Everyone had a Johnny Raper story at the pub, on the day the legendary rugby league lock passed away – February 9, 2022.
Jim Gannon remembered his dad driving him down from Mt Mee, to see an Australia v New Zealand Test at Brisbane’s Lang Park in 1967, with Raper scoring a try in the Kangaroos’ 35-22 win.
Len O’Brien saw Raper play in an inter-state match at the Exhibition Grounds in the late 1960s, while Dave Corbett saw ‘Chook’ at the end of his career, playing for New South Wales against Queensland at Lang Park, in 1970.
Peter Skerman played against Raper, in 1970, in a trial at Corbett Park, Grange. It was Raper’s first year out of Sydney football, and he was captain-coach of Newcastle’s Western Suburbs Rosellas.
Skerman, a gangly winger, recalled running through a tiring Raper, and couldn’t believe he had done it, given ‘Chook’ was one of the game’s greatest defenders. But Skerman acknowledged it was February in Brisbane, it was stinking hot and humid, and Raper was in the veteran category.
In 1958, after the New South Wales Colts v Great Britain match in Sydney, feared English lock, Vince Karalius gave Raper his jersey. “I’d like you have this, because you are going to be a great player,” Karalius told Raper, after the tourists’ 19-11 win.
Karalius was a good judge, as Raper went on to become ‘The Prince of Locks”, playing 39 Tests for Australia, and going on three Kangaroo tours of Britain and France.
Raper played junior football for Camperdown Dragons in the Canterbury-Bankstown League, but represented Newtown in the Presidents’ Cup (under-21) competition, after being provided with a false address, to satisfy the residential qualifications of the time. He started in the second row, moved to five eighth, and then found his home at lock.
He was signed by St George in 1959, and went on to play in eight premiership winning campaigns in a row, finishing up as captain-coach of St George in 1969. In 1970, Raper was appointed captain-coach of Wests Newcastle. He played for New South Wales Country in World Cup selection trials at the end of the year, but his Test career was effectively at an end.
After his retirement as a player, he returned to Sydney to coach Cronulla in 1975. In 1978 he answered an SOS from close mate, John Singleton, to take over as coach of the Newtown Jets, after the resignation of Paul Broughton.
I interviewed Raper many times, usually in his role as an Australian and/or State selector. I also interviewed Johnny’s brothers, Ron and Gerard a number of times, as well as Johnny’s son, Stuart. I interviewed Ron in his role as a coach; Stuart when he was a player, and later a coach; and Gerard when he was Australian team manager.
One of the biggest stories I had to write concerning Johnny, was a rather sad one, around his son, Aaron, who was selected for New South Wales for Game 2 of the 1997 State of Origin Series – at the MCG – but did not get on the field. At a post-match function, Raper denounced coach, Tom Raudonikis’s decision, even threatening to take his son to the rebel Super League, of which Johnny was a staunch opponent.
The next day, after he had calmed down, John said he felt deeply for his son, because it was likely to have been his one and only chance to play the at the MCG, a ground Johnny himself would have loved to have graced, but never had the opportunity.
“But Aaron has complete faith in his coach, who has to live and die by those decisions,” Raper said, diplomatically.
Aaron was never selected for NSW again. But he had represented Australia during the 1995 World Cup in the UK, playing a Test against South Africa.
In ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, Roy Masters wrote that Johnny Raper, a fitness fanatic, but also a man who loved a good time, had burned the candle at both ends, ‘with a blow torch’. Evidently famed broadcaster, Frank Hyde told Raper he wouldn’t reach 50. On his 50th birthday, Raper woke Hyde with an early morning phone call. “I made it Frank”.
It was great to see so much space devoted to Johnny’s passing, (aged 82) in ‘The Courier-Mail’, with stories by Sydney based David Riccio and Paul Kent.
As a lad starting out in rugby league in the 1960s, my ‘football bible’ was Johnny Raper’s ‘How to Play Rugby League’. I always wanted to sidestep like Graeme Langlands, and cover defend like Johnny Raper. And I’m sure there were many thousands of other boys with the same lofty dreams.
It gave me an enormous thrill to be in the crowd at the SCG in 1968, when Raper led Australia to a 20-2 win over France in the World Cup Final. It was Raper’s last Test for his country.