Described by Mike Gibson as ‘one of the most eminently forgettable Grand Finals in years’, it might have seemed unlikely to some that the 1969 Grand Final would be of enough interest to enough League fans to be the subject of a Christmas stocking filler nearly 50 years later. Yet, in The Great Grand Final Heist, the much respected Ian Heads explores all the angles of the long-lost decider and presents a rollicking tale to prove the miscalculation of Gibson’s derision.
When it comes to rugby league books, Ian Heads writes them better than anybody else. Peter Sterling
Heads, the author or co-author of more than 40 books, dedicates his latest effort to the spirit of Rugby League past; and this reverence of yesterday’s giants is evident throughout his entertaining retelling of the events of 1969. A keen observer himself on that long ago September day as a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph, Heads not only shares his own memories of the time, but also those of a number of the key protagonists including Tigers Coach Leo Nosworthy, the family of South Sydney Coach Clive Churchill, and stars of the day, John Sattler, Michael Cleary, Syd Williams, Allan Fitzgibbon and many, many more.
While time may have blurred the line between memory and legend, in no way has it taken the edge off the yarn telling ability of those asked for their thoughts on that day back in 1969. With the wide array of story-tellers at his disposal, Heads weaves together an enthralling tale of not just Balmain’s great triumph but of the fierce rivalry between the two foundation clubs. A rivalry dating back to the controversial forfeited Grand Final of 1909 adding extra spice before, and after, the Tigers pulled off what Rex Mossop maintained was ‘one of the biggest rugby league upsets of all time.’
The accepted wisdom is that South Sydney, with their cast of internationals, entered the game heavy favourites – but were Balmain truly as big an underdog as they were made out to have been? The two teams were separated by a single point in the Major Semi Final, despite Balmain playing much of the second half a man short after star man Arthur Beetson was sent off. Yet collective memory seems to be that they entered the big game $3 outsiders.
In today’s age of multiple betting platforms and media saturation, it’s almost impossible to avoid the odds on offer for major sporting events. But it was a different time in the late sixties. The ‘in the shadows’ nature of gambling at the time helps those inclined to ‘David vs Goliath’ style mythmaking, it also lends itself to one of the more explosive claims in the book – that the game was fixed.
I remember Clive (Churchill) telling me how upbeat he and the team were before they ran out that day, but how, just before the call to the field (former Souths International Les) ‘Chica’ Cowie had come hurrying into the room. There he pulled Churchill aside with the words, ‘Mate, we’re off!’
John Holmes – Longtime friend of Clive Churchill
With these words, Cowie had let Churchill know that nefarious types were confident they had been able to ensure a Balmain victory. In the years that have followed, referee Keith Page has become the major suspect as the man ‘gotten to’ to get the Tigers across the line. A disallowed Souths try and a line ball forward pass call that stopped a rampaging Bob McCarthy from streaking away to the line enough to get the hackles of Souths fans and players up. When combined with a 15-7 penalty count for the day in the Tigers favour, including an 8-2 run in the second half, these touch and go calls become all the evidence needed for those inclined to point the finger at the whistleblower.
What doesn’t hurt the ‘fix’ conspiracy, or the many others that have grown over time, is the fact that less than 60-minutes of the contest remains across two films in the National Film and Sound Archives. In a lot of ways, it is this inability to definitively confirm or dispute many of the claims and counterclaims made by those involved that makes The Great Grand Final Heist as enthralling as it is.
Like all the best myths and legends, the destination is less important than the journey. To this end, The Great Grand Final Heist does a fantastic job of taking the reader on a ride through all the intrigue and innuendo borne from that September 20 afternoon. Not only is Heads’ effort dedicated to the spirit of Rugby League, it is itself dripping in it. So, if you enjoy your Rugby League history – and who doesn’t? – make sure you clear space on your bookshelf for The Great Grand Final Heist.