The story of the Green Machine

Canberra Raiders history

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Don Furner
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The story of the Green Machine

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The story of the Green Machine: a history of the Canberra Raiders

1. The birth of a club

When the Canberra Raiders took to the field for the first time, a match against South Sydney at Redfern Oval on February 27, 1982, it was the culmination of a dream. It was a dream originating with a group of people in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, just over the border from the Australian Capital Territory.

Queanbeyan is a place that even today, Canberrans call “Struggletown”. It was a small country town, without the planning and services of the nation’s capital on its doorstep. It was a town populated by the working class of the district. But in the rugby league world, Queanbeyan was a powerful centre of country football. A centre supported by a prosperous leagues club, built on the streams of Canberrans who would drive over the border to the poker machine palace – at a time poker machines were not legal in the ACT. Eighty per cent of the members of the club at the time actually lived in Canberra.

The local rugby league ground, Seiffert Oval, was the equal, if not superior, to many of the grounds that Sydney rugby league clubs called home after the Queanbeyan Leagues club had injected $2 million into the ground’s development. It even had floodlighting which allowed for mid-week Cup matches to be played for television between Eastern Suburbs and Monaro and Riverina and Canterbury.

The man who led the push for the Canberra district to have its own team in the “Sydney competition” was Les McIntyre – the man behind the rise of the Queanbeyan Blues and then the president of the Queanbeyan Leagues Club. The New South Wales Rugby League had already decided in December 1980 to admit Illawarra to its top flight competition in 1982, but was on a search for a 14th team to enter alongside them.

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Les McIntyre, founder of the Canberra Raiders.

McIntyre was originally interested in entering his Queanbeyan Blues team into the Sydney league, but as McIntyre recalled: “They didn’t want a club side, they wanted a district team. With that in mind, I called a meeting of the district clubs”.

On January 4, 1981, a meeting of the 16 ACT and region clubs voted unanimously to test the support of the local public and in principle to prepare a submission to the NSWRL. A survey of 1872 people later showed that 80.5 per cent of people wanted to attend matches if a local team played in the NSWRL competition. Surveys in Goulburn and Yass found 65 per cent of people would support the venture as well. So a committee was formed to proceed with the bid. It was headed by McIntyre and included Don Elphick (ACT Rugby League president), George Tooke (Canberra District Rugby League secretary), Gerry Edwards (ACTRL secretary), Graham Ayre (CDRL treasurer), Mark Herron (ACTRL treasurer), Rod Edwards (QLC secretary), Fred Daly (patron), and Arthur Laing (promotions and marketing).

The Canberra bid faced some stiff competition. There was also interest from Campbelltown, Newcastle and the Central Coast – all districts which were much closer to Sydney than the nation’s capital. Again Les McIntyre recalled: “Three districts were asked to put in a submission – there was Campbelltown, Newcastle and ourselves. Newcastle declined the invitation, saying they already had a very good competition and it would be decimated if a side was chosen to play in Sydney. It’s my opinion and I think it’s everyone else’s opinion, if Newcastle would have applied they would have been in. There’s no risk on that score”.

The Canberra bid submission was delivered to the NSWRL on March 9, 1981 and presented at a meeting in Sydney on March 30 – alongside the bid from Campbelltown. The team representing Canberra and district included Les McIntyre, Don Elphick, George Tooke, Graham Ayre, Ron Edwards and Fred Daly. The Canberra bid had already selected Don Furner as inaugural coach, with a term of three years, should the team be admitted. Furner, along with the Member for Canberra, Ros Kelly, also attended.

Bringing Furner on board was a smart, albeit obvious move. Indeed, it would never have succeeded without him. As a player, Furner had represented Queensland and toured with the 1956-57 Kangaroos. He coached the Queanbeyan Blues from 1965-69, but then moved to the big smoke to coach the Eastern Suburbs Roosters between 1970-72, taking them to the 1972 Grand Final. He then settled back to coach Queanbeyan Blues again, long term. He was therefore well known in Sydney League circles.

