Ian Heads, The Daily Telegraph
July 15, 2017 10:37am
SOUTHS have always claimed they were cheated out of the game by Tigers’ tactic of laying down ‘injured’, which threw the Rabbitohs’ star players out of their rhythm and gave Balmain’s forwards a breather. In ’69, if a player went down hurt, play stopped and an ambulance man ran out on to the field.
In his new book, The Great Grand Final Heist, Ian Heads reveals what really happened …
The folklore that exists around the 1969 grand final has done more than anything else to keep the game alive in the consciousness of the rugby league community. It can be encapsulated in one question: Did Balmain take a dive to win?
In fact, the ‘correct weight’ flag was raised long ago on the answer, although traditional pockets of silence and stonewalling exist to this day, appropriately in line with the fabled Balmain motto: ‘Smile and Stick.’
The ‘flop down’ happened. Through the seamless application of a breathtaking, technically legal tactic, Tigers coach Leo Nosworthy and his players brought off what ranks among the most brilliant coaching coups in league history. The go-slow applied to throw the defending premiers and hot favourites, South Sydney, off their game, via players feigning injuries. It was entirely within the rules at that time. The understandable protests from John Sattler and his men were for nothing.
Balmain team does lap of honour after defeating Souths in 1969 grand final. Picture: Ian Collis
It is important to point out that the ‘slow it down’ strategy was only part of a Balmain tactical blueprint that worked surely as well as any big-game scheme ever has. Impeccable positional switches by the coach, defensive blueprints that were beautifully applied, and sustained and robust tackling, backed by lashings of spirit, added up to a package that, as Souths discovered, was simply irresistible. There was a hefty two-to-one penalty count in Balmain’s favour, but it was generally agreed that the Tigers’ victory was entirely deserved.
In the years since, comments on the flop down have stretched all the way from outright denial (generally offered with tongue lightly positioned in cheek) to frank admissions that indeed it was part of the game plan, designed to both preserve (Balmain) and frustrate and thwart (Souths). Among the big crowd that watched the grand final at the SCG, there was some confusion. From his tight vantage point on the Hill, wedged among supporters of both clubs, Denis Hamill remembers that during the second half many of his fellow Tigers fans were concerned by the sight of their heroes going down injured, while the Rabbitohs faithful wondered if it was a sign their team was getting on top. ‘The Souths mob were pretty happy with the way their team was knocking Balmain around,’ he says. ‘We were worried, thinking, If this goes on, they’re going to get us soon.’ However, John Quayle, who would go on to play Test football and become a much-admired and standard-setting general manager of the NSW Rugby League, was wedged among the fans on the Paddington hill, and he recalls ‘everyone booing when the Balmain blokes were hitting the deck’.
Later in 1969, Kevin Humphreys was quoted as saying, ‘No, no. They never laid down. We had certain tactics and we played them well. Yes, we slowed the match down, there’s no doubt in the world about that. If we were doing something illegal in slowing the game down, well it was up to the referee to control it. But the fact is we weren’t.’ Most insiders recognise that Leo Nosworthy was the brains behind the ploy, and some have even gone as far as admitting that the Tigers used the tactic on other occasions, during and after the ’69 season …
South Sydney (Souths) internationals (L-R) Ron Coote, Eric Simms, Mike Cleary, John O’Neill & Bobby McCarthy. Picture: Warwick Lawson
Austin Hoyle (Balmain selector): You’re against a team full of internationals … are you going to give them a free bloody rein to run all over the joint? You’d be mad if you did. And the more successful you become in winning the game via the tactics, you’re going to flop down, aren’t you? And that’s how it was. Nothing succeeds like success. Defence was paramount in Leo’s plan and they couldn’t do anything against us.
Hal Browne (injured Balmain centre): At training on the Tuesday night, Nosa said, ‘This is what we’re going to do — every time they get a roll-on, one of you go down hurt. I don’t care who it is, just go down hurt on the ground. We’ve got to play them at our pace, not at their pace.’ So we did it and it worked.
Ron Coote (Souths lock): The one thing they did that did us in that day was the way in which they slowed the game … taking a dive the way they did … it seemed like it was every couple of minutes that someone sat down injured, and it threw us off our game altogether. It was almost like cheating I suppose, but it was quite legal in those days. The refs stopped play every time someone was hurt. Lurch got so frustrated with their tactics he started trying to haul Balmain blokes to their feet as they went down. But it worked.
Peter Boulton (Balmain hooker): We all knew Souths would be hard to stop if they got going. So defence was the key to everything. The lying down thing was part of that. It was Nosa’s idea, and it was fine in those days as far as the rules were concerned. We had a bit of a practice in the last competition match — at halftime, Nosa said we should give it a go, lying down injured to stop the game and see what effect it would have. He was thinking about it for some time.
Part of it was because of Artie Beetson and the fact that he was often out of nick. But the grand final tactic was all about Souths. We didn’t want them to get going. It worked. They got terribly frustrated when they didn’t get enough momentum to find the holes they normally did.
Keith Barnes, who retired at the end of the 1968 season after 14 years with Balmain, having never won a premiership, with Peter Provan after the game.
Mike Cleary (Souths winger): We were absolute specials to win. Nobody expected they would beat us, and certainly we didn’t. We were very confident in the room beforehand although I don’t think overconfidence was a problem. The thing that did us in was the way they went about it. Every time we got the ball they just stopped the game. Somebody would lie down injured and we couldn’t get any momentum.
