With discussions about expansion and “adult conversations”, this is my two cents.
When fans think of the term ‘supercoach’ as it relates to the game of rugby league, the shortlist of names which immediately come to mind are almost always the same.
It’s a combination of the great tacticians of yesteryear such as Jack Gibson, Warren Ryan and Phil Gould – if only for his feats in the representative arena – and the stalwarts of today in Wayne Bennett and Craig Bellamy, who have firmly entrenched their respective places among the pantheon of coaching greats.
Look a little deeper, however, and the lineage of pioneers who helped innovate the role of a coach in rugby league usually traces back to the man they called ‘Pony’.
Born Arthur Halloway in 1885, his nickname belied his intense tenacity both on the field and off it , as well as a fierce determination which ensured his legacy as a true pioneer – at first in the playing ranks, before going on to even greater heights as a coach, holding the record for the most premierships won.
Among the first wave of defectors to switch codes from rugby union to league (the most notable of these being Dally Messenger), Halloway began his decorated club career with Glebe in the inaugural 1908 season, after officials from the ‘Dirty Reds’ (so-called because of their playing outfit) recruited him following his appearances on the rebel New Zealand ‘All Golds’ tour of 1907.
Despite his diminutive stature – standing at just 5’5 and weighing just over 60kgs – Halloway established himself as one of the standout halfbacks during the early history of the game in Australia, no easy feat given the fierce competition he faced from fellow pivot Chris McKivat.
His performances for Glebe in his debut season earned him a spot in the Australian team for the Third Test against England in Sydney, which the hosts won 14-9, as well as a place in the side which embarked on the first ever Kangaroos Tour of England later that year.
It wasn’t the last time Halloway would don the green-and-gold for Australia in rugby league, as he went on to play over a century of Tests, a number of which he started as captain of the side, an acknowledgement of his stellar leadership qualities.
In addition to his feats in the representative arena, the courageous halfback also carved out an extraordinary resume for himself at club level, winning several Premierships with both Eastern Suburbs (1912, ’13) and Balmain (1915, ’16, ’17, ’19 and ’20) before his retirement in 1922.
It was for the latter side that Halloway first showed his ambition, and undoubted talent, as a coach, steering the side to four Grand Final victories in that role – which came in addition to his duties as captain.
A natural leader of men, Halloway earned himself the reputation of being among the toughest players not only of his era, but throughout the history of the 13-man code. An oft-told anecdote from this playing days was the time he lost his finger in a work accident one Saturday morning, and showing up ready to play for Balmain that afternoon, his bloody hand swathed in bandages.
Suffice it to say that if the loss of his appendage wasn’t enough to deter him from taking the field, the opposition didn’t stand much of a chance of doing so either. A direct, non-nonsense man (qualities which no doubt served him well as coach) Halloway seldom indulged in such tales of courage, instead seeming to prefer the ‘get on with it’ mentality so prevalent in society at the time.
Dick Dunn, who won a premiership under him with Easts, provided a brief glimpse into Arthur Halloway’s attitude, and why it inspired those around him, telling a journalist that he was a “direct sort of bloke…he had everybody behind him”.
Following his retirement from the playing ranks, it didn’t take Halloway very long to find another place for himself in the game. Following coaching roles in the rural heartlands of Parkes and Lismore, ‘Pony’ returned to the New South Wales Rugby League competition in 1923 when he was appointed the coach of the Newtown Jets.
Halloway would endure a dismal first-year in charge of Newtown, with his side winning just 25 per cent of their matches that season, a far cry from his experience as coach of Balmain. Unlike his time in charge of the Tigers, ‘Pony’ was no longer able to influence the result through his own performances on the field, a fact which undoubtedly compounded the pain of each loss. He would last only one season with Newtown, departing at the end of 1923.
Following a seven-year hiatus from the country’s premier club competition, Arthur Halloway would return in 1930 to take charge of Easts, with whom he’d experienced much success during his playing days.
Ultimately he was able to not only replicate, but outdo his on-field accomplishments with the club as he coached them to three consecutive Premierships from 1935-37.
While Easts possessed a truly great outfit during this period, the coaching of Halloway undoubtedly played a major influence in their success. For it was he who was able to add the finishing touch to a side that had come so close the previous season, yet ultimately came up short – they finished minor premiers the year prior to Halloway’s arrival, before going down to Wests in the Grand Final.
Not only was the former dual-code representative able to get the best out of his side as a team, like any great coach he also found a way to accentuate the performances of certain players at an individual level.
Although his point-scoring feats had already garnered him tag of ‘the Bradman of League’, prodigious centre Dave Brown put together one of the most dominant season’s by a player in the game’s history in 1935.
In a record that has stood the test of time, he scored an amazing 38 tries that season from just 15 games. In fact, it was during a mere six-week span that Brown scored 22 of those tries, while he also crossed the line six times.
Although it could be argued that he could have reached such heights on his own, it seems more than just happenstance that Brown’s dominance that year happened to coincide with Halloway’s arrival at the club; like any great coach, ‘Pony’ had a way of getting the best out of his players.
Although modern coaches in rugby league are seen as hard taskmasters by fans and critics alike, short-tempered drill sergeants with little or no patience for error, you’ll find that the most successful are able to harbour a genuine bond between themselves and the playing group.
The coach is able to adapt their style accordingly, and find a suitable balance necessary to get the best out of their players. In the case of Halloway, the hard-nosed veneer favoured by many coaches was deemed unnecessary, for his coaching style reflected the same ethos with which he’d played the game; he abandoned volatility for simplicity, and favoured a direct approach which never went unappreciated by his players.
A profile featured in the Sydney Morning Herald on the eve of the 1945 Grand Final (which Easts won, their fourth title with Halloway at the helm) gave more of an insight into Halloway as a coach. “Halloway never harps on fault or over praises cleverness’ wrote the Herald. “He has a nice encouraging way with both. The player who dropped passes gets more handling practice without recrimination: the clever one is brought into moves to emphasise teamwork. Halloway’s greatest admirers are his players…”
In addition to his time in charge of Eastern Suburbs, Halloway also had stints at Norths and Canterbury. After retiring from coaching in 1948 at the age of 63, his record spoke for itself – 178 wins from 286 games, a handy success rate of 62 percent (enough to get him hired at most NRL clubs today).
In addition to his impressive winning record, Halloway is also best remembered as a leader of men, both as player and coach. There could be worse ways of remembering the man they called ‘Pony’ than to recount a poem from his playing days, which so accurately captured his fierce tenacity and competitive spirit:
When you see a fellow tearing like a demon through the pack,
With a dozen men beneath him and the rest upon his back,
As through them, ball in hand, he carves a wriggling, blanky track