In 1990, the Kangaroos embarked on an epic tour of Great Britain and France, playing 18 matches against club and representative teams, 3 Test matches against Great Britain and 2 Tests against the French. For acclaimed rugby league journalist and author Adrian McGregor, the tour wasn’t just another assignment — it was a chance to immerse himself in a culture.
The strangestsight. Under a weak autumn sun, in the centuries old village of Delph, nestled among the Pennine hills of Yorkshire, a man and his young son materialised in the main street incongruously clad in the startling maroon and gold rugby league jerseys of the Brisbane Broncos.
“We’re following the Kangaroos,” the pair cheerily called. As was I, but the Broncos boys were well off piste. Thousands of Aussie fans on packaged tours were based in Leeds and Manchester to follow the 1990 tour to England of the Australian rugby league team.
I was reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald and writing Simply The Best, a book about the tour. To immerse myself in the north England culture I rented a 200-year-old sandstone wool-weavers cottage for six months in Delph, 45 minutes drive from Manchester where the ‘Roos were quartered.
Amid the treeless Pennine moors, the skyline broken by spires of redundant churches, I was occasionally snowbound in my village, regularly baffled by accents and customs, but never friendless.
I was occasionally snowbound in my village, regularly baffled by accents and customs, but never friendless.
Neighbours smiled, “How ar’t gorn.” Road was “rord”, nothing was “nowt” and honey was “hoon-air”. In the local cafe the waitress crooned my order, “Aye, wun coosted par and tea.” Intrigued, I practised the accent softly to myself, “Coosted par, coosted par, thar’s moosted in me coosted par.” Upon which a passing waitress whirled, “Aw, naw, give it ’ere loov, ah’ll get thee anuther’n.”
I grew up on a farm in Gundagai. On weekends, as the evening train steamed beside the Murrumbidgee River it gave three victorious blasts on its whistle if the town’s rugby league team, the Tigers, had won.
In those far off days, goal kickers adhered to a venerated ritual. After placing the ball they retreated, step by step, staring mesmerised at the ball before advancing to kick. In 1951 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, 60,000 astonished fans gasped when touring French captain, Puig Aubert, casually turned his back on the ball before booting a goal. Quelle nonchalance!
Nearly 40 years later, I was settled just 20km from Huddersfield where Rugby League was founded in England in 1895. In Australia the game took root 13 years later and hundreds of our players, and coaches, have worn a trail to English clubs ever since.
South Sydney Rabbitohs’ Wayne Bennett, who holds the Australian coaching record for most NRL grand final wins, actually guests as head coach of the England national team. To be an Australian in the rugby league counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire invites hospitality bred from a century of the code’s camaraderie.
Current Canberra Raiders coach, Ricky Stuart, was destined to play a memorable role on this tour. In the ‘Roos second match, a roughhouse affair against Wakefield Trinity, Stuart was one of six players bizarrely sin-binned or sent off by a flustered referee. In the dressing sheds Ricky looked around warily, “Am I allowed to say this? Did the ref lose control? Yes.”
English Test referee Billy Thompson renowned for his humour, was never one to be rattled. Once, when a recidivist offender vehemently protested his innocence after being dismissed for a late tackle, Thompson pointed at the victim being stretchered off. “Well mairt,“ quoth Thommo, “thar’s only thee and me ‘ere, and ah’ve not laid a finger on the mun.”
Trips to the ‘Roos matches against clubs often brought surprises. The Leeds Taverners Club had views of both the Headingley cricket and rugby league grounds. Club director Joe Warham asked rhetorically, “You know Bradman’s record here? “ Joe opened a small diary and intoned: “Four Tests — two triple centuries, two centuries. Aggregate 963, average 192.6”
Trips to the ‘Roos matches against clubs often brought surprises…
Other trips appealed to my literary bent. To reach Halifax I circled 16kms north to arrive via Haworth, home of the Parsonage where Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre, and her sister Emily, Wuthering Heights.
In Wigan, at the George Orwell pub, the manager mischievously pointed to a sign nailed above her office door: Room 101, the notorious torture room from the great writer’s novel, 1984.
And en route to Cumbria I passed through William Wordsworth’s village, Grasmere, where the poet composed four of the most memorised lines in the English language:
I wandered lonely as a cloud,
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.
Stalking the ‘Roos for so many weeks it was inevitable my shadow should eventually fall upon them. In London for the first Test against Great Britain (English, Welsh and Scots players are included), star centre Laurie Daley needed transport to hospital to x-ray his swollen hand. Could I help?
The scan of his splintered index finger pointed to his fate — out of the Test. Returning Laurie to the team’s hotel, unspoken in the car’s dejected air was that I would keep the news of this tour setback to myself.
At Wembley, an 80-strong Philharmonic choir, backed by two regimental bands, led the crowd of 52,000 in an intimidating rendition of Land of Hope and Glory. Great Britain were inspired. Australia lost the Test, but not hope. Afterwards I button-holed the guides on the packaged tour coaches with a suggestion.
For the second Test, at Manchester’s Old Trafford, some 5000 Aussies greeted the ‘Roos as they ran on with Waltzing Matilda sung “loud and clear” as per instructions on their coach song sheet. Cometh the anthem, came the man, Ricky Stuart haring 75 metres downfield to off-load to captain Mal Meninga for a Test-winning try.
Cometh the anthem, came the man.
The nations were now level, 1-1, but Australia had the momentum, won the third Test and the series. And suddenly the party was over. The Kangaroos departed, to return again in 1994 but, sadly, that was to be the last of these unique extended tours.
My own journey ended in front of a single bar heater, typing my last chapter as snow blanketed the moors, capped the Pennine alps and cloaked Delph’s mould-blackened churches in white Christmas card beauty.