When rugby league fans talk about ‘what might have been’, the name Terry Saunders quickly springs to mind.
Chosen for the Queensland State of Origin side in 1981, the Wynnum-Manly star’s career flat-lined, to the extent he spent an off-season in England with battling Blackpool Borough, before a stint in Alice Springs with the Todd Tavern Bears.
Saunders had lightning fast acceleration, a good football brain and solid defence. He was particularly dangerous from the scrum base.
At a time when former Test halfback, Greg Oliphant was coming to the end of his career, and Mark Murray and Ross Henrick were vying for Queensland honors, Saunders emerged as the Maroons’ answer to New South Wales’ dynamic Test halfback, Steve Mortimer.
Queensland selector, Jack Reardon liked what he saw from Saunders in a match for Wynnum against Wests, and the then 22-year-old was chosen for the stand-alone State of Origin match against New South Wales, to be played 48 hours later, on July 28, at Lang Park.
NSW had won both matches, played under residential rules earlier in the year, which meant an Origin game was to be played, in the absence of the need for a decider. It wasn’t until the following season that the best-of-three Origin series concept was introduced.
Saunders had hurt his shoulder in the match against Wests, but hoped against hope that he could bluff his way through the Origin medical. This wasn’t to be, and Norths’ Ross Henrick was chosen as the replacement halfback. Saunders had already represented Brisbane, South Queensland and City, but that was to be as close as the Texas product got to Origin representation.
In 1982 he missed out on Wynnum’s inaugural Brisbane grand final win because of an injury he received just before the finals series, opening the way for Illawarra product, Peter Dawes to become the Seagulls’ top halfback.
Saunders, a butcher by trade, had found his way to Wynnum, via Clifton-Allora Wattles in the Toowoomba competition, and then Nerang, in the Gold Coast League.
In 1981, he and Townsville Souths’ product, Tony Kambouris formed a lethal halves partnership for Wynnum, helping take the club to the preliminary final of the Brisbane competition.
Working in butcher shop at Wynnum North, Saunders was a popular local figure. One could go as far as to say, he was the club’s glamour player, particularly popular with female fans.
The early ’80s were his glory days.
A fly-in fly-out miner, Saunders lives at Yeppoon, and to this day wonders what might have been, if he had played in that Origin match, which Queensland won 22-15, with centre, Chris Close the man of the match.
“I was walking outside Suncorp Stadium with (1981 Origin fullback) Colin Scott one day, looking down at the plaques with the names of all the Origin players, and ‘Scotty’ said, ‘Your’s should be here somewhere, Terry. Oh. That’s right, you got ruled out at the medical.’
“I had heard something pop when someone fell on me in that game against Wests (the day the Origin team was named). One of the selectors (Reardon) came into the sheds and asked if I would be all right, and I said it wouldn’t be a problem.
“I was having dinner at the leagues club that night, and the place was packed. They read out the team, and number 6 was Wally Lewis. Then they said, ‘Number 7’ and there was a long pause, before they said: ‘Terry Saunders’.
“I thought ‘wow’, ‘I’ve made it’, The atmosphere in the club was amazing. I went straight home to ice the shoulder. I had a water bed, and the next morning I couldn’t get out of it, because of the pain in the shoulder.
“I tried to get an injection, but the club doctor said that would do more harm than good. So I went to the medical, hoping I might be able to pass, but I couldn’t do even one push-up. The funny thing is, I missed only one club game because of the injury. In this day and age when the team is named 10 days before the game, I might have been right.”
Saunders had joined Wynnum, from Nerang, in 1980 at the urging of former Wynnum player, Neville ‘Hornet’ Hornery, a Nerang teammate, and ex Sydney Wests, Canterbury and Wynnum forward.
“Nerang had a star studded team – ex-Cronulla players, Ron Turner and Chris Wellman; Queensland winger, Ian Dauth and Chris Ryan, who played first grade with Brothers in Brisbane, were some of the players,” Saunders recalls.
“They were ambitious. They held their presentation night at Sea World, with Billy J Smith as the compere. They owed me $1,500 for the season, but said they would only pay me, if I signed for 1980.
“‘Hornet’ wasn’t having any of that, so he took me to Wynnum.”
Although Wynnum finished second last that year, Saunders played well enough to be selected at halfback in a Brisbane rep. side.
In 1981, Saunders played for City against Country, and also for South Queensland against a Papua New Guinea Presidents XIII, scoring two tries against the PNG side.
That South Queensland team was captained by Arthur Beetson and included Mal Meninga, Gene Miles, Chris Close, Norm Carr, Chris Phelan and Rohan Hancock. In the early match, between City and Country, Ross Henrick was halfback and Mark Murray five eighth for City, with Henrick getting his chance after the late withdrawal through injury of 1979 Australian Schoolboys’ star, Craig McAlpine.
