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The rugby league club graveyard: Balmain and the unhappy third merger (Part 10)

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Roar Guru
26th January, 2022
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This the tenth and final article in the series looking at the 17 rugby league clubs that have come and gone in the last 113 years.

Who were they, what happened to them, who were their best players, what legacy did they leave behind, and what did they achieve?

In the first nine parts we looked at all of the other clubs to go, including Western Suburbs, who disappeared when they merged with Balmain. Today we’ll look at the Balmain Tigers, the other victim of the NRL’s third merger.

Balmain entered the competition in 1908 and departed at the end of 1999.

They certainly had a far more impressive record than their ultimate merger partners, Western Suburbs. Although both clubs entered and left the league at the same time, Balmain won 11 premierships compared to Wests’ four, and they picked up only four wooden spoons compared to Wests’ 17.

The club was born at a public meeting in January 1908 when virtually the entire Balmain rugby union team switched codes. Their black-and-gold striped jerseys gave them their nickname of the Tigers, and they played their first game on 20 April 1908, defeating Western Suburbs 34-0 under the leadership of captain-coach Robert Graves, who went on to become the club’s first Australian representative.

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Success came relatively early to the Tigers, missing out on the finals in 1908, finishing runners-up to South Sydney in the disputed ‘forfeited’ final in 1909, suffered a setback in 1911 with their first wooden spoon, and they then took out three premierships on the trot in 1915, 1916 and 1917.

They had a hiccup in 1918 when Souths won the competition on a first-past-the-post basis, but they were back in the winners circle in both 1919 and 1920 with two more premierships. They won their sixth premiership four years later in 1924 when they defeated arch rivals South Sydney 3-0 thanks to a try by Balmain and NSW stalwart Reg Latta.

Balmain then went through a lean patch for the next decade or so before going close in 1936 only to go down 32-12 in the final against Dave Brown’s star-studded Eastern Suburbs side. They backed this up with success once again in 1939, finishing as minor premiers under coach Bill Kelly and defeating South Sydney 33-4 in the grand final on the same weekend that Germany invaded Poland. Souths held Balmain to a 7-2 lead at halftime before the Tigers ran away with the game in the second half, running in another six tries.

The 1940s turned out to be a golden era for the Tigers. They finished just out of the semi-finals in 1940 and then finished second on the ladder for the next three years without making it as far as the grand final. They finished second once again in 1944 but this time made it to the decider, defeating minor premiers Newtown in the final and then taking the points once again in the grand final when Newtown exercised their right to challenge.

The 1945 season saw Balmain finish as runners-up to the Roosters, and then they won back-to-back premierships in 1946 and 1947 – they defeated St George 13-12 in a spiteful and controversial grand final in 1946 and were too strong for Canterbury in the 1947 decider, winning 13-9 after a unique performance by star centre Joe Jorgenson. Jorgenson had spent almost the entire 1947 season playing for Junee in country NSW, returned to play a couple of reserve grade games for Balmain late in the season and then made his only first-grade appearance for the club that year in the grand final, scoring all 13 points for the Tigers.

Balmain then rounded out a very successful decade by finishing as runners-up to Wests in 1948 and making the semi-finals in 1949.

The 1950s were not so kind to the Tigers. They made the semi-finals just three times, and the closest they came to snaring another premiership was when they lost the grand final to St George 18-12 in 1956, the first of the Dragons’ 11 consecutive premierships.

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Balmain bounced back in the 1960s, making the semi-finals in 1960 under coach John O’Toole and then having a resurgence under the great Harry Bath, who coached the team between 1961 to 1966, making the semis four more times and finishing runners-up to St George in both 1964 and 1966.

Club legend Keith Barnes was captain-coach of the side in both 1967 and 1968 without success, and then the Tigers broke through for their 11th and final premiership in 1969 under rookie coach Leo Nosworthy. In what was a controversial match due to Balmain’s tactic of slowing the game down, the Tigers ran out winners over the much more fancied South Sydney team 11-2.

