Wally Lewis will never forget the look of pride on his parents, Jim and Jean’s faces as he took the field for his Test debut against France at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 4, 1981.
“I was the only player from a Queensland club to be selected, and it was quite daunting,” Lewis said. “I looked into the stands at the SCG to find my parents, and I got quite emotional as the anthems were played.”
Australia won 43-3 against a French side that was just a shadow of the great teams of the 1950s and 60s, although, it has to be said, the tour was doomed from the start, after a chaotic end to the French domestic season, with one of the showpiece finals called off after just seven minutes following wild brawls. The farce was shown live on national television and did enormous damage to the code.
France had beaten the 1978 Kangaroos in both Tests, and while the Australians were unhappy about the standard of refereeing, they agreed the French had fielded a formidable side, and had won the Second Test on their merits.
Since then, France had lost several stars to rugby union, and following the brawling final, French coach, Louis Bonnery from Limoux had his hands full ensuring harmony in the touring squad.
The 1981 Test was the last played at the SCG by the French national team. In more recent times they have been ‘relegated’ to places such as Parramatta, Canberra and even Parkes, a far cry from the 1950s when the average crowd for a France – Australia Test at the SCG was over 60,000.
The 1981 Test, which attracted a crowd of 16,277, was to be the first of 34 to be played by Lewis, his last a 24-8 loss to New Zealand in Melbourne in 1991.
In the days leading up to Lewis’ debut, the Australian team stayed at the Camperdown Travelodge, just across the road from Sydney University, where some of the training sessions took place.
When Wally arrived in Sydney early in the morning, there was no-one from the ARL meet him, and he had to kill time until the official team photograph at the SCG at Noon. Ah. The good old days.
On that first day in camp, Wally did a Randwick pub crawl with the Ella brothers, Mark, Gary and Glen and other former teammates from the 1977 Australian Schoolboys rugby union side.
The next day at training, coach, Frank Stanton paired Wally with noted fitness fanatic, Parramatta’s Ray Price, a dual international. Price lapped Wally – literally – leaving Stanton shaking his head. Wally’s selection had been panned in some sections of the Sydney media, with Manly-Warringah’s Alan Thompson the favourite for the Test number 6 jersey.
The Daily Mirror’s Peter Frilingos wrote that Lewis was an automatic selection, and debate in the selection room primarily surrounded the choice of halfback (Steve Mortimer, Kevin Hastings or Ross Henrick. Mortimer got the nod); fullback (Greg Brentnall or Garry Dowling. Brentnall won out) and reserve forward (veteran Arthur Beetson or Craig Young. Young was ‘the man’).
Besides Lewis, the other debutants were Mortimer (Canterbury-Bankstown); John Ribot (Sydney Wests); Paul McCabe, Jeff Masterman (both Easts, Sydney) and reserve back, Phil Sigsworth (Newtown). Ribot, McCabe, Kerry Boustead (Easts) and Rod Morris (Balmain) were all Sydney based Queenslanders. Hooker, Masterman had been brought to Sydney from Newcastle by Easts’ coach, Bob Fulton to replace John Lang, who had retired and returned to Brisbane to coach Easts Tigers.
Australia, captained by Cronulla’s Steve Rogers, scored nine tries to France’s one, with McCabe and Mortimer scoring two each, while Mick Cronin kicked eight goals from 10 shots. France’s only try was scored by Lezignan winger, Hugues Ratier, a soldier. McCabe won the Tooth (brewery) $500 man of the match award.
Jose Gine from the Roanne club, took on the Australian forwards in several fiery clashes, but finished up on his backside after one bout of fisticuffs with Price.
“There were patches of fire as the ‘Frogs’ decided to stand up and be counted,” wrote former Queensland and Australian hooker, Noel Kelly in the Sydney press. Kelly also wrote that Lewis had had some ‘fine moments’.
At halftime in the Test, the inaugural ‘Immortals’ – Clive Churchill, Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper and Graeme Langlands – were presented to the crowd. ‘The Immortals’ was a promotion of ‘Rugby League Week’ magazine.
In a curtain raiser to the Test, Queensland under-18s defeated New South Wales 13-7, after being down 7-3 at halftime. Queensland second rower, Steve Davis scored two tries and kicked two goals, while winger, Wayne Challis also scored a try. The Queensland team included future State of Origin players, Martin Bella, Gary Smith and Trevor Paterson, and was captained by Kevin Langer. The coach was former Australian centre, Alan Gil.
NSW, coached by Paul Broughton, included the likes of Phil Blake, David ‘Cement’ Gillespie, Billy Noke and future Broncos’ coach, Ivan Henjak. The captain was Craig ‘Tugger’ Coleman. The match was refereed by the controversial, Greg Hartley. The Test referee was Kevin Steele from New Zealand.