2021 was both a year to remember and a year some of us will want to forget. But before it’s too far gone, let’s take some time to remember some of the rugby league greats who left us for good in 2021.
If you missed Part 1, have a read now.
Back in the day when rugby league hookers worked for a living, when scrums were not for the faint-hearted, and the game was often all-out war, there were none better or tougher than Fred Jones. He was a Manly stalwart through and through, playing over 240 games for the club between 1961 and 1975, a remarkable feat for a player who never left anything on the paddock.
In what was a star-studded Manly team boasting the likes of Bob Fulton, Malcolm Reilly, John O’Neill and Graham Eadie, it was Jones who lead the club to their first two premierships in 1972 and 1973, after they finished runners up in both 1968 and 1970.
In an era when nearly every club had a top-flight hooker, Jones was good enough to also represent both NSW and Australia. He played in Games 2 and 3 for NSW in the 1968 interstate series, Game 1 in 1969, and Game 3 in the 1973 series. For Australia, he played in three games in the 1968 World Cup, including the final won by Australia 20 points to 2.
Fred Jones passed away in March 2021.
Noonan was not only a tough and skilful front rower, but also a pioneer on a number of levels.
He was the first international player signed by Canterbury Bankstown’s Peter Moore when he went from local newsagent to club supremo in 1969, the first Kiwi to come to Australia following the lifting of the NZRL’s ban on players crossing the Tasman, and the first New Zealand player to appear in a grand final in the NSWRFL when he packed down in the Bulldogs’ front row with Brian Lockwood and George Peponis against the Roosters in 1974.
Noonan’s career began with Christchurch’s Linwood Keas club and his first taste of the big time came when selected at the age of 18 to play for the Canterbury region against the touring Australian team in 1965. He was in the New Zealand team to tour Australia two years later and then joined the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs in 1970, going on to play over 160 games for the club over the next nine years.
John Singleton lured him to the Newtown Jets in 1979, where he was part of a brief resurgence for the club under coach Warren Ryan, and he then retired at the end of 1980 with nearly 200 first grade appearances under his belt. Although one of the best forwards to come out of New Zealand in that era, he surprisingly only played a handful of Tests for his country.
Bill Noonan passed away in December 2021.
Tim Pickup OAM
When I look through Tim Pickup’s career, I’m left wondering what could have been but for his chronic knee injury which limited his first grade performances to less than 100 games across eight years.
Originally a Western Suburbs junior, he switched to playing rugby union for Manly when his family relocated to Seaforth in his mid-teens. He then headed to England for a few years on a working holiday and ended up playing rugby league for Blackpool, where his talents first came under notice.
Several Sydney clubs had their eye on Pickup and he was signed by North Sydney in 1972. He went on to play 52 games for the Bears over the next three years, earning their player of the year award in both 1973 and 1974.
1972 also saw him selected for NSW at five-eighth for Game 1 of the interstate series, and then he backed that up by gaining selection for Australia in the two-Test series against NZ. He played in Game 2 of the 1973 interstate series and then in four Tests that year, including one against France as halfback. He played a further two games for NSW the following year, as well as the third Test against England.
In 1975, Pickup headed to Canterbury, where he captained the side from halfback, and they started the year well. He was selected for NSW once again and also for Australia, but his season came to a crashing halt when he suffered a severe knee injury in the game against England at the end of June, and that same injury not only kept him out for the entire 1976 season, but virtually put an end to his representative career.
He made it back onto the paddock in 1977 but was still very much limited by his injury, and hovered between first and second grade, appearing in just one first grade game in 1979 and playing his last game for the club in the second grade grand final that year.
After retiring from the game, Pickup was the inaugural CEO of the Adelaide Rams during the Super League war, served as a Bulldogs Board member for many years, and managed world champion boxer, Jeff Harding. He will be remembered not only as a great player, but also as a wonderful mentor of the younger players around him.
Tim Pickup passed away in June 2021.
