28 May 2020

Hemmings Way: Our best boys Down Under

I’m writing this having just watched the return to action in the NRL in Australia. Brisbane Broncos took on Parramatta Eels in a deserted Suncorp Stadium. I must say I feared the worst – would it be a poor television broadcast and a mediocre match? The answer is a resounding “NO” on both counts.

A great game played at full tilt and brought to us in the UK via Sky and Fox Sports from Australia who I must say with their virtual crowd noise in the background did a truly remarkable job of presenting the game from behind closed doors. Well done to all concerned – and to Andrew Voss and his commentary team who were on fine form. It gives us all a taste of just what it might be like when Super League returns… whenever that may be.

Thing is there wasn’t a British player in sight on Thursday morning – but in the coming days all that will change as our Anglo-Exiles take to the field. It got me thinking how many ex-pats have made it big down under?  It’s quite a list.

Way back in the 70’s Stevo, my old mate, headed off to Australia to become captain of the Penrith Panthers. A magnificent player he was too – he was well ahead of his time.

He was joined by the likes of Phil Lowe a record signing for Manly and scored the Sea Eagles’ only try in their 1976 Grand Final triumph. Steve ‘Knocker’ Norton was there too as was Gary Stephens. Tommy Bishop was another – the former St Helens and Great Britain international who was captain coach of the Cronulla team that played the Grand Final of 1973. Cliff Watson – another great – was over there at the same time.

Possibly the greatest of that era though was Malcolm Reilly. He joined Manly in 1971 and played 89 times for them before returning to Castleford and coaching the team for 13 years. A truly great loose forward – a real hard man who later returned to Australia as coach of the Newcastle Knights becoming a legend in the process. Mal created yet more history becoming the first (and only British coach) to win the NRL Grand Final in 1997 – it was the Knights’ first ever Grand Final win.

Older readers will remember the likes of Bill Ashurst and John Gray playing their trade down under too. Modern day greats like Martin Offiah, Garry Schofield, Ellery Hanley, Andy Gregory, Joe Lydon and Steve Hampson all had off-season spells with ARL clubs too. Hanley in particular was a member of Balmain’s Grand Final side of 1988 and was the subject of some wicked punishment on the day.

Andy Currier of Widnes is also held in high regard for his spell with the Tigers club at the same time. We shouldn’t forget either Kevin Ward who went back to Manly in 1987 to play for them in the Grand Final that year and starred in a game that is remembered for being played in 31 degrees of heat!

Sky’s own Phil Clarke, right at the start of the Super League era, joined the Sydney Roosters – only to see his flourishing career tragically cut short by a serious neck injury. Happily, Clarkie has come out of it all OK on the other side and has carved out a great career for himself outside the game… and in the commentary box, alongside yet another ex-player who had a good dig down under in Brian Carney of course.

So, to the current stars who have headed South. Sam Tomkins went off to New Zealand Warriors for a world record transfer fee and stayed for two years. Then we have the likes of the Burgess brothers – Luke, Tom, George and Sam – who all played in Australia at the same time, for the same team: South Sydney – unique!

Sam, undoubtedly though the pick of the bunch playing on in the Grand Final between Souths and Canterbury after a first minute clash of heads with another British Bulldog, still playing in the NRL now – James Graham.

Adrian Morley of course became a cult figure with the Sydney Roosters and is still treated like Royalty whenever he goes back there on his holidays, and Gareth Ellis too has written his own pages of NRL folklore having played 75 games in a three year stint with Wests Tigers.

Throw into the mix now the likes of John Bateman (2019 Grand Finalist and Second Rower of the Year), Ryan Sutton,  joint Captain Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead all at Canberra, plus Halifax born Gareth Widdop having been brought up, in Australia, but who is now playing for Warrington in Super League after a lifetime as a star in the NRL – and you can see what a massive influence us Brits have made on the competition down there in Australia.

I have said many times in the past that I would much rather prefer to see these modern stars plying their trade back home in the UK. But I accept it’s a short life and a massive challenge as a ‘Pommie’ to play 12,000 miles from home in a different environment.  So… let’s all say well done to them for making such an impact and a difference Down Under while flying the British flag!!

Once again, everyone stay safe.