GAME TO REMEMBER: Wayne “Bomber” Hore and Jack “Croaker” Gill relive the 1967 grand final at No.1 Sportsground this week.
DATELINE: Saturday, August 26, 1967. It is Newcastle Rugby League grand final day.
Unlimited tackles have been surpassed by the new “four-tackle” rule, which many suspect has been introduced to break the St George club’s 11-year stranglehold on the Sydney premiership.
More than 18,000 spectators cram into Newcastle’s No.1 Sportsground.
They will witness an enthralling local decider that ultimately delivers not just an upset result but also hastens a further change to the code’s international rule book.
The protagonists are Western Suburbs and Northern Suburbs, two clubs remarkably dissimilar to the casual observer.
Among the powerful Wests Rosellas line-up is footballing catholic priest Father John Cootes. Within two years he will be chosen in Australia’s Test team while still playing in Newcastle.
Hooker Allan Buman is the incumbent Test rake in an era when the ability to strike cobra-like for the ball in scrums is a premium requirement, though in the future this will become a useless attribute.
Mick Alchin is a volatile winger and will go on to a Sydney playing and coaching career.
Hard men in the pack include Ray “Wagga” Johnson and Dennis Rowston, who years later becomes, like Buman, a prominent hotelier.
Lock forward and captain-coach John Hobby is versatile, a skilled ball distributor.
The backline bristles with representative talent. Police constable and five-eighth Wayne “Bomber” Hore later rises to the rank of detective inspector and in retirement becomes a director of the monolithic Wests Leagues Club in New Lambton.
The Rosellas win both lower-grade grand finals and are warm favourites to triumph in first grade, thus replicating their feat of the previous season when minor and major premiers in all three grades.
Only one thing stands in their way: Norths.
The “Bluebags”, as they are known, have their heartland in the blue-collar suburbs clustered near the Newcastle waterfront. Their “leagues club” is a series of pubs dotted around Wickham, Islington and Carrington.
Northern Suburbs will start underdogs because, at least on paper, the “Blues” may struggle to match the firepower of Western Suburbs.
But read the fine print.
Player-coach Jack “Croaker” Gill is a dockyard worker from Stockton, a canny tactician and deadly goalkicking lock forward, back home after a stint with Parramatta.
Veteran front-rower Billy “Bags” Owens is playing his last game. Don’t underestimate Bags, a rock-hard Carrington man who has played for Australia.
Big prop Dennis Nichols will rise to great heights in the Newcastle trade union sector.
Rookie second-rower Karl Hutchinson is only 20 and destined for a long representative playing and coaching career.
Ironically, “Hutcho” will play his final seasons of district rugby league with today’s enemy.
Slippery five-eighth Les Perry later emulates his captain by making the grade in Sydney football.
Forward Bill Mattingly is so strong he is nicknamed “Horse”, although “Rhino” would perhaps be more apt.
Unheralded young hooker Allan Jones is about to have his finest hour.
Doug Ellis comes up from the lower grades to fullback and has a huge game.
At 3pm the match starts under the iron fist (or whistle) of referee Noel Spohr.
Both teams are wary in the early stages.
After 20 minutes the score is two points apiece when Norths suddenly strike.
From close range Blues halfback Brian Askie scoots through the Wests goal-line defence to score the first try.
Tries are worth three points. Gill misses the conversion and Norths lead 5-2.
The Rosellas immediately hit back. Cootes beats multiple defenders in a 50-metre run and scores wide out. He converts his own try. Wests 7-5.
Another penalty goal suggests the Rosella are gaining the ascendancy, but they must capitalise on the breeze at their backs and need more points before the break.
No points come, but an ominous statistic has arisen.
Although leading 9-5 on the scoreboard, Wests have lost the first-half scrums 7-1 and are also getting caned in the penalty count.
Gill kicks a penalty after the resumption, but Cootes immediately does likewise for an 11-7 lead.
Dangerous attacking raids by both teams are snuffed out by strong defence.
Repeated Wests infringements allow Gill to land two more goals – one is from near halfway – as Norths claw back to 11-all.
Wests miss with two field-goal attempts and are further hampered by handling errors into the wind. Frustration creeps in.
With nine minutes to go, Buman is caught offside and Gill kicks the goal.
Norths have hit the lead 13-11 in a thriller.
Then it happens: Croaker’s master stroke.
From the restart Norths work through their four-tackle set and, on the last tackle, Gill kicks the ball dead on the full.
Under the rules, the defending team must restart play with a drop-kick from their own quarter line, thus surrendering possession.
Wests do so.
Norths take three more tackles and the skipper kicks dead again, depriving the desperate Rosellas of the ball.
Of course, you wouldn’t have done this under the unlimited-tackle rule – you just work the ball relentlessly until you score or turn the ball over. But, on this day, with a handy breeze at his back, Gill intentionally punts the ball out of play an astonishing six times in succession, and his team get it back on each occasion.
His seventh kick misfires and Wests regain the ball with just a minute left on the clock.
Alchin breaks clear and kicks infield, but Cootes fumbles and the last chance is gone.
The siren sounds and Norths are major premiers. The Carro pubs will be full tonight.
The rest is history and rumour.
That’s the reason for this story: The rumours.
This game has passed into footy folklore.
Some accounts suggest famed former Newcastle player Brian Carlson, a mate of Jack Gill, found the rule loophole and passed it on.
Another says a Norths stalwart spotted it while flicking through the new rule book and that Norths kept it up their sleeve until grand final day.
It’s all untrue.
I went to see Jack “Croaker” Gill this week in search of the definitive answer. He clarified things once and for all.
“With about 10 minutes left I put up an attacking high kick which the wind carried over the dead-ball line and out of play,” he said.
“When we got the ball back from the restart it suddenly dawned on me that we could utilise the rule.
“We held only a slender lead. We couldn’t afford to give Wests half a chance.
“We didn’t give them that half chance and we won.”
But Wests pivot “Bomber” Hore sees it differently.
“Referee Spohr penalised us unmercifully,” he recalled.
“We never got into any rhythm, and 47 years later it still hurts.”
Footnote: Before the start of the following season (1968) the relevant rule was changed internationally and thereafter the defending side were given possession and restarted play with a tap kick.
NORTHERN SUBURBS 13 (B Askie try; J Gill 5 goals) WESTERN SUBURBS 11 (J Cootes try; J Cootes 3 goals; J Hobby field goal)
Scrums: North 11-4
Penalties: Norths 14-8
Norths: 1 D Ellis 2 D Newton
3 D McManus 4 R Hunter 5 R Butler
6 L Perry 7 B Askie 8 J Gill
9 W Mattingly 10 K Hutchinson
11 D Nichols 12 A Jones 13 W Owens
Wests: 1 G Spruce 2 M Alchin
3 R Hensby 4 J Cootes 5 P Holmes 6 W Hore 7 Mick Gallagher
8 J Hobby 9 D Rowston
10 R Johnson 11 N Gibson
12 A Buman 13 R Davies