A few days ago, as I was aimlessly flicking TV channels, I came across a replay of the first Test of the 1986 ‘Unbeatables’ Kangaroo tour.
I was sucked in and enthralled. After 80 minutes that flew by, I left in a much better mood than I arrived.
Thirty-five years ago, the once every four years Kangaroo tour of Great Britain was an important part of the rugby league landscape and the pinnacle experience for our representative players.
The 1986 tour was in an absolute sweet spot for excellence that may never be matched. There are a number of reasons why.
1. State of Origin was only five years old
Origin had not yet gained a complete stranglehold on rugby league, but crucially, it had opened up pathways to the Australian team for a once in a generation batch of Queenslanders. Only eight years earlier, the touring squad had included just three token Queensland-based players in winger Kerry Boustead, prop Rod Morris and half Greg Oliphant (plus Rod Reddy and Bruce Walker from Sydney clubs).
Now the squad was littered with northerners (five from the Brisbane clubs and ten in total, out of a squad of 28) and captained by the one and only Wally Lewis, the first Kangaroo captain since the great Tom Gorman in 1929-30.
The great Wynnum-Manly side of the era was possibly the strongest in the world at the time and supplied Lewis, Greg Dowling, Bob Lindner and Gene Miles on their own. Only Canterbury-Bankstown provided more players to the squad.
2. Great Britain still thought they could be competitive
It had been eight years since Great Britain had won a Test against Australia, but that pales in comparison to the current situation – it’s 50 years now since Great Britain have taken a series between the two nations.
Yes, the 1982 Invincibles Tour had been a disaster for Great Britain, but they had been competitive in 1978 and victorious in 1973. They could still kid themselves that the previous tour had been an aberration.
Wigan had got within eight points of the tourists in the first warm-up match. In addition, exciting new names were emerging for Great Britain, such as Ellery Hanley, Joe Lydon, Andy Goodway and Garry Schofield.
As a result, over 50,000 rabid fans packed Old Trafford for the first Test with genuine hope and expectation – a record for a Test in England at that time. The atmosphere was simply electric. As always, the English crowds do much better than “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi”.
3. It was a true Kangaroo tour
This was not like more recent ‘tours’ where players fly in, do a couple of press conferences, play and leave.
Australia took a touring party of 28 and played 20 games over more than two months – remarkably, Terry Lamb played in every single game. The squad had been training together for three weeks and had played five warm-up games before the first Test (including a Test against Papua New Guinea).
By this time, the team was flying. Representative games can now sometimes be disjointed affairs, given the limited preparation time. Not so here.
4. It was the ’80s
Less wrestle, less concern for ‘the flow’, no announcers trying to engineer fake noise, semi-competitive scrums, tackles around the ankles, fatigue setting in with only two replacements (no interchange), no bunker, and a semi-insane French referee who spoke no English and confused everyone.
Also, while the worst of the thuggery from earlier years had been stamped out, there was still plenty going on in the softening up period. The game had just about become professional, but there was still room for individuals.
Now let’s turn to the game itself.
Check out this Australian team
1. Gary Jack
2. Michael O’Connor
3. Brett Kenny
4. Gene Miles
5. Les Kiss
6. Wally Lewis (c)
7. Peter Sterling
8. Greg Dowling
9. Royce Simmons
10. Steve Roach
11. Noel Cleal
12. Bryan Neibling
13. Bob Lindner
14. Terry Lamb
15. Mal Meninga
That backline is so good that there is an Immortal on the bench. The forwards are full of crunch and the halves are the two smartest players of their – any possibly any – era. No wonder the scoreline finished at 38 points to 16.
Now for some random takeaways from the game.
Remember when centres played next to each other?
None of this left and right centre rubbish. Here we have width of the field sweeping moves with the backline set very deep.
No playing flat at the line – instead, players are given room to show their evasive skills. Royce Simmons passing to Sterling, to Lewis then to Kenny at inside centre.
At this point, the defence is progressively worried about the Sterling kick, worried about the Lewis kick, run, cut-out spiral, or inside pass to Lindner or Cleal. They are already stretched when Kenny receives the ball and here is the most balanced runner you’ve ever seen.
So the defence is terrified and backpedalling. But on this day, Kenny has Gene Miles outside of him. With Bert’s hands, putting big Geno through a gap was like shelling peas.
