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History of Brisbane Rugby League: Warning signs, 1970s

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Roar Guru
14th August, 2020
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As the 1970s began, the most successful team in Brisbane league history was again back on top.

Between 1969 and 1974 Valleys appeared in all six grand finals, winning back to back in 1970-71 and again in 1973-74.

In the mid 1970s Wests reached their first grand final in nearly 20 years and promptly won two in a row.

After going down to Wests in 1976, Easts went from strength to strength and won titles in 1977 and 1978.

Through all of this the Redcliffe Dolphins took over from Easts as the experts in coming second. The Dolphins were runners up in 1973, 1975, 1977, 1981 and 1983, before one last unsuccessful grand final tilt in 1987. At least they were consistent.

In 1970 the Valleys Diehards won the ever premiership from fourth place, beating a declining Norths in the grand final. Souths returned to the finals partly on the back of four Fijian imports from rugby union: Asaeli Batibasaga, Isoa Volavola, Amenatave Gutugutuwai and Moritikeri Nabuta. This was quite an exotic thing for provincial Brisbane at the time. It was Brothers who claimed the minor premiership.

Valleys only made the finals courtesy of a final round win over Redcliffe and some help from Wynnum who upset Wests with a late field goal to knock the Panthers out. Valleys sent two kegs of beer to the Seagulls players in gratitude. The Diehards then knocked out Souths and Brothers before the grand final against Norths was locked at 8-all at full time, courtesy of a field goal to Valleys player Ray Smith. Smith later became the first Queenslander to play 100 VFL games – eat your heart out Karmichael Hunt. In the first extra time grand final since 1935, a try to lock Jeff Gill matched an earlier extra time score by Norths but Valleys’ kicker Norm Clarke landed his conversion from four metres inside touch to win the match.

Valleys, led by inspirational leader Mick Retchless, went back to back in 1971. They dominated the season before taking out the grand final in fine fashion in front of nearly 38,000 spectators. The runners up were Easts who were developing a fine side, led by lock Jeff Fyfe, forward Des Morris and hooker John Lang. Fyfe scored two tries in the preliminary final to put the Tigers in the final.

The grand final was a frenetic affair. East scored early through winger Jeff Denman and threw everything at Valleys to go to the break at 10-all. Despite being heavily marked and spending two stints off the field with head injuries, Mick Retchless scored from dummy half with 20 minutes to go to finally swing the match in the Diehards’ favour. He retired after the full time siren.

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A brilliant Easts team turned the tables on Valleys in 1972 in one of the greatest ever grand finals. Crowds were up, games were shown on two TV channels and the BRL was the talk of the town. It was actually Wests that set the pace in the regular season, winning their first ten matches and finishing as runaway minor premiers, nine points clear of second. Coached by former Valleys great Norm Pope, the 40-year-old even ran on the field for one match for a few minutes, reportedly to put on a get square after one of his players have been fouled.

The Panthers boasted future international half Greg Oliphant but lost star second rower Richie Twist. Twist was felled by a John Elford stiff arm in the interstate match and knocked unconscious again two weeks later, ending his career. Wests lost finals to Easts and Valleys to go out in straight sets.

The grand final was a classic in front of over 40,000 fans. Valleys scored with only minutes remaining to level the scores but missed the conversion. Easts risked a short kick off and Des Morris regathered and bullocked his way to 35 metres out. Instead of throwing the ball to their halves, it went to star lock Jeff Fyfe, who despite carrying an ankle injury into the match, calmly slotted the first field goal of his career to secure a famous victory, the Tigers’ first in over 20 years. Des Morris was named man of the match and pocketed a $100 suit and a $60 transistor radio. Unfortunately, the local TV station was late back from a commercial and missed the winning play!

In a tragic postscript it was revealed that champion Valleys five eighth Marty Scanlon’s mother had suffered a heart attack in the stands and passed away. Scanlan had played the grand final just two weeks after suffering significant injuries in a car accident.

In 1972 the final Bulimba Cup was played, with Brisbane destroying Toowoomba 55-2. Years of country players moving to the big smoke had taken their toll.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In 1973 Redcliffe reached their second grand final, but it was Valleys, coached by former Redcliffe mentor Henry Holloway, who took the premiership in front of a record 42,000 fans. Redcliffe were coached by Barry Muir who had returned from exile after his five-year ban for spitting on a referee. The Dolphins had opened their cheque book (not for the last time), signing Kiwi prop Robin Orchard and three players from Sydney, including Canterbury’s Ron Raper.

