Ballymore Beat: Long may tribal club loyalties burn fiercely

Thu, Mar 14, 2024, 11:44 PM
Jim Tucker
by Jim Tucker
Brothers talisman Tony Shaw holding aloft the Hospital Cup silverware after a premiership in the 1980s.
Brothers talisman Tony Shaw holding aloft the Hospital Cup silverware after a premiership in the 1980s.

The first of a weekly column on Queensland rugby, tackling everything from the Queensland Reds to grassroots, juniors and country rugby.

There are good reasons why Saturday’s classic Brothers v Randwick showdown is the ultimate match-up for the Australian Club Championship.

Whenever rugby minds have discussed national club competition models over the past 30 years, one line has been recurring.

“Great idea. Who wouldn’t want to see power clubs like Brothers and Randwick playing against each other or Sydney Uni up against University of Queensland?,” the competition mathematicians say.

The club rivalries between Brisbane and Sydney clubs peter out after that because there just hasn’t been a track record of constant contact.

Wests of Brisbane did catch the train to Sydney in 1963 to play Wests of Sydney. They travelled second class and slept sitting up for the joys of tour life.

Even the Brothers-Randwick rivalry is built on just five clashes over the past 50 years. It’s the rich folklore of those games and the clubs involved which makes Crosby Park the place to be on Saturday for the 3.30pm kick-off.

When the first match between the clubs was enacted at Ballymore in 1974, the players felt it was almost another interstate clash so heavily laden with representative players were both sides. A big crowd reflected it and they roared home a 45-22 Brothers win.

“It genuinely felt like another Queensland v NSW game with the all the rep players involved,” Paul McLean said.

“It was tribal and being the ‘first’ made for a special occasion.”

McLean was an uncapped 20-year-old flyhalf with unruly hair at that point. His performance that day and in the Queensland v NSW series to follow catapulted him into the Test arena against the All Blacks at the same age.

“It was a sliding doors moment for me. My brother Jeff was at the height of his skills. He was a Wallaby and had just come off a full athletics season where he used weights which were very new to rugby players of that day,” McLean said.

“As much as a winger can be dominant, he was that day with four tries.

“I was the up-and-comer trying to make a name for myself. We played one Test together a few months later and then Jeff broke his leg badly and his career was gone.”

The very personal link of playing that Brothers-Randwick match with his older brother is still a treasured McLean memory.

Randwick won in 1982 (22-13) and 1983 (32-29) before a wild midweek match under lights at Coogee Oval in 1985 that is still recalled by all who played in it.

“It was a brutal affair. I was a 21-year-old on the bench and really didn’t care about getting on,” said Rod McCall, a World Cup-winning lock to be.

Captains Tony Shaw (Brothers) and John Maxwell (Randwick) ripped into each other as the alpha forwards they always were for their champion clubs.

When the referee called them out and told them bluntly that the crowd hadn’t come to see them fight but to watch rugby, they hooked into each other again.

The ref stunned both sides by sending off the two captains.

Brothers won 10-6.

“There were some Rolls-Royce backs out there that night but they could have worn tracksuits because it was all about the forwards,” said former Brothers prop Michael Crank.

“It was one of the most physical games I played in. It was nice and tough because it meant so much to the two clubs.”

McLean was Brothers team manager that night and remembers a hastily convened “judiciary panel” meeting in the grandstand. It would never wash today but they resolved to let both skippers off without punishment.

Eddie Jones and Simon Poidevin were in the revved-up Randwick pack that night which came off second best to Shaw, Crank, Greg Burke, Damien Frawley, Danny Tighe and the flame-throwing Nightingale brothers, Shane and Mark.

When Jones, as England coach, spoke at a Brothers Test week luncheon a few years ago, his opening gambit was apt: “Are those Nightingale blokes still around?”

Games and confrontations like that do live in the memory.

Randwick’s 27-9 win over Brothers at Crosby Park in 1988 is the last time the clubs met.

Peter Grigg, Mark McBain, David Campese, Gary Ella, Lloyd Walker, Ewen McKenzie, McCall, Poidevin, Jones and a baby-faced Phil Kearns were all on deck that day.

“Brothers and Randwick are leaders on the club scene, not just in first grade but through the whole club. It’s a very fitting occasion and high stakes whenever they meet,” McCall said.

This might give you an inkling of the history when Lawson Creighton and Paddy James started steering the ship against surprise starter Kurtley Beale and Randwick on Saturday.

Within the Queensland Reds, club-centric banter is regularly traded or a StoreLocal Hospital Cup match played on the screen in the team room on Saturdays away from Brisbane.

It’s why Harry Wilson, Ryan Smith, Josh Flook and Matt Faessler will find their way to Crosby Park when they hop of their plane from Melbourne on Saturday. The butcher stripes run deep. The Australian Club Championship has only survived to this day because of clubs like Brothers and Randwick elevating the occasion.

It has had very little nourishment or none at all from Rugby Australia over the years.

Clubs have found ways to raise money to pay for flights or stayed in three-star hotels to cut costs. They’ve hosted under their own steam or played as a curtain-raiser to Super Rugby games. They’ve cajoled sponsors to get involved and squeezed a date into crowded calendars.

The clubs have kept this wonderful concept afloat. Bumper bar and food takings help. With free entry at Crosby Park on Saturday, there’s not better rugby value before a beer and a steak sandwich served by Shaw, McLean and the Brothers’ old and bold in the hill corner.