Less than a week now until Santa drops down the chimney with all that stuff filling up his swag: toys for the kids, socks and hankies for Dad and no doubt a new sewing machine for mum… great stuff. Meanwhile, you’re secretly hoping for a classic shirt, retro footy jersey or googling ‘NRL store near me’ and ‘how long until the 2020 NRL season?’
In case you’re wondering… 82 days from when we post this: check it out.
Now, despite all the heartache a dodgy present can bring, imagine some real pain. Imagine that you or your partner is an Australian Rugby League international, a Kangaroo Tour player even, from a retro, bygone, era. You could be helping the kids with those toys all on your lonesome, or struggling to hear them open their presents down the phone over a crappy line from the middle of a French winter. That’s because back-in-the-day, to be an international footballer meant a northern tour which ended in January. The last time this was actually a thing was some time ago, in 1967-68, and it came at the end of a season which changed footy forever.
Long, long ago, before there was even an NRL, there was the ARL. Before the ARL and Super League Wars came baby yoda. Ok, not him, but he is awesome. No before then there was the best rugby league comp in the world and it was the Sydney comp, the NSWRL. It was a different era. Not just different in logistical terms, but players were also of a different ilk, light years from the professional, superstar-famous NRL players we watch stroll around today. They held down full time jobs and trained on weekends. And yet, 1967, more than any other season, was the year that footy changed forever:
- The NSWRL expanded for the first time in almost 20 years* when the Penrith Panthers and Cronulla Sharks were admitted to what was then a Sydney-only competition.
- It was the first year of a limited-tackle rule, originally being 4 tackles for each side before a handover.
- The change was made from unlimited tackles. Think Rugby Union without all the pissing about on the ground. Under the previous rule, the St George Dragons had won 11 straight premierships, a record for any major sporting competition which still stands. More than Scottish football’s 9 straight by Rangers and Celtic of Glasgow, or the Boston Celtics 8 straight NBA titles.
- The change worked immediately. Despite finishing the season as Minor Premiers, the Dragons hegemony was broken by the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, who pipped them by a point in a preliminary game, before they themselves succumbed to the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the Grand Final.
At the end of that season, a Kangaroo tour side was chosen. This tradition of international rugby league will return after 17 years next year, but there was a time when it was as regular as the Olympics. The squad in 1967-68 was filled to the gills with Immortals, many from those St George and Souths sides. Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper, Ken Irvine, John Sattler and Ron Coote trekked to the other side of the planet, to spend more than three months together playing in frigid conditions against the best that northern hemisphere Rugby League had to offer.
The tour was notable for being led by a captain-coach, something common for Kangaroo teams in the 60s and 70s, in this case the very same Reg Gasnier. This was the tour which would end Gasnier’s career. He suffered a leg break in the First Test in England and sat out the rest of the English games before returning for a minor game in France whereupon he broke it again. He was 28 years old and never played another match. 1967 had been the first season in top grade footy that Gasnier didn’t finish as a champion. What a player.
This tour was also the last time a Kangaroo team would perform an Indigenous ‘war cry’ for another 40 years. You can even check it out on You Tube, with the expected, um, patronising from the British hosts who referred to it as ‘malarkey’. Cheers lads.
The tour also came to be known as the ‘bowler hat tour’. Apparently one of the players (often cited as Johnny Raper, though Dennis Manteit claimed it was him) walked through the town of Ilkley, 25 kms from Leeds, stark naked except for a bowler hat. The tourists had reportedly been kept in the small town to keep them out of trouble.
The Kangaroos ended up winning their series against Great Britain 2-1, but France was a very different story. Approaching two months away and in the dead of winter, up against Les Coqs (Fancy French Roosters, not Eastern Suburbs' Sydney Roosters) the Kangaroos drew the First Test match and then, if you can believe it, lost the following two. The Second Test was played on Christmas Eve and the last, with no matches in between, on January 7th. Presumably because no self-respecting Frenchman would work in the two weeks in-between.
Then the squad finally made their way home. By boat. Which brings us back to the original point. The distance and sacrifice of these players in missing out on Christmas with loved ones stands out in the hyper professional era of today. It’s hard to even imagine today’s NRL footy superstars agreeing to such a tour in the first place.
So, as you unwrap your singing fish to hang on the wall, or moan about grandpa always winning trivial pursuit, as you wish Uncle Gary would keep his tackle in his pants just once after a night on the rum, or beg your mum for a 2020 NRL jersey for your birthday, as you daydream about your team winning a premiership, you start working on your Fantasy team or begin making NRL season predictions… just spare a thought for these Legends of League from yesteryear. No wonder so many of them are Immortals. Their dedication to Rugby League was unquestionable. Even at Christmas.
While you’re here….
If you did happen to get a crap present this year, go check out our range of footy fans merch. Treat yourself or send a note out to friends and fam. You might want dream of a retro footy jersey, but FOOTY GEAR FROM DRESSINGSHED, is just as good and makes a tip-top present!