However, Wests brought off the biggest coup of the season, signing former South Sydney captain John Sattler. Unfortunately it was not a happy union, with the Panthers missing the finals. Sattler also captain-coached Queensland that year and the Maroons failed to score a single point across the interstate series. Wynnum also signed three Sydney players and Norths two in an unusual year where there was an equal player drain north (although none were the absolute cream of the NSWRL).

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In hindsight the major signing was made by Valleys, who secured halfback Ross Strudwick from St George (where he was stuck behind the great Billy Smith). Strudwick would become the heart and soul of the club for the next decade and mentored a young Wally Lewis. In his first year Strudwick scored two tries in the major semi-final to help the Diehards into the decider.

The grand final was tied at 7-all after the first half, but Valleys scored two second half tries to take the match. The highlight was a beautiful cover defending tackle by Valleys forward John McCabe on Redcliffe’s winger Ron Caridge, stopping a certain try that would have evened the scores. Redcliffe captain Ron Raper sat out the final ten minutes of the match after suffering a broken arm.

In 1974 there was the Great Flood in Brisbane. Not only did this put rugby league in a spin and Land Park underwater, it destroyed many precious records held at rugby league headquarters. On the field Valleys went back to back, this time over Brothers.

Norths finished the season as minor premiers. They were captain-coached by English great Tommy Bishop, fresh from losing the 1973 NSWRL grand final with Cronulla. Wests had another terrible year under John Sattler, finishing last, but they did manage to sign Geoff Richardson from rugby union. Despite the club’s struggles Richardson represented the national side that year.

It was Valleys’ southern import Ross Strudwick who again was the impetus for their success. The Diehards beat the minor premiers Norths in the major semi-final by a single point courtesy of a Strudwick sideline conversion ten minutes from full time.

Norths’ bad luck continued in the preliminary final with Brothers getting over the top of them 12-9 through a spectacular length-of-the-field movement with just five minutes remaining. It all started with Brothers fullback Wayne Bennett fielding a field goal attempt behind his own goal-line and galloping 40 metres up field.

The rains came and it was one of wettest grand finals in history. The more experienced and hardened Valleys team came out on top 9-2 in the defensive slugfest where no tries were scored. The highlight of the game was probably when a drunken spectator came on and tackled the Valleys winger (without the ball) and then just climbed back into the stands.

Wests went from wooden spooners in 1974 to back-to-back titles in 1975 and 1976. In 1975 the Panthers comfortably won the minor premiership under new coach Ron Raper. They had gone on an off-season buying spree, picking up seven Sydney players including new captain Kel Brown and fullback Greg McCarthy from Sydney Easts. These players joined local representative players Geoff Richardson, Greg Oliphant and Norm Carr. Ironically in 1975 they swapped places with 1974 premiers Valleys, who went from first to last.

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Redcliffe returned to finals contention with their new signing, state captain and fullback Ian ‘Bunny’ Pearce. They reached the decider against Wests after convincing finals victories over Wynnum-Manly and Norths. An enormous crowd of 41,000 packed Lang Park for the grand final and Wests raced to a 19-4 halftime lead and 29-9 in the second half. But Redcliffe staged a remarkable comeback to trail by only 26-24 in the final minutes. A last second bomb from Redcliffe as the siren sounded was wasted as the crowd rushed onto the ground, getting in the way of the play and the match was called for Wests, foiling what could have been the greatest comeback in rugby league history.

In 1975, the Brisbane representative side showed the competition was still very strong, by defeating the touring English 21-10.

Wests did it again in 1976, this time against the Easts Tigers. Unlike 1975 their win was in dominant fashion, with the very unusual score line of 16-1. It did not look to be that way during the season, with Easts taking the minor premiership, driven by their talented Toowoomba halfback Wayne Lindenberg and captained by Des Morris. And indeed in the finals Wests struggled, being shocked by Brothers in the qualifying final before fighting their way back through. They were helped in their return match with Brothers by the Irish losing their Queensland rep goal-kicking winger Ian Dauth to injury. The Brethren kicked only two goals from eight attempts and lost by just eight points.

So West had struggled through and it was Easts who were firm favourites. The Tigers for some reason kicked a field goal in the first five minutes, with forward John Payne allegedly offered $50 from a local supporter to be first points scorer. Payne also said he never got paid. Easts didn’t trouble the scorers after that and Wests ran out comfortable winners, with star five eighth Geoff Richardson and rookie forward John Ribot being two of the stand outs.

