Brian Davies was born on 16th May, 1930 and grew up in the Brisbane suburb of Corinda with his brother, Col, who was one year older. Brian was a relatively quiet boy, even to the point of sometimes being a little reclusive. He was mild-mannered and it took a lot to get him going. Despite being a quiet lad, he was a popular student and found it easy to make friends at school. Brian’s father, Daniel, built their house, and at that time, there were very few houses in the Corinda area – Daniel referred to their home as ‘being out in the sticks’. Their home was near the Brisbane River, and on the opposite bank was the iconic Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. From a very young age Brian proved himself to be a natural athlete and his first sporting interest, naturally enough, was swimming. Luckily for Brian, he was taught how to swim by an Australian champion.
Brian’s father took his family to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast for a month every year at Christmas time for a vacation and would pitch a tent near the beach. Daniel had an acquaintance named Bill Caine who he used to take the train with, and his wife’s name was Elsie Venning. Elsie became Brian’s swimming teacher and gave him lessons in the Mooloola River when he was around 10 years old – and as a swimming coach, she had excellent credentials. Elsie was a founding member of the Maroochy River Swimming and Life Saving Club, formed in 1916. On February 13, 1918, representing Queensland in the Australian Swimming Championships held at the Melbourne City Baths, Elsie won the 100 yards race in a time of 1m 12 2/5s. Elsie was picked to represent Australia in the 1920 Olympics, but unfortunately was unable to go as she couldn’t raise sufficient funds.
Brian quickly became a proficient swimmer, and he and his brother would have races across to Lone Pine and then swim about 400 metres down to the southern boundary of the property. Around the time he started to receive swimming lessons, Brian changed schools. He went to Christian Brothers College at Gregory Terrace for Grades 5-7 after completing four years at the Convent in Corinda, and he started to represent his school in the ‘All Schools’ swimming carnivals, focusing on 400-metre races. He did well, but there was a boy from ‘Churchie’ called Rodney Rogers who could always beat him. When he was 16, he joined the Mooloolaba Surf Club and he represented Queensland in water polo as a member of the Leander club, a club that has produced famous swimmers such as Jon Sieben, the Gold Medal winner of the 200 m butterfly in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Later, he was to become the captain of the surf club and, in 1955, he was a member of the Mooloolaba Surf Club R and R (Rescue and Resuscitation) team that won the national title.
Brian became one of the school’s best overall athletes. He not only excelled at swimming – when he played cricket he was a very handy wicketkeeper. Ironically, although Brian was renowned for his size and fitness, he only ever played muck-around rugby league games with his classmates. The Gregory Terrace football coaches never picked him to play for the school. On the academic side, Brian hated study and didn’t like the teachers because he thought they were far too strict and often picked on him for no reason. On more than one occasion, he got the strap – on his outstretched hands. Towards the end of Year 7, the headmaster called him into his office. He strongly recommended that Brian go to the Industrial State High School for Years 8 and 9 to learn a trade. After Year 9 he became an apprentice plumber, working for Watson’s Plumbing at Woolloongabba.
When he was 17, and in the second year of his apprenticeship, he was doing some work for Watson’s Plumbing at the Courier-Mail – helping to fix the air-conditioning. He met a bloke working there by the name of Bert Fraser – a meeting that would change his life dramatically. Bert happened to be the Brothers rugby league club treasurer and saw an opportunity to help out his club. Bert pulled him aside and asked him if he played rugby league. Brian replied that he didn’t. Bert told him that he was a big fellow and an athletic guy and asked him if he would he like to play? Brian wasn’t that keen as he spent most of his weekends at the Mooloolaba Surf Club. But after some more pushing from Bert, Brian thought, ‘Bugger it, I’ll give it a go’.
So, the next Tuesday, Brian went down to Ballymore where Brothers was training. When he got there, Brian just sat in the car and watched the players. He didn’t feel comfortable about joining in as he felt he had no idea about the game. So without saying anything, he just drove home. The next day at work Bert had a bit of a go at him and asked him why he didn’t come. Brian replied that he did come. Bert told Brian that he had never came near the players. Brian then said, ‘It’s a bloody joke’, trying to gloss over the fact that he just didn’t really like the look of the game. Bert, not to be dissuaded, pushed for Brian to come the following evening, and Brian felt he had to agree. When Brian arrived at the ground, Bert was waiting for him so there was no possibility of avoiding the situation. He met the players, went for a run with the reserve grade team and quickly changed his mind about the greatest game of all. He immediately started playing reserve grade for Brothers.