Making Fred Daly and Ros Kelly – co patrons of the budding club – part of the team was also a plus. It was their job to put the case from the Canberra community. Daly was a long time Federal Labor politician, representing seats in the inner south west of Sydney, and a long time Newtown stalwart – but had retired in 1975 and lived in Canberra. He was famous for his wit, and became known as the “King of Canberra”. Ros Kelly was a popular local member, newly elected to the seat of Canberra in 1980. Kelly recalled the March 30 meeting: “I was told at rugby league headquarters as we walked into the room that no woman had officially step foot in that room before. I knew I had their attention for at least two minutes and told them it was their opportunity to grow rugby league in the region. Fred of course, made them laugh”.

The Canberra submission highlighted that the admission of Canberra to the NSWRL was critical for rugby league’s development and growth in the region and to promote its popularity outside of Sydney. Canberra was sold as one of the fastest growing regions outside of Sydney and Melbourne. In addition, "in terms of status, Canberra, as the national capital is the front window of Australia, and rugby league should be prominently displayed". But McIntyre also warned in his submission that Canberra was a major target for the promotion of competitor codes and that rugby league was suffering in the district. He argued that admission of a team in Canberra was essential if this was to be turned around.

That made sense, but the Sydney based clubs still had a healthy dose of self-interest at the top of mind. One significant issue was the distance to Canberra and the costs of travel for the Sydney teams. The Canberra submission pointed out that the flight from Sydney to Canberra airports took only 23 minutes – and all up, it would take only 40 minutes to get to Seiffert Oval. For the majority of clubs, that was as close in terms of travel as the Sea Eagles’ ground at Brookvale or the Panthers’ ground at Penrith. And right up front, the Canberra bid promised “to look favourably, by assisting in transporting the first grade team and officials at no cost who require this assistance.” But that was not clear enough.

Les McIntyre recalled the March 30 meeting: “During Campbelltown’s submission [NSWRL chief] Kevin Humphreys came out and called me aside and he said, ‘Les, if you don’t get in there and promise to pay the expenses for the Sydney teams to come to Queanbeyan, you’re no chance.’ So I got in there and promised them the world. We kept those promises – the first year we did, we paid all their airfares and accommodation.”

The travel costs were not the only issue. Campbelltown had presented at the March 30 meeting first and they adopted some spoiling tactics. Campbelltown delegate John Marsden provided statistics to the NSWRL showing that Canberra airport was closed by fog at least up until noon 39 times between March and September in 1980. The statistics caused several NSWRL delegates concern that matches might have to be called off, with Sydney teams stuck waiting at Mascot while planes were grounded.

There had been some early betting that Canberra – with a well-financed annual budget of $660,000, a recognised top line coach and high standard ground – would win by 20 votes. But it was much closer than that on the night. The Campbelltown presentation had had its impact. At the end of the four and a half hour meeting on March 30, Canberra won out over Campbelltown by 24 votes to 18. At the same time, it was agreed that the possible admission of Campbelltown and Newcastle in 1984 would be considered at the next NSWRL meeting.

The decision was front page news in The Canberra Times next day. Les McIntyre said: “It’s the best thing that has happened to Canberra since inauguration as far as sport is concerned.” On his return to Canberra, Don Furner said: “I feel like someone who has gone round one with Muhammed Ali, and now has the rest of the fight to go. It will take three years to build a foundation. We are starting from scratch. Basically next year we will be seeking six experienced players. I’m a realist. I’m not fooled into thinking that we are going to challenge the top teams yet. But what happened on Monday night was a magnificent boost for rugby league in this area and we can compete, without any doubt”.