There was another amazing finals performance in that year. Three clubs had finished tied for fifth and it was Souths who not only eliminated Valleys on Tuesday and Wynnum on Thursday, but then backed up to defeat Redcliffe in the minor semi-final – four wins in eight days! They gave their all but the exhausted Magpies succumbed to Wests in their next game.

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The embarrassment of that grand final performance helped drive the Easts Tigers to the 1977 premiership. It was a slow start with the Tigers losing seven of their first eight. They recovered to third place after fine end of season form, but it was Redcliffe who took the minor premiership. Easts’ poor start and barnstorming finish can be credited to star half Wayne Lindenberg, who was injured through the first half of the season and returned to help Easts win six from their last seven matches.

The Tigers and Dolphins squared off in the decider, with Easts emerging victorious 17 to 13. The Dolphins were served well by the former Wests half Greg Oliphant, but he was more than matched by Easts’ electric Wayne Lindenberg whose best on ground performance was highlighted by a slashing 50-metre solo try from dummy half. It was Redcliffe’s third grand final defeat in five years.

In 1977, fans saw the coaching debut of Wayne Bennett, who took over as captain-coach of Souths. In no sign of things to come the Magpies took out the wooden spoon.

Wayne Bennett

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Just to prove that the game had not become appreciably softer, Valleys winger Wayne Conway had the top of his ear bitten off in a pre-season game. After adjudicating on the incident, referee Eddie Ward had the players search the field for the missing piece, found by Valleys’ John Ribot.

In 1978 Easts and Redcliffe finished the regular season first and second. The year was also marked by the emergence of Wally Lewis for Valleys, who scored three tries on debut. Valleys matched the top two sides all year and knocked Redcliffe out of the race, with Lewis scoring a 40-metre try to seal their grand final place. In the grand final Valleys led with less than ten minutes to go, but Easts scored a great 70-metre try to win it involving many of their greats: Des Morris, Brad Backer, Wayne Lindenberg and Greg Holben.

That year Easts also defeated North Sydney in the mid-week Amco Cup before going down to eventual Sydney premiers Manly-Warringah.

Other notable debuts were a rebuilding Norths signing future internationals Mark Murray and Paul McCabe. Wests debuted a young Paul Vautin, but he was scouted by Manly after just one season. It was a trend that gained pace as a number of Brisbane clubs ran into financial trouble trying to keep up with player payments. Souths and Brothers both struggled to pay their players for the season. Ten high-profile players left for Sydney at the end of 1978, including internationals Rod Morris, Greg Oliphant and Paul Vautin.

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In 1979 it was Valleys’ year. The Diehards only lost three games in the regular season to claim the minor premiership. Valleys had appointed premiership winning halfback Ross Strudwick as captain-coach and also picked up a young bull from the bush, Cunnamulla boy Chris ‘Choppy’ Close.

Souths made an amazing run to the grand final. The club was broke – at the start of the season they had offered their players nothing but $200 a win and 16 had walked out of the club as a result. In addition, star forward Pat Phelan had tragically passed away in a fishing accident. The exodus opened the door for some young talent, not least a strapping young centre called Malcolm Meninga, who scored two tries and kicked five goals on debut in the pre-season.

Mirroring the efforts of Jim Comans in Sydney, the BRL judiciary resolved to clean up the game and during the first 16 rounds an average of two players per round were sent off and suspended. It didn’t stop Valleys and Souths engaging in a massive all in brawl in round 13 that spilled off the field and into the Valleys cheer squad.

In the category of ‘it could only happen in Brisbane’ on the Friday night before the grand final a player from the country town of Gympie, disgruntled with a lengthy suspension handed down by the local league, snuck into Lang Park and cut down the goal posts!

But the grand final went ahead and Valleys ended Souths’ hopes of a first premiership in decades with a 26-to-nil thumping. Chris Close scored a first-half try and Wally Lewis engineered another in the second half for his five eighth Peter McWhirter with a smart chip and chase.

The 1979 season showed that even with the yearly exodus south the players left in the BRL could still hold their own. A Brisbane representative side entered the mid-week Amco Cup and made it all the way to the final, defeating defending premiers Manly, eventual 1979 premiers St George and a strong Easts team, before losing the final to Cronulla.

Some time ago 4BC radio released their BRL team of the ’70s, and I will defer to their judgement.