There was a lot of conjecture about how he was able to pick up the game so quickly so late. Certainly, he quickly learnt to enjoy playing with his mates. But perhaps more importantly, Eddie Brosnan had a profound effect on his early development. Eddie, who incidentally is Wayne Bennett’s uncle, was the undisputed leader of the Brothers’ pack and a current Queensland forward. A year later he would play a Test match against the Kiwis and be a member of the 1948-49 Kangaroos. From the beginning, Brosnan took Brian under his wing and show him the ins and outs of forward play. The other important figure for Brian was coach Bill Dall and he always did his best to do what the coach required. He did well enough to be recommended by Dall to play first grade, his first game being in 1948.
After three years of being an apprentice plumber he changed jobs and became a project clerk at the Housing Commission. His father worked as an accountant there and helped him get the position. Several other top grade footballers also got a job there on the recommendation of Brian’s father, including Joe Jackson, Ken McCrohon, Ron Atkins, Ken McCaffery and Duncan Hall. Although Duncan was five years older than Brian, they became best friends, an alliance that lasted all of their lives. Duncan Hall was the one that first nicknamed him ‘Bulla’. It was a name just between the two of them and then others started calling him that as well.
Interestingly, until he first represented Queensland in 1950, Brian was probably more famous for being a lifesaver than a footballer. One Courier-Mail story, in March 1950, headlined ‘R. & R. men to risk Rugby injury’, was about how Brian would compete as a member of the Mooloolaba R and R squad in the national surf titles and how he would have to face the risk of being injured playing for Brothers the day before the championships were held. A year earlier, Brian’s lifesaving duties indirectly involved him in a rather bizarre incident. On February 2nd, 1949, the Courier-Mail held an athletics event to raise money to support Queensland athletes that were going to the IV Commonwealth Games, to be held in Auckland in 1950.
The highlight of the event was to be an 80-metre hurdle match race between Fanny Blankers-Koen and Australia’s Shirley Strickland. Blankers-Koen, from the Netherlands, was the reigning Olympic champion in the 80-metre hurdles, as well as in the 100 metres and 200 metres. She was also a member of the Netherlands Gold Medal relay team. Strickland won the Bronze Medal in the 80-metres hurdles in London, 0.2 seconds behind Blankers-Koen. To add some Queensland colour to the event, 12 Queensland Surf Lifesaving Clubs sent relay running teams and march past squads to participate. The Mooloolaba team was given the honour of leading the parade and the standard- bearer for their team was Brian.
The march past to start proceedings was just about to get under way when someone noticed a potential problem. Given Brian’s size, there was a concern that one of the hurdles may have to be moved slightly so as not to impede him. When athletics officials were informed of this, the hurdle in lane five was moved outwards a few feet. Shortly after the parade was over, the big race was on. The Australian was in lane one, while the Dutchwoman was in lane five. After a few seconds, disaster struck. The official that had moved the hurdle had forgotten to put it back in its original position. When Fanny reached the point in the track where the number five hurdle was supposed to be, she lost stride, stumbled and fell sideways. As she fell, she crashed into the incorrectly positioned hurdle, sustaining several injuries.
In the two years between his Brothers A grade debut and his first game for Queensland, Brian improved in leaps and bounds. He had bulk and great strength, but it was his speed that made him really dangerous. He could accelerate as fast as many backs and could sustain his pace. He made use of his speed in attack by backing up breaks and supporting the ball-carrier. In defence, when a break was made, he focused on getting across in cover. In addition to his speed, he had really great hands and was a great tackler.
Perhaps the thing that helped Brian the most in becoming an elite forward was his interest in being a student of the game and his preparation for games off the field. Apart from the club training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he used to go running around Sherwood Park near his home at Corinda and wear a raincoat on top of his training gear to make him perspire more. He did hundreds of sit-ups at a time and did some boxing and mud-wrestling at Mooloolaba. He changed the studs on his football boots to make it easier for him to pivot and to avoid twisting an ankle. When he analysed scrum formations, he felt that as a second-rower he should push outwards towards the loose-head prop, rather than inwards towards the hooker. In this way, the prop and the hooker could work more as a unit and the hooker could get a better strike at the ball.