Norm Provan is a rugby league Immortal, was a giant of the game in every respect, and arguably the most successful rugby league player of all time. He played for 15 seasons, making the semi-finals in every one of them, won ten consecutive premiership with St George, the last four as captain-coach, and his records will surely never be equalled.
Provan was born in the NSW Riverina, went to school in the North Sydney district, and trialled unsuccessfully with Eastern Suburbs before joining St George in 1950 from the Sutherland juniors. What were Eastern Suburbs thinking?
He made first grade in 1951 at the age of 18 and never looked back, going on to play a then-record 256 games for the club in his career.
Provan’s incredible club career sometimes overshadows his representative achievements, but he was one of the best players for both NSW and Australia during this era. He played 20 games for NSW between 1954 and 1961, losing only three.
He was also virtually an automatic selection for the Australian side between 1954 until his retirement from international football in 1960, playing 18 Tests and losing only six, and his formidable back row partnership with Kel O’Shea in the mid-to-late ’50s was one of the best that the game has seen.
O’Shea said of Provan: “One of the worst to play against, one of the best to play alongside.”
Norm Provan was a born leader, but never sought the limelight. He was a courageous player who lead by example, made the hard yards with the ball and set the standard in defence. He was a professional before such a thing existed in rugby league, and his mere presence on the paddock was often enough to get his team home.
Provan retired from playing at the end of the 1965 season and then dabbled in coaching every now and then as his business interests allowed. He coached St George as far as the preliminary final in 1968, and then took the Eels to the semi-finals in 1975. His last coaching stint was with Cronulla in the 1978 and 1979 seasons, where he guided the Sharks to the grand-final in 1978 and as far as the major semi-final in 1979.
Norm Provan passed away in October 2021.
Tommy Raudonikis OAM
Tommy Raudonikis was not only one of the best players to play the game, but also one of its larger-than-life characters, and a bit of a larrikin. In a career spanning 15 years, he played nearly 250 games, and all of them were contested for the full 80 minutes while ever Tommy was on the field.
Originally hailing from Wagga Wagga, he made his first grade debut for Western Suburbs as a 19-year-old in 1969, and adapted to life in the top grade very quickly. Wests were a club of battlers in the late ’60s and ’70s, and no one battled harder than Raudonikis.
He soon came to the attention of the representative selectors and was picked to play five-eighth alongside Billy Smith for NSW in Game 3 of the 1971 interstate series, beginning a long career for NSW, playing a total of 22 games for his state, and culminating in captaining his state, and scoring a try, in the very first Origin match in 1980.
He was selected for Australia in 1972, the same year that he won the Rothmans Medal, and was one of the first players picked for Australia over the next nine years, playing a total of 31 Tests, and winning over 77 per cent of them.
Raudonikis’ playing style could best be described as relentless and fearless, and he had no hesitation in mixing it with the biggest players in the opposition. He was a great leader on the field, and the Western Suburbs players happily followed his example in making life as unpleasant as possible for the opposition.
His leadership role continued when he transferred to Newtown in 1980, after 11 years with Wests. He was just to type of leader Newtown coach Warren Ryan was looking for, to roll out the club’s in-your-face defensive playing style.
It was with Newtown in 1981 that Raudonikis got as close as he would ever come to winning a premiership, when Newtown made it to the grand final after battering Manly into submission in the major semi-final and then accounting for Easts in the preliminary final.
Tommy scored a try early in the second half to put the Jets into the lead, but in the end the classy Eels backline carried the day, and ran out winners 20 points to 11, to take home their first premiership.
Tommy had one more year with Newtown in 1982 and then headed north to the Brisbane Brothers club to begin his coaching career. He then spent time as coach with both the Ipswich Jets and Norths (Brisbane) before heading back to where it all began, to the Western Suburbs Magpies, where he was their coach from 1995 until 1999, when Wests left the NRL after merging with Balmain.
During this period, he also coached his beloved NSW team in the Origin series in both 1997 and 1998, two series where no quarter was asked for, and none given.
