Harry ‘Mick’ Crocker was born in Forbes Street, West End, Brisbane on the 14th December, 1927. West End is a suburb located on the Brisbane River and, right from an early age, Mick loved the water. He was down at the river any chance he got. There were always small sharks in the river – about three feet long, but they never used to bother him or stop him from having fun. He liked any kind of water sport – fishing, sailing and swimming. He spent a lot of time hooking as many bottles out of the river as he could and then sold them to make some pocket money. Of course, he had to find a lot of bottles to make anything. But his main source of entertainment was ‘drum-riding’. And this is how he got his nickname, ‘Mick’.
When Mick decided that he wanted to go drum-riding, he went to a dump site called Woodland Paddock and found a large drum. He rolled the drum over to nearby Ferry Street, where the riverbank was around 20 feet high. He blocked up the tap hole so that no water could get in it. Then he played ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by rolling it down into the river, jumping on it and going for a ride. All his mates would stand and watch. Then, when he got to around Victoria Street, he dived overboard, clothes and all. And the drum would keep floating down the river. When he got home, he was still soaking wet. His mother, Isabel, looking him up and down with a bemused look on her face, would say, ‘Mickey Drippin’s been in the river again’. The nickname ‘Mickey Drippin’ came from post-war Northern England and was given to naughty or cheeky boys. His mother, being of Scottish heritage, thought it was an apt moniker for her trouble-making, larrikin son – and the name ‘Mick’ stuck.
Mick was never very interested in school and finished at 13 years of age. He much preferred to be outdoors, looking for something ‘interesting’ to do. He liked sport and while at school he concentrated on cricket and had an ambition to be a fast bowler. However, it was outside of the school environment where his spirit of adventure really came to the fore, and would often get him into trouble. His father, Henry, had a truck and sometimes he would go out with his father to ‘help’ him with a job. However, it is debatable as to how much help Mick really was. One day, he was in Murwillumbah with his father, loading bags of sugar on the truck at the railway station there. Just for fun, he decided to try climbing up an electricity pole. As he climbed he touched the wires and was almost electrocuted. He was several metres off the ground when this happened and the force of the shock threw him violently to the earth. He was very lucky that he was only severely winded.
Some years later, when he was about eight, Henry and Mick were at the Brisbane abattoirs looking for scrap. Mick was running along a part of the railway line where they used to dump all the cinders from the boilers. Mick thought the ashes near where he was running had burnt out and so, on a whim, decided to jump into them. He didn’t think there would be any problem as they were covered. Mick slid on the covers, his legs went through a gap, and he saw a glimpse of a red glow. He went in up to his knees and he started to scream in agony. He just managed to turn around and grab the nearby railway line and pull himself out. His father heard him screaming and told the boy to put his legs ‘under the tap’. So he did that and flushed both his legs with water. He spent about eight weeks in the Children’s Hospital at the Mater under a light to try to heal his legs. For three months he couldn’t walk, and he had to go through some extremely painful rehabilitation.
When Mick first left school at 13, he got a job as a moulder in a foundry. At 15, in 1942, he was working for the American military. He put numbers on aeroplane motors at the motor test stands at Eagle Farm, near the airport. He was always on the night-shift and used to ride his pushbike to get there. They used to do up these aeroplane motors at Breakfast Creek and then bring them over. Mick wasn’t that excited about his job. He would have preferred putting engines into running blocks and took a keen interest in what the mechanics were doing nearby. They used to put the motors up to 3000 revs and the operators ran them for several hours for testing. There could be up to four motors running at once.
One day, the Australian mechanics forgot to put lock washers on the bolts on the reduction gearbox of one of the motors. When they revved it up it started to shake. In front of the test stands were a mob of American soldiers doing a bit of cement work around the area. When they put the motor up to 3000 revs this motor shook to pieces, all the bolts came loose and it took off out of its stand. It went up in the air like a helicopter. And it landed among all these soldiers – workers on shovels, about 100 yards away from Mick. Then it bounced up and took off again and landed over at Eagle Farm Airport, which was about half a mile away. It was a miracle no-one was injured. Of course, the mechanics responsible all got the sack.