When his team won a scrum, he believed that his primary goal was to protect his half-back. He would do this by turning out of the scrum with his back to the opposition and with one hand still grasping the front-row forward (see picture section). He did this so the opposition could not easily break through the disintegrating scrum, and if they were impeded, that was too bad. He made it a habit to run into dummy half, to protect his lock and let him concentrate on defence. When he was running with the ball he thought off-loading was much more important than making a lot of metres, and as a result he rarely died with the ball. If the opposition was some distance away, he tried to get the player nearest him to commit to defending him quickly and then pass as early as possible, giving his teammate more room in which to move. If the opposition was close and he was about to be tackled, he would try to draw in as many players as possible, and then turn his back and off-load, with at least a couple of defenders hanging off him in the tackle.
1950 was Brian’s breakout year. Right at the beginning of the season he caught the State selectors’ eyes when on April 1st he played for Brothers against Easts at the ’Gabba. He scored two tries and one of them was considered the best of the match. He won the Courier-Mail’s £2 bonus prize for his efforts. Good judges noticed his speed, physical presence and his ability to read the play quickly. He was picked to play three games for Queensland – two against NSW and one against the touring Great Britain team. At the end of the season he was rewarded with ‘The Most Improved Player’ award at the Brisbane Rugby League annual awards presentation night, chosen by the Brisbane Rugby League selectors.
In 1952, Brian played his first three Test matches against the touring French team. In the first Test he played well on debut, although French front-rower Louis Mazon accidentally kicked him in the head and knocked him out for a time. For the second Test in Brisbane, seven Queenslanders, including Brian, were picked – the most for 20 years. Australia won 23-11 and tied the series. The French did not take losing well and showed their emotional side, with one player openly crying after the loss and the whole French team refusing to shake hands with the victors. The Australians, surprisingly to most people, lost the third Test and the series. Brian had certainly not damaged his reputation, as he was picked for an Australian 13 for a game against the French in Melbourne just before they left Australia. However, he had not had much opportunity to display his skills as Australia was, for the most part, overwhelmed by superior opposition.
When the 1952-53 Kangaroo team was announced, and Brian’s name was among those chosen, his clubmates at the Mooloolaba Surf Life Saving club organised a big sendoff for their captain. The festivities were held at Anzac House in Wickham Terrace, Brisbane and around 200 guests attended. After dinner and dancing, the vice-captain of the club, Chas Inwood, presented Brian with an expensive cabin trunk. He also received a wallet with a considerable amount of money from his workmates. In addition, presentations by representatives from his alma maters, Christian Brothers College, Gregory Terrace and the Industrial High School, were made. Several speeches were given, wishing him every success on the tour.
Brian’s first Kangaroo tour was extremely successful personally, but a big disappointment from a team perspective. The team won most of their matches, but lost four Tests out of six. However, Brian was picked for all six Tests and the co-manager, Norman ‘Latchem’ Robinson, singled Brian out as the best player in the touring party, even calling him one of the best-ever second-rowers. Unfortunately, the first Test against Great Britain was a case of déjà vu for Brian, as he was knocked out early in the match just like he had been in the first Test of the 1950 Test Series. This time, the impact was far more severe as Brian was in a daze for the rest of the game and was virtually unable to give any assistance to his teammates. With Churchill also badly injured near half-time, Australia was always up against it. After losing the second Test, Australia and Brian had a point to prove. Perhaps inspired by Peter Dawson, the famous Australian baritone who sang ‘Waltzing Matilda’, Australia beat Great Britain 27-7, despite Duncan Hall being sent off. Critics watching the match said Brian was the best forward on the ground. In the first five minutes of the second half he showed his speed by backing up in an Australian movement that included Keith Holman (half-back), Ferris Ashton (second-row), Arthur Collinson (lock) and Noel Hazzard (centre) and scoring under the posts.
Brian spent a lot of time with Duncan off the field, very happy that he was on tour with his best friend. One of the most unusual experiences the two ever had together was when the Kangaroos were invited to be part of a fox hunt as part of their training. At the appointed time, there was the amazing sight of a group of genteel Englishmen on horseback, led by a Master of Foxhounds; a group of cavorting hounds on leashes, ready to follow the scent of their quarry – a red fox; and the entire Australian Kangaroos squad kitted out in football gear. When the dogs were let lose the boys ran after them, leaping over bushes and around trees, thoroughly enjoying themselves. Brian and Duncan, who were running together, decided that they had had enough excitement for one day after a while and looked for a place to take a nap. Imagine their surprise when the hedge they chose already had an ‘occupant’ that had the same idea as they did. Curled up asleep was one of the hounds that should have been in hot pursuit of the fox.