The biggest task was gathering a team in less than a year – within the strictures of a “13 import rule” which applied to all clubs at the time. There were no special dispensations for the new kids on the block from the Sydney clubs, to allow Canberra to build a competitive team quickly for its entry year. The Raiders could only take on board 13 imported players, the others would have to come from the local district or bush football. That had the effect of protecting the Sydney clubs from competition from Canberra for the signature of players. The disadvantage for Canberra was compounded by the rule that imported players became "locals" after three years, something available to the established clubs, but not initially the Raiders.

One of the original Canberra Raiders, winger Angel Marina recalled: “We originally got invitations from Les McIntyre and the Queanbeyan Leagues Club, all the players in the district who were any good were given an invitation to come and try out for the club.” Fellow original player, fullback Steve O’Callaghan said: “I suppose 70 per cent of the players came from the [Queanbeyan] Roos or the Blues. There were some guys from West Belconnen and the other local Group 8 sides. There was a 13 import rule so that reflected on who they could get here. David Grant came down, Lloyd Martin, I think Scott Dudman. It was very difficult because they’d been exposed to that level of play and to bring everyone else up to speed, to try and reach that level was difficult”.

David Grant, attracted from the Balmain Tigers, would go on to be the Canberra Raiders inaugural captain. But others were less known. Don Furner recalled: “I’d go anywhere to have a look for players. I had contacts all over the place from people I’d known over the years and I’d ring them to see if there were any good players. I’d never sign anyone up on someone else’s say-so, I’d always go and watch them. In the end we picked up quite a few players like that”.

One tip came from a truck driver Furner met in Brisbane. “He rang me up and said, ‘’I’ve got a good player for you in Darwin’. I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding, I could play there,’” Furner said. But he went to Darwin and came back with the signature of indigenous half Gerry De La Cruz, a player who would go down in history as the first ever try scorer for Canberra.

Still, it was extremely difficult to attract players from outside the district to the fledgling club. “Players had to be encouraged to come to this area and that was no easy task. We had to arrange accommodation and jobs. We had to pick the best of what was left because a lot of players were tied up with the top sides. It was very hard to get people to come here when they knew they were going to get belted,” Furner said.

Apart from gathering a squad, other important things had to be decided – like the name and colours of the club. The original submission to the NSWRL promised that a public competition would be held to design a team jumper, complete with colours, which would not conflict with any other existing club. A competition would also be held to decide on the emblem and team name.

The jumper competition was won by Canberran Beverly Patricia Elphick (nee Taylor), selected from about 150 entries. The club colours combined the blue and gold official colours of the ACT and the colours of the first rugby league team in the district, Hall (green and white). The famous shade of lime green was selected so as to avoid a clash with South Sydney’s jersey. Don Furner later revealed that it was modelled on the green of a sofa at the Queanbeyan Leagues Club. "In Les McIntyre's office there was a lounge that was that colour and we said why not that colour there, and that's how it all began" Furner remembered. The idea for the club moniker, the Raiders, is also attributed to Don Furner, who had visited the Oakland Raiders NFL team in the United States. The concept was that Canberra would be going on raiding parties on Sydney every second weekend. The Viking emblem was designed by the NSWRL marketing department in the end.

On November 2 1981, the new club held its first training session, with 70 players in all lining up, yet Canberra was still searching for players right up until the last minute, holding an open trial on January 31, 1982 at which 90 players turned out. The Canberra Raiders team had their first trial match February 6, 1982 against Canterbury (losing 16-10) and then their first home trial at Seiffert Oval against Illawarra on February 13 (losing 12-8). An official lunch was held on February 19 to launch the club at - where else but Queanbeyan Leagues Club. It was attended by league chief Kevin Humphries, along with other league luminaries like Frank Hyde and Greg Hartley. A third trial game against Manly in Sydney rounded out the preparations (a 28-16 defeat).

By the time of that first ever official match against South Sydney in 1982, everything possible had been done to lay the foundations of a successful club in the big league. It was the culmination of a dream, but it was also the start of an even bigger dream.