At around the same time, Mick first started playing serious rugby league at full-back for Souths C Grade. He was coached by Billy Hardy, Alan McCusker and Dickey Wright. They trained at Davies Park (Souths home ground), but when the war came, they were asked to leave by the US Government because they wanted to use the field for military purposes. Two big searchlights and an ack-ack gun to protect the gasworks were built there and the Souths players had to go to the West End State School to train. Les Dutton, Alan McCusker, Billy Hardy and a few others built a clubhouse in the corner of the school oval. They did have a hot-water system – but if you didn’t get in first after training was over you got a cold shower.
He wanted to play full-back because he felt there was less running to do in that position. He had a constant aching feeling in his feet that just would not go away, a legacy of the burning-ashes incident as a child. Playing in boots just made his feet worse so he used to play barefoot. His right foot was off particular concern because there were times when it felt ice-cold; and then it actually started to wither. This naturally gave him a great deal of concern. Mick bought special shoes that cost him £20 with arch supports in them, but they didn’t help any. Doctors were saying that his right foot might have to be amputated. This really made Mick nervous so he started to discuss options with different medical professionals.
Fortunately, he met a Dr Bob Coates at the Surfers Paradise Surf Club and he introduced Mick to a surgeon at the General Hospital called Professor Neville Sutton. The surgeon put Mick under observation for 12 months to try to diagnose what was causing the trouble. Finally he was diagnosed with Buerger’s Disease, a rare condition where inflammation of the blood vessels causes insufficient blood flow to the hands and/or feet. At the age of age 16 ½, the surgeon decided to try to halt the disease through an operation called a sympathectomy. One of the roles of the body’s sympathetic nervous system is to constrict blood vessels. By having the operation, blood flow to his right foot would improve and stop the coldness and withering.
When Mick woke up in the hospital after the operation he couldn’t feel his toes. Immediately, he panicked because he thought he had lost his foot. Afterwards, the surgeon said, ‘Mick, I’m sorry, I had to do a big operation and nearly cut you in half because you’ve got so much muscle around your right side. So we had to dig longer and wider than usual to get into these main nerves.’ His foot improved greatly and got a lot warmer – but it never fully recovered. At first, it was agony for him to just walk small distances, but slowly the pain went away.
Mick’s next job after working for the American military was with the Main Roads Department and he was to end up working for them on road crews for 33 years. When he first started, he was given the task of shovelling sand as part of the road-building process – about 220 yards per day. He struggled because when he went to work after football training his back muscles used to stiffen. When he had to load the truck in the morning before going to the worksite, a job that should have taken 10 minutes took him considerably longer. But after he got his muscles right for work they were no good for football and he had to get his body into playing condition again. So on a Saturday before a game he would do stretching exercises for his stiff back and on Sunday he felt great and free to play.
The turning point for Mick’s rugby league career was in 1946 when he was 19. He was promoted to the Souths A Grade team and became close mates with one of his new teammates called ‘Smokey’ Davis. Smokey could see a lot of potential in Mick – and talked to him about representative football, and even trying to make the Queensland team. Around the same time, Mick joined 40,500 other spectators to see the second Test between Australia and England at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground. Although he thought the Aussies got ‘done like a dinner’, he followed the play with great interest, particularly that of Valleys and Queensland forward Roy Westaway. Motivated by the words of his friend and inspired by the Test match, Mick began to really look hard at his fitness level.
Mick had always been reasonably fit, and his job with Main Roads certainly helped in that regard. However, Mick had always found it difficult to strive for peak fitness. One reason was because of his breathing problems. He found himself having to take deep breaths after sprinting and this meant that he had to constantly watch and monitor his breathing while running. Another was because he was a very big eater. One time, Souths went to Boona to play a match and were losing badly. Smokey came up with the idea of offering to buy Mick a large cake for every try he scored. He was infamous as a big cake eater and his fellow players thought it was a huge joke. He was known to eat a 10 lb piece of fruit cake at one sitting. After scoring two tries, he asked Smokie if he could try to score again and get a third cake. Mick got two cakes and Souths got the victory.