In the first Test against the French, Australia was down 5-4 midway through the first half. Brian had the ball about 40 yards out. Whether they were worried about Brian’s size, or were concerned about his renowned ability to offload after drawing in defenders, the French just hung off him. Sizing up the opposition indecision quickly, Brian charged straight at the goal line and scored. Australia won the match 16-12. However, they lost the next two Tests against the French, with the refereeing being the biggest factor. The attitude of the French referees towards the Australian players reached a new low when the tourists played Paris/Lyons in their second-last game at Roanne. Brian was an amazed onlooker when the referee punched the Australian halfback for ‘incorrectly’ putting the ball in the scrum. He then proceeded to knock the football out of the flabbergasted player’s hands. With just minutes left, and the scored locked at 10 all, a penalty was mysteriously and conveniently given to the French side and Puig-Aubert kicked the winning goal.
1953 saw a big coup for the Ipswich competition, when Brian signed a contract with the Booval Swifts for £20 a week. He had agreed to play for South Sydney if he moved to NSW, so Swifts president Jim Larsen was delighted that he decided to stay in Queensland. It was such a big story, the signing was a local event, with a function held at the Palais Royal Hotel in front of about 100 guests. Several speakers got up and paid tribute to Brian’s qualities as a footballer and his sportsmanship. Brian responded by saying how much he appreciated the welcome and that he hoped to help the Swifts as much as Col Wright had done. Brian had certainly done his homework. Col was the captain of the Booval Swifts when they won their first Ipswich competition premiership in 1948. They defeated West End 22-0 and Col’s teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders. Col was also a member of the Ipswich teams that won the Bulimba Cup in 1938 and 1939, and captained the team seven times between 1947 and 1949. His older brother, Charlie, played 16 times for Queensland.
Brian’s representative season in 1954 was, in many ways, a disappointment. Queensland lost all four games to NSW, and Kel O’Shea and Norm Provan were picked ahead of Brian as second-rowers for the two Tests against Great Britain. Then, when Brian was chosen as one of the second-rowers for the final Test, he was put in the front-row due to an injury to Roy Bull and reserve Provan took the second-row spot. Brian much preferred playing in the second-row, but of course was happy to play for Australia in any position. The one saving grace was that Brian was part of the team that regained the Ashes. The third Test match was a hard-fought, torrid encounter, where Australia overcame an 8-nil deficit to triumph 20-16, despite Brian Carlson, Keith Holman and Kel O’Shea sustaining significant injuries. Brian played a significant role, being tireless in attack and defence.
At the end of the season, Brian was chosen as part of the squad for the inaugural Rugby League World Cup. The French were the driving force behind starting the competition. Four teams participated: Australia, Great Britain, France and New Zealand. The team was told before they left that the organisers wanted Britain and France to be in the final, as this was the best way to ensure the biggest possible profit. The Australians only won one match, against the New Zealanders. Before the tournament, the Australians played a trial match against Northumberland. Their hooker made a point of trying to incite the Australians, looking for any opportunity to bite or kick his opponents. Finally, Brian decided to take a stand. Although he was known as one of the game’s true gentlemen, he was not afraid to stick up for his teammates if he thought the situation warranted it. So, the next time the hooker tried something, Brian came up and flattened him. Brian was sent off by the referee and as he was walking towards the sheds an old man suddenly appeared out of the crowd and started hurling expletives at him. The ‘gentleman’ had false teeth and while he was screaming they fell out of his mouth and on to the ground. Without breaking stride, and without saying a word, Brian crunched the teeth into the mud with his boot and continued on his way.
1955 was a year of great personal satisfaction for Brian, winning almost every Queensland rugby league award available. Apart from winning the most prestigious prize – the J. G. Stephenson Trophy for the most serviceable Queensland player in an interstate series, he also received the Courier-Mail Bonus Award, the Telegraph Blue of Blues, the National Fitness Council Sportsman of the Year, and the BRL Best and Fairest and Player of the Year honours. At first glance, there was no obvious reason for this recognition. Queensland only won two out of four interstate matches, Brisbane did not win the Bulimba Cup, and although his club Brothers (he only spend one year in Ipswich) made the grand final, they lost to Valleys. He didn’t make a lot of headlines – he just went about his business on the field, with supreme efficiency and consistency.