Sources: The Canberra Times, 25 Years in the Limelight, Rugby League Week, Canberra Raiders 30 Years.
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The story of the Green Machine

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2. 1982 - We’re in the big league now

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Canberra Raiders 1982 team photo.

The highlight of the Canberra Raiders’ inaugural season was the historic first win. It was expected the club would struggle on field, given the limitations on the club’s ability to recruit players who had shown they could compete in the toughest league in Australia. And so it was - there would only be four wins in total that first year and lots of demoralising lows. But what a high it was for the Seiffert Oval home crowd when the team in lime green met the Newtown Jets on 18 April, 1982.

Before the season proper kicked off, coach Don Furner lined up three trial matches in February for his largely inexperienced charges – against Canterbury at Belmore, Illawarra at home and Manly at Sydney. Canberra would lose all three matches, but it was not the goal of the coach to produce wins in the games. First of all, he had the task of narrowing down a big list of aspirants to around 55 registered players. “The only way to do that is to give every candidate a fair go in the trials. That’s why we are more concerned with trial form than winning matches at this stage” Furner said at the time. By the time the season started, Canberra revealed it had outlaid the hefty sum of $450,000 on 52 graded players’ contracts.

Second, Furner used the trial matches for the purpose of finding an inaugural club captain. The Raiders had attempted to sign Manly forward Bruce Walker as captain. He agreed to a deal, but then backed out when Manly matched the Canberra offer. Without a clear contender in the squad, Furner told the media he’d decided to “trial as many captains as possible before settling on the right man”. He gave hooker Jay Hoffman the job in the first trial against the Bulldogs – he scored the first try for the Raiders in the 16-10 loss. Five eighth Lloyd Martin took the role in the trial against the Steelers - a 12-8 loss at Seiffert Oval on 13 February in front of 4,300 fans. Second rower John McLeod was appointed captain for the Manly trial.

Furner would eventually settle on prop David Grant as inaugural captain, when naming his team for the first official match – based on the theory that the extra responsibility could keep his aggressive style of play under a modicum of control. That style of play was reflected in Grant’s nickname – Nana. John McLeod later explained: “We used to call him Nana, because when he did his nana you made sure you kept out of his way.” But even then, Furner did not seem quite sure of his choice, stating at the time: “One of the biggest problems has been to find a captain and I will probably just name a captain for the day for the first few premiership rounds”.

The coach’s third aim for the trials was to give his players a taste of what was to come. “I purposely chose three hard trial matches to show my players what lies ahead of them this season,” Furner said. “It’s a new ball game for my boys. They’ve never faced the prospect of playing in a tough match every week, and they’ll have to learn it the hard way.” And learn the hard way, they would.

The official season commenced with a match against South Sydney at Redfern Oval. The team selected was billed as a “local backline and imported forward pack”. It reflected Furner’s philosophy that he needed “big forwards, that is, physically, who can stand up to the tough matches week after week. You cannot expect 85kg forwards to stand up to 100kg forwards every week”. He felt he could largely mould a backline from the local players. Announcing the side, Furner said: “A lot of thought went into the naming of the top team. We only have the evidence of three hard trial games to assess the quality of players. I’m happy with the players we will grade this week and feel that even some of the third graders are good enough to make first grade”. That would prove a somewhat optimistic claim.

The Raiders led the Rabbitohs 7-5 at an early stage in the round one Redfern clash. The honour of the very first points Canberra scored went to kicker Peter McGrath - a centre who would go on to rise to the very top of rugby union administration in Australia - via a penalty goal. The first try in Raiders history was produced by halfback Gerry de la Cruz. He would later say: “It probably didn’t mean as much to me at the time, but I remember when the Raiders were going into the 1989 Grand Final, there was an ad that featured it. We had about half a dozen first graders in the team who tried to tell us what it would be like, but we really had to learn for ourselves. It was great. It had always been my ambition to play first grade in the best competition in the world.” De la Cruz would only play four games for the Raiders in first grade, but his place in Raiders folklore was assured that day.

