But, deep in the heart, there has always been the belief that we were better. After every loss the cry always went up: ‘But what if we had Arthur Beetson instead of them? After all, he’s a Queenslander.’ Well, you can’t get much more Queensland than being from Roma. And Beetson had played 11 straight years for Australia, and was captain. And a lot of other names were strung together.
Now that argument had become a reality. Tonight Queensland was to play NSW with the best Queenslanders – including those playing in NSW. There was Beetson, even at 35, welcomed home. Rod Reddy, bought as a 17-year-old schoolboy from Rockhampton – back home. And little Kerry Boustead who, a few years before, came down from Innisfail as an 18 year old and gave the crowd a brief glimmer of hope by proving the fastest and most elusive runner on the ground. But they bought him.
Plus there were six of the best local lads – including 20-year-old Wally Lewis, who had turned from rugby union where he had played in the famous Australian schoolboys tour with the Ella brothers. And a giant 21-year-old centre from Cunnamulla, Chris Close, whose mother would be listening on the radio.
This was it. And the crowd was confident, it was only 6 pm. And there were two hours to go until the start, but already the ground was filling fast. There was no doubt this would be a sellout.
But there was not the same confidence in the League board room, where Senator McAuliffe was welcoming 10 people to a pre-match dinner. A judge, a bureaucrat, a lawyer, a newspaper editor, some businessmen. An array of crystal wine and port glasses before each of us, original paintings on the wall.
Senator McAuliffe, a ruddy-faced, big-nosed raconteur with an infectious laugh, told the story behind the match. In the early ‘70s he had formed a ‘ways and means committee’ to try to stop NSW buying Queensland players. Then a ‘protection and procurement committee’ to pay them money to stay – $150,000 in all. It worked for a while but collapsed when, in 1978, 14 of Queensland’s best players moved to Sydney. ‘Now there are about 25 Queenslanders playing regular first grade for Sydney clubs – that’s nearly two teams. If we hadn’t spent $150,000 it would have been like an army retreating to NSW.
Last year he reached the conclusion that, although Queensland could perform well, the result could be confidently forecast. ‘This meant the series had a short lifespan. It was even cooling the intense patriotism of Queenslanders. There was an atmosphere of defeatism.’
The 60-year-old ALP Senator said that if this were allowed to continue in any walk of life – ‘One side crushed by the other side’ – there would be no interest, no vitality. ‘It’s the same in Parliament, you must have a virile Opposition.’
McAuliffe also noted that, while league is still by far the major football code in Queensland and NSW it is under intense challenge from other codes. ‘If we are going to remain on top, we must have matches with appeal and evenness.’
Luckily he was able to convince NSW officials of this – so they would release their players for the game. ‘Otherwise NSW will end up having to play themselves,’ was the way he put it to them.
Still, there were problems.
Outside on the footpath Channel 9 was doing a news report live: ‘This is the match they have talked about for years. This will end decades of speculation on who has the best team.’ But would highly-paid NSW professionals who had been living in NSW for 15 years, like Beetson, bother trying in a match for their former state? Even for a bit of extra dough? It would be a fiasco if they didn’t.
It was decided that the winners should get – for the first time in Australian sport – a percentage of the gross gate – 10 percent. With other sponsorships plus a match fee of $200 the winning team would get up to $1400 a man.
A magnanimous man, the Senator looked worried in between jokes, for which he invariably splayed out the palms of his hands close to the front of his chest. Would they all try? Really hard? Would the ground be full with the TV replay so soon afterwards? Surely NSW would still win. Beetson was now old.
Six of the team were inexperienced locals. He kept adjusting his suit vest with his left hand as he sprayed the port around. ‘It’s cold outside, drink up.’
And, too awful to contemplate, where would McAuliffe turn to next if Queensland was again beaten?
The Senator was doing what we all often do – saying what we ourselves want to hear. His silver glasses and hair contrasting with his ruddy complexion, he pondered: ‘Champions are like good horses. They will rise to the occasion. Once they get out on the track and the saddle is put on the adrenalin will flow. Beetson and Reddy are two immortals who haven’t played for Queensland yet. They are two old warriors who have heard the bugle call. Patriotism is a great thing, you know. Deep down the real ambition of all football players is to play for their city, their state and their country. And if somewhere along the line you are waylaid because of money – which is understandable in working-class sport – the older you get the more you regret you didn’t play. When the kids say: “Dad, why didn’t you play for Queensland?” it doesn’t impress them much if you start talking about deals and offers.’
As we filed out into our grandstand seats it was a sight to see the ground completely full once again. There was a roar as out of the night sky trailing maroon smoke came two parachutists who landed on the field. Then the Blues appeared to 30,000 boos – and Arthur Beetson’s first appearance in maroon is merely a befuddled memory of noise and emotion. Though I do remember the band struck up Life is Great in the Sunshine State. And the crowd deliberately sang Waltzing Matilda during the rendition of Advance Australia Fair – which shows how wrong polls can be.
An English referee had to be flown out for the match because NSW demanded a neutral referee. ‘I told them I thought all referees were supposed to be neutral,’ Ron McAuliffe said, using his wickeder-than-wicked grin.
A penalty to NSW brought a farmyard chant of ‘Bullshit, bullshit’ from the outer, and as Arthur Beetson joined the biggest brawl yet seen on the Lang Park oval, they chanted, ‘Artie, Artie, Artie, Artie.’
If ever there was any doubt that the prodigal sons had returned that brawl ended it. One NSW player had a present Queenslander sitting on his shoulders while a past one clobbered him from in front. On TV they call such happenings ‘a confrontation in back play’ … ‘several incidents in the play-the-ball’ … ‘a swinging arm’ or ‘a facial massage’.
But this was an all-in brawl broken into three separate groups of punch-throwers – with only NSW centre Steve Rogers trying to break it up.
Amazingly, Parramatta player fought Parramatta player and St George fought St George – and Beetson so dominated play that a Sydney visitor remarked that Parramatta would now demand that he play in a maroon jersey.
Boustead had never run so hard for Easts in Sydney – and toward the end the ecstatic Queensland crowd began to chant ‘Easy, easy’ as they led 20 points to 10.
McAuliffe was now waxing lyrical to the man next to him, appropriately the Minister for Defence, Jim Killen: ‘The old chaps, they hear the bugle call, they react. History is full of it. This is great theatre, great theatre. Beetson and Reddy are like a couple of old opera stars, they must perform.’
‘It must be something to be a Queenslander.’
And the front page headlines of the next day’s afternoon Telegraph – which devoted five pages including the cartoon to the match – summed up the feeling, in more ways than one: ‘THE NIGHT WE BEAT THE BLUES’.
The Weekend Australian, 12-13 July 1980
*Extract from The Best Ever Australian Sports Writing (A 200 Year Collection) edited by David Headon