Dave Bolton was man of the match in Balmain’s shock 11-2 win over Souths in the 1969 Sydney grand-final, a match magnificently chronicled in Ian Heads’ book, ‘The Great Grand Final Heist’.
Englishman, Bolton was Wigan through and through, playing 300 matches for the famous Greater Manchester club. But he did enough in six seasons with Balmain to be inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.
Bolton was one half of one of the greatest combinations in the history of both rugby codes. His partner in crime was St Helens’ ace, Alex Murphy. Both men toured Australia and New Zealand in 1958 and 1962, when Great Britain won both Ashes series against the Kangaroos; drew the two-match series against the Kiwis in 1958, but lost both Tests against New Zealand in 1962.
Wigan signed Bolton just before his 16th birthday, and assigned him to local amateur club, the beautifully named ‘Potteries Old Schoolboys’, where he was to continue to learn his trade.
He made his first-grade debut for Wigan in 1954, against Keighley. He made his Great Britain Test debut against France at Central Park, Wigan on November 23, 1957, scoring three tries in a 44-15 win. He was at the time, Britain’s youngest Test five eighth. He played 23 Tests for Britain between 1957 and 1963, his final Test coming against the touring Australians at Headingley, Leeds, with Britain winning 16-5.
On the 1962 tour, he played in Britain’s 33-5 win over St George at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in front of a massive mid-week crowd of 57,774. Australia were no match for the Lions in the Test arena, but Sydney fans believed their mighty Dragons would have the tourists’ measure. That did not prove the case, with Alex Murphy scoring two tries and Neil Fox kicking six goals.
At Wigan, Bolton won Challenge Cup finals in 1958 and 1959, against Workington and Hull respectively.
He sought further honours in Australia, joining Balmain in 1965, and the following season playing in the grand-final against St George, who won 23-4, their 11th premiership in a row. On that occasion Bolton marked Brian ‘Poppa’ Clay, but did not see out the first half, an injury forcing him to retire from the game.
South Sydney succeeded St George as the Sydney’s super team, winning the 1967 and ’68 grand finals. They were hot favourites to win again in 1969, against Balmain, who were missing Test forward and future ‘Immortal’, Arthur Beetson, who had been suspended.
In his autobiography, ‘Macca’, legendary Souths’ forward, Bob McCarthy recalled teammate, John ‘Lurch’ O’Neill’s complacency going into the match.
“Fancy playing this mob in a grand-final,” O’Neill said. “Let’s just pick up the shield now and go to the Cauliflower Hotel for a drink.”
As McCarthy noted: “Balmain had other ideas”.
The Tigers used tactics devised by their coach, Leo Nosworthy to slow the pace of the game down to a crawl, with players often feigning injuries, giving rise to the term, ‘The Balmain flop’.
I remember, as a 17-year-old, watching the match on television, at the family house at 27 Tumbulgum Road, Murwillumbah, willing the underdog Balmain outfit to victory, but at the same time, shaking my head in disappointment at the tactics, because I wanted the game to be a spectacle.
There was one try scored – by winger, Syd Williams, who replaced George Ruebner for the second half. South African, Len Killeen kicked two goals, while Bolton landed two field goals, which were two points each in those days. Indigenous fullback, Eric Simms kicked a goal for Souths.
Ian Heads interviewed Bolton in 2017 and fondly recalled the then 80-year-old, talking in his broad Lancashire accent, even though he had lived in Australia since 1965.
There were suggestions after the 1969 grand-final, that Bolton might have influenced referee, Keith Page’s handling of the contest.
In the ‘Sun’, EE Christensen wrote:
“Leo Nosworthy had plenty of justifiable praise over the weekend, and his fellow selectors, Austin Hoyle and Joe Keighran are due for theirs too. The trio effectively won the competition, when they switched David Bolton from five eighth to halfback, changing places with Keith Outten. Bolton is just that much too smart for Sydney’s crop of referees and is able to swing a liberal share of penalties, as well as a supply of the ball.”
Balmain winger, Syd Williams said Bolton had “more or less directed everything”.
Centre, Allan Fitzgibbon, said Bolton had run the Tigers, had run Souths and ‘probably ran the referee.”
“Dave Bolton and (skipper) Peter Provan were the leaders. The rest of us were just kids,” Fitzgibbon said. “Whatever those two said, we did. We didn’t think about it”.
Bolton, who had a brief stint with Blackpool Borough in England, during the 1968-69 Australian off-season, retired at the end of the 1970 Sydney premiership. He coached Parramatta in 1973 and ’74 and was an assistant to Tim Sheens at Penrith in the mid-1980s.
Noted television commentator and former Great Britain skipper, Mick Stephenson compared Wigan’s George Williams to Bolton, before Williams joined the Canberra Raiders. Stephenson’s praise probably meant nothing to younger fans, but to those of more advanced years, and those students of the game, this was some accolade.
I met Dave Bolton only once – at a British Lions’ reunion in Sydney – and it was a great honor.
Dave Bolton died on January 21, 2021, aged 83.
1 Dave Bolton is embraced by a Wigan fan
2 Dave Bolton (far right) and other members of the 1958 British squad, meet league pioneer, Dally Messenger
3 Dave Bolton is front and centre, in the 1962 Great Britain squad
4 Dave Bolton kicks one of his two field goals for Balmain in the 1969 Sydney grand-final.