The 7-5 lead over South Sydney didn’t last, and the Rabbitohs ended up giving Canberra a 37-7 footballing lesson. “One lasting memory I have is Robert Simpkins running straight at me and trying to tackle him,” Peter McGrath remembered. “He just kept running through and I thought, ‘this is it’ we’re in the big league now’. That’s when it dawned on me. They beat us soundly. It took us a while to adjust to the pace and intensity.” Winger Steve O’Callaghan was struck by the size of the challenge facing the team. “We were despondent [after the match]. A lot of the guys from Sydney went out on the town, but I went back to the motel and didn’t feel like going anywhere after that.” Another veteran of the match, off the bench, was Michael Tilse, the father of current Raiders prop Dane Tilse. “As a young bloke, you probably don’t realise how much that game meant,” Tilse later recalled. “But to be in that first game and be part of history is something special.”

The first home game the next week saw the Western Suburbs Magpies come to Seiffert Oval – and 6,769 people turned out. The Canberra Times ran a four page lift out to mark the occasion. It included an appeal from club secretary John McIntyre to the fans not to bring “large eskies” that could only be handled by two people or to bring in bottles of beer. The club had spent a further $400,000 on the ground in the months leading up to the match, including on fitting out 16 private boxes. A box would set a sponsor back $8,000 to $15,000 and by the start of the season, half had been sold. In contrast, general admission for each match cost just $4. A reserved season ticket in the grandstand was discounted from the initial $50 to $35 - for 13 matches - after only around 500 had sold and 2,000 remained. Still, interest was strong and the first home match had a carnival atmosphere. The Raiderettes made their first appearance and Fred Daly conducted the ceremonial kick off.

Unfortunately, another big score was put on the new boys in the league – just two penalty goals to McGrath for the Raiders and a 33-4 defeat. Furner was critical of the performance, suggesting he had a team of 40 minute footballers. Things would not get much better in the weeks that followed.

Despite being the 75th anniversary of the NSWRL and the year in which the competition expanded beyond Sydney, things were not going well more broadly for the code either. Crowds were declining and during a time of recession, a number of the long standing clubs were in financial difficulty. Newtown, South Sydney, Cronulla and Western Suburbs were the clubs most in trouble. Teams were spending beyond their means on player recruitment and the NSWRL had to bail out Newtown, Wests and Souths with loans. Television commentator Ron Casey was prominent in his criticism of the direction of the game, and was particularly derisory about the inclusion of Canberra and Illawarra – calling the decision “an unmitigated disaster”. The outspoken Casey also predicted Canberra would not win a match all season. The main saving grace for the league was the injection of big sponsorship dollars, with 1982 being the first year of the Winfield Cup.

The worst of the season for Canberra came when they visited Belmore Oval in round seven – the temporary home of the dominant club of the era and 1981 premier, Parramatta. It was a 54-3 rout, the only points for Canberra coming from a John McLeod try. It would be the biggest defeat of the whole season and still remains the biggest defeat in Raiders history today. Allan Smith, normally a five eighth, who played 13 games for the Raiders, later remembered: “I was fullback one day when we were beaten by Parramatta. We led 3-0 in that game. After the game, Don Furner had a bit of a laugh at me and said, ‘I’m a bit worried about your one-on-one defence.’ I said, ‘I’m not too worried about my one-on-one defence, but I’m a bit concerned about the five-on-one’.” It was that sort of day.

The Raiders’ first year saw many locals attend simply to see the Sydney teams run around. Expectations of the home team were not strong, and many locals already had a Sydney team to follow. Some switched to the Raiders immediately, but for others it would take time or success on the field for the Raiders to become their number one team. Peter McGrath recalled: “It galvanised the community. I always say the fans at Raiders games used to come and support the Sydney team they’d always followed for years, but the next week they were supporting the Raiders. It gave the Canberra community an identity.” There certainly would have been a lot of converts as a result of the week that followed the thrashing by Parramatta.

