This post is different from the ‘classic’ Flashbacks on my website, in that is largely an extract from my diary.
It is meant to give readers a look at a sports journalist’s life on the road, although, I must add, that the 2006 Tri-Nations was not ‘typical’. It was probably the most stress-free tournament I have covered, given there wasn’t intense pressure from the sports department for a mountain of stories, which had been the case during the domestic NRL season, when the Broncos marched all the way to the Grand Final, and then beat Melbourne Storm in a massive upset.
After that, the Tri-Nations was something of an anti-climax for the heads of the sports department, particularly as cricket season was in full swing, with an Ashes series on the horizon.
Anyway, here is an account of my coverage of what I thought was a marvellous Tri-Nations tournament.
Dave Topliss and other members of a British Rugby League Supporters’ group were cock-a-hoop, as they played beach football at Surfers Paradise. The Great Britain Lions had beaten Australia 23-14 in Sydney a few days earlier, to set the cat among the pigeons in the Tri-Nations, with New Zealand the other competing side.
Captained by Jamie Peacock, and coached by Brian Noble, Britain had scored four tries to two, putting behind them an 18-14 loss to the Kiwis in Christchurch a week earlier.
I covered the 2006 tournament for ‘The Courier-Mail’, and it was one of my more enjoyable assignments, as I had plenty of time to catch up with members of the large British media contingent, as well as getting to meet some of the great former British players at a Lions’ reunion in Sydney.
There were a number of supporters’ tours out here from the UK, one of them led by former ERL boss, David Howes and his wife, Linda. They had sought my assistance in organising day trips from Brisbane, and one of these trips took us to Kingscliff in Northern New South Wales for morning tea; back to the Gold Coast and the Tallebudgera Surf Club for lunch (where we were joined by Gold Coast based former Castleford star, Adrian Vowles); followed by beach footy at Surfers Paradise, and then drinks at Brannigans Bar, Broadbeach where our host was former Australian skipper, John Sattler.
Dave Topliss, a former Great Britain skipper, was one of the members of the Howes’ touring party, and still looked fit enough to be playing for the Lions, as he dominated the beach footy. The Howes’ group also included the father of Great Britain forward, Gareth Ellis. I had first interviewed Dave Topliss in 1982, when he was recalled from a mid-season break in Spain, to captain Britain against the Kangaroos in Leeds.
Crowds averaging 25,000 watched the seven matches played in six cities during the 2006 Tri-Nations, and vast television audiences tuned in for what proved a gripping tournament.
Australia defeated reigning Tri-Nations champions, New Zealand 30-18 in the opening match in Auckland on October 14, with Karmichael Hunt scoring two tries for the Kangaroos. Australia beat the Kiwis 20-15 in Melbourne a week later, with Greg Inglis scoring two tries in a thriller, with Mark Gasnier scoring the match winner. I watched both matches from home, at Zillmere.
I flew to Sydney from Brisbane on October 30, ahead of the Australia v Great Britain match, staying at the Australian team’s hotel, the Crowne Plaza at Coogee. On that first day I covered Australian training at Kogarah – with Steve Mascord and Brent Reed – and then the Brits’ session at Narrabeen, and I have to say, the Australians looked a lot sharper.
Australia were coached by Ricky Stuart and the support staff included Craig Bellamy, Tony ‘Springer’ Spencer and Tony Ayoub. Tristan Hay was the team’s media officer.
For me, that week leading up to the match was one of training sessions; one-on-one interviews with the likes of Cameron Smith, Brent Kite and Mark Gasnier; social outings with the British and Australian media, and a couple of delightful swims at Clovelly Ocean Baths.
There are two pubs at Coogee, – The Coogee Bay and Palace – both popular with locals and back packers. I had dinner one night at the Palace – beef curry – and drinks one night at the Coogee Bay, where Australian players, Johnathan Thurston, Matt King, Andrew Ryan and Justin Hodges were enjoying a few ales. None of them were playing in the Test against Britain. Occasionally there was loud music from players’ rooms at the hotel, and I was shocked to see that a couple of players smoked. But the players were well behaved and professional.
The night before the first match against Britain, I dined with the British media corps., at The Steyn Hotel, Manly, where the King Island steak was a delight. We were joined by Steve Mascord, who brought along his half-sister, who he had only met, for the first time, 48 hours earlier.