It was so different to the way we went about things. John Sattler was always telling us not to let anybody see we were hurt, especially when we really were hurt. ‘Get up or I’ll hit you,’ he would tell us. We had never struck anything like what Balmain did that day, and it floored us. It was perfectly legal of course … I think they changed the rule after that so that play did not necessarily stop when someone went down.
Bob Smithies (Balmain fullback): I don’t believe the stoppages made the difference everybody thought. There would have been more of them if Artie Beetson had been playing! He was always telling us to lay down because he needed a rest. The thing that won it for us was that we were young and very fit and we never let up defensively. Souths knew they were up against it in the grand final. Halfway through the second half, I heard John O’Neill say to John Sattler, ‘We’re gone. These bastards have got us.’
Bob Honan (Souths centre): We wanted to play our normal game — getting some space in the backs and using the wingers — but they just wouldn’t let us. They came up fast and cut us off and if we did manage to get into their 25 and things looked promising, one of them would sit down and stop the game. Under the rules then we just had to wear it.
Bob McCarthy (Souths second-rower): The tactic went the whole match and it seemed that every time we got the ball there was someone down crook. The first few times it happened, we didn’t worry too much. But as it went on the stop-start knocked us out of any rhythm.
They were almost lying there shielding the sun from their eyes. Davey Bolton and some of their blokes were getting suntans! At one stage, they had about three or four down and Satts was shouting to Keith Page, ‘Make them get up, there’s nothing wrong with them.’
And he said, ‘John, I can’t do anything about it.’
Players celebrate as the referee blows full-time after Balmain defeated Souths in 1969 Grand Final.
Garry Leo (Balmain prop): Whenever someone went down injured in those days the play was stopped and the ambulanceman ran on.
It was in the rules, so if you wanted to slow the game, getting injured was a good way to do it. It wasn’t just for the grand final though … we adopted those tactics in most games when we felt the opposition was getting a roll on …
Nosa said to us before the grand final that if we let Souths get a run-on with the ball they’d be hard to stop. Slowing them down with stoppages would make it harder for them … it would upset what they wanted to do. He was right.
The Souths players ended up getting very frustrated, especially late in the game when they knew they were in trouble. They started arguing among themselves and arguing with the referee when they could see what we were doing. They were huge favourites.
But when they were down 9—0 in the second half, they started to panic a bit.
Feigning injury didn’t always go to plan though. I remember one game against Canterbury in the early ’70s when they started to get a bit of momentum and I said to Terry Cross, one of the young blokes in the team, that we needed a rest.
‘Sit down, you’re injured,’ I told him.
‘But I’m OK,’ he said. ‘I’m not injured.’
‘We need a spell, you’re injured,’ I repeated.
‘But there’s nothing wrong with me,’ he protested.
Eventually, he sat down and while he was being treated I turned to talk to some of my teammates. Peter Boulton caught my attention.
‘Hey Garry, look!’ Peter said.
I turned to see how Terry was going. They were carrying him off on a stretcher. Good acting!
The Great Grand Final Heist is available from July 25…
Allan Fitzgibbon (Balmain centre): They were a great side [and] if we played the way they wanted us to play, we were going to get killed. So whatever tactics we had to employ to keep us in the contest, well, that’s what we did.
Terry Parker (Balmain centre): It was Nosa’s tactic, a brilliant one. We talked about it at some length the Tuesday before the grand final. What it did was provide a point of difference between Souths, a superstar team, and our young team backed up by the older hands, Bolton, Provan and Killeen. We had a ploy to win. Whenever they looked dangerous, one of us would hit the deck. The idea was to stop them getting their momentum. And it worked.
We agreed we’d try it out in the second half of a game earlier in the season but by halftime I was genuinely carrying a shoulder injury and I needed treatment. One of the trainers gave me a rub with what was oil of wintergreen, which burns like blazes, peeling off the skin.
The halftime talk was over before I noticed anything was wrong and by that time we were on our way back to play. My shoulder really started to burn and I was in agony. Finally, just as we were about to kick off, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I dropped to the ground. One of the players, I think it was Peter Provan, hissed in my ear ‘Not yet, you idiot! We don’t fall down until the game starts.’
In the grand final, they were screaming at Page. Bobby McCarthy was going off, ‘Get ’em up! Get ’em up!’ Keith Page had a look and didn’t know which one to get up because there were five of us down at one stage and there weren’t enough St John ambos to go around.
Ken Arthurson, who was secretary at Manly in 1969, reckons ‘Blind Freddy’ could have seen what Balmain were doing, how they went about preventing Souths from getting on a roll. Joe Walsh, the Tigers second-rower, argues that the matter has become a ‘fixation’ to some people. ‘Whenever I see any of the Souths blokes,’ Walsh says, ‘the conversation comes around to how we “laid down”. Last time it happened, I said to Cootie, “How come you laid down after Arthur pushed you in the semi-final?”
Leo Nosworthy, meanwhile, plays an unflinching straight bat when popped the question regarding the accusations aimed at his team: ‘No, we didn’t lay down, but we did set out to slow the game down and throw Souths out of their rhythm.’
The Great Grand Final Heist: A Mysterious Tale of Tigers, Rabbitohs and an Unlikely Coaching Hero, by Ian Heads, is published by Stoke Hill Press, $29.95, available from July 25.