Rugby League ‘Immortal’, Bob Fulton rated the All Blacks’ rugby union pack the most formidable he had faced, at that stage of his career.
Hang on a minute! Fulton didn’t play union, did he? He was a league boy through and through, born in the league stronghold of Warrington in England’s north and raised in the Illawarra region, where he only played the 13-man code.
But in 1968, Fulton played against the All Blacks, as well as representing Australia in the League World Cup, playing in the final against France at the SCG in front of a crowd of 56,000.
The day he played against the All Blacks there were just a few thousand at the venue – North Sydney Oval. Fulton, who was doing his National Service, was five eighth for a Combined Services side which went down 45-8 to the New Zealanders. It was one of those quaint matches included on the touring schedule, as was the want of the union authorities in those (amateur) days. It wouldn’t happen now, because it would be an even bigger mis-match, given the All Blacks are professional.
Fulton said the All Blacks’ pack, which included the likes of Colin Meads, Ian Kirkpatrick and Brian Lochore, was the most formidable unit he had faced.
“But I would rate (South Sydney rugby league star) Bob McCarthy the greatest forward in either rugby code,” Fulton said. “I would have him in my team, ahead of anyone else. Union is played in more countries than league, but in terms of Test standards, there is little difference.”
Fulton’s comments were made to me, when I interviewed the great man at the Murwillumbah Golf Club, in October, 1971. ‘Bozo’ was guest speaker at a sportsmen’s dinner, staged by one of Murwillumbah’s three rugby league clubs – Murwillumbah High School Old Boys. (The other clubs were Souths and Brothers).
Fulton had had a few beers with Old Boys’ players – men such as Trevor Harris, John Crowley and Neville ‘Knocker’ O’Connor – at the Imperial Hotel at lunch time on the day of the event. He was patient, jovial and entertaining, just as he was that night, as a guest speaker. I had a chance for a brief one-on-one, and ‘The Daily News’ published my story 48 hours later, without a by-line. By-lines were something usually only allocated to senior reporters in those days.
One of the first questions I asked concerned falling crowd numbers in Sydney, after the boom years of 1967 and ’68, when the four-tackle rule replaced the unlimited tackle rule.
Fulton said there simply were not enough attractive games each weekend to get people through the gates, and there was a lack of real glamor teams, with South Sydney and Manly probably the only clubs falling into that category. Manly had been beaten by St George in the preliminary final in 1971.
“I also think a lot of people believe league is no longer a family sport, because of the amount of thuggery on the field,” he said. “And poor ground amenities do not encourage family outings. The same reasons are behind a drop-off in crowds in England.”
Cronulla-Sutherland and Penrith had been admitted to the top tier of Sydney football in 1967, and there was a push by the Wentworthville club to also gain entry.
“That would make for 13 teams and therefore a bye,” said Fulton. “I don’t like the idea of a bye.”
I asked him if the Sydney club having the bye could go to the bush that weekend, and a play a Group or Divisional side.
“That’s out of the question,” he replied. “Sydney players would not want to travel long distances to risk injury in a social match.”.
Although Fulton played five eighth for Australia in 1968, and for Combined Services, he said he preferred centre, because there was more room to move. Ian Martin was Manly’s five eighth in 1971.
The fund raiser for Old Boys proved an outstanding success, and motivated Brothers to organise a similar event at the start of the 1973 season, with former footballing priest, John Cootes, the special guest. The man behind the move was former Brothers’ player, Barry Sweetnam, a dairy farmer from Upper Crystal Creek.
More than 300 people turned up at Murwillumbah’s Regent Theatre for what was billed as a pre-season ball, with Cootes, by then a professional entertainer, providing the music. He was accompanied to the ball by his wife, Regina; musical director, Milton Ward and another musician I remember simply as Mario. I was a Brothers’ player at the time, and my partner at the ball was Annette Brown, a nurse at Murwillumbah District Hospital.
One of the attendees was Peter Dimond, who was publican of the Imperial Hotel. Cootes and Dimond had made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1970, when Dimond was sent off, following a high shot on the then Father Cootes in a World Cup trial, at the Sydney Showgrounds. Cootes went on the tour to the UK and France. Former Test centre/winger, Dimond, who was well and truly into the veteran category then, missed out.
The day after the ball, John Cootes joined Barry Sweetnam for a spot of horse riding on Barry’s farm, before Cootes returned to his home in Newcastle.