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Tommy Raudonikis was a legend and larrikin... and a thug

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7th April, 2021
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When the news came through that Australian rugby league icon Tommy Raudonikis had died, it was right and proper that all of us who remember him as a player, coach and pundit stopped to mark his passing by giving him the respect he earned.

Let me make very clear that Raudonikis was one of the most skilled and influential halfbacks of his generation.

You simply don’t get to captain your country and state unless you were brilliant. And Tommy was a brilliant player who thoroughly deserved his Rothmans Medal and Dally M representative player of the year awards, as well as his induction into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

He was a very, very special player, make no mistake of that.

Further, his charity work in the community was also top-notch. He was a good man.

However, let’s make sure that we remember him as he actually was and not try and paint him as some sort of saint in memorium. The man himself would hate that depiction more than anyone.

The Australia I grew up in in the 1970s is a world away from today’s society. There were a few individuals I saw in the popular arena who freaked me right out.

Leading the charge was Aunty Jack – Graham Bond dressed as a large, angry woman who was “going to RIP ME BLOODY ARMS OFF!”

Then there was Countdown regular Bon Scott out the front of AC/DC who always struck me as a seedy, dirty and nefarious little man – of course later I came to love Bon dearly because he was a wonderful, seedy, dirty, nefarious little man.

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And then there was Tommy Raudonikis.

The moment I saw the mulleted, nugget of muscle and aggression I knew I was watching a violent and uncouth human.
Growing up as I was in the safety of cloistered, middle-class Canberra, Raudonikis was a type of human I encountered only in passing in side show alley, or around the stockyards owned by my parent’s pastoralist friends.

He was of a different world. One I didn’t understand or even want to visit.

Raudonikis scared me.

Tommy Raudonikis, coach of the New South Wales Blues looks at his players

Tommy Raudonikis (Photo by Sean Garnsworthy/Getty Images)

My parents were only too happy for me to hold rugby league in low esteem, encouraging me towards rugby union, soccer or even Aussie rules – towards all of which I directed a level of ineptitude usually reserved for people who, unlike me, hated sport.

They did not want their son playing “thugby league.” You can be assured that the images and actions of Raudonikis – such as the pre-game face slapping warm up – fed heavily into that view.

Raudonikis belonged to an age of rugby league that featured violence de rigueur. Tommy embraced that reality.

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With the death of Raudonikis we see the passing of one of the giants of the pre Jim Comans era. To survive in that period you had to be tough and resilient. To excel in it – as Raudonikis unquestionably did – you had to be hard as nails.

Tommy Raudonikis was as hard as steel and capable of great brutality.

Born to a Lithuanian father and Swiss mother, he arrived into this world in a Bathurst migrant camp. The short kid – Raudonikis was only five foot seven inches fully grown – played both soccer and rugby league but settled on the latter after not too long.

On leaving school he started off as apprentice engineer with the RAAF based in Wagga Wagga. While there he played for local side the Kangaroos. In 1969 he was scouted by the great Arthur Summons. The legendary Western Suburbs Magpies playmaker immediately saw the potential in Raudonikis and sent him up to play with the Lidcombe-based team.

He played 202 games for the Magpies between 1969 and 1979, before playing with the Newtown Jets in 1980 and 1981.
Ultimately he fell short of winning a premiership. He played in finals twice with the Magpies – with the side finishing as minor premiers in 1978 before going out in straight sets.

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Joining the Newtown Jets in 1980, he played in his lone grand final in 1981, with his side going down 20-11 to the Eels.

It was in the representative arena where he really made his mark. He played 20 times for Australia in the last era where the international game was actually competitive. Raudonikis also played 24 games for NSW. However, all but one of those were in the pre-Origin era. Notably his last game in sky blue was as captain for State of Origin One, 1980.

While the Raudonikis name is synonymous with rugby league, and there is deep affection for the man in a large swathe of the fan-base – he has never been mentioned in conversations regarding immortal status. It is unlikely he ever will be due to the way he played the game.

People like his old Western Suburbs coach Roy Masters remember him as “Tom Terrific” – an indomitable force of nature.

Stories abound regarding his exploits on and off the field. Most of them involve things that you just couldn’t get away with today. Throwing Kangaroo room mate Steve Mortimer’s bag out the window over who got the queen bed is really hilarious, but how do you think it would go down now if DCE threw Nathan Cleary’s bag a few stories to the ground today?

I’m predicting it would result in the type of furore not seen since Jeremy Schloss and Julian O’Neill roomed together.

Could you even imagine the furore that would erupt if an Origin coach held a drunken bonding session, let alone led the charge on one as Tommy did when he was NSW coach?

In this era any coach seen to deliberately call for violence during a game would be vilified and ostracised. Yet Raudonikis’ famous “cattledog” call did exactly that.

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Even at a time when punching was still tolerated, that was seen as an ugly regression to a bygone time when brutal brawls – like between Manly and Newtown in 1981 – were commonplace.

As his old Western Suburbs teammate turned Manly rival, Les Boyd, told Fox League, Raudonikis in his playing days was at the forefront of deliberately starting fights.

Raudonikis believed that a side needed to get respect from their opponents by any means necessary. In his Q&A with Rugby League Week he was quite frank about how he achieved that end.

“I told the players ‘Guys don’t listen to a word he [Coach Warren Ryan] said. We are going to go out there and get some respect in the joint and make sure people will give us the time of day.’ Billy Noonan got sent off in the first five minutes and Mick Pittman got sent off in the 11th minute. We had 11 men and led [Canterbury] at halftime. Five minutes into the second half Steve Mortimer went off on a stretcher. He didn’t move. I got him a good ‘un. They ended up beating us but when we walked off the field that day everybody respected Newtown.”

It was thuggery, plain and simple.

And Raudonikis was unrepentant about it. “In the 1970s, it was not like the modern era. It was just a fantastic time. Footy was tough and sex was safe.”

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When Jim Coman’s turned up in 1982 and started handing out massive suspensions to the likes of Bob Cooper and Les Boyd it marked the beginning of the end of strategic thuggery and coincided with the end of Raudonikis’ playing days.

We have now got to the point that even the throwing of a sorely provoked punch will see a player in the sin bin.

Tommy Raudonikis was a passionate man who gave his all. He leaves this world as a very popular and beloved man. His unrepentant stance even garnered him an integrity with many of us who are mightily pleased that era of turgid and violent rugby league is long past.

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Further, experiences like the one my old ABC colleague Debbie Spillane shared this week show that Tommy wasn’t a total neanderthal by any stretch.

However, we must keep at front of mind that Raudonikis the player was not a saint. Tommy Raudonikis on the field could unquestionably be a thug and off it he could be pretty rough and loose too. But that’s who he was and he made no apologies for it.

Any actions to revise that truth will only undermine his legacy. And it is a very good bet that it would piss him right off too.

Update: This article and its headline were revised at the author’s request.