History of Brisbane Rugby League: Going out with a bang (The 80s part one – 1980 to 1986)

History of Brisbane Rugby League: Going out with a bang (The 80s part one – 1980 to 1986)

By the 1980s the Brisbane competition was built on sand. No club’s finances were secure against the poker machine money available to NSW clubs.

However this amazingly coincided with possibly the best football seen in the competition’s history. Beginning in the 1970s, the standard in Brisbane Rugby League became very high indeed.

State of Origin provided a massive boost to the competition. The very best local players were learning directly from their teammates who had moved to Sydney clubs and were more able to lift their games in pressure contests.

They were also receiving national recognition on the back of Queensland’s success, leading to higher representation in national squads.

For previous articles in this series, stretching back to 1909, see here.

Most clubs had a rep player or two in their roster, but the talent was concentrated in two stand out teams of the era: Wayne Bennett’s Souths and Wally Lewis’ Wynnum-Manly.

However, before the rise of these two clubs Brisbane Norths won a remarkable premiership in 1980. Young Kiwi coach Graeme Lowe, later to mentor Manly, New Zealand and Queensland in a decorated career, assembled a great roster including Kiwi legend Mark Graham, smart half Mark “Muppet” Murray, hard-working hooker Greg “Turtle” Conescu and cult hero winger “Smokin’” Joe Kilroy.

It was the previous year’s grand finalists Valleys and Souths who dominated the regular season, only losing five games each. In the minor semi Norths knocked out Brothers who had enjoyed an improved season after signing coach Wayne Bennett from Souths.

Mark Graham scored two tries in the victory. Souths took out rivals Valleys to advance to a second consecutive grand final.

In the preliminary final Norths hung on to knock-out the defending premiers 15 to 14. The match was overshadowed by a frightening incident after halftime, when Valley’s Wally Lewis was elbowed in the neck, unable to breath and required mouth to mouth resuscitation.

Norths’ victory was courtesy of a Mark Murray try set up by Mark Graham.

In the grand final Norths won their first title since 1969 and Souths were left still hunting their first since 1953. The high quality match turned on a length of the field try. Smokin’ Joe Kilroy fielded a kick on his line and ran half the field, beating a number of defenders, before putting Brian Dunn away to score.

In 1980 five BRL players were selected for the historic first Origin clash: Colin Scott and Brad Backer (Easts), Mal Meninga (Souths), Chris Close and Wally Lewis (Valleys). Close was man of the match and Mal Meninga kicked seven from seven to show the Queensland-based players were the equal of their southern counterparts.

In 1981 my ten-year-old heart was broken by a late Steve Reardon try as Souths won the grand final right on the bell against an unlucky Redcliffe, led by the returning legend Artie Beetson. Souths finally got their first title since 1953 in their third consecutive grand final.

Souths, Redcliffe and Wynnum were the dominant sides of 1981. Wynnum had signed young North QLD guns Gene Miles and Greg Dowling plus state rep Colin Scott from Easts. Redcliffe made moves of their own, signing Chris Close from Valleys. Choppy left for Manly at the end of the season.

Norths’ run at the top was short-lived after skipper Mark Graham left for North Sydney. Brothers earned Wayne Bennett his second coaching wooden spoon.

Wally Lewis brings the ball up for Queensland.

Redcliffe were premiership favourites after easily defeating Souths in the major semi-final. Veteran fullback Ian “Bunny” Pearce scored a try and kicked six goals to earn a final chance at premiership glory. Souths came back to beat Wynnum and earn the other grand final spot, being the first beaten major semi-finalist to make the grand final since 1969.

Pearce did all he could to haul Redcliffe to the title, scoring a second half try and Redcliffe held on until the last minute of the match. A blindside move engineered by Chris Phelan and Mal Meninga resulted in Reardon scoring in the corner and snatching the trophy from Beetson’s fingers.

One odd thing in 1981 was in the pre-season when the BRL trialled returning to the unlimited tackle rule. Valleys coach Ross Strudwick was always about the win more than appearances and once his team got in front they didn’t pass the ball for the final 20 boring minutes.

The experiment was quietly shelved.

Despite QLD winning their second consecutive origin match in 1981, state captain Wally Lewis was the only non-NSWRL player selected for the Tests against France.

Souths and Wynnum would go on to win five of the six titles on offer between 1981 and 1986. These sides were filled with talent that would have made any Sydney side jealous. Here is a sample of what was running around in the competition at various times during the 1980’s for these two sides:

Wynnum: Wally Lewis (via Valleys), Gene Miles, Greg Dowling, Colin Scott (via Easts), Ian French, Brett French, Des Morris (via Easts), Rod Morris, Gary Coyne., Bob Lindner (via Souths).

Souths: Mal Meninga, Chris Phelan, Bruce Astill, Billy Johnstone, Gary Belcher, Peter Jackson, Bob Lindner, Brad Tessman, John Elias (via Sydney), Norm Carr (via Wests).

1982 saw a major change in Brisbane Rugby League with the introduction of the State League. This competition pitted the Brisbane clubs against regional sides from around the state and ran parallel with the BRL between 1982 and 1996, after which the competitions were merged to form the QLD Cup.

In 1982, Brisbane clubs were joined by the Gold Coast, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Wide Bay, Central QLD and North QLD. The BRL competition was reduced to 14 rounds to accommodate the two competitions. Easts won the first State League defeating Redcliffe in the final.

In the BRL Wynnum Manly finally won their first premiership since entering the competition in 1951. Valleys were favourites, losing only one game to race to the minor premiership, after signing Norths star half Mark Murray to join Wally Lewis. Redcliffe great Artie Beetson signed off when Redcliffe were massacred 35 to 0 by Wynnum in the minor semi-final.

