BY THE start of 1988, Canterbury were old hands at finding a new broom and sweeping clean. This was the bicentennial year, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement, and for rugby league the first year in which the grand final would be played at a new venue, the Sydney Football Stadium, and a touring year for the British Lions to Australia.
Canterbury retained its resourcefulness and an appearance of confidence and it have supporters genuine hope that the internal conflicts were behind them. During the '80s, the club turned around negative influences swiftly and seemingly without losing momentum.
Thus the Bulldog management looked at 1988 with enthusiasm. They had faith in their players and they had no doubt that Phil Gould would, despite his youth, fulfill their high expectations.
Gould had been a clever forward, able to devise and carry out tactics during his playing days with Souths, Penrith, Newtown and Canterbury (1983 to 1986).
As coach of Canterbury's reserve grade side in 1987, he had shown Canterbury's management that he was a coach above the ordinary, one who saw the game through his own eyes. His team made the semi-finals and lost only two matches in the second round of the premiership. The Canterbury management believed Gould had proved himself and was the right coach for the job.
Many questioned Canterbury's decision to appoint a 29-year-old to lead the club's charge back to the finals. After all, Gould was young enough to be playing and had played with a number of the players he was about to coach. The football arena was strewn with coaches who had failed to come to terms with coaching players who were former team mates.
If Canterbury felt they were rid of controversy, they were sadly mistaken. This was to be no easy year.
The first shock was the decision to take the captaincy off Steve Mortimer. Gould was unhappy with Canterbury's second-half tactics in a muddy encounter at the Wollongong Showground against Illawarra. Canterbury lost 8-2, the first defeat of the season.
To some, the decision was daring, to others it appeared unjust. Mortimer was one of the finest captains of post-war rugby league. His record as captain of two premiership winning teams and the 1985 NSW State of Origin side proved that. However, Gould was the coach and even though some members of the Canterbury management did not agree with the decision they did not interfere.
With Peter Tunks as the new skipper, Canterbury went on to win the next three matches. Mortimer, as the dutiful servant, explained to the media that he had resigned the captaincy for the sake of the team.
The loss of such Canterbury notables as Chris and Peter Mortimer, Peter Kelly and Billy Johnstone at the end of 1987 raised questions yet again about Canterbury's chances of returning to the winner's list. The modern Bulldog follower had basked in the warmth of knowing that while the Hughes and/ or Mortimers were part of the club, there was a strong sense of where the club was heading.
When 1988 started all that remained of the “brothers” was Steve Mortimer. The season's purchases were not of the backpage-news variety. Robyn Thorne, Glen Nissen and Brandon Lee from Penrith and Joe Thomas, a backrower who had played at Souths, asked for a trial – as a hooker. Yet all four played in the grand final!
Thorne, just 21, was lightning fast and quickly established himself at Belmore. He played in 22 matches in 1988 and scored six tries. Nissen, a promising winger/ centre, played 18 matches and Thomas, 15 matches. Lee played five, and many more as replacement.
So often the focal point of news at Canterbury went back to Steve Mortimer. There was no sidestepping his contribution match after match. He was one of the greatest match winners in the history of the game – even in his later years. Season 1988 was to be one of considerable achievements for him, but in a vein he had not envisaged.
This was the year Mortimer was to be known as “Supersub”. First a respiratory illness, and then a fractured wrist laid him low during the season. The illness forced him to miss four matches in May and June and when he was ready to return Gould decided to use him as a second half replacement for Jason Alchin.
Mortimer obliged by providing the spark whenever he came on. It not only earned him headlines, but lifted the Bulldogs to some much-needed wins. He stole the show in a brilliant 31 minutes at Lang Park in the 15th round, coming on with Brisbane leading 10-9. Within six minutes the match was over. Mortimer set up two tries and Canterbury finished the match with a 25-10 victory.
'Supersub” Mortimer continued to help the Bulldogs in the unaccustomed role, enough for Peter Moore to reflect when the season was over: “We wouldn't have made the semis without Mortimer.”
Closer to the semi-finals Gould decided to take Mortimer off the reserves bench and start the game with him. Canterbury won the next four games, Mortimer's hopes of retaining his place were dashed against St George in Round 21 when he broke his right wrist. His only match thereafter was as a replacement in the latter stages of the grand final against Balmain.
Canterbury finished the preliminary rounds on 32 points, two behind minor premiers Cronulla. Once again the Bulldogs were ready for another showdown in finals football. And it was win all the way – 19-18 against Canberra in the preliminary semi-final and 26-8 against Cronulla in the final. The grand final was next.
The performance of Canterbury reflected great credit on Gould, who was just 29 and endowed with a keen football brain. Though he earned some criticism from the media for his decision to take the captaincy off Mortimer, the fact remains that as coach of Canterbury, it was his responsibility to get the club into the grand final. He also won the Dally M Coach of the Year Award.
Unlike recent grand finals involving Canterbury, this was to be no low-scoring affair. The Bulldogs had to lop down a fairytale to win it. Balmain had come from a play-off for fifth place to reach the match that counted, an unprecedented feat in rugby league since the advent of five-team finals series. They had beaten Parramatta 28-8, Manly 19-6, Canberra 14-6 and Cronulla 9-2 and the irony of it all was that the Balmain coach was Warren Ryan.