That was really the key to it all – consistency. He had become the complete footballer, honing his positional skills and overall strategic insight to the point where everyone just took it for granted that he would do well every time he came on to the field. Players would sign up to Brothers just so they could play off him. There were other qualities too. For example, he had developed an excellent reputation for sportsmanship. He never went headhunting and was not interested in indulging in rough play unless severely provoked. Graham Rogers tells a story about how he was running towards the try line, thinking he had a clear passage, until suddenly he felt some big hands pick him up and felt his body coming towards the ground, head first. He thought he was going to be spear tackled and got ready for the impact. Instead, he got put gently on the ground, with Brian whispering that he bet Graham thought he was in trouble. There was also Brian’s goal kicking. He only started kicking seriously late in his career, but became unflappable, being very accurate when the pressure was on.
1956 was an auspicious year for Brian for two reasons. One reason was that he led Brothers to their first premiership since 1939. Played at the ’Gabba, Brothers beat Wests in the Grand Final, 17-10. Brian played a large role in the win, kicking four goals, including the first four points of the game through penalties. In defence, he had a large tackle count and blunted many of the opposition plays. In attack, he was involved in several movements, including starting one that led to a try. He switched play, and with the defence flatfooted, the ball was whipped across to the winger, Frank Melit, who beat Ken McCrohon and Alex Watson in a race to the corner. After the final, the BRL held a testimonial match for Brian and Norm Pope in recognition of their contribution to rugby league, with each player receiving £175.
The other reason was that Brian was again picked for a Kangaroo Tour, joining a select group of men that have been picked as a Kangaroo more than once. As a member of the 1956-57 Kangaroos, he played in three Tests – two against Great Britain and one against the French. In the British leg of the tour he was picked for the first two Tests, but sustained a rib injury in Australia’s loss to Wakefield, which ruled him out of the third Test. Australia lost the Ashes, but gave an excellent account of themselves in the second Test at Odsal Stadium, winning the game 22-9. Brian scored the try of the match, 12 minutes from the end of the game. Getting the ball near the try line, he burst through the defence. As he did so, three opponents tried to tackle him and bring him to ground, but they failed to stop him scoring. In France, he did not have a major part to play in Australia’s 3-nil whitewash of their hosts. However, there were two things you could always count on with Brian – consistent play and going to the aid of a teammate in trouble. Evidence of the latter occurred in the game against Perpignan, which Australia won 20-14. The match was full of kicking, punching and niggling tactics. There were all-in-brawls and some contests between individual players. When Brian saw Tom Tyquin on the ground being kicked, he quickly ensured it was the French player who was on the receiving end. He was immediately sent off by the referee.
On the return home from the tour, the Kangaroos, as was the custom, organised several shipboard activities, with one particularly special one. It had been the custom since the 1800s for ships to hold a ‘Neptune’s Journey’ ceremony whenever they crossed the equator, a plea from the passengers to Neptune to help them get home safely. On this voyage Brian played the part of Neptune, and following the tradition, dunked those in the touring party that had not crossed the equator before in the ship’s pool. Dunkees included team manager Cyril Connell. However, Brian took it a step further and dunked anyone who came anywhere near him. Included in the festivities were deck tennis, pillow fights and to wrap things up, a fancy dress ball. Brian cracked everyone up by coming as Grumpy the Dwarf. Clive Churchill was the Wicked Witch and Ian Moir made a wonderful Snow White.
Brian was the vice-captain in Australia’s World Cup winning team in 1957 that did not lose a game in the tournament. When captain Dicky Poole could not play in the 1958 Ashes Tests in Australia due to injury, Brian was selected as captain for the series, and was also asked to be coach. This was a tremendous honour and the highlight of his career, all the more impressive as he was the only Queenslander in the team. The most famous game Brian was ever involved in was the second Battle of Brisbane, the second Test of 1958 against Great Britain, held at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground on July 5th (See Special Feature). The key moment of the match was when the visitors’ captain, Alan Prescott, broke his arm on Brian’s head, but still stayed on the field. There were reports later in the Sydney press of Brian telling his players not to go after Prescott. These reports were completely untrue. Prescott in fact played a clever game. He stayed well back from general play and only handled the ball a few times after his arm was broken. Lock Vince Karalius, playing his first Test, continuously baited the Australians with punches and swinging elbows, and this unsettled some of the players to the point where they got angry and set about trying to hunt Karalius rather than focusing on doing what it took to win.
