To say Des Lee played above his weight is an understatement.
The feisty rugby league halfback never tipped the scales at anything over 10 stone (63.5kg), but never let his lack of size stand in the way of having a red hot go, whether running with the ball, or taking on the biggest forwards in defence.
Des came through the ranks, at the Brothers’ club at Murwillumbah, and was a member of their 1969 Group 18/Gold Coast A grade premiership winning side, which was captain-coached by former Maitland prop, Bob Pannowitz.
From Murwillumbah, Lee moved to Newcastle, where he played with the Central Charlestown club, alongside a Brothers’ teammate, Rex Farrell.
Lee signed with Wynnum-Manly in Brisbane in 1974.
Lee starred in one of the games of the season in 1974, at Lang Park, on April 6, with Wynnum losing 14-13 to Wests.
The Courier-Mail’s Jack Reardon had this to say.
“The Baysiders’ best player, in my opinion was halfback, Des Lee, who was splendid in defence. He was, however, even better in attack, putting his team on the move at every opportunity and backing up, to keep the movement flowing. Right up with Lee, for team value, was Wests’ halfback, Greg Oliphant.”
Wests’ international winger, Warren Orr received three points in ‘The Courier-Mail’ Best and Fairest Award for the match. Des Lee got two points and Wynnum teammate, Gary Seaton one.
In 1975, Lee helped the Seagulls to one of their greatest victories – over arch rivals, Easts in the BRL first grade elimination final.
Wynnum won 9-7, with another Murwillumbah Brothers’ product, hooker, John Dowling scoring one of the Seagulls’ two tries.
Captained by Test centre/winger, Johnny Rhodes, the Wynnum side included Test winger, Warren ‘Jethro’ Orr; Test lock, Lew Platz; former Sydney firebrand, Neville ‘Hornet’ Hornery and former St George (Sydney) utility, Bob Clapham. The coach was Englishman, Tom Berry.
The Seagulls were sentimental favourites against Easts, who had State forward, Des Morris as a first season captain-coach.
Des Lee was halfback again the following week when Wynnum were eliminated 22-15 by Redcliffe, in a titanic bayside struggle.
It had been an injury plagued year for Des, so he was eligible for the reserve grade side, which reached the grand final under the coaching of Jim Lewis, father of future ‘Immortal’, Wally Lewis.
Lee captained the reserves to a 23-9 win over Norths in the grand final, scoring a try, in a match punctuated by wild brawls. That side included John Dowling; former Canterbury and North Sydney fullback, Peter Inskip (the player of the match) and former Test forward, Barry McTaggart.
Lee and Dowling (a future Queensland State of Origin hooker), were great mates, with Des, Best Man at John’s wedding.
In 1976, Wynnum’s reserve grade again reached the grand final, only this time they went down 17-9 to Wests, whose star was future State forward, Shane McNally.
In 1977, Des Lee was appointed captain-coach of the Beaudesert Kingfishers, a position he held for three seasons.
A mechanic by trade, Lee, one of seven children, began working life with Hewitson’s Motors at Murwillumbah. He continued in the trade, until taking up an oil refinery post in Brisbane.
Des married Fay Taylor from Byron Bay in 1969 and they had three children – Rachael, Renee and Phillip. There are two grand-children, Tommy and Jasmine. Rachael was a top softballer; Renee represented Australia in cricket and Phillip played rugby league for Cannon Hill Stars
Des’s older brother, Jack played first grade for Brothers at Murwillumbah, and was a tenacious hooker.
“Des had a great passion for football, and had a never-say-die spirit,” Fay said. “You could say he was stubborn. He didn’t want to be beaten. Maybe it was his Irish blood. He hardly hit 10 stone the whole time he played football. The only time he got near it, was when he was ringing wet.”
Des’s former Murwillumbah Brothers’ teammate, Gary Dobrich, a Queensland representative in 1972, described Lee as “a great guy”, with a wonderful nature.
Dobrich and Lee played against each other several times, after Gary switched from Wynnum to Brisbane Souths.
“Des was as tough as nails,” Dobrich said. “He was a thorough gentleman, and will be sadly missed by those whose lives were touched by him”.
Wynnum-Manly historian, Paul Comber said Lee was a popular figure at the club, and his bravery was legendary.
Wynnum stalwart, Jim Geraghty described Lee as similar to former Manly-Warringah Test halfback, Geoff Toovey, in that he never took a backward step.
Desmond James Lee died on April 27, 2021, aged 73, after a long period of ill health, in which he displayed his customary determination to make the most of his situation. His funeral was held at Nerang on May 4.
Des was my under-18 coach at Murwillumbah Brothers in 1969, and I found him an inspirational mentor.
After playing home games at the Showgrounds, the under-18 players would shower out the back of the Murwillumbah Hotel, and then return to the Showgrounds to watch the A grade play, with Des our favourite player.
Under his coaching we made the semi-finals, only to be knocked out in the first week, losing 10-7 to Mullumbimby at Knox Park, Murwillumbah.
Three weeks later we watched from the hill at the new Murwillumbah Sports Oval, as Brothers defeated Cudgen 11-0, to win the Group 18 Gold Coast A grade Premiership.
The Group 18 Gold Coast competition was held in such high regard in those days, that ‘The Courier-Mail’ would send a reporter to the match. In 1969 the reporter was Lawrie Kavanagh.
Kavanagh rated try scoring winger, Athol Gear as player of the match. “Closely following Gear as one of Brothers’ top players, was halfback, Des Lee,” Kavanagh wrote.
Athol Gear was one of many former teammates who attended Des’s funeral.