In what was the largest scoring grand final of the '80s, Canterbury won 24-12, their fourth title in nine years. Canterbury were proud that they had won the title in the bicentennial year and also that it was the first grand final at the Sydney Football Stadium. Many felt that English Test captain Ellery Hanley, one of the finest players of the modern game, would be Balmain's trump card. However, Hanley lasted 28 minutes, knocked out in a tackle by Terry Lamb. Within five minutes Canterbury had scored, leaving them with an 8-6 halftime lead.
Before his players left the dressing room Gould gave them one priceless piece of advice: “Let's be patient, let's outlast their discipline”, a reference to the fact that Ryan was coaching the opposition and that the simple formula of being patient against a team coached to be disciplined would win the day. Canterbury's patience did last as the tired Tigers tried desperately to hang on. A crack opened in the 50th minute when Gillespie scored and 15 minutes later the game was over when Lamb scored and converted.
The match was a triumph for Michael Hagan, injured in a car accident in the off-season and only back in time for the last three finals matches. Paul Dunn won the Clive Churchill Medal, and “Turvey” Mortimer, his right arm bandaged, called it a day. Though many saw the decision as emotional, it was one that Mortimer was to keep – despite offers from other Sydney clubs and from England.
A desire to be a one-club man, though not a clear wish in his despondent moments over the previous three years, was his ultimate motivation. Now in retirement, Mortimer is eternally grateful for the advice he took.
As Canterbury celebrated their grand final win, it was easy to forget the moment at Belmore in August when the world seemed to stand still for the Buckley family. Greg Buckley, a promising under-21 fullback was knocked unconscious in a tackle in a match against St George. For a time, it seemed that he might not live. In a coma for 40 days, and with his family maintaining a vigil by his hospital bed, Buckley, remarkably, awoke on grand final day, sat up in bed and watched the match with his family.
Rugby League enjoyed a number of highlights in 1988. Australia won the Ashes 2-1 against Great Britain; Steve Folkes realised a dream and played in the first Test, the centenary Test between the two nations; Queensland swamped NSW 3-0 in the State-of-Origin series; Friday night football became reality and, finally, the Bulldogs reigned again.
The success of 1988 highlighted even further the need for a successful and supportive league club. The Canterbury League Club had been quietly realising immensely healthy trading figures, and, in so doing, providing the foundation for Canterbury's on field successes.
As the game headed for the 1990s, club president Gary McIntyre was as adamant as he was in 1982 when he and fellow director Peter Moore helped to sweep in a new league club board – no club in the NSW Rugby League can be successful without a strong and vibrant league club.
“The league club is the most important factor in a football club's success – not the gate takings, not the NSW Rugby League... In 1982 the Canterbury League Club board of directors were heading in the wrong direction. In the long run we would have faced serious economic problems had we not voted out four of the board. Both the league club and the football club were down the tube. The league club could not pay a grant in 1983 – that's how bad things were.”
In 1990, the Canterbury League Club announced a trading profit of $4.4 million, the largest profit made by a club in NSW (It had been $2 million in 1989). McIntyre, with general manager John Ballesty, headed a board of directors that looked at and understood the needs of the local community. In 1991, an $8 million extension of the club was being completed, true testimony to the success of the league club itself.
Worth nothing is that the board of seven appointed in 1982 had not changed in nine years. The board was: McIntyre, Moore, Barry Nelson, Keith Lotty, Harry Murray, Ken McDonald and Martin Puckeridge.
McIntyre explained that in 1987, Canterbury saw the inevitability of a national competition and understood that to survive in the game, a club had to be strong financially. “Only the strong clubs would survive. With the almost certain advent of a national competition some clubs would be either forced out of existence or required to merge to make way for other teams. We didn't want to be one of those clubs to bow out.” With 1988 locked behind Canterbury, it was time for another player exodus. A homesick Tony Currie went back to Brisbane, Hagan joined the Knights, Mortimer became a spectator, Steve O'Brien went to Balmain, Mick Potter to St George and Mark Sargent traveled to Newcastle.
The Bulldogs struggled to fill the gaps. For a start, no one could replace Mortimer, and the fact that 1989 was Canterbury's worst season since 1982, was in some way due to his departure. Other players such as Currie, Hagan and O'Brien were not easily replaced wither. Though Canterbury retained a strong line-up, the club did not have quite the same depth.
Ten wins, 10 defeats and two draws left Canterbury with 22 points – in equal sixth place, six competition points from fifth place. Canterbury was undergoing its most severe player movement for more than a decade.
When 1989 finished, Gould wanted the more professional role of fulltime coach. That opportunity came along at Penrith and he grabbed it. Peter Tunks left for Penrith, also, and Steve Folkes retired after a record 301 games for the club. It was Folkes' testimonial year and the year in which he scored his 68th try, the most by a forward in Canterbury's history. Only four players had scored more tries than Folkes – Chris Anderson (120), Peter Mortimer (90), Steve Mortimer (82) and Terry Lamb (74).