Although losing the Test series was disappointing, Brian capped off the year on a high note by leading Brothers to their second premiership in three years. In the Grand Final, Brothers overcame Valleys convincingly 22-7. Noted journalist Jack Reardon wrote that it was one of Brian’s best-ever club games and that the Brothers forwards, nicknamed the ‘Terrible Six’ and led by Brian, gave one of the most outstanding displays ever seen in Brisbane. While praising both his forwards and backs, Brothers coach Bob Bax said that his forward pack was the best he had ever seen in the Brisbane competition since he came to Brothers in 1947. Valley’s captain-coach Norm Pope magnanimously congratulated Brothers, saying they were clearly the better side, with an almost impenetrable defence.
This was the first year that a Grand Final was played at Lang Park. Work at the ground had begun two years before. Many people thought that the BRL was taking a gamble in trying to establish its own ground, but the Grand Final had a record 20,000 in attendance, 5000 more than the previous record. Ron McAulliffe, the BRL secretary, said that 1958 was the best year financially for the Brisbane Rugby League since it started in 1922. A week before the final, Clive Churchill commented that Lang Park was the finest football field he had ever played a game on. From the beginning, the ground was designed with spectators in mind. The seat furthest back from the sideline was only 30 yards, meaning that everyone had an excellent view of any game played there.
Having achieved everything possible in Queensland, Brian decided to have a crack at the Sydney competition. Many clubs wanted his signature, and Latchem Robinson was particularly interested in him coming to Balmain. However, Brian decided to sign up with Canterbury-Bankstown for four seasons after Kenny Charlton, the head of the club, came up to Brisbane with the express purpose of recruiting Brian. He was promised a handsome signing bonus as well as a job as a car salesman. In his first season there the team only won five games, but as the club had not previously spent a great deal of money signing players, this was to be expected. The second year at Canterbury was much more successful. In the regular season they won 11 out of 18 games and made it to the semi-finals after finishing fourth. As Brian was now fully settled and with the general improvement of the team, the club was a now a serious contender. He was the team’s regular goal-kicker and kicked 60 goals for the season.
1961 was a let-down after the encouraging signs of the previous year. Brian was injured for part of the season and only played 13 games and the team won a mere three. However, in 1962, Canterbury won some silverware, taking out the Wills Cup for the winners of the pre-season competition. They only just managed to get into the semi-finals. However, they took out the semi-final against Manly 10-7 and triumphed 14-10 over the expected winners, Wests, in the final. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, they were not able to sustain their early season form and ended up with seven victories. In an era when St George was the dominant force and almost impossible to beat with their side full of a galaxy of star Kangaroos, other teams in the competition seemed to be always fighting for second place. Brian ended up playing 59 games over the four years. He was never going to be able to be a miracle worker, but he enjoyed the challenge.
In Brian’s mind, he was too much of a Queenslander to ever consider playing for NSW. But there was some debate about why he was never invited to play for NSW, nor picked for Australia again after 1958. Was it because he was getting too old? Or because he was the captain of the team that lost the Ashes in controversial circumstances? Or was there another reason? There was a story told of a NSW team that came up to play Queensland when Brian was playing for Canterbury. A friend of Brian’s owned a casket shop in Albert Street in the Brisbane CBD near the hotel where the NSW players were staying. While he was having a drink with the players, he asked about Brian. He enquired if he had gone off his game at all. The reply was that he was playing better than ever. Their version of events was that Latchem Robinson had told Brian while he was on overseas tours with him that if he ever came to NSW he should choose Balmain. And as Latchem was very influential in the corridors of power, Brian had no chance of ever getting picked for anything again.
In 1963, he was invited to be captain-coach of St George in south-west Queensland. The team was part of the Roma and District Rugby League Competition. The league started in 1919 with three teams – Railways, Cities and Boomerangs. After World War II the area started to become more well known. Col Thornton, a former Queensland captain, took on the job of coaching the Wattles club in 1948, and in 1958, Pat McMahon agreed to coach Mitchell in its inaugural season. Noel Hazzard, originally from Bundaberg, was picked for a Test against Great Britain in 1954 as a Wattles player. St George, the club that Brian joined, entered the competition in 1958. In 1963 when Brian joined St George, there were five other clubs – Cities, Wattles, Wallumbimba, Surat and Mitchell.
