At a time when many of Queensland’s best players were being poached by Sydney clubs, Ross Strudwick bucked the trend by leaving mighty St George to join Fortitude Valley in the Brisbane competition in 1973. The Valleys club had its own proud tradition, having won the first BRL competition in 1909 and a record 17 further premierships up until that time. Many famous Kangaroos had played for the Diehards, including Vic Armbruster, Duncan Hall and Ken McCaffery. Ross played a personal hand in the development of Rugby League’s greatest ever player, Wally Lewis, as he was captain when Wally made his A grade debut for Valleys in 1978. Later, he became a successful rugby league coach and currently runs a successful chain of sports stores bearing his name. Ross and his wife Lisa have five children – Kirsten, Daniel, Nathan, Jacob and Andrew.
Born in Nyngan in central-west NSW in 1950, Ross’s introduction to rugby league was watching his dad play. As a young lad, he would accompany his dad on weekend rugby league road trips of up to 700 km. When Ross was around 10, his family moved to the Sydney suburb of Mortdale to look after his grandmother. Mortdale was right in the heart of St George territory, so he immediately became a devout St George supporter. He even lived in the same street as the St George and Australian half-back Billy Smith. Every Saturday morning, he’d go out the front of his house and wait for Billy to drive past, just so he could wave to him in his red Cortina.
Ross first started playing seriously at around 11 years at lock with Renown United. This St George junior club was a famous footballing nursery, producing talents like Billy Smith and the immortal Reg Gasnier. While he was at school, he was definitely not the most academic of students. During high school, he probably got the cane more than any of any student. Yet, he was made a prefect – only because he represented his school in a number of different sports. Junior rugby league highlights include playing for NSW schools from 1961 – 1963 and for St George in three competitions – Juniors, SG Ball (under 18) and Jersey Flegg (under 19) – when he received the award as St George’s best junior three years in a row.
On the advice of the President’s Cup coach, Ross trialled as a halfback rather than at lock for the St George senior club in 1969 at 18 years of age –and was chosen as third grade reserve half-back. Then a truly remarkable chain of events unfolded. In training on the Thursday night before his first game, the half back in third grade twisted his ankle. So, Ross went straight into the 3rd grade side. The half back in the reserve grade side that weekend got injured, just before half time. So Ross went on and played reserve grade. He made such a good impression, he found himself sitting on the line during first grade – on the day he was originally slated to be 3rd Grade reserve! He never played 3rd Grade again.
By the end of 1972, Ross was a regular first grade player, sometimes even playing half back while Smith played five eighth. When it came time to negotiate a contract with St George for the 1973 season, the money offered was what he was getting in reserve grade. Graeme Langlands and Smith suggested he go and talk to Jim Comans, to see what was on offer in Queensland. Jim Comans was a Flight Lieutenant with the RAAF during World War II and was involved in the ‘Battle of Britain’. He was now a solicitor who sorted out contracts for some of rugby leagues most high profile players. Ross had no intention of going to Queensland, but at 22 years of age, he looked up to both senior players, and he decided to follow their advice.
While Ross met with Comans, the solicitor called Senator Ron McAuliffe and Ross was offered $8000 tax free, a unit and a car, but he had to sign right away. Ross hesitated – what about his girlfriend, his parents, his job, St George – his whole life was in Sydney. But he thought the offer was just too good to pass up. Once St George found out, they tried to get him to change his mind – players only ever came to St George; no one ever left for another club. They even gave him a party, thinking they had convinced him to stay. But in the middle of the ‘celebrations’, Ross announced that he intended to honour the Queensland contract. The party broke up immediately.
In the contract with the QRL, Ross was allowed to go and negotiate with any club he wanted to. But the powers-that-be told him he was going to Valleys. As he knew nothing about Brisbane, he readily accepted the decision. Valleys half-back Ross Threlfo had retired at the end of 1972, so they were looking for a replacement. In his first year, he was given the nickname ‘The Rat’ by Valleys coach, Henry Holloway. Ross had a lot of energy and when other players got tired, he was still playing tricks on people and having a good time. Ross never took offense at the nickname – he took it as a compliment. Soon, he was not only called Rat by Valleys teammates, but also by players and supporters of other Brisbane teams.
Outside of club football, 1975 was Ross’s highlight year as a player. On May 21, Queensland beat NSW – 14 to 8 at Lang Park. It was Queensland’s second and last win of the decade. Expert commentators agreed that Ross was the most instrumental player in the win. He spearheaded the attacks and kicked 2 field goals and a penalty. He must have made a good impression on the national selectors because 11 days later on June 1, Ross was picked for Australia in the 1975 World Cup, against New Zealand at Lang Park.
Valleys was the powerhouse of the Brisbane competition in the 1970s and Ross was part of their premiership winning teams in 1973, 1974 and 1979. Ross believes the best club team he ever played in was the 1979 Valleys side. He captained the Grand Final winning team, winning 26 – nil against a very good Souths side – that included Mal Meninga and was coached by Wayne Bennett. This was Wally Lewis’ second year in first grade, and Ross had had quite a bit of influence on him as a player. When he came up as a junior, Ross could see that he had a truckload of talent. He allowed Wally all the latitude in the world, even letting him position himself at half-back at times in the game and they constantly put on moves together in attack.
Ross is still very much a Valleys Diehard and was a big supporter of Valleys joining the new BRL competition in 2015, the first time a senior Valleys team would take the field since 1995. Ross is considered such an icon at the club that in March 2018, 44 years after he first played for Valleys, they honoured Ross with the inaugural Ross Strudwick Heritage Round.