There wasn’t much for Balmain supporters to cheer about in the 1970s. Premiership-winning coach Leo Nosworthy couldn’t get them to the semi-finals during the rest of his tenure, and then former lower grade coach Alan Mason was handed the reins to the first-grade side in 1974 only to see them pick up their second wooden spoon, winning just two games that year.

Their final highlight for the decade was finishing fourth on the ladder under coach Ron Willey in 1977 only to be knocked out of contention by the Roosters in the semi-finals.

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The Tigers started the 1980s with another wooden spoon in 1981, but they then hit back with a vengeance. They had assembled an exceptional squad by then, with players of the calibre of Gary Jack, Larry Corowa, Steve Roach, Wayne Pearce, Tim Brasher, Benny Elias and Paul Sironen all representing Australia from the Tigers. They made the semi-finals in 1983, 1985 and 1986 under coach Frank Stanton, they did it again under Bill Anderson in 1987, and then Warren Ryan guided them to grand finals in both 1988 and 1989.

In 1988 they just scraped into the finals but then defeated Manly, Canberra and Cronulla to take their place in the decider against Canterbury-Bankstown. The game was memorable for a couple of reasons: that tackle by Canterbury’s Terry Lamb on Balmain star English import Ellery Hanley that effectively put Hanley out of the match and also the fact that it was Canterbury legend Steve Mortimer’s last game. Balmain were well in the contest at halftime, trailing by just two points at 10-8, but they couldn’t match Canterbury in the second half and eventually lost the game 24-12.

If the 1988 grand final was controversial, the 1989 decider was just as memorable for Tigers fans. Indeed it was one of the best grand finals ever.

Balmain finished third on the table and then easily accounted for both Penrith and South Sydney through to progress to the grand final against a relatively young Canberra side. The Raiders looked good in the first half but Balmain led 12-2 at the break.

The Tigers had a six-point lead well into the second half and failed to capitalise on a couple of opportunities to wrap the game up. Coach Warren Ryan controversially replaced Balmain forward leaders Steve Roach and Paul Sironen late in the match. Balmain hooker Benny Elias failed with two field goal attempts, one rebounding off the crossbar.

With just a minute left on the clock Raiders winger John Ferguson scored a try to take the game to extra time at 14 points all. The Raiders now had the momentum and went on to win their first premiership 19-14 after half Chris O’Sullivan kicked a field goal and Canberra front-rower Steve Jackson scored one of the most determined grand final tries ever in extra time.

Although they made the semis again in 1990, Balmain never really recovered from the disappointment of back-to-back grand final losses in 1988 and 1989, and they slipped out of contention, finishing second last in 1993 and picking up their fourth wooden spoon in 1994.

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Benny Elias

(Photo by Getty Images)

Fast-forward to the end of the 1999 season and Balmain were both struggling for success and financially limited off the field. Their star-studded line-ups of the 1980s were long gone, and they found it difficult to attract quality players in the post-Super League player market.

With the NRL looking to downsize in 2000, merging became a survival option for Balmain, and after first considering merging with Parramatta, the decision was made to join with fellow foundation club Western Suburbs to form the Wests Tigers. The Balmain Tigers were gone.

There were many legendary players who represented the Tigers over the years, including Keith Barnes, Dennis Tutty, Larry Corowa, Harry Bath, Bob Boland, Steve Roach, Arthur Holloway, Wayne Pearce, Keith Outten, Sid Goodwin, Bill Marsh, Joe Jorgenson, Jack Spencer, Garry Jack, Arthur Beetson, Peter Provan, Bobby Lulham, Tim Brasher, Arthur Patton, Reg Latta, Benny Elias, Paul Sironen – the list goes on.

Balmain Tigers facts

  • Winger Arthur Patton from the 1930s and 40s scored the most tries for the club, with 95 tries from 117 games.
  • Club legend and fullback Keith ‘Golden Boots’ Barnes tops the points list, scoring 1519 points.
  • Giant second-rower Paul Sironen played most games for the club, with 246 games over 14 seasons, just shading Gary Jack on 244 games.
  • Arthur ‘Pony’ Holloway was the club’s most successful coach, guiding the Tigers to four premierships in just five years at the helm.
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