FLASHBACK: April 1981

Balmain lock, Neil Pringle revealed details of his battle with a debilitating illness, as he celebrated signing a new contract with the Tigers.

Pringle, then 28, had played his 100th first grade match for Balmain in late March, and received a standing ovation at Leichhardt Oval.

But few in the crowd knew of the courage and determination Pringle had shown, in his comeback to the game. A crippling virus, peripheral neuropathy (extreme inflammation of the nerve ends) struck Pringle down, late in 1979.

“I just started getting pins and needles in my feet,” Pringle told the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s Ray Chesterton.

Within weeks Pringle was almost paralysed, unable to do the simplest things. Doctors prescribed complete rest, but that was like a death sentence to Pringle, who took up swimming in his backyard pool.

One day, he went to Little Manly Beach for a swim, and when he emerged from the water, he was covered in blue bottle stings. He had been swimming in a swarm of blue bottles, but his deadened nerves were unable to tell the brain of the pain from the stings.

His wife, Carmel couldn’t believe her eyes. “He was just one big sting, from his shoulders to his feet,” she told Chesterton. “He ended up in hospital again.”

While Pringle battled the virus, Carmel battled to make ends meet, and they had to dig into their savings. Pringle made his comeback in reserve grade, in June, 1980 and by the start of the 1981 season, had recaptured his best form. The Newtown junior had been rated ‘another Johnny Raper’, after a stellar 1972 season with Newtown, under the coaching of Queenslander, Harry Bath.

But Pringle and new coach, Jack Gibson did not get-on in 1973, with Gibson insisting that Pringle change his style, in particular giving up his cover defending role, to play in the front line in defence.

“Harry Bath allowed me to play my natural free running game in attack, and insisted on me playing as a cover defending lock,” Pringle said. “I feel a lock should be able to improvise. He should have a licence to play his natural game, which is based on instinct. Gibson was a defensive coach. He believed in no margin for error.”

In 1981, Gibson was coaching Parramatta, and on the weekend Ray Chesterton’s Pringle feature appeared in the ‘Telegraph’, Parramatta belted South Sydney 39-5 at Redfern Oval with ‘The Zip Zip Man’, Steve Ella scoring three tries, while halves, Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny scored two each. Souths’ try was scored by Dr Nathan Gibbs.

The Daily Mirror’s Peter Frilingos rated Sterling and Parramatta utility, Kevin ‘Stumpy’ Stevens the best players on the field, and gave them both eight points out of 10 in the paper’s Dally M Awards.

Gibson was delighted with the big win, especially as he had been sacked as Souths’ coach at the end of the 1979 season.

In other news of the time, Tom Bellew (NSW) and Bill Hunter (Qld) were named managers of the Australian team to play a home series against France. Frank Stanton already had been retained as coach.

The Courier-Mail’s Lawrie Kavanagh reported that open warfare had been averted at Brisbane’s Breakfast Creek Hotel, with the installation of a second television set in the public bar – one to watch rugby league, and the other one Australian rules. Kavanagh wrote that things had become a little tense in the bar a few weeks earlier, when the locals wanted to watch the rugby league and a bunch of outsiders wanted the ‘VFL’.

It’s my experience that the noisy minority (the Aussie rules and rugby union types) usually get their way. Burleigh Bears Leagues Club has the right idea. They have (or did have) a sign beside the big screen television, reading: ‘Rugby League will always get preference in this LEAGUES Club’.

I remember one day at Easts Leagues in Brisbane, they did not have the Queensland Cup on any of the television sets, and Easts were part of the competition. And one of their officials had had the temerity to complain about a lack of coverage in the local media.

There was another time, at Aspley Leagues, when they had the televisions on the Super Rugby (union). When I asked why it wasn’t on the NRL, they pointed to a group of large Maori/Polynesian women who had asked for the rugby. The weird thing was, those same women had played league earlier in the evening, on the Aspley fields. These examples are why I will always have Foxtel. I will never rely on a licensed club to show the rugby league, not even a leagues club.

Footnote: Neil ‘Bing’ Pringle (based in the Tweed/Gold Coast area, to my knowledge) remains one of rugby league’s great characters, and a tireless worker for the Men of League Foundation.

Radio commentator, Ray Hadley recently recalled the time Pringle got 25 mates into a grand final at the SCG, on his media pass. Pringle was calling reserve grade matches on Sydney radio, with John Brennan.

Pringle played for Newtown and Balmain in Sydney and also was captain-coach of Cessnock in the Newcastle competition.

When Pringle’s name is mentioned, I immediately think back to the amazing combination he formed with English Test forward, Brian Lockwood at Balmain. Long after he retired, I interviewed Lockwood at his Allerton Bywater (Yorkshire) pub/brewery, and he still marvelled at Pringle’s courage and intuition, running onto the short passes Lockwood delivered in the rucks.

Neil and Carmel Pringle
Nel Pringle (left), Kevin ‘Stumpy’ Stevens and former Test hooker, Elwyn Walters in 2011
Bill Hunter (far left) with Des Hancock (Rothmans); Qld Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and ARL boss, Ken Arthurson.

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