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The 12 days of a rugby league Christmas: from 'Matt Ridge in a pine tree' to 'eight players milking'

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Roar Guru
22nd December, 2023

It is Christmas time again and the end of another big year in rugby league. Some have been naughty – just ask the match review panel and judiciary – and others have been very nice, with both the NRL and NRLW crowning repeat premiers.

And now, with the 12 days of Christmas almost upon us, it is time for rugby league to give something back. Funny old song that.

If my ‘true love’ gave to me a partridge in a pear tree, I would raise an eyebrow.

If that was followed by another partridge and two turtle doves, some concerns would be brewing.

If after 12 days, I had received hundreds of birds, several milkmaids, pipers, dancers, lords and drummers, possibly against their will, I’d have contacted the authorities.

So, what if rugby league was a slightly unstable loved one and a prolific gift-giver, and Brendan Santi-Claus spent 12 days bestowing gifts upon us? Let us find out.

On the 12 days of Christmas, rugby league gave to me…


A Matt Ridge in a pine tree

Absolutely no disrespect to Matthew Ridge, the excellent custodian of the Sea Eagles and Warriors – it is just a play on his name and a reflection of the Norfolk Pines which dominate the Manly shore. Brookvale is even named after four of them these days.

Ridge is perhaps best known for having the stuffing beaten out of him by teammates Geoff Toovey and Owen Cunningham in his own documentary, which is an interesting interpretation of ‘turning the other cheek’, and for rising again during a particularly contentious passage of the 1996 grand final.

Two turtles at dummy half

Greg ‘Turtle’ Conescu was apparently so named because of his marked lack of speed, but he was no dove. The Brisbane Norths, Redcliffe and Broncos rake was a gritty, hard-nosed worker, and he gritted himself all the way to 10 Test appearances for the Kangaroos.


Alas, the Turtle did not win the race, as he was abruptly overtaken by Kerrod Walters at the Broncos in 1989, despite being the Test incumbent.

Three French tens

Back in 1951, rampaging French back rower Elie Brousse starred in Les Chanticleers’ 2-1 series victory over Clive Churchill’s Kangaroos, and by the end of the series Sydney clubs were falling over themselves trying to sign him. He would have been a fine gift for any club’s supporters.

While Brousse, who was probably the best ever French league player not named Puig Aubert, became known as ‘the Tiger of Sydney’ for his fearsome performance in the decisive victory at the SCG and was once photographed hugging a koala, had a few clubs in his time and generally won wherever he went – six French championships in total – he could not be tempted to stay down under.

Four calling birds

It has become evident that the only reason some rugby league supporters still listen to the commentary on the two rugby league TV broadcasters is so they have something to moan about, just in case the referee and/or bunker do not provide adequate fodder. But this could be overcome.

If you have a cantankerous rugby league supporter in your life, you might consider introducing them to ABC Grandstand’s excellent coverage, including the wise old owl, Andrew Moore, former Sea Eagle John Gibbs, the squawking laughter of Michael Carayannis and, best of all, the songbird, Dennis Carnahan of Rugby League: The Musical fame.


It would make a fine gift and might do the rest of us a favour as well.

Five Marvin Goldens on the wing

While he is far from a household name in Australia – unless you played some of the early rugby league video games in which he was useful for a Super League player – the delightfully named Marvin Golden was useful winger for four English teams.

He then morphed into a utility during Leeds’ run to the 1998 grand final against Wigan, though he did not make the grand final squad and Leeds lost.

How do you not pick a guy named Golden in a grand final?

Six Gleesons laying


Former Queensland and Australian representative John Gleeson would surely be on any shortlist of rugby league’s toughest players.

Gleeson was small, even for a half, and according to Steve Ricketts he was often “a marked man, [suffering] some horrendous head injuries at the hands of rivals who could not match his brilliance”.

Ricketts’ obituary of Gleeson after his death in 2021 includes accounts of three broken jaws, a fractured cheekbone, and a horrifying incident from the 1967 Brisbane Rugby League Grand Final.