The first plus was that the Raiders recorded their first victory of any sort just days after the Parramatta rout – on the Wednesday night when they took on New Zealand’s South Island in a KB Cup match at Leichhardt Oval. Canberra took the match 27-15 in an uninspiring clash, but a win was a win. Two tries to Craig Bellamy in the final quarter helped seal the victory.

Something better was to come on the Sunday at Seiffert Oval in the round eight clash against Newtown – the team that met premier Parramatta in the 1981 Grand Final. It turned into a tense and gripping contest. Canberra trailed 8-2 at the break, but a barnstorming try from John McLeod after a David Grant bust shortly after half time brought the Raiders back into the contest. Late in the match, the Raiders trailed the Jets 11-7, but a young replacement, Chris O’Sullivan proved the difference. He ran past two Newtown defenders, leapt over some more, and lunged over the try line. It produced a 12-11 lead for the home side, which the Raiders held until the hooter sounded.

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Canberra Raiders V Newtown Jets, Seiffert Oval, 1982.

It’s a cliché to say “the crowd went wild”, but it certainly did. There seemed to be many more in attendance than 9,982. The seven game losing streak was over, the local team had won its first ever match and the roar was as loud as if Canberra had won the premiership. After the match captain David Grant simply said: “We are on top of the world”.

Goal kicker Steve O’Callaghan was the other hero of the first win. The Raiders scored just two tries to Newtown’s three. O’Callaghan was a reluctant kicker that day, with coach Furner revealing: “O’Callaghan had to be press ganged into it. I called for volunteers to take the goal kicks at training during the week, but O’Callaghan is such a quiet type that he didn’t say anything. Fortunately I had seen him kick before and knew he was up to it”. O’Callaghan kicked three from three, while normally reliable Newtown goal kicker, Ken Wilson, landed only one from five attempts.

Second rower Ashley Gilbert recalled the match later: “It was like winning a grand final. Like batting in your first Test match and finally getting off the duck”. Hooker Jay Hoffman said: “I’d injured my neck towards the end of the game and had to go to the hospital for some x-rays. All I wanted to do was to get back for the celebrations. To carry that losing streak for so long, it was a momentous occasion.” Others were thinking about more than just the win. “I remember walking into the sheds after our first win against Newtown and David Reid said ‘You beauty, 500 bucks.’ Most of the other clubs were paying $200 a win, but we were on $500. That was a lot of money back then,” winger Steve O’Callaghan said.

The day after the Newtown victory, Sydney commentator Ron Casey sent a telegram to Canberra Raiders headquarters at Queanbeyan. All it said was: “Sincere congratulations – JC is infallible. RC is not.” It would not be the last time that the so-called Sydney experts would be proven wrong by the team from the national capital.

There were unfortunately many more losses and some very big scores racked up by the opposition during the rest of 1982. Coach Furner had to strike a balance between demanding more of his players, while remaining realistic and positive. He also had to maintain a sense of humour. After the 35-0 mid-season drubbing by Balmain in Sydney, Furner quipped that the Raiders trying to match the Sydney clubs is like “sending Radish out to beat Manikato in a feature race”. In more serious vein, he said: “We are facing the music week after week, but have not lost our enthusiasm of determination. All the Raiders train hard and are whole hearted in their approach to our games. In spite of all the problems, they are all working hard for the club and that will pay dividends in the next season or two. Experience at the top level can only be gained by playing against the best week after week and I am sure our players will all be improved by what they are learning this season.”

