The spirit of America

Malcolm Andrews
Malcolm Andrews

It’s a case of Back to the Future on my return to these pages after my annual voyage on the world’s finest boutique cruise vessel, SeaDream I.

I like to describe the gangplank to SeaDream as “the 18 Steps to Paradise” and, after being pampered for the seventh year running, the 36 hours back from Tenerife in the Canary Islands to Sydney quickly brought me back to reality.

So, too, did the action at the World Cup.

“When you settled down on SeaDream to do absolutely nothing each and every day while you sailed across the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic, I’ll bet you didn’t think that at the end you’d find the United States playing Australia in the quarter finals,” my colleague Martyn Sadler noted … or words to that effect.

Of course not! But it was a fitting result for the 60th anniversary of the Americans’ first sortie onto the international arena.

And, like all Rugby League stars back in 1953, when the American Allstars toured Australia (and co-incidentally my first year of watching the Greatest Game of All), all but four of the current crop of USA players had regular jobs.

The four who didn’t were Clint Newton (Newcastle Knights), Joseph Paulo (Parramatta Eels) and the Wests Tigers pair of Eddy Pettybourne and Joel Luani.

Among the others there were a couple of supermarket storemen (Judah Lavulo and Tui Samoa), a gas fitter (Kristian Freed), a railway worker (Junior Paulo), two youth workers (Roman Hilo and Les Soloai), and a surveyor (Mark Cantoni). But the professions that really caught my eye were those of dog walker Taylor Welch and … the daddy of them all … Hawaiian fire dancer Loto Tagaloa.

I can see it now at the passport-control booth at Heathrow Airport. “And what’s your occupation, sir?” “A fire walker, of course!” A sceptical stare from behind the glass booth.

Then again, I always describe myself as an author. I’m not fibbing as I have had 30 books published. And author sounds a lot more respectable than journalist, especially in England in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

All this reminded me of the early to mid-1950s. The great St Helens prop Alan Prescott was a grocer, in the pre-supermarket days when everything was weighed out into paper bags. Biscuits, sugar, salt, rolled oats et al, and you could actually buy a half-loaf of bread, with grocer Prescott breaking a full loaf in two by hand.

Mike Sullivan, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, was a plumber. Warrington’s Jim Challinor, later to coach Great Britain, and Dave Bolton, who migrated to Australia and helped Balmain to the 1969 Premiership, were bricklayers. Another to coach the Lions (the most recent to win the Ashes, in 1970), Johnny Whiteley was a brewery drayman. And there were more than a fair share of miners, not the least being Brian McTigue, who ranks as one of the finest front-row forwards I have ever seen.

And among the Kiwis – the elusive winger Vern Bakalich was a clothing cutter, whatever that profession may have been, legendary stand-off George Menzies was a rope splicer and second-rower John Yates was described as a freezing worker. Then again, during winter most New Zealand workers are freezing. Boom, boom!

Among the ranks of Australia players back in those days of yore, there were a large number who were euphemistically described as council workers. Think the Lonnie Donegan hit record of the 1960s My Old Man’s a Dustman. Yep, … he wears cor’ blimey trousers and he lives in a council flat.

“He looks a proper narner

In his great big hob-nailed boots

He’s got such a job to pull em up

That he calls them daisy roots”

Garbagemen or Garbos, as they were affectionately known in the Land of Oz. They were up at the crack of dawn heaving heavy garbage cans onto the back of trucks, where a colleague would empty the contents and fling the can back to the fellows running along the road. The work kept them fit, and polished their handling of flying objects such as footballs.

The garbos smelled a bit … but they were the fittest players in each of the Premiership teams.

We don’t have garbos anymore. It’s all mechanised with the truck driver pressing buttons to do all the work.

But the USA World Cup side was a welcome reminder of the spirit of the good old days.

Sure, they may have been flogged by the Australians on Saturday. But as Terry Matterson, thrown in at the deep end as coach of the Tomahawks just a few days before the tournament, noted about a side that had to play three games in just nine days: “I’m proud of these boys for what they’ve done … reaching the quarter-finals. What we’ve done over the last four weeks has been very special and I’ll always hold those players to my heart.

“I’ll always remember and we’ll always have a very strong bond.”

Well said, Terry!

First published in League Express, Monday 18th Nov 2013