The first time I saw John ‘Cracker’ McDonald play rugby league was during Australia’s home Test series against Great Britain, in 1966.
McDonald made his Test debut from Toowoomba Valleys, in the first match of the series, at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The other debutants were winger, Johnny King (St George, Sydney); Gary Banks (Newcastle); Angelo Crema (Tully) and Bill Bradstreet (Manly-Warringah).
Australia lost 17-13 and Queenslanders, McDonald and Crema, along with Banks and Bradstreet, were dropped for the return match in Brisbane. I watched the First Test live, on television, from our family home at Bray Park, Murwillumbah.
The following year I saw ‘Cracker’ in the flesh, as he carved up the Kiwis in the Second Trans-Tasman Test at Lang Park, scoring two tries, and kicking six goals. I attended the match with my father, Jon Ricketts and we watched from the Milton Road end of the ground, where I recall ‘Cracker’ scoring a cracking try in the corner.
John toured Britain and France with the Kangaroos at the end of that season, with the players receiving a weekly allowance of $35, from which the married men were expected to make an ‘allotment’ to their wives.
When I interviewed McDonald in 1994, for a book on the history of Lang Park, he told me how he was chosen for the goal kicking role in that 1967 Test against the Kiwis.
“Australia played a warm-up game in Bundaberg, and although we scored nine tries, we could land only two goals between us,” he said. “They tried ‘Chang’ (Graeme Langlands), Ken Irvine and myself that day. They decided I had struck the ball better than the other two, so it was my job for the Test.
“It helped my confidence to score a try early (against the Kiwis), largely because of the lead-up work by our five eighth, Johnny Gleeson. A lot of Sydney club secretaries showed interest in me after I scored 18 points that day.”
In 1970, my father and I were back at Lang Park, watching Australia demolish the Poms 37-15, with McDonald scoring a try. Unfortunately Britain went on to win the series, and ‘Cracker’ played his last Test, on the wing, in Sydney as we lost the decider 21-17, with Britain scoring five tries to one.
The first time I recall meeting ‘Cracker’ was during the 1981 season, my first as a fulltime rugby league writer. I had moved into the sports department of Brisbane’s afternoon newspaper, the ‘Telegraph’, from the general news section.
When Cracker became QRL chairman in 1992, I interviewed him over lunch, at the Homestead Hotel, Zillmere. I tried to convince him that he would be the ideal frontman for the League, given he was a former Test centre, and Queensland’s first Origin coach. I said I would be seeking comment from him about the issues of day, rather than QRL Managing director, Ross Livermore.
Ross was a brilliant administrator, but was not that widely known, given his public service background. ‘Cracker’ was famous. But ‘Cracker’ didn’t like the limelight, and, ultimately, I went to Ross for the big quotes, as John preferred to work away in the background, and to fly the flag at events.
But the role he played in the settling of Super League War in 1997, should never be under-stated. He had a way of resolving issues, and getting to the core of the matter.
John and his wife, Joan were great company, and Joan is a beautiful woman, both in nature and appearance. They met when Joan worked at the McDonald printing business in Toowoomba in the 1960s.
I learned so much about John when I attended his funeral in Toowoomba on September 29, with fellow History Committee member, Paul Hayes driving me to the ‘Athletic Oval’ for the service, with mourners split between the marquee on the field, and the main grandstand.
On the way to and from Brisbane I wondered how ‘Cracker’ managed to do the trip so many times, always wanting to be hands on at meetings at QRL HQ, or in later years, at the Crushers Leagues Club at Grange.
At the funeral, Paul and I sat opposite John ‘Pogo’ Morgan and his wife, with ‘Pogo’ a former teammate of ‘Cracker’s at Manly-Warringah. (John’s son, Garrick played for the Wallabies and South Queensland Crushers).
Another Manly teammate, Alec Tennant undoubtedly would have been there, except for having recently moved from the Toowoomba region to Central Queensland.
Australian Rugby League Life Member, Kevin Brasch made the trip to Toowoomba from Chermside, in Brisbane, with his wife Tilly, and Ross Livermore’s widow, Meralda.
“John had an indelible influence on the game of rugby league,” said Brasch. “And he was a gentleman, in all ways.”
Former top radio commentator, Ross Lawson’s memories of ‘Cracker’ go back to McDonald playing for Queensland Primary Schools from the Toowoomba East State School which is beside the Athletic Oval, scene of all big league matches in the ‘garden city’.
Ross lived at Red Hill in Brisbane in his very early years, with his father owning a grocery store at Red Hill. When the Lawson family moved to Toowoomba, Ross joined the Valleys club, where he and John were teammates in under-16s.
“I have never seen a bloke as fast as ‘Cracker’,” Lawson said. “He won a few professional gifts, with the 440 yards his favourite distance. He would give blokes 50 yards start and run them down. His best time was good enough to win a Gold Medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
“John’s father, the original ‘Cracker’, played for the Wallabies. He had a FJ Holden, and I remember John Jnr. driving it up to Picnic Point in Toowoomba, and we would chase rabbits, using the headlights of the car.
“But John would leave early, because he wanted to take out his girlfriend, Joan, who worked in the McDonald family printing business. I would say, you have been with her all day, and he would reply: ‘I love her, and I will marry her.’
“We drove the car to Brisbane ahead of ‘Cracker’s debut for Queensland in 1964. I told him to watch out for ‘Chang’ (NSW superstar, Graeme Langlands). “Cracker’ told me not to worry, he would fix him. He hit ‘Chang’ with a stiff arm early, and ‘Chang’ was pretty quiet after that.”
Lawson was a regular visit to John McDonald, in his declining years.
“There were four of us – myself, my brother, John; Jock McGregor and ‘Cracker’, who were inseparable in Valleys under-18s,” Lawson recalls. “It’s a bond that can’t be broken.”