The British media group included Ray French, Andrew Varley, Martin Richards, Andy Wilson, Chris Irvine, Dave Hadfield (better known by readers of Rugby League Week as George Dunkerly), Trevor Hunt, Julie Stott, David Woods, Richard Bott and David Burke, a former Rochdale Hornets’ player. Dave Hadfield had played amateur rugby league in his home city, Bolton, where the 2007 World Club Challenge match between the Broncos and St Helens was to be played.
On the day of the Test, I dined at Randwick Rugby Union Club with former Widnes’ Rugby League forward, Brian Atherton, who was my captain-coach at Murwillumbah Brothers in 1973. Such a delightful setting, watching high quality grade cricket being played on the adjoining oval. The Rugby League Test was high quality as well, with Britain deserved 23-12 winners, scoring four tries to two.
It was a sombre Australian recovery session at Coogee Surf Club the next morning, before the players broke camp for a few days, as Britain had to play their return match against the Kiwis in Wellington the following weekend. The match proved a disaster for Britain, with the Brian McClennan coached New Zealand winning 34-4, the result meaning they had to beat Australia the following weekend in Brisbane, and then rely on points for-and-against to reach the final.
In his autobiography, Darren Lockyer revealed that he and prop, Petero Civoniceva had fronted coach, Stuart about how much training they were doing, and that the hard work, after a long season, was starting to take its toll.
“The great thing about Ricky is he loves his players, and he took on board what Petero and I had to say and wound things back just a touch,” Lockyer wrote.
Tonga born, Bundaberg raised, Antonio Kaufusi was named for his Test debut in the Brisbane match, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him at the team hotel. Antonio is a real gentleman, and knows our youngest lad, Lliam, given they were students together at Brisbane’s Nudgee College.
It was a busy week for me, and I left it to my wife, Marie to lead David Howes’ tour group on a trip to the Darling Downs on Monday, November 13, with the group having a BBQ lunch at the Railway Hotel, Allora, where they were looked after by publican, John Fraser, formerly from Kyogle, who is good mates with one of my former football rivals on the Tweed, John ‘Johnno’ Johnson, a classy fullback. Marie and I had undertaken a country trip the previous month to lay the ground work for Poms’ Downs’ excursion.
I had one day off leading up to the Test, and took on tour-leader duties for the previously mentioned trip to Kingscliff and the Gold Coast. But it was Marie’s turn again on the Friday before the Test, leading the group to the Sunshine Coast, where the highlight was lunch with former Test halfback, Allan Langer at his Caloundra restaurant; and drinks with former Castleford fullback, James Sandy at Redcliffe Leagues Club, on the return journey.
Australia got their revenge over Britain in the return Test, winning 33-10 in front of a crowd of 44,358. I caught up with Widnesian, John Mullarkey before the match. John is something of a legend in the Manning District of Northern New South Wales, where he played rugby league, after moving to Australia.
The result meant it was an Australia v New Zealand final in Sydney the following weekend, and I flew south on Monday, November 20, doing my first player interviews at a gym run by former Mr Australia, Paul Graham, at Coogee.
That night I covered the Golden Boot Awards at the Hilton Hotel, with the major award going to Broncos, Queensland and Australian skipper, Darren Lockyer. Afterwards I had drinks (I shouted, or should I say, News Ltd shouted) with former Test fullback, Garry Jack in the Hilton’s famous Marble Bar, and he told me amazing stories from the 1986 Kangaroo tour of Britain and France, some of which I knew, because I covered the tour for the Brisbane ‘Telegraph’.
The following night I covered a charity dinner at Bondi, with the Australian team the special guests. The guest speaker was media personality and former Wallabies coach, Alan Jones. After Jones had spoken, former rugby league Test halfback, Billy Smith took to the stage to give the organisers a serve for inviting a ‘rugby union p……’.
Smith said words to this effect: “Alan, that was the worst f…..thing I’ve ever heard. You’re from another sport: rugby union. You know nothing about football, you d…head. Guys, you don’t need any of these speeches. You know what to do on the weekend.”
How embarrassing. It would be all over social media these days. Anyway, league great, Bob McCarthy and I managed to have a chuckle about it over a beer or two afterwards.
The next day it was back to business – it’s a hard life, I know. I covered Australian team training at the Sydney Football Stadium, where I caught up with my former Murwillumbah Brothers’ under-18 coach, Brian Tracey, on his way to the gym. ‘Trace’ was a classic low tackler and, to my way of thinking, a pin-up boy for rugby league and the way it should be played. Such a gentleman as well. Brian had moved to the Tweed in the mid-1960s, from the Roosters, but returned to Sydney in the 1970s.
