Ben Wall played under the coaching of rugby league Immortal, Clive Churchill at Easts in Brisbane in the 1960s.
In the same era, Wall played for Queensland against some of the all time great New South Wales sides. Later, he dealt with many crucial administrative issues as a long serving Australian Rugby League and Queensland Rugby League director.
But when he looked back on his time in the code – during an interview I did with him for the Men of League Foundation magazine in 2017 – he said he got the most satisfaction from his efforts to improve coaching standards.
“I loved educating coaches,” Wall said. “I had a Level 4 Certificate, which was like doing a university course. As a result of that, I was able to steer many people in the right direction, many of whom lacked self confidence. What a difference the right coaching can make to a sport.”
Wall was one of 12 children, and played his first season of football in his home town, Ayr in 1949, when he was 10 years-old. His father, ‘Snow’ Wall was a cane cutter in the Burdekin district, and played with the premiership Hornets side in 1923.
“Dad used to ride a bike 20 miles in the morning, cut 20 tonnes of cane, load it and ride home,” Ben recalled. “I would help him with the loading. He came from northern New South Wales originally, and fought in the First World War.”
Ben, who played for Hornets and Colts, became an apprentice baker when he left school at 13, and was playing senior Foley Shield (representative) football for Burdekin when he was 17.
Noel Kelly, Australia’s hooker in all three home Tests against New Zealand in 1959, moved to Ayr from Ipswich the following year and played Foley Shield for Burdekin, that same year representing Australia against France in the First Test in Sydney.
“I used to feel sorry for the other (Foley Shield) teams when we played them,” Wall said. “Herbert River had a hooker who wasn’t much of a striker for the ball, but he was a bit of a pug. They put him in the team to fix Kelly up. You know how long he lasted! He went straight out the back parts of the second row. When Noel got picked for Australia I went around to his place on the Sunday before a (local) club match, to congratulate him. He wasn’t playing that day, and said we’d have a couple of drinks to celebrate. He filled me up with grog, and when we got to the ground he was singing out things like: ‘How can you play on grog? You shouldn’t be out there.”
Wall moved to Brisbane in 1961 to play with Souths, and then in 1963 went to Rockhampton to coach the Fitzroys club. He returned to Brisbane in 1965 to play at Easts, under the coaching of legendary former Test fullback, Clive Churchill.
“Clive didn’t like me very much, even though I was captain,” Wall recalls. “That was the year they introduced the rule where if the ball went out on the full, or didn’t go 10 yards, it was a penalty, not a scrum. I would kick for goal (from the halfway line) and I reckon I had an 80 percent strike rate. It was an easy two points, I thought. But Churchill didn’t approve.”
Wall was a prodigious goal kicker, able to kick from long distances and from any angle. Playing for Central Queensland against France at Browne Park, Rockhampton in 1964 he kicked a 65-metre penalty goal.
“The ‘frogs’ (French) were laughing when I was kicking up the dirt to take the kick,” Wall said. “It was just inside our half on the grandstand side, right near the sideline. I thought, at the very least, I will be wasting a bit of time, because we were in front and doing well. I kicked it and it just kept going and going. The touch judge told me after it went over by 10 metres. I got a big write-up in the paper. They said they had to open the front gate to the ground for me to get my run up. We beat the French that day after beating the Kiwis the previous year.”
It was from Rockhampton that Wall made his debut for Queensland against New South Wales, under lights, at the Exhibition Ground in Brisbane in June, 1964.
Queensland, through hooker, Mick Lill (another Rockhampton player) and the assistance of his props, Wall and Mick Veivers, enjoyed a 2-1 majority in the scrums, but found the Blues’ defence almost impregnable. The Maroons’ only try in the 31-5 loss was scored by centre, Jeff Denman from an ‘up-and-under’, with Wall converting.
Wall kept his spot for the return match at Lang Park, and the Maroons turned in a much improved performance, before going down 22-11.
“I thought we had them (in the second game), and the final margin should have been just a couple of points, not 11,” he said. “There was so much rep football then, with state and country trials. We would play five games in seven or eight days. I got my nose smashed three times in one week playing for Central Qld, the last time on the Saturday of my engagement party, when Danny Clifford (North Qld) got me, in what he said was a get square.”