Miles then had the option to step inside, or just bulldoze over the top of his opposition. Instead, Geno motors to the outside with speed that he lost in later years and then, holding the ball in one hand that has now become commonplace but at the time was unique, he would draw the winger and basketball onto the chest of a flying Michael O’Connor, the other most balanced runner you’ve ever seen.
Cue a hat trick of tries to Michael O’Connor. And Miles was still selfish enough to bag three tries of his own.
What a backline and what moves!
In modern times, Kenny and Miles would have to be introduced to each other at the end of the match.
Just on Gene Miles – 1986 was around his peak and you can see why Big Mal, as good as he was, found himself on the bench. Miles was simply unstoppable. He had the size and athleticism of Mal, but also had a wonderful offload.
In the modern era, with his all-round passing and running game. I believe that Brett Kenny could have been up with the greatest fullbacks of all time.
Kenny had the speed of a Slater, the passing game of a Lockyer and brilliant anticipation as well. With the vision of a half, he could have killed with a license to pop up anywhere like today’s fullbacks.
Wally Lewis was really, very, very good indeed
As time goes by, the memory fades. The only footage of Lewis I’ve watched recently has been a few highlight reels, generally of ‘that’ Origin try or the push and shove with Mark Geyer. This obscures just what a wonderful all-around player Lewis was.
By watching an entire match, you can see he was everywhere – directing traffic, injecting himself into the defensive line when a tackle had to be made, buzzing around the referee, unfurling a huge kicking game, taking full-on hit-ups that were as effective as Noel Cleal, breaking the line and then, of course, his passing game was simply brilliant.
With the backline outside of him in this match, Lewis gave them so much time and space they tore the opposition to shreds. Despite hat tricks to O’Connor and Miles and brilliance from Kenny, Lewis was still man of the match.
It was a tough slog in the middle
Great Britain may have been a little behind in fitness and structure, but they were tough buggers. I remember Noel Cleal as being a powerhouse, but he was being manhandled.
Great Britain more than held their own for the first 30 minutes on the very heavy ground, until superior fitness told. The middle was no place for the fainthearted in 1986. However, as soon as Australia’s backline got a sniff, their precise execution was too much.
Blocker Roach and Dish-head Dowling ran as hard and straight as anyone, which is interesting, because in my memory Roach was more a clever player than a metre eater.
However, in this game, the two bookends just got stuck in and eventually won the yardage game. Bryan Neibling was the Nate Myles of his day. No highlight reels, but every team needs one.
Once the game was lost, well, let’s just say the English team were no angels.
The English backline was lightning quick
They barely got into the open, but the few times they did, this English side had speed to burn. Joe Lydon made Garry Jack look like he was running in cement boots, just swooshed straight past.
It was the first try by an English fullback in 97 Tests between the two countries.
Goalkickers had it much tougher
I have no idea about the development of the rugby league ball, but at times it appeared like O’Connor was kicking a medicine ball filled with sand. This game was played in conditions that make Canberra night games in August look like an attractive alternative.
At times the wind was so strong that Sterling kicked for distance and it nearly came back and hit him in the face (okay, slight exaggeration, but you get the point). I have new respect for old-time goalkickers.
We always used to joke that Mal Meninga looked like he was about to cry every time he lined up for goal. He was probably anticipating a broken toe.
A week or two later, Oldham got within six points of ‘The Emus’ (as the midweek Australian team called themselves), but the second Test went the way of the first.
Dale Shearer came in on the wing for Les Kiss, so if anything, the backline had more talent. Garry Jack picked up a double as Australia weathered an early storm before winning 34-4 to seal the Ashes.
‘The Moose’, Rex Mossop in commentary gave this assessment: “Australia carved them up. They’ve decimated, dissected and absolutely diabolically destroyed this Great Britain side today.”
An embarrassed British side put up a great showing in the third Test, trailing by only three points late in the game until a superb Lewis solo try sealed the result. The final score: 24-15.
Kangaroo tours had already fallen by the wayside long before COVID-19 made touring foreign lands a lottery.
Telling a club that their best players would spend two months touring the other side of the globe during the offseason would be impossible in this era of million-dollar contracts, where a player’s every meal is monitored by a dozen different experts.
I also suspect 30 or so rugby league players spending two months rampaging through northern England in this era of mobile phones and social media would be a recipe for distaster!
So I might just settle on the couch and see if I can find the second Test of the 1986 Kangaroo tour.
I hear that some bloke called Lewis was quite the footballer.