Super coach, Wayne Bennett describes the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Brisbane’s Souths Magpies as kindred spirits, in that they are working class clubs, with a never-say-die ethos.
And the embodiment of that spirit is former Brisbane Souths’ forward, Chris Phelan, the rock on which the Magpies’ 1985 Brisbane premiership success was built.
It was the grand final which changed the course of Bennett’s coaching career, and the 71-year-old will be forever grateful for the role Phelan played.
Bennett and Phelan were inducted into Souths’ Hall of Fame at Davies Park on Friday night, April 30 along with other members of the Team of the Century, as well as trail blazing women’s rugby league player, Karyn Murphy, the head of the NRL’s Integrity Unit.
With current Souths’ coach, Steve Bretherton at Bennett’s table, and the entire Magpies’ Intrust Super Cup squad spread throughout the auditorium, eight members of that Team of the Century were presented to the audience, with Mal Meninga’s interview done via Skype, as his wife was ill, preventing ‘Big Mal’ from attending.
Even though the Broncos were playing just across the river – against the Titans – Brisbane players such as Tom Dearden and Albert Kelly, were present at Souths, along with Karmichael Hunt, the former league Test fullback, who most likely will turn out for the Broncos later in the year.
‘The King’, Wally Lewis, also attended, after finishing his Channel 9 commitments at Suncorp. Also in the audience was Suncorp Stadium general manager, Alan Graham, a Souths’ tragic.
Souths chief executive, Jim McClelland said he hoped the current players left with a greater appreciation of the club they represented and the people who had come before them.
Bennett, whose South Sydney Rabbitohs had beaten Canberra Raiders in Canberra the night before, reflected on his coaching start at Souths in 1977.
He had succeeded Englishman, Tom Berry and began as a captain-coach.
“I wasn’t playing well, and thought, ‘I can’t drop myself’, so I retired as a player,” Bennett recalled. “We had a wonderful hooker, Marshall Colwell from Townsville, a bloke who also played prop. At the end of the season, he said he was returning to Townsville, and when I asked him why, he said all I did was point out his faults. I didn’t provide him with any encouragement. He was right, and I knew I had to change my ways.
“After Wynnum thrashed us in the 1984 grand-final, I talked to a few people, and realised it was time to pick players who were there for the hard road. I had been picking the athletic, flashy types, but they were not going to win a premiership.
“For 1985, we recruited Norm Carr from Wests; John Elias from Sydney and Chris Phelan, after he finished playing in England (with Oldham). There has not been a tougher footballer than Chris, and he is a winner.
“Souths Brisbane are like South Sydney – working class, with a great spirit. Officials such as Tony Testa and Sel Deed did so much for the club, but I don’t think it would be here today without the hard work of Jim McClelland and his wife, Barbara.”
Bennett said the 42-8 loss to Wynnum in the 1984 grand final was the most humiliating day of his life, but he never thought about quitting as a coach.
He said the 1985, 10-8 victory over a Wynnum side which included internationals, Wally Lewis, Gene Miles, Greg Dowling and Colin Scott, opened the door to other opportunities, in particular coaching the Queensland State of Origin side.
After that he helped guide Canberra to the 1987 NSWRL grand final; won six premierships as coach of the Broncos and one with St George Illawarra.
Bennett rates former Brothers and Norths’ multi-premiership winning coach, Bob Bax as the greatest influence on his career, followed closely by Sydney super coach, Jack Gibson’s right-hand man, Ron Massey.
“‘Baxxy’ was ahead of his time,” Bennett said. “People think game plans weren’t invented until the 1990s, but Bob was doing it back in the ’60s”.
Bennett has never been happier than where he is now, at South Sydney, where he says part owner, Russell Crowe is a positive influence.
“He genuinely loves the club, and would do anything for it,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s brother-in-law, Greg Veivers, a former Australian skipper, said he joined Souths after being snubbed by Easts and Brothers.
“I was looking to play for another club, because I didn’t want the shadow of my father (Jack) and cousin (Mick) hanging over me, at the Magpies, given all they had achieved,” Greg said.
“But after I couldn’t get a start anywhere at Brothers, dad took me to Souths and asked (coach) Jim Murdoch to give me a chance. I played half a game in under-18s, and I have been here ever since.”
All three Veivers – Jack, Mick and Greg – were inducted into the Hall of Fame, Jack one of nine to be given the honour posthumously, the others being Ted Verrenkamp, Norm McLean, Alan Hornery, Bill Tyquin, Harry Bath, Harold ‘Mick’ Crocker, Len Pegg and Graeme Atherton.
Harry Bath’s grand son, Mark Beaumont accepted the Hall of Fame cap on behalf of the former champion player and coach, while Mick Crocker’s son was there to accept the late Test lock’s cap.
Former Australian Rugby League Commission chairman, John Grant, who was chosen for Australia from Souths in 1972, said playing with the Magpies opened so many doors for him, away for football.
The successful businessman played Australian rules and league as a teenager, but ultimately chose league, and is forever grateful for the choice, given it took him to Britain and France with the Kangaroos and led to a stint playing in England with Warrington.
Bruce Astill, captain of Souths’ 1981 premiership side, said he still found it hard to come to terms with the fact the Magpies lost to Norths in the 1980 grand final, after going into the match as hot favourites.
Mick Reardon, who scored the match winning try in the ’81 grand final, was one of a host of former players in the audience. Others in attendance included Mick Gramm, Eddie Muller, Bill Argeros, Mark Clarkson, Lyndon Cullen and Bob Hudson.
Stylish centre/winger/fullback, Mitch Brennan said it became his goal to play for Souths, when, as a kid at Charleville, he was presented with a Magpies jumper. From Souths, he joined St George in Sydney, where he was coached by Harry Bath, and won a premiership in 1979.
Former Test fullback, Gary Belcher, a Souths junior, revealed he had offers from the Roosters and South Sydney after the 1985 premiership, but Mal Meninga said he would terrorise him if he didn’t join him at the Canberra Raiders. It turned out to be a wise move, with ‘Badge’, as Belcher is known, winning two premierships with ‘the Green Machine’.
Belcher said Chris Phelan virtually played on one leg in 1985, his suspect knee heavily strapped.
“He struggled to get through one training session, but always delivered on match day,” Belcher said.
Irish born, Chris Phelan dedicated his 1981 premiership victory to his brother, Pat, who played for the Magpies, but lost his life in a mis-hap on the Brisbane River in 1978.
The two brothers had played together for Townsville Souths, whose jersey was blue and gold, the same colour as Parramatta. Chris went on to play three seasons with Parramatta and played in their 1982 and ’84 grand final wins.
The story of how Chris joined Parramatta is fascinating.
“I was a guest speaker at a function at Beaudesert, and someone asked me which Sydney club I supported,” Chris Phelan told the Hall of Fame function. “I said ‘Parramatta’ because of the blue and gold.
“Pat and I had always said we would play for the Eels, but by 1981, I didn’t think it would happen. Someone at the function phoned (Parramatta coach) Jack Gibson, and Jack phoned me. When he said it was Jack Gibson, my first reaction was ‘bullshit’, but it turned out to be true.
“When I first got down there, I was playing Third Grade, and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But it turned out for the best.”
Phelan was arguably the most popular player at the Hall of Fame function, and it is obvious he is an adored husband and father to a wife and three daughters.
Perhaps the most popular person was Joan Baillie, who has been a volunteer worker at Souths for sixty years, and also was presented with a Hall of Fame cap.