BRITISH Lions rugby league tours were the greatest thing on the international football stage in Australia up until the mid-1970s when our infatuation with ‘The Chooms’ as they were known, started to fade.
Britain’s fall from Ashes series winners to perennial losers was due to a whole host of reasons, the most obvious their unwillingness to accept that Australia was moving ahead in terms of professionalism.
The British thought they just had to yell down a coal shaft in Castleford or Wigan and up would come a pack capable of beating Australia.
In 1958 the British Lions were captained by 30-year-old shop keeper, Alan Prescott from St Helens and coached by Jim Brough from Workington Town.
The manager was Tom Mitchell, also from Workington, a bearded character who won many friends in the Australian media with his public relations skills.
Each week I will endeavour to cover the 1958 tour through his eyes, trying to imagine what this genial man made of one of the great football tours of all time, 21 matches in Australia and nine in New Zealand.
May 19, 1958: Our first taste of the Australian ‘bush’ was a trip south from Sydney to Wollongong where we met a strong Southern Division side.
Their forwards, particularly Denis Donoghue and Ern Curran, tried the rough stuff, but our men, led by Vince Karalius, were more than willing to accommodate them, particularly after our halfback, Frank Pitchford was felled in back play.
It was football the crowd of 10,673 came to see and they were often roused to applause by the dashing runs of our tall second rower, Dick Huddart.
Huddart; winger, Frank Carlton and winger, Mick Sullivan scored two tries each in the 36-18 win.
We were not surprised to learn, on our arrival back in Sydney, that coloured Southern Division second rower, Bruce Olive had been chosen in the New South Wales side to meet Queensland.
Olive, who I understand is one of six brothers from Casino, played strongly in the front row after starting as a second rower.
We were not amused to read that NSW president, Jersey Flegg had criticised our tackling style, no doubt putting local referees on high alert.
Mr Flegg, in a speech to the visiting Queensland side in Sydney, said they had no need to worry about dirty play from New South Wales.
“But watch out when you play Britain. Learn to duck now, or you will get your heads knocked off from stiff arm tackles,” said the man known as ‘Jersey’.
Obviously it was a case of get in first when we travelled to Orange for our next game against Western Division with their hooker, Ian Walsh biting our man, Alvin Ackerley in a scrum, while winger, Frank Carlton had his nose broken by a stiff arm.
Alvin had a piece of flesh ripped out near the thumb and it’s obvious Mr Walsh missed out on his usual steak meal before the match.
The referee was inefficient at best, and has to take the brunt of the blame for the brawl which erupted from the scrum and had the 5,000 locals screaming for our blood.
We did not play particularly well and with our star centre, Eric Ashton a virtual passenger with a hip injury and skilful forward, Brian McTigue nursing a broken thumb we were probably lucky to get away with a 24-24 draw.
Western Division fullback, Don Parish was on target with six shots at goal, three of them penalties.
Back in Sydney it was nice to be able to watch an ABC television replay of the English Challenge Cup final in which Wigan beat Workington 13-9 at Wembley.
The sides have provided four players each to our touring squad.
Our next match is against Newcastle, and we are told a crowd of 20,000 plus is expected.
THIS WEEK: Britain play their first game in Sydney after two more ‘up country’ clashes.