After the disappointment of missing out on Origin in ’81, Saunders watched as Mark Murray consolidated his hold on the Queensland number 7 jumper in ’82, to the extent that Murray went on the Kangaroo tour of Britain and France at the end of the season, with Mortimer and Peter Sterling the other halfbacks in the 28 man squad.
Saunders’ focus was on winning a premiership with Wynnum, but an injury just before the finals, saw Peter Dawes get the start for the grand final, which Wynnum won 17-3 against Souths, with Dawes scoring one of Wynnum’s three tries.
The next two years are something of a blur for Saunders, who failed to hit the heights of his first two seasons in Brisbane.
When he returned to Brisbane in 1985, after his Blackpool stint, he worked for a butcher at Sunnybank, on Brisbane’s southside.
He essentially faded from view after that, until ‘The Courier-Mail’ tracked him down to Alice Springs, where he was playing club football with another former Wynnum player, Mal Green, an Oakey product, who had been signed by the Brisbane Broncos, as their hit man forward for their inaugural season in the NSWRL in 1988.
“I didn’t sign with anyone in ’85, and just played touch down at Redlands,” Saunders said. “Then the publican of the Point Lookout Hotel on Stradbroke Island, asked me if I wanted to earn $10,000 playing in the bush.
“I thought he meant somewhere in New South Wales or Queensland, but he meant Alice Springs, where he had the Todd River Tavern. I was reluctant at first, but they flew me out there, and I liked the place, so I played in ’86, and then I coached the following year, when I got Mal Green to come out, for $500 a game.
“He wasn’t very big, had a long beard and long hair, and people wondered what the club had done. But he was every bit as good a tackler as Trevor Gillmeister, and that’s why the Broncos wanted him. There were some big front rowers out there (Alice Springs) who were trying to get a sidestep when Mal showed what he could do.”
Saunders had one final season with Burleigh in 1988, and that was it for his rugby league career.
I suppose you could say Terry was one of my ‘favorites’ in my early days as a league writer at the ‘Telegraph’. I just thought he had that X factor, and could be anything. The last article I recall writing about him, appeared in the first ‘Rugby League News’ (program) for the 1985 Brisbane competition. Saunders had recently arrived back in Queensland from the UK, and was undecided about his future.
The production of the Brisbane match program had fallen into private hands – Sunshine Sports Publications, run by Gerry Dick and George O’Rourke. Previously the program was published by the League itself, and from 1981 to ’84, I had been the main contributor, with payment coming from the coffers of the QRL’s South East Division.
When private enterprise took over, Dick and O’Rourke solicited a host of contributors, paying them for the articles that were published, rather than a flat fee for the editorial content. It was always going to end badly, because, anyone hoping to make money from a football program, sold only at four grounds in Brisbane, is a supreme optimist.
Advertising for that first program came from the likes of Gambaro’s Seafood; Brothers Leagues Club at Grange; Northpoint Nissan and the Telegraph (afternoon) newspaper, where I was the chief rugby league writer, with Bruce Ruddy my off-sider.
I contributed three feature articles to that very first program of 1985 – one a Flashback to the 1975 season, and the other two, profiles on Saunders and Wynnum teammate, Gene Miles. I also submitted a number of ‘Around The Clubs’ briefs.
The main thrust of my interview with Saunders was his off-season stint with English club, Blackpool Borough, who were coached by former Leigh player, Tommy Dickens.
Saunders; Valleys’ hooker, Terry Koorockin and Bob Tucker (Woy Woy) were the three Australians on the books at the seaside club, which was known as, appropriately enough, ‘The Seasiders’. Blackpool prop, Scotsman, Hugh Waddell would go on to play for Great Britain, on their 1988 tour of Australia.
Saunders said Blackpool trained hard, but there was very little science attached to what they did, and the only real ball work was a game of touch.
“Because they didn’t have a reserve grade team, they had a squad of about 30 players, and instead of announcing the team at training, they would wait until the players were on the bus, going to the game,” Saunders said. “Probably our most satisfying win was against first division side, Oldham in the Lancashire Cup.” (Hugh Waddell scored two tries in this game, and ultimately joined Oldham).
“Terry (Koorockin) and I were about the only players actually living in Blackpool. The rest came from nearby towns and cities, especially Wigan. When we first arrived, we didn’t know this, and after our first game, we hopped on the team bus, which took all the players to a pub, where we had a big night.
“When Terry and I rolled out about 1 a.m, to catch a cab, the driver had never heard of the street we lived in. We thought we were still in Blackpool, but in fact we were in Wigan. No-one at the club bothered to say the bus was going to Wigan, and do your best after that.”
Koorockin tired of the Blackpool stint pretty quickly, and was determined to get free time to go to Spain. So in a match at Huddersfield, he did his best to get sent off.
“He took the head off this Huddersfield prop, and got 10 in the bin,’ Saunders said. “I reckon he jumped four feet in the air to get him. When he came off the (club) directors, had a shot at him, telling him what he did was stupid. When he went back out he belted the same prop, and this time got send off for good, and copped a long suspension. ‘I told you I was going to Spain’, he said to me”.
