Chris Johns’ appointment as manager of the Australian team for the 2004 Trans-Tasman rugby league Test in Newcastle was viewed as a controversial one in some quarters.
Johns was an ‘enemy’ of the Australian Rugby League ‘establishment’ during the Super League war of 1995-97, when he was a spokesman for the rebel players.
It’s fair to say that ‘Johnsie’ and I were on opposite sides of the philosophical fence during that time, and things got a bit heated at different stages.
I was a rugby league writer for News Ltd publication, ‘The Courier-Mail’, and of course, News were backers of the rebel Super League competition. But that didn’t stop me being a critic of many of the things that were done by the rebel organisation, and that made life difficult for me, at times, at the offices of Queensland Newspapers, Bowen Hills.
One thing that Chris Johns acknowledged through all this, was the fact I was a passionate ‘rugby league man’.
As proof of his admiration for me, he presented me with an Australian jersey, back at the team hotel, after Australia’s 37-10 win over New Zealand in the Newcastle Test. It was a ‘spare’ jumper from the kit bag, one without a number. But it was a fair dinkum jersey, not one you could buy in a sports store.
I was taken aback, and got quite emotional.
Today, Chris and I are members of the Brisbane Men of League Foundation Committee, and I have interviewed him at a couple of our charity lunches.
For that Trans-Tasman Test in Newcastle, Broncos’ star, Darren Lockyer was named at five eighth for Australia, for the first time, while our debutants were Shaun Berrigan (Broncos), Joel Clinton (Penrith) and Nathan Hindmarsh (Parramatta). Clinton roomed with Broncos’ prop, Shane Webcke.
For the Kiwis, a certain Sonny Billy Williams, then only 18, also was handed his first Test cap.
I checked into the team hotel, the Crowne Plaza, Newcastle, on the banks of the Hunter River, on Monday, April 19, in time for the first big, Australian press conference of the week.
My main interview subject was Newcastle winger, Timana Tahu. He was honest and frank, almost naive in some of the things he said, although it was obvious he was an intelligent lad. He told me his manager, Darryl Mather was in talks with rugby union about a possible switch of codes. (As things transpired, Mather got Tahu a deal at Parramatta Rugby League for the 2005 season, although Tahu switched to union in 2008, spending two seasons in the 15 man code, before returning to league).
I also interviewed Australian inter-change player, Michael Crocker, from the Roosters, who had been labelled a ‘serial sledger’ by referee, Bill Harrigan, earlier in the year.
It gave me a lot of satisfaction to see Crocker rise to international status, given I had watched him come through the junior ranks, for Brighton and Redcliffe, playing against our eldest boy, Damien.
Crocker said he did not regard himself as a ‘sledger’, in the classic sense.
“I think (Harrigan’s comments) were more about the fact I’ve always got something to say,” Crocker said.
As I watched the team photograph being taken, I reflected on rugby league’s proud history of international football.
OK. Rugby League is a small sport, in world terms. But no-one can deny that the code has provided some of the great sporting contests.
The first ever Test between an Australian Rugby League side and a visiting international side, was played at the Sydney Showgrounds on May 8, 1908, with the touring New Zealand All Golds winning 11-10, in front of a 20,000 plus crowd. (The All Golds were returning from a tour of Britain).
While the word ‘professional’ was used by rugby union types to describe rugby league, the code’s early days were anything but. The first Test match played on Australia’s UK tour in 1908, featured one of the Australian players, Albert Conlin from South Sydney, acting as a touch judge!
That first night in Newcastle, at my hotel, I met relatives of former Murwillumbah Old Boys’ prop, Graham Huggins, who also played a lot of first grade in Newcastle – with Lakes United. Huggins was a class act.
Newcastle were part of the original New South Wales competition, but withdrew at the end of the 1909 season to form their own competition, which featured North, South, West and Central Newcastle. Annandale effectively replaced Newcastle in the Sydney league.
On the eve of the 2004 Test, I interviewed St George-Illawarra prop, Luke Bailey, who revealed he had had ear surgery in the off-season, and without the operation, his career might have been over.
Kiwi second rower, Joe Galuvao’s wife, Maybelle, sang the New Zealand National anthem before the Test, which I thought was a lovely touch.
New Zealand competed strongly for 60 minutes, and Australia led only 11-10 at halftime. But with man of the match, Lockyer, leading the way, the Kangaroos’ stormed home, finishing seven tries to two victors.
As I left Newcastle the following day, green and gold jersey tucked safely in my suit case, there were fears local superstar, Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns (who was out for the season with a knee injury) would defect to rugby union, to play for the Wallabies. (He remained in rugby league).
Footnote: My family had the Australian jersey framed, and it now hangs in my home office, after spending part of its life in the boardroom of our youngest son, Lliam’s company, Supply Partners at Seventeen Mile Rocks.
1 The front of the Courier-Mail lift-out on the day of the 2004 Trans-Tasman Test
2 Mick Crocker
3 Chris Johns
4 Graham Huggins (centre background) playing for Old Boys against Brothers at Murwillumbah in 1973.