Rugby League Heroes: John Gray (Part two)

The Englishman who shone in Oz

This is the second in a two-part feature.

In the first part, John Gray told us about the early days of his Rugby League career, after switching codes from Coventry RUFC.

This week he tells us about the 1974 Lions tour to Australia, his career in Australia with North Sydney and Manly and a domestic accident that has had a shattering impact on his subsequent life.

You also made the cut for the 1974 Lions.

It was on my mind towards the end of the season, and I knew I had to keep performing. I was still learning, and I was still asking the older players for advice. They taught me how to slip a short ball, but also how to protect myself so I didn’t get creamed by an opponent. I was over the moon to find out I’d been selected. The first thing I had to do was tell the headmaster I needed some time off. I was ready to resign, if necessary, but he couldn’t have been nicer about it. It was the tour of a lifetime, with two months in Australia and one in New Zealand. I trained five nights a week because I wanted to be the fittest bloke going out there. All I could do was get on the weights and be as fit and strong as I could.

We won the first game in Darwin, but we were so tired. We drank and drank water and couldn’t get to bed quickly enough. We then went across to Cairns, and the locals really looked after us – or so we thought! They took us to Green Island and told us to enjoy ourselves, have a swim and use the speedboats. They came back for us at 4pm but we hadn’t realised how hot the sun was. We were all burned to a frazzle. We played two days later, and none of us wanted to tackle because our shoulders were burned. They had stitched us up beautifully! We did beat them, but it was a lesson learned. We then moved down the coast, winning four more games before we lost the first Test 12-6 in Brisbane.

You’ve told us how the Lions squared the series. What happened in the decider?

There were a lot of things that happened that you might not know. We were winning 16-10 at half-time and playing pretty well. Some of our boys who weren’t playing saw Kevin Humphries, who ran the game in Australia, go into the changing room of referee Keith Page. He was in there for about three minutes. Suddenly we were getting nailed for penalties and the Australians weren’t. They had all the possession and kicked a few penalties. We lost 22-18. Reg Parker, our manager, went ballistic when he found out.

The home team always provided the ref, but that changed because of Reg’s angry reaction. In 1975, we had neutral referees. And the first neutral ref we had was none other than Keith Page when England played France. In that game, I was lining up a goal when he suddenly put his arm on my shoulder. I asked him what he was doing, and he suddenly went down and was carried off. The touch judge took over, but they couldn’t find the fourth official to do the line. We had to wait ten minutes while he was dragged out of the bar and onto the touchline!

What were the circumstances that saw you leave Wigan for North Sydney?

It could have been Easts, because Jack Gibson and Arthur Beetson flew over to sign me, which was very flattering. Jack really rated my goalkicking and the fact I won a lot of scrums, but I was still a bit embarrassed because I didn’t think I was that good. Winning scrums was everything back then, as opposed to now when they are a frigging joke. The move didn’t happen because Wigan put a £20,000 tag on me, which was crazy. They eventually reduced it and North Sydney paid £12,000, which was still big money.

Why wouldn’t I go? Again, money was a factor because it was huge compared to England. In Australia, I was on $8,000 as a teacher and $12,000 for playing rugby. It had been £1,000 for each at Wigan – the exchange rate was about 2:1. I loved it out there and stayed on with Manly, who doubled my Norths contract. And then after three years at Manly, I went back to Norths. I was 35 by then and had three kids and knew I wanted to stay here. We were settled.

You were named in the North Sydney team of the century. Was the highlight of your time there the 1976 AMCO Cup run?

Yes, that was a big thing for the club. The committee promised us a half-share of the prize money, which we could put towards an end-of-season trip. We got to the final, beating Easts and Canterbury. These were televised, midweek matches. We only just got beaten by Balmain in the final, but we’d earned the club $100,000 in prize money. The committee had promised us half, but they wouldn’t pay up. Eventually the ratbags coughed up when we threatened to go to the press. We got as many reserve-graders and Under-23s, and about 40 of us went to Hawaii and absolutely loved it.