The three numbers after the players’ names refer to finals appearances, grand finals and premierships.

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1. Ian ‘Bunny’ Pearce (Redcliffe) (Queensland seven games) – 12, three, zero. Five tries and 42 goals in finals. Captain 1975-1978 (three tries and 16 goals in the 1975 finals series), top point scorer 1978 with 282 points. Courier Mail best and fairest 1978. Rothmans Medal 1978. One try and six goals in 1981 major semi and one try and three goals in 1981 grand final. Captained the last pre-Origin Queensland team to defeat NSW in 1975.
2. Warren Orr (Wests, Wynnum-Manly) (two Tests, Queensland eight games) – two, zero, zero.
3. Gerry Fitzpatrick (Valleys) (Queensland five games) – 12, five, three. One try in finals.
4. Peter Leis (Redcliffe, Wests) (Queensland nine games) – 12, four, zero. Three tries in finals. Courier Mail best and fairest 1973. Interviewed on scoring 20 tries in the 1978 season as a veteran: “It’s certainly not a case of being fast, because I never had any pace in the first place. But I know a few short cuts.”
5. Jeff Denman (Easts) (Queensland ten games) – ten, three, one. Eight tries in finals. Toured with Australia in 1969 but played no Tests.
6. Geoff Richardson (Wests) (two Tests, Queensland six games) – six, two, two. Also played nine Tests at flyhalf for the Wallabies. Was a key player in the Brisbane side that defeated Great Britain, and Queensland sides that drew with and beat NSW in the mid 1970s.
7. Ross Strudwick (Valleys) (one Test, Queensland eight games) – 11, four, three. Four tries, six goals and two field goals in finals. Captain 1978-1980. ‘The Rat’, one of the smartest players in Brisbane. Once got on Wally Lewis’ shoulders under the goal posts to try and knock back an opposition penalty goal.
8. Norm Carr (Wests, Souths) (Queensland 13 games) – 11, two, two. Two tries in finals. Captain (Souths) 1985. The hardest worker in rugby league.
9. Des Morris (Easts, Wynnum-Manly) (Queensland ten games) – 21, six, three. Two tries in finals. Captain 1971-1972, 1976-1979, 1981. Man of the match 1972 grand final. Possibly the finest Queensland player to never play a Test. Was selected but ruled out with a heart murmur that turned out to be nothing.
10. Lew Platz (Souths, Wynnum-Manly) (six Tests, Queensland eight games) – two, zero, zero. Went south and played for Parramatta and Penrith.
11. Rod Morris (Easts, Wynnum-Manly) (15 Tests, Queensland 11 games, NSW six games) – 13, four, three. Three tries in finals. Captain (Wynnum) 1982. Played for Balmain. Made two Kangaroo tours.
12. John Lang (Easts) (eight Tests, Queensland 20 games, NSW one game) – 16, five, three. Two tries in finals. Courier Mail player of the year 1971. Long-term Easts player who went on the 1973 Kangaroo Tour (one of only two Queenslanders). Lang went to Sydney for a final year in 1980 and won Dally M hooker of the year with the Roosters.
13. Greg Veivers (Souths) (seven Tests, Queensland 16 games) – five, zero, zero. Captain 1976. Never lost a Test match and captained Australia against New Zealand in 1977.

Reserves
14. Tony Obst (Redcliffe, Brothers) (Queensland three games) – utility, 14, four, zero. Four tries in finals. 1980 Rothmans Medal.
15. John McCabe (Valleys) (Queensland one game) – second row, 11, four, three. Two tries in finals.

Coach
Henry Holloway (Valleys, Wynnum-Manly).

Other notables included
• Marty Scanlan (Valleys) (Queensland two games) – five-eighth – 21, seven, four. One try in finals. Rothmans Medal 1972. Captain 1972-1974.
• Wayne Lindenberg (Easts) (Queensland five games) – half – 11, four, three. Three tries and seven goals in finals. Courier Mail best and fairest 1977. Brisbane’s answer to Steve Mortimer and would have been a superstar in Sydney.
• Jeff Gill (Valleys) Lock – 14, six, four. Five tries in finals.
• Hugh O’Doherty (Valleys) (Queensland two games) – hooker – 12, five, four. Four tries in finals.
• Alan Mills (Valleys) (Queensland six games) – fullback – 14, five, three. Two tries, 12 goals and three field goals in finals. Two field goals in the 1974 grand final.