2018 marked the 40th anniversary of Wally Lewis’ first grade debut for Fortitude Valleys in the Brisbane Rugby League (BRL) competition. The Valleys Diehards were a foundation club and have won 25 first grade premierships overall, more than any other football club in Australian history. Kangaroos such as Vic Armbruster and Duncan Hall, and Origin legends like Chris Close and Mark Murray have all played for the Royal Blues. But Valley’s favourite son is definitely Wally, and while he went on to play at other clubs, he has always felt that Valleys were special, and has always held a deep-seated affection for the Diehards.
When Wally was 13, he made two decisions that were to have a profound impact on his career. The first was to change clubs – from the Cannon Hill Stars to Valleys. Several of his mates on the Queensland Primary school team played there and encouraged him to join them. The other was to attend Brisbane State High – and that was an interesting choice, as they were a proud rugby union school. Wally’s first love was most certainly rugby league, though there is no question union had its own attractions – one of the biggest being something he learned from the first team scrumhalf Mark Porter – the spiral pass.
‘Gee, I want to use that pass.’
The first time he saw Mark throw it, he thought to himself, ‘Gee, I want to use that pass.’ Wally and a couple of classmates used to watch Mark at practice, and when Wally watched the 1973 and 74 Australian Schoolboy in action, his acute football brain started ticking over. No one in Rugby League was using this kind of pass at the time, and Wally saw it as a devastating attacking weapon. Wally practiced and practiced until he could regularly throw it close to thirty metres. ‘I used to have this thing where I’d stand on the side of the field and I always had a challenge that I wanted to be able to throw it long enough where it got to the middle of the field. I was probably a metre or two short but it was getting there.’ Wally was to use this weapon to great effect throughout his career, in combination with the maxim he gave to teammates that he learned from Ross Strudwick, ‘You just run into the hole, I’ll get it to you’,
The 1977 Rugby Schoolboys Tour was undoubtedly the representative highlight of Wally’s high school years. The students toured for about three and a half months and visited Japan, France, England, Wales, Ireland and Holland. The team went through the entire tour undefeated, and included a galaxy of star players and future Wallabies, including the Ella brothers, Michael O’Connor, Tony Melrose, Michael Hawker and Chris Roche. Wally started at inside-centre in two of the five tests – against Japan and Holland. However, as the starting inside-centre was the tour captain Tony Melrose, he had limited playing opportunities.
‘We’re not going to let that man stain the turf of Ballymore.’
When Wally came back from the tour in early 1978, Wally wanted to continue playing both codes. Wally had had a ball on tour, and when an opportunity came up to play an exhibition game at Ballymore, Wally jumped at the chance, after gaining permission to go from Valleys coach John Rhodes. Just before the game was due to start, one of the Rugby Union powerbrokers came in to the dressing room and said, ‘We’re not going to let that man stain the turf of Ballymore’ – meaning Wally, being a rugby league player, was blackballed. So, he didn’t get to play the game. Wally stormed back to Neumann Oval, Valleys home ground, that same afternoon and signed a professional contract. Some historians have claimed Wally chose rugby league over union because he believed his path to being a Wallaby was blocked by fellow school boy tourists Tony Melrose and Mark Ella. But this is most certainly not the case.
So, Wally went from Valleys under-18s, where his father Jim was the coach, straight into first grade and made his A Grade debut on Sunday April 9, 1978 against Norths at Neumann Oval. Regular lock Gerry Fitzpatrick played in the centres, a position in which he had represented Queensland, and Wally played lock. Wally lit up the opposition, backing up all over the park and scored 3 tries in a comprehensive 31 to 14 victory. Courier-Mail reporter Jack Craig gave him the second highest player rating on either side with 8 /10, with only Ross Strudwick with 9 scoring higher.
‘Run at me, schoolboy!’
Norths were very much still in the game, when forward Johnny Payne was injured late in the first half. He had been giving it to Wally from the get-go. He kept calling out to Wally, ‘Run at me, schoolboy’, with a few other choice adjectives thrown in. As Payney was being carried off, Wally responded with, ‘You right there, Pop? You need help getting off, Pop?’ Payne glared at Wally, and Wally wondered to himself whether he should have just remained quiet. Valleys were only leading 13-9 at the time, but quickly ran away with the game.