That night I dined at the Welcome Hotel, Rozelle with the BBC’s Ray French, who was thrilled that a lady who worked in the kitchen, remembered him from a previous visit. Ray described the Australian pack as the worst in 30 years, and said I could quote him.
“Write it as hard as you like,” he said, and I did. Afterall, as well as being a respected BBC commentator, Ray played rugby union for England and rugby league for Great Britain, in the forwards, so he had ‘street cred’.
The next morning, at the Crowne Plaza, Coogee I had morning tea with former Great Britain hooker, Colin Clarke, who had some tasty gossip from the UK about Australian players at one of the clubs over there, caught by the coach, snorting cocaine in the dressing rooms of the club’s home ground. One of the names left me dumbfounded, the other not so.
I wiped away the cobwebs of the previous night with a surf at Maroubra, where South Sydney player, John Sutton (a member of local surf ‘gang’, the ‘Bra Boys’) was casting his eye over the beach scene.
The Icebergs Club at Bondi was the venue for a wonderful dinner with media men, Dave Hadfield, Martin Richards, Richard Bott and Ray French, as well as Ray’s former Great Britain teammate, Tommy Bishop. I wish the conversation had been recorded.
My ‘Asian’ cabbie home was a madman. He called all Eastern Suburbs people ‘druggies’. I won’t tell you what I called him.
Australian coach, Ricky Stuart was particularly grumpy at the team’s final training run at Kogarah. I filed my stories from News Ltd offices at Holt Street, Surry Hills after sharing a cab with James Hooper and Adam Hawse from the Telegraph. I got my stories through in record time, because I had been invited to a British Lions’ reunion at the New South Wales Leagues Club.
In attendance were the likes of some of the true greats of the game, such as Billy Boston, Cliff Watson, Tommy Bishop, John Gray and Adrian Morley. My father Jon’s all-time favourite player was Welsh winger, Boston, who dad saw play for Great Britain against North Coast at Lismore in 1958. Dad also played on the wing – for South Lismore – and represented the Richmond District.
News come through during lunch of the passing of French rugby league great, Gilbert Benausse, a former hairdresser from Carcassonne, who was regarded as the prince of attackers in France, a man who had played against Boston and Watson.
I had dinner at the Clovelly Hotel, where I had a nice chat with league legend, Ron Coote, who was on his way to a birthday party thrown for Joyce Churchill, the widow of the great Clive Churchill.
On match day morning I met ‘Inside Sport’ reporter, Andrew Webster, who was keen to write a feature on Greg Inglis. Andrew comes from Urunga on the North Coast of New South Wales. My Punjabi cabbie to the Sydney Football Stadium wanted to know the difference between league and union. I’m sure if he had watched the final, he would have been a convert to league, as the game was an absolute thriller, with Australia winning 16-12.
Six minutes into extra time, Australian halfback, Johnathan Thurston sliced through the defence, courtesy of one of his ‘show and go’ dummies. ‘JT’ was rounded up by the defence 30 metres from the try-line, but had skipper, Lockyer in support, and he did the rest. It capped off what had been pretty much a perfect year for Lockyer, who had also led Queensland to victory in the Origin series.
I celebrated the end of the tournament with beers at The Three Weeds Pub, Paddington, with fellow scribes, one of whom collided with a lamp post on the way out.
On Sunday, November 26, as a I left the Crowne Plaza at Coogee, Australian players, Cameron Smith and Matt King were coming up the stairs with a fresh supply of Tooheys’ cans, as celebrations continued unabated on their floor.
It was my job to get the Tri-Nations Trophy safely back to Brisbane. This was at the request of the Australian Rugby League who wanted to display it at the QRL offices. The Qantas staff at Sydney Airport enthusiastically greeted the challenge of ensuring the trophy would be treated with respect, in the hold of the aircraft.
When I arrived at the Queensland Newspapers offices with the trophy, I was the centre of attention. Work colleague, Gordon Leach gladly took a photo of me with the silverware, which was collected by the ARL the following day.
Two days later I started my annual holidays. After that Tri-Nations campaign, a man needed a break. I’m sure some of you would not agree.
Footnote: Dave Topliss died in 2008. He suffered a heart attack after playing five-aside soccer.