In the modern game, the fullback position is just about the most important role on the field.
Fullbacks are responsible for sparking the attack as a second pivot, chiming into sweep plays to put wingers over in the corner, taking and returning kicks, pulling off tackles as a last line of defence, and organising the defensive structure of the players in front of them.
I guess that’s why they demand the big bucks. Every team needs a real gunslinger wearing the number one jersey if they want to play finals football, and fullbacks like James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Clint Gutherson are now the superstars of the game.
Fullbacks didn’t always enjoy this level of stardom though, as the role was predominantly a defensive one until more recent times. Fullbacks just needed to be able to tackle, catch the kicks, return them with interest, and occasionally chime into the backline to make the extra man.
Clive Churchill was probably the first to raise the profile of the number one jersey, but he was before my time, so I want to talk about two other champion fullbacks who left an indelible mark on the game – Les Johns and Eric Simms.
Newcastle produced two of the greatest fullbacks in the history of the game. One was the Immortal Clive Churchill, and the other was the mercurial Les Johns from the South Newcastle club, who would probably have come under consideration for Immortal status but for injuries continually interrupting his career.
Johns joined Canterbury Bankstown from Newcastle in 1963, having already represented NSW Country seconds in 1961 as a 19 year old, and NSW in 1962, and he spent his entire career at Belmore.
He was an immediate sensation in the Sydney competition, made the Australian team in his debut season, and was virtually an automatic selection for both NSW and Australia throughout his career, subject to fitness.
To illustrate his standing in the game, when he was available, he was generally the first choice fullback ahead of fellow greats in Keith Barnes, Ken Thornett, and Eric Simms, while future Immortal Graeme Langlands played at centre in order to include Johns in the team.
Johns was diminutive by any standard, being only 170cm tall and playing at around 70 kgs, and he played well above his weight.
He never held back with the ball in hand and was the best defensive fullback in the game in the 1960’s. Totally fearless. He regularly ran down opposition speedsters who thought they were away for a try, and his covering tackle on Balmain’s electrifying winger Kevin Yow Yeh in 1966 was one of the best of all time.
In attack, he was the complete package. He could return the ball from deep in his own territory, use his blistering acceleration to break through the ruck, and had the ball skills to put supporting players into the clear.
He also had a great kicking game in general play, and was a very good goal kicker, landing 233 goals and 19 field goals for Canterbury Bankstown in his 103 first grade games for the club.
Canterbury were always alive when Johns was on the field, as he was never beaten. Opposition fans knew that at any minute he could produce something out of the box to turn the game in his team’s favour.
Injuries unfortunately limited Johns’ career, and to illustrate, he played an average of just over 11 games per season across his nine year career with the Bulldogs, before retiring from the game at the end of 1971 due to ongoing knee injuries.
There’s been some great fullbacks play the game since I began watching rugby league in the 1960s, but none better than Les Johns.
Les Johns – some career highlights and milestones:
• 103 games for Canterbury-Bankstown, scoring 545 points.
• 14 tests for Australia, scoring 66 points
• 16 games for NSW scoring 165 points
• Rugby League Hall of Fame inductee
• 1968 NSWRL player of the year
• 1969 Sun Herald best and fairest award winner
• Two Kangaroo tours
• 1967 Clive Churchill Medal winner, in a losing side
• Named in the Newcastle Team of the Century (1908 – 2007)
• Named in the Team of the 60s in 2006
• Named in the Berries to Bulldogs 70 year Team of Champions in 2004
• Canterbury-Bankstown Hall of Fame inductee
• Life member of the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs
Eric Simms was yet another product of the Hunter region, growing up in Karuah and playing football for Raymond Terrace High before making his way to La Perouse in Sydney’s south in 1964 as a 19 year old.
Just twelve months later, at the age of 20, he found himself lining up in South Sydney’s three quarter line in the grand-final against St George in front of 78,000 fans. Souths lost that day, but Simms would go on to play in another five grand-finals, winning four of them.
Eric Simms was certainly one of the greatest goal kickers of all time and could land them from anywhere, using the old and heavy leather ball and without the aid of a kicking tee.
He was also the greatest field goal kicking exponent in the game, landing nearly 90 drop goals in his career, and his expertise was largely responsible for the value of the field goal being reduced to just one point in 1971.
Simms’ ability with the boot played a key role in South’s dominance in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and in the five years from 1967 to 1971, he scored an incredible 1,137 points. His point-scoring ability was genuinely feared by opposition fans.
Eric Simms career, was to a large extent, defined by his point scoring feats, but that doesn’t quite tell the full story, as he was also a very good footballer, and he had the skills to hold is own in the star-studded South Sydney backline.
While his representative opportunities were limited due to strong competition from other great fullbacks of his era in Les Johns, Graeme Langlands, Ken Thornett and Keith Barnes, he made the most of any opportunities that came his way.
He played all four games and scored 50 points in Australia’s 1968 World Cup victory, but perhaps the defining moment in his career for me came two years later in the 1970 World Cup when he was a late replacement at fullback following injury to Graeme Langlands.
I remember watching the final of that series, when Australia narrowly defeated Great Britain 12-7, in a game that could best be described as open warfare, and my opinion of Simms changed for all time that night.
Although heavily targeted by the opposition, Simms didn’t flinch or take a backward step, and put in one of the most courageous performances that I’ve seen on a football field. What a performance! What a player!
Eric Simms – some career highlights and milestones:
• 206 games for South Sydney, scoring 1,841 points
• Four premierships – 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971
• Seasons top point scorer – 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1970
• Eight tests for Australia, scoring 87 points
• Two winning Word Cup campaigns
• One game for NSW, scoring 14 points
• 1968 Clive Churchill Medal winner
• 1968 Daily Telegraph Player of the Year
• Named in the Indigenous Team of the Century in 2008
• South Sydney life member