In the 1978 Brisbane Grand Final, Valleys were leading 10-9 with four minutes remaining. Valleys at that stage had scored 2 tries to 1, and it looked like they would add to their 1970s premiership total (1970, 1971, 1973, 1974) – until Greg Holben broke Diehard hearts and scored late in the corner. It is interesting to consider what might have been… In the 12th minute of the second half, Wally chipped and chased, only to be obstructed by Easts prop Bruce McLeod. Valleys supporters were livid, calling out for a penalty try to be awarded, but the referee ruled play on. Valleys would have almost certainly won the game if the decision had gone their way. Despite this disappointment, the year ended on a positively on a personal note for Wally when he was awarded ANZ 1978 Colt of the Year, winning $300 and a silver tray with matching goblets.
‘Has Souths scored yet?’
After the 1978 final, Valleys coach John Rhodes prophetically predicted, ‘This team will be unbeatable if Valleys can hold all players for next season.’ He was proven dead right. The 1979 Grand Final was one of the most comprehensive victories in the history of the BRL, with Valleys defeating Souths in a 26-0 whitewash. Later that evening, after much liquid celebrations, Wally’s teammates grabbed him and decided to play a practical joke on Souths coach Wayne Bennett, a joke that has now reached legendary status in rugby league folklore. Pretending to be a detective senior sergeant, Wally rang Bennett (who had been working as a police officer), wanting to speak to him regarding an ‘urgent matter.’ When Wayne came to the phone, Wally asked, ‘Has Souths scored yet?’ and quickly hung up.
‘I don’t want to play five-eighth. I’ve never played five-eighth in my life.’
‘Well, you’re going to play there. That’s where I want you to play.’
The 1980’s brought a series of highs (captaining Valleys and Queensland, Valleys winning the 1983 Winfield State League) and lows (a near-death experience in the 1980 Preliminary final against Norths when he was hit in the throat). The most challenging experience was shortly before the 1981 State of Origin Match. Arthur Beetson pulled Wally aside and told him that, in addition being chosen as captain at the age of 21, he was going to be picked at five-eighth for the game. Wally was astonished. ‘I don’t want to play five-eighth. I’ve never played five-eighth in my life.’ Arthur replied, ‘Well, you’re going to play there. That’s where I want you to play.’ After the game, Wally sought out the big fella and quietly admitted, ‘You’re not a bad judge, Arthur.’ Wally actually played five-eighth for Queensland for 2 years before he regularly played there for Valleys.
‘Tom, I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to stay here. I love this place.’
For several years, Valleys had been getter into a deeper and deeper financial mire. Wally had gotten his 1982 payment in mid-1983. By the end of 1983, Wally still hadn’t heard anything about that year’s payment of $13,000. Valleys supremo Tom Dooley pulled him aside at the end of the season and said, ‘Mate, you’re going to have to go somewhere else. We can’t pay you – we can’t afford to pay you.’ Wally replied, ‘Tom, I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to stay here. I love this place. It’s great. It’s where all my mates are. My brothers are playing here – they’re in the lower grades coming up. This is me.’ But he was forced to leave – he didn’t have a choice.
‘No offer. Not a single one.’
Wally just loved the camaraderie at Valleys – in his whole playing career, he didn’t experience a closer team bond. The players spent enormous amounts of time together, especially on Fridays (heading into town), and Sundays at the clubhouse after they had come back from the game, singing the Valleys song. The press sometimes speculated that Wally had received / was about to receive a massive offer from a Sydney club. But while he was at Valleys, he never received a proposal from NSW. ‘I used to hear it, I used to read it in the paper every year. No offer. Not a single one.’
But it wouldn’t have mattered. Wally, given the option, would have stayed at Valleys ‘for life’ and been a one-club player. Because he was, and in his mind always will be, a Diehard. After about three of four games for Wynnum Manly, he got ‘homesick’, drove back to Valleys after a match, and drank with the Valleys blokes. Afterwards, he remembers saying to his wife Jacqui, ‘This is my home. This is where I belong.’