What happened when you met the Queen in 1977?

The Queen and Prince Phillip came to a pre-season Cup game when they were on their Silver Jubilee tour. I shook their hands and told the Queen, “I’m from Coventry – I’m one of yours!” I told her my brother had been head chorister at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which she had attended.

Did you get to know other British players who were in Australia in the 1970s?

We had meet-ups a couple of times a year. The ones I got to know well were David Bolton, Cliffy Watson, Phil Jackson, Dave Eckersley, Charlie Renilson and Tommy Bishop. We would go to Chinatown and sit round a big table with our wives and we had a nice time together.

What about Mal Reilly?

I got to know Malcolm, but he was quite withdrawn. He wasn’t a big socialite, and he wasn’t a big head. I liked him as a fella. He was calculating on the field. He used to nail people. He would follow people he didn’t like, and he’d wait until he could get them. He wasn’t a huge bloke, but he had fantastic timing. He hit people with every ounce he had. He was amazing. All the Australian players were wary of him.

How different was the NSWRL to the English game?

There were a lot more send offs in Australia. In England, refs didn’t send many players off because they didn’t want to have to drive to Leeds on the Monday night for the judiciary! The Lancashire-based refs, in particular, didn’t seem keen on that and they seemed to turn a blind eye to things.

Fitness was higher in Australia, for sure. We trained three nights a week, but many did their own training.

You are widely credited with introducing the round-the-corner goalkicking style to Australia, although Tim Sheens recently told us it was Bill Ashurst. Was it an English thing?

Yes, although some English kickers like Terry Clawson still used the straight-on style. The Aussies were all toe-pokers because they didn’t play any soccer. On the 1974 tour, we went all over the country, and no one had seen that style. Only me and David Watkins that I can remember used the round-the-corner method and the Aussies would have seen me before David.

You were sent off in a semi-final replay for Manly against Parramatta in 1978 and were banned from the Grand Final and the replay. Peter Sterling made his full debut at fullback for Parra. Did you target him?

Ray Price came in for a cheap shot. I retaliated and we both got sent off. The two-match ban ruled me out of the Grand Final and the replay, which was a real bugger. They were the only games I missed all year. The club was really good and looked after me and I was happy we won the Grand Final. Us both going off turned the game in Manly’s favour.

And yes, we wanted to nail Peter to put him off his game, but he still played very well. You could tell he would be a very talented player.

You returned to the Bears in 1981 for a second spell.

We didn’t have a bad side and we did fairly well. Mark Graham, captain of the Kiwis, was a fantastic player. We played Manly in a semi-final in 1982. I was the main playmaker at hooker for the Bears, and Terry Randall was in the Manly side. I tried to put a big shot on him, trying to get him out of the game, but he ducked, so I got him on the forehead, and it broke my arm! The lads fell apart a bit after that and we were out.

Tell us about the accident you had in 2001.

I was 52 and I was still playing soccer. I’d snapped my Achilles tendon. I’d got it repaired. I ran up a set of stairs in my unit, and my Achilles gave way. I cannoned into the railing, went over it, and cartwheeled onto the next level. I landed on my neck. I was totally paralysed for about four hours before anyone found me. I couldn’t even shout. There had been a massive trauma to my spinal cord. I was in hospital for two months and then had three months of rehab. I’ve never recovered totally, and I’ve never run since. My left side is stronger than my right, so my left pulls my right along. I’ve had six operations on my spinal column. The last op was nine months ago. I don’t know where it goes from here. My age doesn’t help, but all I can do is keep going and do what I can or else I’ll be in a wheelchair.

What did you do career-wise after you finished playing?

I went into business with a couple of friends, selling the raw materials to people who manufactured pipes and cables for town supplies of water and gas, and for mining. We were bringing in 300 containers a month – 70,000 tonnes of resin a year. We did really well. One of my partners is now 80, so we recently figured it was a good time to finish, although we still do some international trading. I had 40 years in the industry. People used to love talking to me about Rugby League, and that turned out to be a massive benefit to the business.

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