Lionel Morgan was a trail blazing rugby league player, who earned respect for his achievements, on and off the football field.
Morgan was the first Indigenous man to represent Australia in Rugby League, playing two Tests in the 1960 home series against France, and then travelling to England at the end of the Year, for the World Cup.
A product of the Tweed Seagulls’ club, he was a one-club player in Queensland, staying loyal to the Wynnum-Manly Seagulls, where he turned out in 150 First Grade matches, between 1959 and 1968. He still holds the club record for the most tries in one match – six against Souths at Davies Park, in 1964. He was Wynnum’s captain-coach between 1965 and ’67.
Morgan played 16 matches for Queensland, between 1960 and 1963, including games against touring French, British, New Zealand and South African sides.
In the 1994 book, ‘Lang Park, The First 36 Years’, the chapter on Lionel Morgan was headlined ‘Footballer, Gentleman’. He was noted for playing the game in the right spirit; for always showing dignity, in the face of adversity; and for making time to help those in need.
As a boy living on the Tweed, he played for New South Wales’ Primary Schools, and a teammate was future ‘Immortal’, Reg Gasnier. Morgan played under-18s for Tweed Seagulls, and then first grade for Tweed All Blacks, winning a premiership in 1958, when the All Blacks defeated the Paul Broughton coached, Murwillumbah Brothers in the Grand Final.
He was subsequently recruited by Wynnum-Manly, where he quickly made his mark as a try scoring freak, who could also kick goals. That year he also was selected for the Brisbane side to contest the inter-city, Bulimba Cup competition, against Ipswich and Toowoomba. The following year he was chosen for Queensland, playing all four inter-state games. He made his Test debut against France, on July 2, 1960, at the Brisbane Exhibition Grounds, scoring two tries in a resounding 56-6 win, before a crowd of 32,644. He was Wynnum’s first ever Australian representative.
Morgan retained his spot for the Third Test in Sydney, which France won 7-5. At the end of the domestic season, he toured England with Australia’s World Cup side, playing in a 13-12 win over France at Wigan, as well as a 15-12 win over champion club side, St Helens.
In 1962, he scored five tries and kicked six goals in a Bulimba Cup match against Ipswich, a record 27 points. The following year he scored all Queensland’s points – two tries and two goals – in the Maroons’ 14-10 loss to the touring Kiwis.
He almost helped Queensland to a famous victory over New South Wales at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1960, scoring a try in the corner for the Maroons to trail 20-19. Captain, Barry Muir asked if Morgan could land the conversion, after first choice kicker, Kev Lohman had missed with his previous two shots.
“I said ‘no trouble. I’ll put it through’,” Morgan recalled. “It was about a foot in from the touchline, on ‘The Hill’ side, and so I went bang, and guided it through. As I walked back, I heard this whistle coming through the air. This bloke had pelted a can of beer at me, for kicking the goal. Probably, if it had hit me, it would have opened me up.”
Unfortunately, NSW got away with a 22-21 win, thanks to a late penalty goal by Gundagai product, John Jones.
Lionel wasn’t just a try scoring whiz. He was the complete footballer. In a Bulimba Cup match against Ipswich in 1961, he scored two tries for Brisbane in a 37-13 win.
The Courier-Mail’s Jack Reardon wrote: ‘Lionel was well in the attacking picture, but I thought his best bit of football, was his deft back pass to (fullback) Frank Drake for a try, after Bob Hagan had again made an opening.”
Lionel Morgan and his wife, Laura were married for 63 years. He never drank or smoked, and remained a role model in the true sense of the word, helping Indigenous youth who were experiencing hard times, while always setting a good example.
When Kougari Oval was opened for its first match in 1967, Lionel had the distinction of scoring the first try at the famous ground.
On his retirement as a player, he remained an integral part of the Wynnum-Manly Rugby League community, and his four sons – David, Bradley, Earl and Chris – all played for the club. His stature in the game no doubt inspired many Indigenous sportsmen and women to go on and fulfil their dreams, either on the sporting fields, or in the broader community.
He coached Indigenous age teams, and was an integral part of the establishment of the Indigenous All Stars’ concept, being appointed a mentor for the Indigenous Under-16 teams.
In 2008, Morgan was named in the Indigenous Team of the Century. Last year he was named on the wing in the Brisbane Rugby League Team of the Century, selected by members of the Queensland Rugby League History Committee.
Lionel Morgan and former Queensland Rugby League Chairman, and fellow Test representative, John McDonald, were honoured with a minute’s silence before the Hostplus Grand Final, between Easts and Burleigh, at Redcliffe, on Sunday, September 17. McDonald had passed away on September 13, aged 79, while Morgan died overnight, on the weekend of September 16-17, aged 85.
The ‘Morgan’ name was part and parcel of my rugby league upbringing on the Tweed. My father, Jon, told me all about Lionel, and I played against Lionel’s brother, Paddy, when he was at the end of his career, at Burleigh Bears. The first story I wrote, as a cadet journalist, was an update on the fund raiser for another of Lionel’s brothers – Maurie – who died in an accident in the Riverina, where he had accepted a captain-coach post.
I also covered a number of games, in which Lionel’s son, Bradley played, for Wynnum, in the 1980s.
The fact ‘The Courier-Mail’ (in an article by Travis Meyn and Robert ‘Crash’ Craddock) quoted me about Lionel’s claims for a place in the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame, resulted in wider media interest. ABC Brisbane, via George Roberts, contacted me on Sunday night, during the Queensland Cup Grand Final. I missed that call.
The next day, after writing an Obituary for the QRL website, I was interviewed by Julie Clift from ABC Gold Coast, about Lionel. The next day I was interviewed by Bridie Tanner from ABC North Coast (NSW). Bridie is based in Lismore.
It was almost like I was back at the coal face of work. But I was so happy to talk about Lionel’s wonderful career.