Gleeson had six teeth knocked out by the forearm of a Norths forward, with “the ambulance man [throwing] his hands in the air in frustration when Gleeson refused to leave the field”.

Only once did he lay down, and it was in the infamous BRL grand final of 1966, won 9-6 by Norths over Gleeson’s Past Brothers.

As usual, Gleeson was a target, and he was duly taken out by Norths’ five-eighth Grant ‘Evil’ Mould in the 30th minute, suffering, you guessed it, a broken jaw.


Gleeson’s teammate, Dennis Manteit swore revenge, and took it, with Mould eventually waking up in hospital around 8pm that evening. But Manteit was sent off for his assault on ‘Evil’, and Brothers lost.

The Brethren, including a toothless Gleeson, did eventually get legitimate revenge over Norths in the following year’s grand final.

The moral of the story: I’m not sure.

Seven Swanns a-selling

If you are ever looking for a pad in the Auckland area, former Warrior and New Zealand international, Logan Swann might just be your man.

Since retiring in 2008, Swann has evidently carved out a successful career as a selling agent.

Probably best to avoid any unflattering remarks about estate agents around the big man, though.


Eight players milking

The holiday season is a time for reflection, and something recently occurred to me about the ‘greatest game of all’ (GGOA).

League has often looked on with haughty derision at the antics of its grandfather, association football, due to the latter’s proclivity for milking, diving, simulation, play-acting, whatever you want to call it.

The GGOA has some issues, but nothing like that, right?

As a devotee of both codes, I have got some bad news. Rugby league has dived all the way down to football’s level and shows few signs of reforming.

There are players who fall over shadows, those who fling themselves to the turf at the slightest contact, and others who writhe in agony after a tackle only to spring to their feet upon hearing the whistle.

Onlookers even hold up ten fingers imploring the referee to issue a sanction, just like a footballer brandishing an imaginary yellow card.


Admitting it is the first step, league fans.

Tamika Upton. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Nine ladies advancing

No matter which way you look at it – participation, talent development, gameplay at the elite level, crowds, television ratings, revenue growth and general buzz and awareness in the zeitgeist – women’s rugby league is going from strength to strength.

There is an argument to be had that the brilliant Tamika Upton is the best rugby league player in the land.

When the parameters of the new collective bargaining agreement were released earlier this year, including NRLW salary cap growth of more than 50 per cent over the forward estimates, I initially thought it might be a tad ambitious.

Not any longer, though – Upton and her peers are worth every cent; probably more.


Ten ‘Lord Teds’ leaping

‘Lord’ Ted Goodwin was described by Alan Whiticker and Glen Hudson as “wildly unpredictable but extraordinarily gifted” and the man who “scored one of the best tries seen in a grand final”.

That try, scored late in the first half of the 1977 grand final between St George and Parramatta, was certainly a beauty, though contrary to his role here, he lay dazed and prostrate in the aftermath having face-planted after grounding his own kick.

Eleven Panthers ‘peating

Penrith have moved into interesting territory. They have emulated the great Parramatta team of the 1980s with their third consecutive premiership and might yet come to be spoken of in the same breath as Souths in the 1920 and Easts in the 1930s.


I would argue they are already there – those great teams of yesteryear were semi-professional, played far fewer games and had nothing like a salary cap gradually eroding their champion rosters.

Eleven Panthers played in all three of their grand final wins to date, though only nine can now make it four – maybe only eight if Jarome Luai leaves early for Tiger Town.

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Twelve thumpers thumping

While rugby league might now be infested with divers and amateur thespians, there are still some genuinely thumping hits to be had.

The best of 2023 was surely Haumole Olakau’atu’s bone-jarring special on Melbourne’s Justin Olam at Brookvale.


Poor old Olam has not quite been the same since.

So, Merry Christmas rugby league supporters, and a happy New Year to all.