But there were three more wins. Perhaps an even bigger upset than the Newtown match was the win over South Sydney at Seiffert Oval in round 15. South Sydney scored the first two and the last two tries in the match, but the Raiders controlled proceedings in the intervening 65 minutes – winning 23-18 in front of what was then a new ground record attendance of 12, 954. David Grant led from up front and was man of the match. An exuberant Don Furner said after the game: “On that form, there is not a better prop than Grant in Australia, and hooker Jay Hoffman should be in the Queensland team for next week’s State of Origin game!” Looking back on the match later, centre Paul West – who had previously played for the Rabbitohs – said that toppling one of the competition leaders was one of his best memories of his time in Canberra. “The crowd started to chant for the Raiders and by the end of the game there was a huge celebration” he said.

There were also wins over St George and fellow new entrants, Illawarra. In the match against St George at Seiffert, the scores were locked at 22 all with just moments left – when winger Angel Marina dived over for a try in the corner to produce the 25-22 victory. St George coach Roy Masters claimed that the overhead pass to Marina from John McLeod to set up the winning try was forward. But it did not matter to another record breaking crowd of 13,758. They surged onto the field after the hooter, and such was the clamour to get to the players, a young boy was injured and taken away in an ambulance with a suspected broken leg. Fortunately it would not prove to be the case. All the Raiders four victories were at home. The first win away was something would come another year.

Canberra finished the season with an unflattering 296 points for and 862 points against, and 14th in the competition, taking the wooden spoon. To date, it is the only that Canberra has “won” the wooden spoon. More positively, crowds were good, with the top attendance being 17,365 for the clash with Parramatta. The Raiders budgeted for average crowds of 7,000 but it turned out to be around 11,000. Only Manly, Parramatta and Canterbury had a better home crowd average. The popularity of the Raiders left other sports in Canberra concerned that they would be left in rugby league's wake. From here, things could only get better.

Memories of some pioneer Raiders

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Canberra Raiders 1982 team photo.

Jay Hoffman, hooker and the first player recruited by Canberra from Brisbane Brothers: “Don [Furner] didn’t have to try too hard to convince me. I always wanted to play in the Sydney competition, it was about challenging yourself. That buzz stayed with me the whole first year. We took a few hidings, but you had to have something driving you. They told me they’d signed a few big name players, but it turned out to be a fallacy. I think they said that to a few players to attract them down.”

Peter McGrath, centre and now Chairman of the Australian Rugby Union: “The vibe the whole year was unbelievable. They’d come out to Seiffert and barrack for the teams they’d supported for years, but they’d come back the next week and barrack for us. We didn’t set the world on fire with results, but people claimed us. It was a great sense of community. The Cannons [basketball team] earlier on were the first step in giving Canberra identity, but there’s no doubt the Raiders took it to the next level. As kids we had to make a decision whether to stay here or go to Sydney. For Sydney to come to us was just a fantastic opportunity.”

Chris O’Grady, winger, on the first win over Newtown: “It was a tense game, just the emotion and relief of it all. Afterward the town celebrated like when they won the premiership in ’89, it was like winning a grand final. I still think to this day the crowds were downplayed. They’d say it was 14,000 there when it was more like 18 or 19 [thousand].”

Chris O’Grady, on the travel to Sydney and Raiders trainer Brian Bourke: “The bus trips were funny, on the way back they were a free for all. But once “Flex” (Bourke) got a hold of you on Monday, any alcohol in the system came out fairly quickly. We’d run up and down Bungendore hill, all sorts of crazy things in 40 degree preseason heat. A lot of his stuff would be outlawed today, but his contribution was huge.”

John McLeod, second rower, on moving to the Canberra district: “Until we got settled there were about 13 of us all staying at the Tourist Hotel. And I reckon the same number all worked at the Queanbeyan Leagues Club. I remember me, Lloyd Martin, Scott Dudman and someone else all worked behind the bar and we worked pretty hard. But the other nine were all in maintenance and they didn’t do too much work at all. We were pretty dirty about that.”

John McLeod, on a difficult first season: “We understood we were trying to create a club and we knew, early on, that we were going to get beaten. But the other teams knew we were around.”