Mick became a dedicated trainer, and as a result his fitness grew to an elite level. Even after he had a night on the grog on Saturday night, Sunday morning he would go down to Souths and find a spare jumper. He’d train there by himself and would keep pushing himself until the jumper was full of sweat. It got to the point where he trained a lot more than most of the other players. As a result, his cardio became much improved and he found he could self-regulate his breathing when running so that he didn’t become distressed.
Another major contributor to his increased aerobic capacity was swimming. He had joined the Surfers Paradise Surf Lifesaving Club the year before and he found right from the beginning that he was a natural talent at bodysurfing and also became a member of a boat crew. However, he had some problems with swimming longer distances, especially over 200 yards. But in 1946, after some hard training, he was able to combine natural ability with a high degree of fitness and he participated in the Qld championships and was a member of the Qld Junior Championship R and R (Rescue and Resuscitation) team.
Perhaps the biggest impact on his training regimen as far as preparing him for representative football was Gordon ‘Scotty’ Macrae, the South’s A Grade coach. ‘Scotty’ played for the Starlights in the Ipswich League as a three-quarter. In 1935, he gained representative honours, playing three times for Ipswich and winning the Bulimba Cup. After the Australian season was over he left Australia to play in England at the age of 21 for the Oldham club for a fee of £300 and a job at the ground. When he came back to Australia he played in the 1945 Grand Final for Souths at centre, when they beat Norths and won their first premiership. He was then to become coach, focusing on some new ways of training that he had brought over from England. He was so well regarded he became both the Brisbane and Queensland coach. Mick really trusted him and religiously followed his training methods, especially with regard to tackling technique.
Mick learnt that when you are defending you had to position yourself in a different way to what he had been doing, so the opposition couldn’t easily step him, or get around him. He also learnt how to use his hips effectively. Macrae taught how to adapt in defence – how you should defend in a variety of situations. Mick practised this adaptive philosophy by studying Vic Hey, who he believed to be the best tackle-evader he had seen. Mick supplemented this by building up his hitting power in a very unorthodox way – by practising low tackles on concrete. Ex-Queensland captain Jack Reardon was absolutely amazed when he saw Mick’s unique methods – unique but very effective. Mick was to become the pre-eminent cover defender of his time.
In 1949, Mick really started making a name for himself. He won his first Courier-Mail £2 award for a great game for Souths against Easts, where knowledgeable observers thought he displayed versatility and vigor, as well as speed far above that of the average second-rower. As a result of his outstanding form, he made his debut for Queensland. He went down to Sydney with his teammates by plane. When they got there it rained and rained and it was bitterly cold from off the Blue Mountains. None of the players enjoyed the weather conditions, but found the lodgings much more to their liking. They stayed at Mick Payton’s hotel, right on the Cronulla beachfront.
On June 13, in a game against NSW Combined Country, played in Wollongong, Lenny Kenny was in the Queensland side. He had been playing for Leeds in England, and although a stone over his previous Australian playing weight, put in a good performance in a losing team. Mick was witness to Kenny scoring what he thought was the greatest try he had ever seen. Despite playing in atrociously muddy conditions, Kenny stepped through the whole opposition team and scored under the posts. Mick just stood back and applauded.
After the southern tour, which consisted of playing against NSW in Sydney and in other matches in Wollongong and Newcastle, Mick spent a week in hospital in Brisbane receiving treatment for two cauliflower ears, injuries he had sustained in scrums. He went through the painful process of having his ears lanced and his head wound tight with bandages. He had no option but to wear headgear for a few games, an unusual occurrence at the time.