Tommy Raudonikis passed away in April 2021.
Barry Reilly wasn’t just small by today’s standards for a forward, he wouldn’t be as big as most modern halves, but boy could he play football! He played over 200 first grade games in his 13-year career, all but seven with the Roosters, never took a backward step and was one of the most effective defenders of his era.
An Eastern Suburbs junior, Reilly came into first grade in 1967, and played through the Roosters’ dark days where defeats were far more numerous than victories, but Reilly just got on with the job. Nicknamed ‘The Axe’, in deference to his scything defence, Reilly played well above his weight, but as far as he was concerned, the bigger they were, the harder they fell.
His hard work and loyalty were eventually rewarded in 1974 when the Roosters under Jack Gibson broke through for their first premiership in 30 years, defeating the Bulldogs 19 points to 4. What a lopsided second row the Roosters had that day, with the 80-kilogram Barry Reilly on one side, and big Arthur Beetson on the other side at 115 kilos.
Reilly played off the bench the following year for his second premiership when the Roosters demolished the Dragons and retired at the end of 1979, staying connected with the Roosters in a coaching capacity.
Barry Reilly passed away in May 2021.
Brian Staunton wasn’t a household name but he was a solid first grade performer during his seven-year career. Staunton began his first grade career with Manly in 1952 and played 25 first grade games in his three-year career with the Sea Eagles.
He transferred to the Balmain Tigers in 1955 and they finished out of the top four in seventh place. 1956 saw him replace international forward Bill Marsh as captain, and he led Balmain to second place on the ladder and a grand final shootout with St George.
Staunton hadn’t fully recovered from a Clive Churchill high tackle the previous week, and although below his best, scored Balmain’s only two tries as they pushed the Dragons right to the end to be defeated by 18 points to 12.
He captained the Tigers again the following season without success, and was then replaced as captain by the returning Bill Marsh in 1958, which was his last season in first grade.
Brian Staunton passed away in November 2021
There was no shortage of quality halfbacks in the mid-’60s and mid-’70s, and Dennis Ward could hold his own in any company. He had all the skills you’d expect from a halfback and also had great pace and acceleration that often left defenders floundering in his wake. He was one of the great running halfbacks.
A Canterbury-Bankstown junior, Ward made his first grade debut with the Bulldogs as a 17-year-old in 1964, and played 26 games for the Bulldogs over the next four years before transferring to Manly for better opportunities.
He hit his straps on the Northern Beaches and went on to play 80 games for the club over the next five seasons, the highlight of which was his man of the match performance in Manly’s first ever premiership title in 1972.
Ward also featured on the representative front, playing six games for NSW between 1969 and 1973, as well as two Tests for Australia in 1969 when he partnered Souths’ Dennis Pittard in the halves, and four World Cup games in 1972 when he teamed up with Manly teammate Bob Fulton.
Ward was the first Canterbury-Bankstown junior to represent Australia.
He left Manly at the end of 1972 and had three seasons in the Newcastle competition with the Western Suburbs club. His form remained impressive enough to be selected from the Newcastle competition to represent NSW in Games 1 and 2 of the 1973 interstate series, with Tom Raudonikis his halves partner in the first game and Tim Pickup in the second.
He was then selected for the 1973 Kangaroo Tour, but did not feature in any Tests.
Once he retired from the game Dennis Ward spent some time as both coach of Wynnum-Manly in the Brisbane competition and as the QRL Coaching Director.
Dennis Ward passed away in December 2021.
Sad to see so many champions gone, but wouldn’t they make a wonderful team? Something like this:
1. Tim Pickup
2. Harry Cameron
3. Bob Fulton
4. Peter Dimond
5. Kevin Dann
6. David Bolton
7. Tom Raudonikis
8. Bill Noonan
9. Fred Jones
10. Robin Gourley
11. Dick Huddart
12. Norm Provan (c)
13. Barry Reilly