Brian lodged at the Australian Hotel with his wife, Rae, who he had married two years before. He was immediately popular with the townspeople and the St George players. They saw him as a larrikin who liked a laugh and a beer. He had a rule about only drinking two beers – but would drink two beers at more than one pub. So he would often go to the St George, and then the Commercial, the Metro and the Australian. He would tell anecdotes to interested listeners about things he got up to on his overseas trips. With his coaching, he had training three nights per week – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – for two hours, in preparation for a Sunday game. He started sessions with having the players run around the oval four or five times. Then there was some stretching for about 10 minutes, followed by ‘PT’ – around 10 push-ups and 10 sit-ups. After that, there was 30 minutes positional play. Forwards and backs practised together. All players stood in position and then start a movement. Brian would yell, ‘Stop!’ The player with the ball would roll over and pretend to be tackled – to give players time to get back into position. Then the movement would start again. Playing in the front row, he led his team to 18 straight victories, including one against Brisbane Brothers.
In the semi-final of the district competition, which St George won, there was a definite knock-on at one point by a Wattles player near their own try line. The referee blew his whistle and the St George players stopped, thinking they were in a great position to mount an attack. However, the Wattles player with the ball kept going and the referee by the name of John Cherry ran after him, to the amazement of Brian and his teammates. The player ran 90 yards and scored a ‘try’, which the referee allowed. The St George players were all extremely upset. A few minutes later, the referee awarded a free kick against Barry Wright for backchat over the legitimacy of the try. Barry decked the referee and got sent off and was banned for life. Still, St George picked up their 18th victory.
In the Grand Final, St George was going for 19 straight wins, a perfect season and their first premiership. They were up against Cities, whose captain was Max Cherry, the great-uncle of Daly Cherry-Evans and the brother of the referee for the final, John Cherry – the same referee that St George had had in the semi-final. While it was true that they greatly missed Barry Wright at centre because he was one of their best players, the team to a man believed they were never going to get a fair go from this particular referee. And in their minds, by the end of the game, their fears were justified. Brian’s wife Rae was so incensed at the decisions made by the referee that when he came to the hotel to have a drink where the St George players were commiserating with each other, she hit him with an umbrella. He quickly left the hotel with a lot of eyes glaring in his direction. St George wanted Brian to stay at least another season, but he had already made a commitment to return to Brisbane Brothers.
Brian’s last year of playing was 1964, when he returned to Brothers for his 17th year of playing A Grade – a phenomenal achievement. Brian hoped to play his final game in the Grand Final and end his career on a high, but luck was against him. In the major semi-final, Brothers were able to beat Valleys 19-5, but Brian had to go off in the first half with a broken thumb and was ruled out of playing in the Final, which Brothers lost to Norths 13-4. Although it is arguable as to whether or not Brian’s presence could have changed the Grand Final result, there is no doubt Brothers missed his class and experience enormously.
In 1967 and 1968, Brian coached Brothers to two consecutive premierships. One of Brian’s previous coaches at Brothers, Bob Bax, had become the premier coach in the Brisbane competition, leading Norths to seven premierships in eight years, from 1959 to 1966. So it was quite an achievement for Brothers and Brian to break this run. Although he had changed roles from being a player to being a coach, his willingness to go to the aid of someone in trouble had not changed. An unusual incident where this willingness was demonstrated occurred in the 1967 preliminary final between Brothers and Valleys. With about 20 minutes to go, Valleys hooker Brian Austin lay on the ground unconscious. An ambulance was immediately called for. Shortly afterwards, Valleys’ Des Mannion and Brothers’ Frank Drake were also injured and in need of medical attention. As the ambulance arrived and the ambulance men started treating Austin, a spectator in the crowd collapsed. Brian, seeing what had occurred and also noticing the ambulance on the field, picked up the unconscious fan, carried him down to the fence, climbed over it with the man on his shoulders, and walked over to the ambulance men, who now had an extra patient to take care of.
Brian never craved the limelight, and in fact tried to shun publicity. His reputation for being humble and a real gentleman meant that he was greatly respected and popular both on and off the field. A born leader who didn’t say much and believed in leading by example, it is fitting that he was chosen to captain his country. It is also fitting that, as a proud Queenslander, he was chosen to be co-manager of the first Queensland State of Origin team, along with his best friend, Duncan Hall.