Lenny Kenny played for Souths in 1949 alongside Mick and they both played in the grand final winning team, beating Easts 22-8. Souths won a lot of games that season, and not just against BRL opponents. The whole team was involved in an interesting turn of events in a game, with Kenny as the key ‘player’, when they played Warwick during the season. When Mick and his teammates got to the ground they bought a ‘doubles’ ticket. Money from the selling of ‘doubles’ tickets was the main source of revenue for Queensland rugby league clubs at the time. Your ticket won if the two numbers on your ticket were the jersey numbers of the first player from both teams to score. One of the two numbers on their ticket was Lenny Kenny’s jersey number, so the players ‘conspired’ to do their best to make sure that Kenny was the first player on their team to score.
Unfortunately for their plans, a lot of sheep and cattle had gotten on to the field and torn it up, so much so that the players had skin torn off their arms and hips when they went to ground. It was difficult to run in such conditions and for a player like Kenny who relied on his speed, scoring a try was next to impossible, no matter how much help he got. So eventually, they give him a kick for goal and he kicked it. The team won the double and the match, 33-27. There were merry celebrations on the way home on the team bus.
Mick played in the Possibles vs Probables match from which the 1950 Test team to meet Great Britain was chosen. He missed the first Test, but an impressive display for the Queensland side that beat Great Britain in Brisbane earnt him a place in the second Test. The third Test of the series, and Mick’s second overall, was possibly the most famous Test match ever played between Australia and Great Britain, and was held at the Sydney Cricket Ground 0n July 22nd. It had been raining heavily in Sydney in the days leading up to the game and the curator and the groundsmen had worked hard to try to get the ground ready. They had spiked the turf 18 inches on the Thursday and the Friday before the game to try to get rid of as much surface water as possible. They also spread 40 tons of sand over the worst patches, and used hessian bags and rollers. But none of these measures made any significant difference. On the day of the game the ground was called ‘a bog’ and ‘swampy’. When Mick ran on to the cricket pitches during the game he went up to his ankles in the Bulli mud. The weather was frigidly cold, with winds and rain coming in from Botany Bay.
With 16 minutes to go the score was tied at two-all. A win for Australia would mean that they would reclaim the Ashes for the first time in 30 years. Australia had been the superior team throughout the match, particularly in the forwards, but had little to show for it. South Sydney’s Bernie Purcell had missed three kicks, one from almost directly in front of the posts. Clive Churchill took over the kicking duties and kicked a penalty goal from 30 yards out. Great Britain’s captain, Ernest Ward, had kicked a penalty earlier. Mick had been a tackling machine, always trying to make sure he closed down the opposition play quickly. He always aimed to tackle around the legs or waist, preferably the legs. He dodged their hips – some of his teammates were aiming at the hips and having trouble stopping their opponent.
The movement that won the match and the Ashes started on the left side of the field. Australia was on the attack in Great Britain’s half. Mick ran up to dummy half for a play the ball. As he did so, he noticed the British players were slow to get into position, especially in coming across to cover the Australian numbers on the right side of the field. Australia had an advantage and Mick made a conscious decision to pass to the right, to Keith Holman. The ball went across the backline to Frank Stanmore, Doug McRitchie, Keith Middleton and to Ron Roberts, the big St George winger. The British defence came up too quickly. McRitche and Middleton drew in the opposition winger, Jack Hilton, and Roberts had an overlap. The crowd, seeing what was happening, started to roar. Roberts went through the ‘saloon passage’ and dived over in the Sheridan Stand corner to score.
Just a few minutes later when the game was over and Australia had won back the Ashes, Mick heard a noise that he had never heard before nor since. There was pure euphoria. The volume was incredible and the cheering echoed around the ground for at least 10 minutes. Grown men wept. Hats, papers and programs were tossed into the air. Hundreds of people jumped the fence, wanting to get close to the Australian players. The crowd souvenired everything in sight: corner posts, goal-post padding, even buckets. Churchill was carried off the field shoulder high in triumph. The crowd came into the Members’ Reserve and smashed glass windows when they tried to get into the Australian dressing room, calling for Churchill. After the game, Mick went to the General Hospital in Brisbane and, according to Mick, they had to syringe about a pound of Bulli mud out of his ears. The Board of Control gave silver tea sets with inscribed silver trays to the players, the selectors and the coach, Vic Hey, to commemorate their Ashes triumph.
