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Of Giants, Rebels and sausage rolls: The Northern Rivers all stars

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Roar Guru
15th March, 2022
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When the Sydney Roosters opened their season at home to Newcastle on Saturday, their players were wearing unusual socks.

It was part of the club’s support for the Mullumbimby Giants of the Northern Rivers Rugby League who’ve been badly affected by the floods.

Mullumbimby’s ground is a beautiful spot, nestled amid the picturesque country on the edge of town, with the spectacular backdrop of Mount Warning to the north. It also backs on to the Brunswick River and, like many clubs, the Giants are dealing with the damage caused by floods along the east coast.

The Northern Rivers region has made a significant contribution to rugby league in Australia. Picking an all-stars team was a difficult task. Who to leave out? Some very good players were overlooked, even with an extended bench.

For the record, I played for the Marist Brothers Rams and won a premiership in under-14s. My contribution to that premiership, and Northern Rivers rugby league more broadly, was entirely forgettable.

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1. Brian Graham, South Grafton Rebels
Playing at Grafton was a chore. It meant a very early morning and a long drive. The Grafton Ghosts’ ground was like concrete, while McKittrick Park at South Grafton was literally a hole. The upside: South Grafton was home to the best sausage rolls in the land.

And what players South Grafton and their sausage rolls have produced. Graham is arguably the pick. He won five consecutive premierships with St George from 1957 to ’61 and was part of the unbeaten champions of ’59, representing New South Wales the same year.

2. Tom Mooney, South Lismore
Mooney won two premierships with Manly in the 1970s, scoring 18 tries on the way to the ‘76 title and Manly’s only try in the drawn grand final against Cronulla in ’78.

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3. Col Maxwell, Lismore
It’s not clear for whom Maxwell played during his early days in Lismore. He went on to play for St George and Wests in the 1940s and captained Australia on the 1948-49 Kangaroo tour.

Maxwell’s ascension to Kangaroos captain is one of the most bizarre and controversial affairs in rugby league’s long history of bizarre and controversial affairs. He certainly wasn’t there on merit, having been dropped by Wests and missing their grand final win in ’48.

Ian Heads’ book True Blue suggests that Maxwell was well-liked by administrators, while the incumbent captain and coach of the Kangaroos, Newtown’s Len Smith, was not, in part because of clashes about Australia’s performances against New Zealand earlier in the year. As a result, a Wests reserve grader led Australia to Britain and France, while Smith never played again.

4. Ken Nagas, Kyogle Turkeys
Kyogle’s finest played 142 games for Canberra and scored twice in their 1994 grand final victory over Canterbury. He also managed two Origins for NSW and five games for the Australian Super League team in 1997.

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5. John Ferguson, South Grafton Rebels
Ferguson is a part of grand final lore, having played in Newtown’s defeat in 1981, scored the try that thwarted Balmain in 1989 and crossed again in Canberra’s victory over Penrith in 1990. Along the way he played eight Origins and three Tests for Australia.

6. Cody Walker, Casino Cougars
Walker’s journey to stardom at Souths and Origin honours for NSW began at Casino. He’s evidently still involved with the Cougars, who’ve recently been recognised as one of rugby league’s best grassroots clubs.

Cody Walker (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

7. Kevin Stevens, South Grafton Rebels
Stevens completed an unusual transition, going from a halfback for South Grafton and Easts in his early days, to a back rower and occasional prop later in his career.

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He played lock for Easts in their famous 1975 grand final victory and second row for Parramatta in the 1981 grand final.

8. Danny Lee, Marist Brothers Rams
Reconciling my love of St George and admiration for Lee, Cronulla’s bruising prop of the same junior parish, wasn’t that hard. It was almost impossible to dislike the Cronulla team of Lee, David Peachey, Mitch Healey and co.

Lee returned to Lismore after his playing days and has been involved with Brothers ever since.

9. Elwyn Walters, Murwillumbah
I had the pleasure of meeting Walters a few years back. We discussed the virtues of rugby league – and retaining walls.

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Contemporary descriptions of Walters depict something like a highly skilled version of Brandon Smith. He played 21 Tests for Australia and won five premierships, three with Souths and two with Easts. After his playing days, he returned to the Northern Rivers to coach Mullumbimby.

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10. Frank Curran, Ballina Rovers
Curran moved to Souths from Ballina in 1931 and went on to win two premierships with the Rabbitohs and selection on two Kangaroo tours. He played alongside another Ballina boy, Jack Reardon, in Australia’s first ever Test against France, a 35-6 victory in Paris in January 1938.

11. George Green, Grafton
The versatile Green was part of Easts’ foundation team in 1908 and had a long career at Norths. He played in both of Norths’ premierships in 1921 and ’22 and was also a City Cup winner in ‘22. After retiring, Green became a successful coach in the Newcastle and Lismore competitions.

In 2008, the NRL established the George Green medal, an award for the outstanding Indigenous player in rugby league, though it’s possible the NRL might’ve honoured the wrong George Green.

12. Mitch Aubusson, Ballina Seagulls
Aubusson is a member of Ballina’s team of the century, alongside Curran and Jack Reardon. He was a loyal one-club man over 14 seasons and 306 games for the Roosters and was rewarded with three grand final victories.

Mitchell Aubusson

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

13. Vic Armbruster, Mullumbimby Giants
Armbruster came to prominence after moving to Toowoomba and was part of the great Queensland teams of the 1920s, with Jim Craig, Tom Gorman, Duncan Thompson and Jim Bennett. He played eight Tests for Australia and toured with the Kangaroos in 1929-30.

Coach: Brian Smith, Casino
Smith came to the attention of St George while playing for Casino in the early 1970s. He went on to become one of the game’s best and unluckiest coaches.

Bench
I’ve gone for an extended bench given there are so many fine players to choose from. These are just some of them.

Brian Kelly, James Roberts, Nick Meaney, Matt Riddle and Jack Reardon (Ballina), Daine Laurie Sr (Yamba Dolphins), Ray Laurie and Daine Laurie Jr (Lower Clarence), Matt King and Tony Smith (Casino), Nigel Roy, Shannon Walker and Will Matthews (Kyogle), Paddy Bugden and Andrew King (Marist Brothers), Jack Gosiewski (Mullumbimby), Peter Boulton, Danny Wicks and Jimmy Lisle (Grafton), Brian Battese (South Lismore).

Special mention: John Archibald, Marist Brothers, Ballina and Lennox Head Dolphins
Archibald moved to the Northern Rivers after playing for Parramatta in 1972 where he’s credited with having pioneered the around-the-corner goal-kicking method. He was also my high school maths teacher and did a very good job, despite my limited abilities.

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