DIARY OF A RETIRED RUGBY LEAGUE WRITER
A Burdekin Roosters’ banner adorns the main street of Ayr, the principal town in the Burdekin Valley. This is rugby league heartland, and the Burdekin has produced many fine players, and also had the cash to lure stars to the region. My wife, Marie and I are in town to visit our eldest boy, Damien; his wife Emma and their two little daughters, Parker and Evan. We had spent a night at Rockhampton, on the drive north from Brisbane, and then two nights with Damien and ‘the girls’ at Rose Bay, Bowen. Now we are to stay at their residence at Ayr.
Back in Brisbane, a funeral is held for our friend, Rocky Pagano. There is a parade of Falcon GTs at the ceremony, given Rocky’s love for the car. Our youngest son, Lliam represents the family.
Burdekin Roosters’ stalwarts, ………..chat to me as I buy coffee at Chill, in the town’s main street. One of them reminds me that Ayr got 1948-49 Kangaroo, Jack Horrigan ‘straight off the ship’ (to play in the town), and that former Test halfback, Barry Muir coached at Ayr. Burdekin currently has a big Fijian influence, and the club has been dubbed the Burdekin Bati by some locals. My former Brisbane Norths’ teammate, Nev Draper, Brisbane’s Rothmans Gold Medal winner of 1979, coached Home Hill (on the south side of the Burdekin River) but, before the season even began, left in the middle of the night, to return to Brisbane. My uncle, Bill Ricketts was Sergeant-in-Charge at Home Hill in the early 1980s, and recalled some ‘wild’ fund raising nights for the local footy club. These four characters, at Chill, remember our son, Damien and his points scoring feats for the Roosters. In 2007, Damien was sponsored by Watson’s Pharmacy, so they got value for money, because each time he kicked a goal, the ground announcer mentioned the sponsor’s name. We saw Damien play at Burdekin’s home ground, Rugby Park, Ayr, on a bitterly cold August night in 2007, against his old club, University from Townsville. I didn’t know it could get so cold, that far north. It was a rough match, and Damien was taken off on a medi-cab in the 20th minute – with a knee injury. He had been going great up until then. The other time we saw him play in the north, was for Uni against Charters Towers, at Charters Towers, and this time he was concussed. There’s a message there somewhere.
A ‘Cowboys Express’ bus from Mt Carlton, pulls up at ANZAC Park, as my wife and I play with our granddaughter, Parker. The bus disgorges a large indigenous group, who proceed to play a rousing game of touch footy. Good to see. The War Memorial includes a tribute to former Ayr High School Dux, (surname Bourke), an Army legend.
Dinner – lamb loin chops from Watson’s Butchery, Ayr. Support your local butcher.
After a visit to Ayr’s own ‘surf beach’, Alva, Marie and I are taken on a tour of East Ayr State School, where Damien is deputy principal, with Chris Wicks, a prominent soccer coach, the principal. Out in the streets, we chat to head of curriculum, Ben Kavanagh, who is training for a marathon. Former Australian rugby league centre, Gary Wellington, who toured New Zealand in 1965, lives not far from the school. Rick Bradford, the school’s top sports boy in 1964, went on to play first grade rugby league for Norths in Brisbane.
Watch the deciding State of Origin rugby league match on the big screen at the Commercial Hotel. New South Wales win 26-20, and despondent locals exit the bar soon after full-time, leaving back-packers and poker machine tragics to maintain the pub’s business. It looked so promising for Queensland, when they wiped a 12 point deficit, to draw level, before Blues’ fullback, James Tedesco scored the winning try, 30 seconds from full-time.
Head south to Airlie Beach, via a picnic lunch at Queen’s Beach, Bowen. Stay at Waterview Apartments, Airlie where the manager, Bill, is an ex-Adelaide chap who supports Essendon Aussie rules. After walking the main street, Marie and I enjoy drinks at the 1970s style Sailing Club. The only other time Marie and I had been to Airlie, was 1983, on a North Queensland adventure, in our Corona station wagon, with Damien (then three) and his big sister, Melanie who was four. (Lliam was born the following year). In ’83, we did a day cruise to Hook Island.
Bush walk at Shute Harbor, to Coral Beach and The Beak. There is a barge working at the first cove. Back at Airlie, we walk to Abell Point, along a lovely coastal path, and then enjoy drinks, a great sunset and live music at Sorrento Restaurant and Bar.