Towards the end of the season, on a weekend when Souths had a bye, Quilpie Rugby League invited the Souths team to play a match against Quilpie during their local polo carnival. A local grazier by the name of John Tully had been giving a bale of wool to the Quilpie club annually to help fund the club, and as the price of wool had climbed dramatically, Quilpie was in a position to offer what was a very generous invitation. They arranged to fly the Souths team to Quilpie in a Dakota and covered all the travel expenses. As the plane came into land, something amazing happened. The ‘airstrip’ was the football field and some locals had to take down the goal posts for the Dakota to have enough of a ‘runway’. The Brisbane players wilted somewhat in the intense heat and trailed at half-time. But as they acclimatised to the heat, they got themselves going and eventually triumphed.
Before the team took off in the plane to head home, they had to take the goal posts down again. As the plane gained altitude, everyone was standing up. They were told by the pilot to sit down, but they wouldn’t – they were too interested in celebrating and singing, while rolling bottles of beer down the aisle. On the way back they landed at Charleville airport for a brief stop. The team was welcomed there by the Charleville townspeople. Buffet tables had been set up in the hangar and the players got to celebrate for the second time. Then they took off again and landed in Brisbane at about 11 o’clock that night. Mick had more cause for celebration at the end of the season when he won both the J G Stephenson Trophy and the Brisbane Telegraph ‘Blue of Blues’ Award, the latter for the second year in a row.
Two things happened in 1951 that showed Mick to be truly a team player. The first occurred after he played his first Test against France, where Mick yet again had a fine representative game, showing his abilities as a cover defender and tackling with great vigor. He had always been a second-rower, but Souths did not have a lock. Putting his representative career in jeopardy, he agreed to play lock because he wanted to help his club – and stayed in that position for the rest of his career. The fact that he played another four years for Australia is testament to his versatility as a player. The other was after Souths won the Grand Final for the second time in three years, beating Easts 20-10, with Mick scoring a fine try. After the final, all the players got a bonus. Mick decided to spend his bonus on two five-gallon kegs of beer and a bit of food to share with his teammates.
It was on the Kangaroo Tour of 1952-53 that Mick really established his reputation for larrikinism. There was no question that he was the main prankster among the players. Nothing at all seemed to worry him and he was always good for a laugh. On board the Straithnaver on the way to England, one of Mick’s favourite pranks was to ‘borrow’ his teammates’ clothes. Frank Stanmore told of how Mick would wander into another players’ room, see a shirt on the bed, and just try it on. No-one knew whose clothes he might appear in next. One day, vice-captain of the tour, Duncan Hall, couldn’t find a clean shirt he had just gotten out ready to wear. Mick very graciously agreed to help him look for it – until Duncan finally realised Mick was wearing it.
Mick was known to put novelty-shop worms in peoples’ beers. He had a mechanical gadget that gave people a buzz when he shook their hand. Clive Churchill even got in on the act, being Mick’s wingman in tricking Arthur Collinson with an exploding cigarette. When Jack Pollard, the journalist, wrote an article about Mick for Sporting Life magazine in London, he found that when he interviewed Mick, Mick was prone to start talking in a perfect imitation of Donald Duck. But no-one was ever able to really get mad at Mick. He was such a likeable, knockabout sort of bloke.
