Obituary: Keith Barnes – The South Wales boy who became a New South Wales legend

KEITH BARNES (October 30, 1934 – April 8, 2024)

KEITH BARNES emerged from the rugby union stronghold of South Wales to become a Rugby League legend in Australia.

A star fullback for Balmain, he represented his adopted state New South Wales and won 19 caps for the Kangaroos, of whom he was captain-coach for a spell (a role he also held with his club) and later team manager.

Nicknamed ‘Golden Boots’ due to his kicking prowess, he became a renowned Rugby League administrator and popular television commentator.

Barnes, who has died aged 89, was named a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to the game as a player and administrator in 1996. In 2000 he was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for his achievements and, in 2007, he was inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame.

Such was his standing at Balmain, who in 1999 merged with Sydney rivals Western Suburbs Magpies to become the current Wests Tigers, that in 2009, that club named one of the stands at the Leichhardt Oval (the spiritual home of his old team) after him.

Barnes was born in Port Talbot, near Swansea, on October 30, 1934, and lived there until he was 15, when the family emigrated to Wollongong, another place of heavy industry, 50 miles south of central Sydney.

He started playing Rugby League at school, was signed by the local club and, in 1954, represented Southern New South Wales against the Great Britain tourists, who won 66-21 at Canberra’s Manuka Oval.

Barnes’ consistent kicking style and resolute last-line defence in that match was noted by the well-known Balmain coach Norm Robinson, who signed him in 1955 and pitched him straight into first-grade football.

He went on to play 194 Premiership matches for the club, landing a mammoth 742 goals, and featured in the beaten Grand Final sides, all against the powerful St George Dragons, in 1956 and as captain in 1964 and 1966.

Ironically in 1969, the year after Barnes retired following two seasons as captain-coach, Balmain won the title, defeating South Sydney Rabbitohs in the decider.

In 1966, he had overtaken Ron Willey’s record of 1,288 for the most points scored in a New South Wales Rugby League (the forerunner of the NRL) career, and his eventual tally of 1,519 (he also scored eleven tries, worth three points apiece, and kicked one field-goal, worth two points) stood as the new record until bettered by Eric Simms in 1973.

Barnes made the first of his twelve appearances for New South Wales (in the pre-State of Origin era) in 1956.

And his Australia debut came against New Zealand during the 1957 World Cup, when he sustained a broken cheekbone during the 25-5 win but stayed on the pitch at Brisbane’s Lang Park to kick five goals. The Kangaroos were the tournament winners.

Barnes was Kangaroos captain-coach for the 1960 World Cup in England, won by Great Britain, having months earlier toured England (the Lions were 2-1 Ashes winners), France and Italy.

He also featured in the Ashes series of 1962 (Great Britain won 2-1 down under) and 1966 (Australia won 2-1 on home territory).

After hanging up his Boots, Barnes served as secretary-manager and chief executive of Balmain, and in 1990 was Australia’s manager when they toured England, beating the Lions 2-1 in the Ashes series, and France under coach Bob Fulton.

Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said: “Keith was one of the greatest fullbacks the game has seen.

“A wonderful goal-kicker and prolific points-scorer, he was slight in stature but built with extraordinary courage.

“The stories of Keith’s skills, but also importantly his leadership, are renowned across the game.

“His legend continued well after his playing career. He was instrumental in guiding so many of the game’s great players – particularly through his long association with Balmain.

“He was deservedly recognised for his contribution to the game with induction into the NRL Hall of Fame in 2007.”

Wests Tigers chief executive Shane Richardson added: “Keith will be remembered as one of the all-time greats of the game, and a man whose name is synonymous with the Tigers.

“He was a wonderfully-gifted player but more than that, he was a tremendous person, a true gentleman, and a brilliant leader.”