Rugby League and the Lido Shuffle
It was early morning on Bondi Beach and a sliver of shimmering sunshine prised my tightly shut eyes open. My face contorted as I slowly cracked open encrusted eyelids to reveal tired and blood-shot eyes, on a face that was expressing utter bewilderment. After a few seconds of slowly dissipating confusion, I woke to find myself lying on my back, in the sand, and with my head resting in my girlfriend’s lap.
“Good morning, football hero.”
“Whaaat? Oh… hi.”
It was the morning after the night before, several hours after the twenty-four hours of free beer to players and their guests that was provided in the beer garden of the Bondi Rex Hotel. The Bondi “A” Grade Rugby League team had only days earlier defeated the hot favourites, Paddington Colts, in the grand final at Waverley Oval and the Rex Hotel, who was the Bondi team’s main sponsor, put on a beer fest in celebration. I had only recently begun to go out with the very tolerant and forgiving Maria, a local Bondi girl, who had nursed and protected me throughout the entire night.
The rugby league scene in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney in those days operated within a strong drinking culture. Each team in the competition was sponsored by a hotel which contributed funds towards the purchase of jerseys, shorts, socks and other equipment, and in some cases, player payments. In return, players and supporters would be loyal to that hotel and drink there after training nights and on other social occasions. Winning the competition would bring kudos and good publicity to the sponsoring pub. Sometimes, the drinking got in the way of athletic performance on the field, so it was common to see club officials from the various teams patrol the hotels late on nights before matches, chasing tardy and often drunk players home. This type of safeguard was important because there was a lot of gambling on games. Punters had a vested interest in the players performing to the best of their ability on the field, and without hangovers.
No one had expected the young and inexperienced Bondi team to win the ultimate game of the season. We were a team made up of university students and a few locals, while the Paddington team consisted of older, more experienced men who had a reputation for being tough and hardened. We had only just scraped into the finals with a last minute win in the last game of the season, but thanks to some other results that went in our favour, we leapfrogged into third place of a five team, final series. We unexpectedly won our first semi-final against the Coogee Bay team, then lost the major semi-final to Paddington, the team we were eventually to confront again in the grand final. We then surprised everyone in the next match by storming home to beat the more fancied Fitzroy side 13-12, after trailing 5-12 at halftime, and subsequently progressed to the grand final. The Paddington team we played against in that grand final were commonly regarded as the best team in the competition that year and had convincingly defeated us just two weeks before. Going into the last match of the season, the general talk heard around the pubs was that “a team of boys (us) would never beat a team of men (them)”. All the smart money was on Paddington.
Living in the Sydney beach suburb of Bondi during the last year of University studies was fabulous. I shared a flat with two girls who were also university students, only a few streets back from the beach. Summer was like being on permanent holiday, with the beachfront only about a five minute walk away. Winter in Bondi was a revelation. Being raised in the outer western suburbs, I had only visited and seen a beach during the daytime hours of summer. After I was inadvertently caught at the beach during a winter storm one night, I became so enamoured with the novel and dramatic scene that I deliberately repeated the experience many times over.
On Sundays during that winter, we played our Rugby League matches at various beachside grounds in the Eastern Suburbs. One of the teams we played was Coogee Bay whose emblem was a bat. The Coogee Bay team had a large army of supporters who had an unusual war cry; every time their team scored a try (three points) or a goal (two points), they would make strange “eeeck, eeeck, eeeck” noises in an attempt to simulate the screeching of bats. It was always quite bizarre and amusing to hear this cry from their numerous followers in concert, at football grounds.
Playing rugby league on sunny Sundays was very enjoyable but we also played on cold, rainy and miserable days when the abrasive wet sand of the rain-sodden football grounds got under jerseys and would rub bodies red raw. I was the diminutive halfback of our team and at around sixty kilograms, dripping wet, probably the smallest player in the competition. Most players were much heavier than I was but I was quick off the mark for the first twenty meters which made me elusive on the field. I was also fortunate enough to have developed an effective low-tackling technique in defence that meant I avoided injury in this heavy contact sport. During that season, I only suffered a broken nose and a torn rib cartilage. But there were opponents who were almost twice my weight that I would need to tackle or be tackled by. Consequently, I was always very sore and aching all over my body after games. In fact, I can vividly remember that I usually could not walk properly or without soreness until the following Wednesday, after a Sunday game. Sunday nights were agony and not much fun for me or my forbearing girlfriend. But the sense of profound achievement along with the pats on the back, accolades and free beers from punters at the Bondi Diggers Club on those Sunday nights after a win, made up for all of that. I was proud of my entry in the Bondi Rugby League Club yearbook of that year which read: “Rupert Grech- Sharp, attacking half back and a fearless copybook defender. A real acquisition”.
We trained twice a week for most of the season but up to four times a week during the semi-final series, along with a fifth, discussion-type meeting on Saturday mornings. Tuesday night training was a light workout and was usually accompanied by saunas and spa baths to counter the soreness everybody was feeling from the preceding Sunday game. One time in the sauna, I was wearing only my Speedo swimming trunks and happened to walk by our huge, 110kg, Maori prop-forward who went by the nickname of “Baby Ape”. He eyed me as I walked across in front of him on the way to finding a seat and loudly exclaimed in front of the assembled group of teammates:
“F— you’re a little c— Rupe!”
Some of the boys found this quite amusing. I shook my head in feigned disappointment and replied:
“Thanks a lot for pointing that out, Ape. Does that mean that you’re a big one”
The sauna room boomed with laughter.