The paradox at Canterbury was that while the club was bathed in controversy in the mid to late 1980s, the football club committee remained remarkably stable, a fact that in some way helps to explain the strength of the club. Although requiring a football board of 16, large by modern standards, there had not been one change in the seven years leading up to the start of 1991.
Two stalwarts of the club, one a player, the other a long serving committeemen, died during 1989. Ron Bailey, a brilliant centre, was the 1942 premiership captain and 1946 Australian Test captain. Popular figure George Garland had been a director of the the club for 15 years during which time he had been very loyal and devoted to Canterbury.
Canterbury were proud of their ability to nurture youth – local youngsters and young players who had been sought from country areas. In the 1989 annual report, numerous references were made to the support Canterbury was giving to youth. Chief executive Peter Moore wrote: “The year's highlights coincided with the selections of Jamie Corcoran, Kevin Moore, Kyle White, Dean Pay and Simon Gillies.”
When 1989 ended and Gould had made his decision to leave, Canterbury turned to Chris Anderson, back in Australia after four successful years as coach of English Club Halifax. The message was clear: Canterbury were going back to a formula they believed would work again – young players under the wing of a player with Canterbury blood in his veins. Not only was Anderson appointed, but also his former team mates Stan Cutler as reserve grade coach, and Geoff Robinson in the President's Cup. They had played 757 games for Canterbury.
The Bulldogs, with Lamb their new captain, led the 1990 premiership for the first five weeks. As injuries set in, lack of experience showed and the club lost six matches in succession. Yet Canterbury were unbowed and, in fact, highly enthusiastic at the manner in which they finished the year, particularly in view of the emphasis they were placing on youth. The club won its last four matches, beating Illawarra, Cronulla, Easts and Gold Coast. The club finished on 25 points, a creditable position only three points away from fifth place.
The 1990 season left the club to lament the passing of one of their greatest players – Henry Porter, an outstanding prop forward in the winning 1938 and 1942 premiership teams. Porter was a member of Canterbury's legendary front row with Eddie Burns and Roy Kirkaldy.
The spirit of Porter would live on with the Bulldogs – at a time when the spirit of youth was beginning to show again. Such young men as Andrew Patmore, Kyle White, Simon Gillies, Peter Moore, Darren Smith and Dean Pay, and many others were embarking on promising careers.
Canterbury also signed two other outstanding young players, Jarrod McCracken, Junior Kiwi captain and son of the former great New Zealander winger Ken McCracken, and Craig Polla Mounter, captain of the 1990 Australian Rugby Union Schoolboys team to the British Isles.
Significantly, on the cover of the 1990 annual report which carried a message on Porter's passing, was Darren Smith, a promising centre/ second rower, a rare honour for a young player.
This was Canterbury at its rebuilding best. By the time 1990 was over and the dust had cleared, only Lamb, of the truly experienced players, remained. Paul Dunn had gone to Penrith, Paul Langmack, Andrew Farrar, Joe Thomas and David Gillespie took the carriageway to Campbelltown and joined Warren Ryan at Wests and Jason Alchin left for St George. The most surprising defector was Farrar, a loyal servant for 11 action-packed years.
With the first NSW Rugby League player-draft in operation at the end of 1990, Canterbury picked up Balmain's Bruce McGuire and Brisbane's Scott Tronc, both experienced forwards who would blend well with the youth policy. There was also excitement at the young players signed in the external draft, It was also noteworthy that Canterbury had “collected” another set of brothers – the Gillies boys, Simon (19), Ben (21) and Duncan (18), the last mentioned signed from Yass in the external draft.
Season 1990 had been one of controversy and innovation for rugby league. Ten South Sydney players tested positive to a drug at training. The League took the game to Melbourne where a sell-out crowd of 25,800 at Olympic Park watched NSW beat Queensland in a State-of-Origin match; Canberra beat Penrith 18-14 to win back-to-back premierships and the Kangaroos returned with the Ashes in a 2-1 series win over Great Britain and a 3-0 whitewash of France.
Canterbury also upgraded their training schedules, moving into a new professionalism. The club appointed Steve Folkes as fulltime conditioner and players in 1991 were required to train five days a week. Coach Chris Anderson explained players had to arrange their working hours around training, not the reverse, as had been the case. “We have to become more professional – it's the only way to compete. Football is first, work is second.”
As 1991 began, the youth program upgraded even further. “In 1978,” said President Barry Nelson, “we lost just about all of our experienced players. Bill Noonan, Steve Hage, Phil Charlton and Mick Ryan went to Newtown, Gary Dowling to Parramatta and so on. The same thing has happened to us in 1990.
“There is a new feeling in the club... a feeling that it could all happen for us again.” No one was promising instant success, but the proven Bulldog formula of faith in youth had the same ring about it as in the days when the Mortimers and Hughes were only pups on their way to becoming a part of Canterbury legend.
The '90s would be a testing time, not only for the game, club finances and the like, but also for the Bulldogs. The club had already shown a remarkable ability to overcome hardship. And now it would have to show it again.