The first game of the tour was at Keighley. Australia had definitely learnt from the ’48 tour, when in their first tour game they were beaten by Huddersfield, one of the powerhouses of English rugby league. This time the scheduling for the first game was much more to Australia’s liking and they had a very impressive win, with the final score-line 54-4. This was the first time that a game featuring the Australian rugby league team had ever been televised. Mick wasn’t playing, so he had a chance to go to the broadcasting trailers and see the production side of things. The was an air of excitement – everyone was very intrigued with the new technology, and viewers were able to see moving pictures of famous players they had only ever heard verbal accounts of on radio.
The first Test was played at Headingly, Leeds. There were two reasons why Australia would find winning this match a difficult prospect. The first is that Great Britain had a far more experienced team. The second was that Churchill suffered a serious leg injury late in the first half. He went off near half-time and Noel Pidding filled his role at full-back. Mick was asked to go on to the wing. Churchill gamely came out shortly after the second half had commenced. He couldn’t play full-back as he was too incapacitated, so he tried to play a rover role. In the restructuring, Mick was moved to the centres. With all of this improvisation, Australia could never get any momentum and went down 19 to 6.
The most disappointing episode of the tour for Mick took place at Swinton on October 21st. In sharing ‘war stories’ with other Australian and Great Britain players in 1950, he had told of his problems with his right foot when he was young – and while he still had trouble from time to time, it had gotten better. In the first half, when he was getting up to play the ball, one of the Swinton players jumped in the air and came down on his right ankle with both feet. The papers said that he had ‘injured’ or ‘twisted’ his ankle, but there was absolutely no doubt in Mick’s mind that it was deliberate – Mick was also very sure that the story of his crook foot had spread beyond Australia. The referee saw it, but did nothing about it. There was no penalty given. He had to go off for treatment. He came back for the second half and he played the rest of the game limping around – but the opposition player had taken all the sting out of him. For Mick that was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the tour for him and there was not much comfort in the fact that Australia won the game by 23 points. He was severely handicapped in his running for a lengthy period, which basically ruled him out of the remaining Tests in England, although he did play in some tour matches.
Because of his injury, he was able to tour around quite a bit. He was in for a big surprise when he decided to go ice-skating. He put a set of skates on, went out into the middle of rink – and he went through the ice! He had to be pulled back up – and imagine the Good Samaritan’s surprise when he found out who he had rescued. But the most interesting development that occurred because of his injury was Mick receiving a most unusual and generous offer. Soon after the Swinton game he met up with a multi-millionaire at the team hotel at Ilkley. Mick got invited to stay at the man’s home at Fleetwood, near Blackpool, about 100 km away. Mick got a private room and was surprised at how many maids worked there. He stayed there about a week.
While he was there, his host took him one day to the coastal city of Blackpool to see his fishing boats that went up to the Antarctic – they were big steel hulks. Fish was sent to all parts of England to sell. Other things that Mick did in Blackpool included watching some ballroom dancing and meeting England international footballer (soccer) Stanley Matthews, who was playing for Blackpool at the time. Mick went to a players’ reunion and got into a discussion with him about soccer fundamentals. Matthews is regarded as one of England’s greatest-ever players, playing at the highest level until he was 50, and was later knighted. Stanley told him you have to ‘dribble and trap, dribble and trap’ to score goals.
When he finished his stay at the millionaire’s home, he took a ferry from Blackpool across to the other side, through the Kent Channel. He got on a bus and arrived at Lake Windemere to hook up with the Australian side just on nightfall. The team’s hotel was famous for the fact that King Richard III had stayed there. Many of the rooms had antique beds with name plaques of famous people who had slept in them. He was sitting on a seat outside the hotel with Kevin Schubert and Ron Willey when he found out that there was a Mason ‘do’ on. The bloke from the Masons came out and made conversation with the players. He asked Kevin Schubert, ‘How old is your grandmother?’ Kevin answered with a number. He asked Ronnie Willey the same question and he answered in a similar way to Kevin. The guy then asked Mick. Mick replied that his grandmother had died years ago. They got invited into the dinner and Mick remained outside, in his mind, ‘like a shag on a rock’. His teammates had given the ‘correct’ answer, whereas Mick hadn’t. Mick noticed later that the Masons had given his teammates each a big china cup and saucer.