Baby Ape got back at me the next training night when he thought it would be funny to pick me up and literally throw me over a full-sized fence.
I did not have a car in those student days, so the team captain would pick me up in his old Holden sedan every Sunday and drive me to the ground we were to play at. He always motivated himself before a game by turning up the volume on the car cassette player and blasting out the Boz Scaggs tune that was popular at the time called “Lido Shuffle”, and popping a couple of pills just before we got to the ground. I never had the courage to ask him what the pills were, but I doubt if they were vitamins or something to clear up a remarkably regular and recurring headache. I think there were a lot of drugs in sport around that time. It was suggested to me on more than one occasion to take steroids in order to “bulk up”.
“You would put on a stone (about six and a half kilos) of muscle in no time, you know. You’re just too small.”
Fortunately, I had heard about the side effects of steroid use, especially those that could occur later in life, and was never tempted to take the well-meaning advice. Moreover, I really did not think I had a serious future in Rugby League, anyway.
I remember being shocked at seeing a former opponent some years after we had played against each other in junior league. At the time, he was playing professionally for the Parramatta Eels First Grade team and even represented Australia in at least one Rugby League match. In our junior league days his physique was of a more solid build than mine, but I could hardly recognise him when I saw him, close-up, only a few years later. He had become a thick, solid ball of muscle. It defied logic to accept that he had changed his body so dramatically by using only traditional exercise and weight training methods; especially since one of his First Grade teammates openly admitted to taking steroids in order to “bulk-up”.
The day of the grand final arrived and it was a warm, sunny September day. The entire Bondi team arrived at Waverley Oval in a team bus and started stretching and warming-up on the playing field. My parents and sisters were in the grandstand, sitting among the other several hundred spectators. Mum and Dad had taken to regularly driving down from the western suburbs to watch me play on Sundays. I often heard my mother screaming at any opposing player that looked like he might hurt me in a tackle. It was embarrassing. Once the coach came to me after a game and asked: “who is that crazy woman?” He was obviously referring to my mother, after a particularly vociferous performance by her in the grandstand. My flatmates as well as some university friends were also in the crowd on that day.
We kicked-off from the centre of the football field. The ball went high into the air and landed in the opposing full-back’s arms just as I arrived to cut his legs from underneath him with a spirited tackle. In my nervous enthusiasm, I had forgotten all about straight-line-of-defence tactics and sprinted ahead of my teammates to make the first tackle. He was slammed down hard onto his knees and gave out a cry of pain. The crowd cheered.
That first tackle was portends of things to come as we out-enthused and out-played our opposition of hard, tough men during the first part of the game. The Paddington team probably came into the match somewhat complacent and underestimating us, and we surprised them by racing to a handy 11-0 lead by half-time. Their astonishment and distraction was not going to last forever however, and Paddington embarked on a strong and composed comeback during the second half. The lead was reduced to 11-8 and the signs were ominous for Bondi supporters. Suddenly, midway through the second half, a loud gasp from the crowd, followed by a huge cheer resonated around the ground. I looked back over my shoulder to see our coach, the famous, retired, former Eastern Suburbs first grade five-eighth, run onto the ground as a replacement. This was a complete surprise to the entire team as he had not played in a single game all year, nor did we know that he was eligible to play. Unbeknown to us, the coach had secretly registered as a player with the local rugby league authorities at the beginning of the year, just in case we needed him. I could not believe my eyes, neither could the spectators. The opposing team were just as flabbergasted. After the initial shock, our whole team lifted in spirit and confidence in response to having our coach on the field with us. I saw the coach run over and whisper something to our centre. It was not long after, that the ball was passed to the coach who ran it up to the opposition advantage line, around the halfway mark of the ground. The Paddington players were drawn to him like flies to a honey pot. Suddenly there was a flurry of elbows and swinging arms and one or two fists, as what seemed like half the Paddington team attacked our new player. The coach just ignored the foul play, turned his back and passed the ball to our speedy centre who ran up beside him and took the ball at full pace. The centre streaked through the gap in the defence that had been created by so much attention given to the wily coach. TRY! Our goal-kicker was successful with the conversion kick and we moved to a much safer 16-8 lead. We toughed out the remainder of the game to finish at that score in this unforgettable grand final.
The coach and former rugby league great was a very tough man. He was a nightclub bouncer and was credited with singlehandedly routing groups of three or four young thugs at a time. His reputation was legendary. The day of the grand final, after he came onto the field, he allowed himself to be subjected to what he knew would be a rough and collective “welcome” to the field from the opposition, without retaliating, in order to consolidate our lead and change the momentum of the game.
The crowd at the game went wild.
It was the first time Bondi had won the premiership for eight years and the locals celebrated for days. Some of our more adventurous supporters made a lot of money from the terrific betting odds that were on offer. My mother was so hoarse that she could not speak immediately after the game. My father was permitted to enter our ecstatic change room after the match to proudly congratulate me.
I was later shocked to receive a written invitation to tryout with the professional Eastern Suburbs’ football club from legendary Rugby League hero, Arthur Beetson, that I still have and cherish to this very day.
There is nothing like competitive sport, to intensify emotions. I am sure that there are many who would disagree, but to me, there is no cultural activity that can create the same intensity, drama and excitement that can be generated by sport played at a high level; not art, not music, not literature, not even theatre. And to be a participant in that excitement can be a great thrill.
Nothing has ever matched the euphoria I felt that sunny afternoon in September.
Every time I hear the song “Lido Shuffle”, I can’t help remembering that amazing day.