Blackpool were admitted to the RFL in 1954, after a 600 strong supporters’ club had been formed the previous year. The record attendance was 22,000 for a Challenge Cup quarter final against Leigh in 1957, with the match played at Bloomfield Road, the home ground of Blackpool FC. The biggest attendance in 1984-85 was 1,036, for a match against Salford.
The soccer club’s record attendance was 39,118 for a match against Manchester United in Division 1 in 1952. In the decade after World War II Blackpool became a force in English football and appeared in three FA Cup finals in six years, winning 4-3 over Bolton in a classic in 1953.
My wife, Marie and I went to Blackpool in October, 1977, to see ‘The Lights’ – the ‘Blackpool Illuminations’. That’s another story.
Back to the program:
My ‘Around the Clubs’ items included:
– Brothers Leagues had appointed former Rosalie Marist Brothers First XV captain, Paul Stirling as leagues club secretary/manager;
– Wally Lewis dined with top Australian entertainer, Jon English. English, a Parramatta fan, sought out ‘The King’ for the get-together.
– Former Brisbane Wests and Toowoomba Clydesdales’ coach, Don Oxenham had turned his hand to sports writing for the Toowoomba Chronicle;
– Wests’ president, Ron Raper rated the playing surface at Cudgen Headland’s ground at Kingscliff, the equal of Lang Park, if not better. Wests had played a trial there.
All gripping stuff, eh!
Other contributors to the program were Dennis Watt (now chairman of Gold Coast Titans); David Falkenmire; Jack Craig; Bruce Ruddy and Andrew Dawson.
Those interviewed included QRL chairman, Ron McAuliffe; Brothers’ president, Frank Melit; Souths’ coach, Wayne Bennett; Brisbane Junior League president, Jim Lawrie and Brothers’ fitness trainer, Rob Moore, the current QRL managing director.
Random team selections from that program: BROTHERS: Sunshine Coast products, Tim Dwyer and Gary Smith; WESTS: Kevin Langer and Steve Weiss in the halves; WYNNUM: Bob Lindner and Craig Farrugia on the bench; EASTS: Larry Brigginshaw at lock, James Sandy on the bench; REDCLIFFE: Trevor Benson and Bryan Niebling in the second row; VALLEYS: Ziggy Strasser and Peter Coyne in the centres; SOUTHS: Peter Lehman and Wayne Cullen in the halves; NORTHS: Peter Blackadder and Gordon Reid on the bench.
The under-18 sides included the likes of Mark Coyne, Brook Kennedy, Ray Herring, Craig Grauf and Graham Strutton. Former Qld Origin forward, Paul Khan was coach of Redcliffe under-18s.
Unfortunately, Terry Saunders name was not to appear in the BRL team lists, ever again.
Footnote: I didn’t realise, until I decided to write this article, that Terry and his wife, Donna had suffered a terrible loss in September, 2007, with the death of their two-year-old son, Ryan, when they were living in Central Queensland. The inquest found that Ryan had not been given appropriate care, when Donna and Terry expressed their concern that things were far more serious than medical staff believed.
Now, Queensland Heath has in place what is known as ‘Ryan’s Rule’, a three step process to support patients, of any age, their families and carers, to raise concerns if a patient’s health condition is getting worse, or not improving as well as expected.
Ryan died from an undiagnosed infection. When Donna and Terry were worried he was getting worse, they did not believe their concerns were acted on in time.
I was in Sydney, covering grand final week, when Ryan died, and if I did read anything about the tragedy, it did not register that the father was former footballer, Terry Saunders.
“I think a lot of people were the same as you, Steve,” Terry told me. “I was 45 when Ryan was born, and a lot of people would not have known of my football career by then. It (Ryan’s death) should never have happened, but some good has come out of his passing (with the implementation of Ryan’s Rule).”
Terry and Donna have a 22-year-old daughter, Jamie, an occupational rehabilitation employee, who was a fine touch footballer.
1 Terry Saunders playing for Wynnum-Manly
2 Terry Saunders fails the medical given by Queensland medico, Dr Kevin Hobbs. Captain-coach, Arthur Beetson also missed out.
3 Steve Ricketts coverage of the QRL medicals in the Telegraph
4 Blackpool Beach in October, 1977
5 Blackpool Borough try to stop a raid by the Barrow club in the 1960s
6 Blackpool FC (orange strip) playing against Aston Villa in 1969
7 Hugh Waddell playing for Great Britain in 1988
8 Mal Green at Alice Springs. He said he liked ‘The Alice’, except for having to drink Melbourne beer. He did not take up his Broncos contract
9 Australian junior reps., Gary Smith (left) and Tim Dwyer get sage advice from Sunshine Coast league legend, Gary Pearson.