The saying goes that you can’t coach speed and that’s probably true. But raw speed alone isn’t enough to hold a place in first grade.
There’s nothing better than watching some of the modern games speed men tearing down the field, leaving opposition defenders in their wake, and the game has been blessed with fast and talented players since day one.
When I started watching the game in the mid ’60s, nearly every team had their marquis speed men, ready to bring the crowd to their feet and scorch down the sideline when the ball came their way. In those days, these flyers invariably played on the wing, although at times speed merchants like Reg Gasnier found themselves playing in the centres.
Many of these fast men became legends of the game, especially if they played for a club with enough sense and ability to get the ball into their hands.
In this article, I look back at two of the fastest and most exciting ball runners I’ve seen. They both came from Queensland to the big time in Sydney, lit the field up whenever they had the ball in their few years in the top grade and have now probably faded from view. While they didn’t play for Australia or ever really hit the heights, to me, they’ll always remain two of the best speed men to play the game.
Stan Gorton came to the St George Dragons from Cairns as a 20-year-old in 1966. In all, he had six injury-interrupted years with the Dragons, played 56 first grade games in that time, and scored a total of 37 tries in the top grade.
He had one unforgettable season though, in 1968, when he finished as the league’s top try scorer with an unbelievable 22 tries. Boy, did he ever light it up that year.
Stan didn’t look like your typical footballer, and based on appearance, he probably wouldn’t even get a trial game for first grade today. He was tall and lean with strong legs, maybe weighing 80 kilograms, always impeccably turned out, and had a brylcreamed, combed-back hair style which was fashionable at the time.
I recall one day at Kogarah Oval where he was required to make a rare tackle resulting in his hair being mussed up. I watched him rise to his feet as the play continued, slowly remove a comb from his sock, return his jet black hair back to its former perfection, and put the comb back where it came from.
Stan wasn’t known for his defence, nor was he required to make too many tackles for that matter. By 1968, the Dragons’ 11-year run of premierships had come to an end, but they still had a formidable team, with players like Graeme Langlands, Billy Smith, Johnny Raper, Tony Branson, Phil Hawthorne and Barry Beath all playing inside him.
And then there was Ken Maddison. Maddison was as brutal a centre as you would ever want to see, and he often played alongside Stan. Ken was a punishing defender and rarely missed his man, and was also very difficult to contain in attack, invariably bumping off the first defender, and creating many opportunities for his speedy wing man.
It was always a match highlight when the ball got to Gorton, and the Dragons fans invariably rose as one as he flashed down the sideline. I can’t recall him ever being run down by the opposition, and he had a devastating full speed swerve that turned defending fullbacks into grasping spectators. Gorton at full flight was a sight to behold.
Unfortunately, recurring injuries meant that he never recaptured his 1968 form and he eventually retired from the big time at the end of the 1971 season.
Stan’s sadly no longer with us – he passed away in 2013.
Unlike for Stan Gorton, try-scoring opportunities were few and far between for Parramatta’s Arch Brown. Tall and athletic, he joined Parramatta from Queensland in 1965, after playing four games for his state in 1964, being the only outside back to be selected for Queensland in each match that year.
Unfortunately for Brown, he arrived at the Eels during a period where they not only had little success – Parra made the finals only once in the five seasons he was there – but also a time where their game plan was essentially a forward-based affair.
The Eels primarily played the game up the middle, using Test forwards Ron Lynch, Dick Thornett, Bob O’Reilly, Brian Hambly and Keith Campbell to great effect, but didn’t provide too many opportunities for their talented backs like Brown, centre Barry Rushworth and winger Dave Irvine. Irvine himself isone of the fastest wingers to ever play the game.
Brown was very quick, and spent a fair bit of time on the professional sprint circuit. Probably the only faster wingers going around at the time were Irvine, a professional sprint champion, or Dave Irvine’s more famous cousin, the legendary Ken Irvine from North Sydney.
And then, making up a very strong field, were Manly’s phenomenal Nick Yakich and his teammate Les Hanigan, Newtown’s Reg Hatton, Johnny Mowbray from Wests, Balmain’s Paul Cross, Gorton, Warren Thompson from Norths, and of course Souths’ Mike Cleary, a former Commonwealth Games sprinter. Quite a line-up, and believe me, there wouldn’t be many quicker players running around today.
Brown didn’t have the blinding acceleration of the some of these sprinters, but once he hit full stride, there was no catching him. Mike Cleary famously tried to run him down one afternoon at Cumberland Oval, but he failed to make any impression.
Brown was always a Parramatta crowd favourite, and also an excellent goal kicker, capable of landing them from the halfway line, and that’s with the old leather ball just sitting on a pile of dirt dug out of the field.
He remains fifth on Parramatta’s all-time point scoring list, having just been overtaken last season by Mitchell Moses.
Sadly, Arch Brown passed away in 2018.