After dominating the season Valleys had a player sent off in the first minute of their major semi-final, allowing Souths to progress to the grand-final. Wynnum then destroyed Valleys in the preliminary final with winger Terry Butler scoring a hat trick of tries.

In the grand final Wynnum’s defence ground Souths down winning 17 to 3. The Magpies were not helped by losing their centre Bruce Astill to suspension and then having Mal Meninga hampered by injury after the first few minutes.

The cracks were showing behind the scenes in 1983. Valleys couldn’t pay Wally Lewis and clubs were falling into debt to compete on players. Lewis’ Valleys remained highly competitive, defeating Easts in the State League final. Redcliffe and Easts made the running during the BRL season.

Big Mal Meninga with the Green Machine

Tom Raudonikis had moved to QLD and was captain-coach of Brothers, but his influence didn’t prevent them from finishing near the bottom of the table.

Valleys made a run for the Brisbane premiership from equal fourth. They knocked out defending premiers Wynnum in the play off for fourth and the highly fancied Souths in the minor semi-final. Souths coach, the famous Rabbitohs forward Bob McCarthy, called Lewis “The closest thing I have seen to Bob Fulton”.

But a tiring Diehards team were in turn knocked out by Redcliffe who advanced to face Easts in the grand final. Tigers stalwart halfback Wayne Lindenberg owned the match with two try assists after having been talked out of retirement earlier in the season by Coach John Lang.

At the end of 1983 Valleys told Wally Lewis that he would not get paid for the season and he might as well go to where he could get paid (Valleys finally paid him moneys owing a year later). Lewis moved to Wynnum, making an already powerful side virtually unbeatable.

Wynnum were the dominant side of the 1980s, winning three titles, including a 42 to 8 shellacking of Souths in the 1984 decider.

It could easily have been argued that this was the greatest club side in the country (as NSW coach Ron Willey believed), however a proposed challenge match against the Sydney Premiers Canterbury never eventuated. A combined Brisbane side also won the mid-week Panasonic Cup, defeating South Sydney, defending NSWRL premiers Parramatta, eventual 1984 premiers Canterbury and Easts. The final against Easts was a stone cold classic.

The Roosters hammered Brisbane’s line for more than ten minutes to close out the match and finally broke through with a minute to go, only for the final pass to be called forward. Kevin Hastings dropped the ball over the line in any case and Brisbane hung on to take the winners cheque.

At national level there were nine Queensland-based players in the national side for the second Test against England. Wally Lewis led the side to a 2-to-1 series victory and was presented the Golden Boot as the world’s greatest player.

Wynnum finished runaway minor premiers, winning the State League, losing three BRL games all season and thrashing the Wayne Bennett coached Souths in the major semi-final (46 to 22, even with only 12 men after Colin Scott was sent off before the 20th minute) and again in the decider.

In that major semi-final, Wynnum were down 16 to 10 with only 12 on the field before Lewis scored three tries and set another three up to completely dominate the game. The grand final went the same way with Coach Bennett out of answers against the champion Seagulls: “All you can do is keep watching the clock and hope that it gets to fulltime quickly”.

In one of the all-time great seasons, Lewis’ resume for the year ended up: captained Wynnum to a premiership, Brisbane to the Panasonic Cup title, QLD to State of Origin success and Australia to a series win over England.

Most clubs were running broke by this time, with Wynnum requiring a bailout from the QRL to continue operating (very controversial at the time, as the QRL subsequently couldn’t do the same for other clubs) and a number of teams unable to pay their players for the 1984 season.

Wayne Bennett

In the 1985 State league, new Ipswich coach Tom Raudonikis handed a debut to a tiny teenage half by the name of Alan Langer. He would be joined a year later by hooker Kerrod Walters. Another notable debut in 1985 was older brother Steve Walters for Norths.

Wynnum won the 1985 State League title over an improving Brothers side. By season’s end the top three sides: Wynnum, Souths and Brothers finished on equal points. It was Souths that emerged the winners, after Wayne Bennett had stiffened up their pack with off season signings, veteran Norm Carr from Wests and wild boy John Elias from Sydney.

It is a great tribute to Souths that in 1985 they managed to upset the brilliant Wynnum side 10 to 8 in the grand final. Souths controlled the match through swarming defence but had to endure a tense final ten minutes as Wynnum staged a late fightback.

By 1986 Brothers continued their improvement to make the grand final, losing to the great Wynnum side in a tight contest. Wynnum almost didn’t survive to start the season, owing over $500,000 to their players from the year before. Wests needed a bailout as well but the BRL did not have the funds to help them. Valleys courted the poker machine rich Tweed Heads club to form a joint venture club.

Among the chaos, an Ipswich team re-joined the BRL competition for the first time since 1929 but struggled, winning only four games. In the background the first moves to place a Brisbane team in the NSWRL were gaining momentum.

On the field Wynnum was now captain-coached by Wally Lewis. The Seagulls flogged Redcliffe to win the State League. They finished the BRL season equal on points with the Dolphins and well clear of the rest of the competition. Souths dropped right away after losing Meninga and Belcher to Canberra, John Elias back to his Belmore stomping grounds and Chris Phelan to retirement.

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Brothers knocked out Valleys in the minor semi before upsetting favourites Redcliffe to make the grand final. The Brethren took it to the star studded Wynnum side in the decider, but in the end the class of Lewis shone through as he scored a second half try and set up another. The club were unable to pay him for his 1986 season.

Next time we will cover the post mortems as the Brisbane Rugby League ended its time as a top-tier competition. And then finally I will provide a brief profile of each club that competed over this 78-year history.