League Historian, David Middleton has confirmed to me that Saddler was the first indigenous footballer to captain New South Wales – in 1967 – six years before Arthur Beetson became the first indigenous footballer to captain Australia.
Saddler toured England and France with the 1967-68 Kangaroos, but did not play a Test, largely due to ill health and injury, and was restricted to 12 games from a possible 27.
Originally from the Riverina, Saddler was recruited by Murwillumbah Brothers for the 1961 Tweed District Season and played a huge role in the club’s maiden premiership under the coaching of Englishman, Bert Holcroft.
Saddler had one more season with Brothers, winning another title, before heading to Easts in Sydney with teammate, Cliff Boyd.
In ’67 he starrred in NSW’s 14-8 win over Queensland in the first match of the inter-state series at the SCG, and was heralded as a major ‘discovery’ after getting a call-up following the scratching of Test ace, Reg Gasnier.
The legendary Johnny Raper captained the Blues that day, but Saddler was given the reins for the return match in Sydney when a young Ron Coote was preferred at lock to Raper.
That NSW team included the likes of Graeme Langlands, Bob Fulton, Ron Costello and triple international (league, union and athletics), Mike Cleary.
The Blues prevailed again, this time 28-9, although Queensland’s Kiwi centre, (yes, you read correctly), Reg Cooke kept Saddler quiet.
Saddler’s former Easts teammater, Kevin Junee, another ’67-68 Kangaroo, said Saddler got the nod as Blues captain in ’67 because he was respected by teammates and opponents alike.
“It was a huge honour for Ron to have the (c) beside his name, especially when you look at the calibre of some of his teammates,” Junee said.
When I refer to Saddler as a forgotten Indigenous star, I certainly don’t mean that Easts, now the Sydney Roosters, don’t acknowledge the service he gave to the club from 1963 until 1972.
But he is rarely mentioned when famous indigenous players from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are listed, with the likes of Beetson, Lionel Morgan, Kevin Yow Yeh, Larry Corowa and Steve Ella invariably hogging the limelight.
I played against Ron in 1973 when he returned to the Tweed and signed with Murwillumbah (High School) Old Boys alongside another international, Peter Dimond. Both men were in the veteran category at that stage, but they hit as hard as ever.
Ron, or ‘Sooty’ as he was affectionately known (politically incorrect, I know) was my captain-coach at Murwillumbah Brothers in 1975, although my time under him was all too brief, with work taking me elsewhere before the season proper got underway.
Ron was always nature’s gentleman, although try telling that to opponents he hit with his trademark driving tackles. Saddler was a fine attacking player, but his defence was exceptional.
Unfortunately Ron has not been in the best of health and resides in a retirement home at Murwillumbah where old Brothers teammates and Men of League members visit him regularly.
It is 50 years since Saddler took the big step and moved to Sydney, and back in the ’60s that was a huge gamble for indigenous players, more so than now.
He stayed for the long haul and will go down as one of Easts all time greats, and certainly deserves to be widely mentioned as an Indigenous All Star.