When the Kangaroos went to the continent, Mick was in a lot of pain with an abscess on his tooth. He was instructed to apply hot packs to his cheek and did so until the abscess finally burst. But in the meantime he wasn’t in very good humour. On a bus day trip on the border of France and Switzerland, Greg Hawick, Col Geelan, Harry Wells and some other players got out and played a game of football in the snow on the Swiss side of the border. They were running around in the snow up to their knees. They said, ‘Mick, come and have a look’. Because he was in pain, he wasn’t interested in playing, and just watched them through the bus window. After about half an hour they got back on the bus and were soaking wet. When they went back down the mountain into France there were big signs in French. The bus driver explained that the signs marked the places where the French Resistance had stopped the Germans.
On another trip, Mick went and bought himself a double-rum before getting on the team bus because of the pain from the abscess. He wasn’t interested in chatting took a nap. On the way back to the hotel the bus driver pulled up for a break on the French and Spanish border. Most of the players got involved in playing touch football on the beach. Mick didn’t want to play because he thought playing touch football taught you bad habits with regards to rugby league. So, he went bodysurfing instead. The water was icy cold – with a strong wind coming in from the Pyrenees. When he tried to swim he could barely move and almost drowned. He only just got back to shore.
1953 started off well for Mick. His abscess was gone and his ankle was much better. On January 1st the Kangaroos played Southern France at Perpignan and won the game 19-13. Perpignan were leading the game at half-time, but in the second half the Kangaroos were able to apply more pressure on the French defence. Mick was in great form, once chasing and tackling Elie Brousse when he looked certain to score and often outpacing opposition players, backs as well as forwards.
The funniest thing Mick ever saw on a football field occurred in the match against Carcassonne on January 4th, the game before the second Test. One of the French players ran off the field with the ball, behind the Australian’s reserves bench, into the crowd and reappeared to put the ball down in the corner to ‘score’… and the referee awarded him a try. Mick, along with the rest of the Australian team, couldn’t believe it, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Mick yelled out to Noel Pidding, who was marking this bloke, ‘What’s the matter? He’s your man … you were too bloody slow’.
In the Marseille game on January 18th, which Australia won 14-10, Mick was feeling a bit stiff, like he was running up a hill. Soon after the game started, a bunch of French forwards all landed on top of him in a tackle. When he got up he thought he was ‘twinkle-toes’, just dancing on air for the rest of the game. Some bones in his back had been slightly out of alignment and the tackle straightened them out. He felt 21 again.
In 1953, the American All Stars came to Australia. The tour was organised by Mike Dimitro, who had become interested in rugby league after watching a game in New Guinea between Australian troops during World War II. Twenty-two players made the trip and incredibly, none of them had ever played rugby league before, although Dimitro said a few of them had played union and several of them were famous American gridiron players. Mick couldn’t play for the Queensland team against the All Stars as he was picked for the New Zealand tour, and was ruled ineligible. However, he was given an unexpected opportunity to play for the visitors (See Special Feature).
By the time the All Stars vs NSW game arrived, the tourists were seriously depleted in numbers due to injuries, so the Australian Rugby League Board of Control allowed four Queenslanders to be chosen to bolster the American team: Mick, Brian Davies, Ken McCaffery and Alan Hornery. Each were paid a £15 fee to play in the game, which was held on July 26th at the Sydney Cricket Ground, with the NSW team winning 27-18. The game was a rough affair. Two Americans, Francis Mandulay and Sol Naumu, suffered broken fingers in the first half, Clive Churchill was punched by All Star Gary Kerkorian and Bill Albans, one of the tourists’ wingers, had to receive medical attention after a fight with Roy Bull, a NSW forward.