Back in Brisbane, our Men of League Committee’s Origin ‘wash-up’ lunch goes well, with 300 rolling up at Norths Leagues, Kallangur.
Learn of the passing of former Queensland centre, Peter Leis, a dairy farmer from Dayboro, and one of nature’s great gentlemen. He was 71. Peter played 261 first grade games between 1966 and ’81, all for Redcliffe, except for a single season at Wests in Brisbane. In 2008 Leis was named in Redcliffe’s greatest ever line-up. He played in losing grand final sides for Redcliffe in 1973, ’75, ’77 and ’81. After one match for Redcliffe, he got a perfect 10 in Rugby League Week’s player rating system. (The judge was David Falkenmire). Leis played nine matches for Queensland between 1974 and ’77, seven against New South Wales and two against Great Britain. I went to Peter’s farm in 1995, after arranging a photograph (for ‘The Courier-Mail’) of him and his nephew, Travis Norton, who had signed for South Queensland Crushers from Mackay. Travis would go on to play for Queensland, just like his uncle.
The Whitehaven Express cruise is sensational, especially as it is an ideal day to be on the water. So many boats and tour groups. Great day, although we could have spent a little less time in the glass bottom boat. Our main guide, originally from Canberra, is a ‘dinky di Aussie’ and tells lots of dad jokes. Another crew member is originally from Ulladulla, on the NSW South Coast, where his family make furniture from hardwood. The view of Whitehaven Beach from a vantage point on the same island, is stunning. BBQ lunch at Whitehaven itself, after a swim. Five goannas stalk the food. A Frenchman, from Normandy, tries to take a selfie with the goannas. Two Chilean guys delay our departure from Whitehaven Beach as they casually do their own thing. There’s no ‘I’ in team, lads.
A Tasmanian chap, from Launceston boasts that the coral, back at Bicheno Beach on Tasmania’s east coast, is better than here on the reef. He might be right.
Back at Airlie’s Boat House Grill, Marie and I watch the Broncos and Warriors match finish 18-all, the first draw in the NRL in three years. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has a blinder for the Warriors.
There won’t be any trips to Whitehaven today, it is so windy. Drive south to Yeppoon, via a Pioneer Valley detour (Marion, Eton and Homebush), and then a picnic lunch at Sugar Shed, Sarina.
We intended to eat at Keppel Bay Sailing Club, Yeppoon, (recommended by Stafford Tavern drinking mate, Gerry McKendry) but they don’t have Foxtel’s rugby league channel, so we are ‘out of there’. They have the AFL, not the NRL. I mean really – in CQ? Instead we dine at the Strand Hotel, where a Melbourne based Englishman whinges about the fact the cricket isn’t on TV. Have to feel sorry for bar staff. England win the World Cup final, on the last ball, against New Zealand. Controversial, as it turns out.
Queenslander, Eric Harris along with Englishmen, Syd Hynes, John Atkinson and Barrie McDermott, are inducted into Leeds Rugby League Club’s Hall of Fame. Harris, known as ‘The Toowoomba Ghost’, starred for Leeds in the 1930s, alongside another famous Australian, Vic Hey. Harris played eight matches for Queensland – the first five in 1929/30 and the next three in 1940/41. He later became State director of coaching. Hynes and Atkinson were members of Britain’s Ashes winning 1970 side in Australia (the Brits also won the series in New Zealand), while McDermott played prop against the 1994 Kangaroos.
Gold Coast Titans have sacked coach, Garth Brennan, a former police officer, whose take no prisoners approach apparently didn’t go down well with the young fellas at the club.
1 Burdekin Roosters stalwarts
2 Ayr War Memorial
3 Peter Leis is second from left, backrow, in this 1981 Redcliffe team shot. No. 11 is captain-coach, Arthur Beetson.
4 Peter Leis and nephew, Travis Norton
5 Whitehaven Beach
6 Eric Harris (second from right) in Leeds’ 1936 Wembley Challenge Cup side. The Earl of Derby is being introduced to the team by industrialist, Sir Edwin Airey.
7 Syd Hynes scores a try against the Kiwis at Carlaw Park in 1970
8 John Atkinson and 1970 British coach, John Whitely.