little stooped.

Perhaps that was because he was recovering from having his pelvis broken by a charging bovine in the stockyards at Beggan Beggan, his expansive grazing property near Harden.

Following that mishap, Lenehan, 80, had developed appendicitis and, of course, there were complications.

Still, the fullback, centre or wing who had been a Wallaby from 1957 to 1967, could flash his trademark radiant smile, remembered fondly by many an ambitious socialite.

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Two full-time nursing-home residents had to be accompanied by their children. Left by his son in the care of team mates, one soon forgot how he had, in fact, arrived in Newcastle from Sydney and how he was to return.

His distant gaze as speeches were made and jokes exchanged communicated anxiety and confusion. It’s not easy being old, even if you have enjoyed sporting celebrity, social status and a long career in medicine.

Widows June Catchpole, Sue Johnson and Louise Shepherd represented three of the team’s nine departed members.

June, a poet and one of several talented artists in the ’63 group, broke down as she tried to read verse she had written about the man whose love she had shared with a nation.

Peter Charles Crittle, AO, who had headed up NSW and Australian rugby after a stellar playing career, shrugged off the aftermath of a stroke to be a key reunion entertainer.

At the Monday night dinner, the former barrister delivered a tongue-in-cheek ‘manager’s report’ on the ’63 expedition and showed, when his blood pressure dipped suddenly, that he could still roll through a fall as effectively as in his playing days.

Crittle’s daughter, Shannon Crowley, calmly instructed a rescue party that they would need two lifters on each side to restore her monumental father to his feet.

Not long afterwards, a Wallaby who had, perhaps, started celebrating a little early was banned by hotel staff from further drinking.

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In high dudgeon, he stormed from the hotel, determined to walk home.

He was intercepted by a mate on the hotel’s front steps – a good thing because he had apparently forgotten that he lives more than 700km away in Brisbane.

The next morning, the offended flanker could remember walking for hours and hours.

In his dreams, no doubt.

Dick Marks, who had organised the whole thing with the help of his wife Jane, emceed both the dinner and lunch in inimitable fashion.

At the lunch in the imposing, mahogany-panelled Newcastle Club, Crittle was as eloquent and humorous as ever in delivering mini-eulogies for each of the nine departed players: Greg Davis; Ken McMullen; Phil Hawthorne; David Shepherd; Bruce Bailey, Ted Heinrich; Peter Johnson; and Ken Catchpole.

As their ranks had thinned, the ’63 Wallabies had convened every ten years to mourn their losses, celebrate their extraordinary touring experiences and revel in the joys of their lifelong bond.

This time around, organiser Marks had decided the interval would have to be cut to five years lest 2023 – when the average team age will be approaching 84 – would prove too late for too many.

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A crash-tacking centre in former years and a character so hard-nosed he sees the good in Donald Trump, Marks choked up briefly when he asked the group to consider where it would go post-Newcastle.

The avid conversations and the merry laughter of the time-defiant warriors certainly called for an extension of the reunion program.

Jim Miller wondered about the viability of a suggestion that, in light of dwindling numbers and burgeoning health issues, the 2023 reunion should include all teams that had played under Thornett’s leadership (from 1962 to 1966-67).

Miller, a fabulously successful businessman, suggested that a good deal of magic would be lost when players had to listen to others reminiscing about tour events they had not not shared.

Marks is thinking about a Sydney luncheon in 2023.

However, to borrow from politics, it might all come down to the art of the possible.