On August 6th, 1953, Mick’s life was turned upside down. A fire began in the house next-door to Mick in Ferry Street, West End at around 1.45 pm. Neighbours and workers from factories nearby managed to save some items from Mick’s house before flames engulfed the building. The firefighters were powerless to stop the blaze. Mick lost almost everything he owned and he was now in a very vulnerable financial position. He had to borrow a caravan from his mother for a while, and also stayed with a friend until he could find another place.
At least five Sydney clubs had been after Mick for some time. He had also received an offer to play for a rural Queensland club from a grazier who offered the proceeds of the wool clip from 500 sheep. Mick had always resisted – he wanted to stay at Souths – but now he felt that he had to look at what was on offer. Parramatta’s club patron, president and secretary made a special trip by plane to Brisbane to sign Mick to a record contract – a £600 sign-on fee, with free board and a job in a foundry grinding moulded parts for fridges. He chose Parramatta because he wanted to help bring a weaker side up. He was the first Queensland International in more than 30 years to join a Sydney club side. Mick played for Parramatta for two years from 1954 to 1955, playing 24 games.
After the disappointment of the 1954 World Cup, when Australia did not play in the final, Mick and the Australian team, along with the New Zealanders, travelled to America and played in the first-ever rugby league games there. The Australians landed at Idlewood Airport in New York at 3 am and stayed in ‘The Big Apple’ for one night. Mick and Duncan Hall went together to the Empire State Building. Mick thought the lifts went up like rockets. They gazed out of the windows on the top floor and looked down at the Hudson River and admired the Statue of Liberty.
When Mick got to Hollywood, California, he met a few actors in a lounge foyer in Hollywood Boulevard, including ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom and Buddy Ebsen. Slapsie Maxie won the Light Heavyweight World Boxing Championship in 1932 and then became a character actor in Hollywood movies and opened a comedy club in Los Angeles. Buddy Ebsen was an actor in the Davy Crockett miniseries and would go on to become a star of The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones. Mick had quite a long chat with Buddy. Buddy was keen to know where he was from and what he was doing in California. Mick also met an Australian family that came from Melbourne. On Thanksgiving Day they invited him to visit their home for dinner. None of the other players wanted to go, so Mick went alone. The family also took him to play a round of golf and go to the cinema. He watched a 3D film and was given special glasses to wear. This was an exciting experience, as Mick had never had the opportunity to see a 3D film before.
Mick only played one game on the American tour, but he did not end up staying on the field very long. The match was held at Long Beach, California, and just when the teams had come on to the field and were ready for the kick-off, a dense fog came in off the ocean and enveloped the whole stadium. The referee made the decision to start, but it soon became apparent that the game had become a farce. Mick couldn’t see the opposition players, his teammates or the ball. At the beginning of the game it was discovered that a touch judge was needed and Denis Flannery was given the responsibility. When the game was called off he did not realise what had happened. He stayed on the sideline for a further 20 minutes, with his flag in hand, before someone realised that Dennis was still out in the fog and went and told him. All the players had a go at him over that. The two teams played again the next day, but Mick did not take the field.
Mick’s last two Tests were against France when they toured Australia in 1955. In the second Test Mick scored two fine tries in the first half and set up Graham Laird’s second try. Both his cover defence and positioning in attack were of his usual high standard and he, along with every other Australian in or watching the game, thought they had it won, leading 28-16 late in the match. It seemed like Australia would win the series and make up for the disappointing 1951 series loss. However, the French were able to score three tries in six minutes and Australia lost the game by a point. Goal-kicking had been a problem for the home side all game. Three different kickers had been tried and their combined tally was five from 10. Brian Davies had an opportunity to win the game by kicking a penalty from near the halfway line close to full-time, but the attempt fell agonisingly short.
Mick moved to Winton in 1956 and his representative career came to a close. He played there two years, and in the first season helped the team go undefeated. When he came back to Brisbane he moved back to his beloved West End, and coached juniors for the club he never really wanted to leave – Souths. The best tackler and defender of his era, Mick won the respect of friend and foe because he played the game hard but fair – he never went out on the field to deliberately hurt another player.