Commonwealth Games sprinter, Mike Cleary and world class professional sprinter, Ken Irvine were the NSW wingers in 1964, but Wall says the fastest man he played with, or against, was Des Hendry, who represented Queensland in 1958-59 from Ayr and Brisbane Souths.
“Des was a great beach sprinter, and just so fast,” Wall said. “I would back him against anyone from my day.”
Wall was approached by South Sydney at the end of the 1964 season, but because he had represented the state, was not allowed to transfer. Another Rockhampton star, Ivan Jones joined Souths that year and went on to play in the Rabbitohs’ 1967 grand final winning side.
After the ’65 season with Brisbane Easts, Wall moved to Townsville as captain-coach of WEA’s (West End Athletics) and won three premierships in four seasons, before hanging up his boots. He became non-playing coach of WEA’s and also coached the Townsville representative side.
In 1966 he played hooker for Townsville in their 14-10 loss to Cairns in the Foley Shield final, but never got to represent North Queensland.
When Wall was playing for Souths in Brisbane, he was introduced to the game of squash, and outside of football, that became his passion, to such an extent he and his wife, Gwyneth managed, then owned, squash courts in North Queensland. Ben even got to play a game against World Champion, Heather McKay.
One day, at his squash centre at North Ward in Townsville, Wall was approached by 1978 Kangaroo team manager, Jim Caldwell to apply for a full- time position in rugby league. Wall had managed Townsville Leagues Club for a short time, but otherwise had cut ties with the code.
“I talked it over with my wife, and took the job as North Queensland Coaching Director and Secretary,” Wall said. “We leased the squash courts. Down the track I also became North Qld chairman, with the blessing of QRL chairman, Ron McAuliffe. I went on to serve 13 years on the QRL Board and 10 years on the ARL. I became a Life Member of the QRL.”
Wall, who was known to mark the fields at the Townsville Sports Reserve when no-one else would do it, was one of the driving forces behind the staging of the Broncos v Parramatta Panasonic Cup match at Townsville Sports Reserve in 1989, a match which drew a capacity crowd of 14,000, and helped ignite enthusiasm for a North Queensland side in the ‘national’ competition.
“We also staged a Test at the Sports Reserve (between Australia and Papua New Guinea) in 1992,” Wall said. “It was bloody hard work. There were people queued up at three in morning, when tickets went on sale for the Broncos’ match. My daughter came and helped sell the tickets, and I employed a few people as well. I thought, ‘How the hell are we going to get all these people in here?’ I rang a few mates and we got scaffolding with seats built for the expected turn-out.”
Wall told me he was delighted with the Cowboys’ success and was cheering loudly when they won their maiden title in 2015.
“I didn’t have a lot to do with it (the birth of the Cowboys), because they chose to alienate me,” said Wall. “They chose to think that I was against them. It made things difficult, especially as they had the ‘Townsville Bulletin’ (newspaper) behind them. All these things were coming out in the paper, like ‘Ben Wall turns his nose up at the Cowboys’. I wasn’t for, or against them (in the early 1990s). But because I was on the ARL Board, they thought I was against them, because, from their point of view, things weren’t happening quickly enough, when the likes of the (South Queensland) Crushers and (Western) Reds were also trying to get a licence.”
Ben was co-manager of the 1995 and ’96 Queensland State of Origin sides along with Chris ‘Choppy’ Close. Those sides were coached by Paul ‘Fatty’ Vautin, with the ’95 side winning the series 3-0, despite being massive underdogs.
The death of his beloved wife, Gwyneth from stomach cancer in 2000, saw Wall resign from the ARL and QRL Boards.
“I just went to pieces,” he said. “It just didn’t feel right, running off to Sydney and Brisbane.”
Wall was made a Life Member of the QRL in 2001, a tribute to his many years of service to rugby league in Queensland.
He told me his all-time favorite North Queensland players were winger, Lionel Williamson and forward, Jim Paterson.
I learned of Ben’s passing on Friday, July 28, 2023, when QRL CEO, Ben Ikin notified me. Ben Wall’s funeral had been held the previous day. Fellow QRL Life Member, Kevin Brasch had been a regular visitor to Ben in his later years.