Craig Bellamy, centre: “I came from the bush and in that first year I remember it was quite overawing playing against blokes you’d seen on TV. I knew it was going to be hard, but remember thinking in the second half of the year, perhaps it’s not as hard as we originally thought. They were just human.”

Rowan Brennan, fullback: “I was playing fullback in that first year and I remember topping the tackle count in one game. That’s not something to be proud about as a fullback. I remember saying to Don Furner, ‘You might as well move me to the forwards,’ and he did the next year.”

Gary Britt, second rower: “The kids used to come on to the field and pat you on the back. The atmosphere was great and the crowds were right on top of you. Then after the game all the supporters would walk back to the club. We struggled, but there was great friendship.”

Jon Hardy, second rower: “It was a good year for me. I played every game, but that’s luck, fate or whatever you believe in. I played the first half of the next year too, but then the finish of my career was plagued with injury.”

Chris O’Sullivan, half: “We really had a dig. The thing we were up against was believing in ourselves if we were good enough from the start. The Sydney teams came down so confident. But I just wanted to get out and knock them over – compete with them.”

Angel Marina, winger, on the first win over Newtown: “It was a pretty awesome feeling when we went back to the club that night, it was our very first win. We hadn’t seen much success in the first round of the competition, but that was pretty awesome and from there we knew that we could win a few games and we certainly tried a bit harder. We had that notion right from the very start that we could win games, but just proving it to ourselves. We just had to win one game to show they’re just the same as us and if we really apply ourselves on the day and we play good football, we certainly can win.”

Angel Marina, on David Grant: “David Grant was the first captain. He was an inspirational sort of a player. On his day, he was the best in the country as far as front rowers went. He was a great player, loved life, not big on training but he was a great captain and he certainly put his all into his team mates. It was very special in that first year. He was the captain and you always sort of felt safe when David was on the field, he was a very big man and he certainly did his best to win games for the Raiders.”

Pioneering Raiders teams

Round 1 1982, first Canberra Raiders team: Sam Vucago (fullback), Chris O’Grady, Steve O’Callaghan (wingers), Peter McGrath, Frank Roddy (centres), Lloyd Martin (five eighth), Gerry de la Cruz (halfback), Carl Frommel (lock), Jon Hardy, John McLeod (second rowers), David Grant (C), Jeff Simons (props), Jay Hoffman (hooker).

Round 8 1982, first victory for a Canberra Raiders team: Rowan Brennan (fullback), David Reid, Steve O’Callaghan (wingers), Craig Bellamy, Frank Roddy (centres), Lloyd Martin (five eighth), Terry Wickey (halfback), Carl Frommel (lock), John McLeod, Jon Hardy (second rowers), David Grant, Jeff Simons (props), Jay Hoffman (hooker).

Inaugural full Canberra Raiders squad: John Algate, Jim Antonakos, Bruce Bacchetto, James Baxter, Craig Bellamy, Lui Bon, Mal Bradley, Rowan Brennan, Gary Britt, Col Brinkley, Peter Casey, Dennis Cherry, George Christou, Richard Cooke, Mark Darby, Gerry de la Cruz, Scott Dudman, Peter Elliott, Garry Ellis, Michael Fahey, Greg Fitzgerald, Carl Frommel, Ashley Gilbert, Gary Givens, David Grant, Ian Hamilton, Jon Hardy, Neil Henry, Jay Hoffman, Steve Kier, Barry Kirkup, Chris Kinna, Peter McGrath, Tony McGurgan, John McLeod, Angel Marina, Lloyd Martin, Tom Nickels, Steve O’Callaghan, Chris O’Grady, Chris O’Sullivan, Tony Pobjie, Mick Press, Gary Price, Herb Rauter, David Reid, Frank Roddy, Derek Schaeffer, Peter Scott, Jeff Simons, Alan Smith, Trevor Smith, Wayne Stonham, Michael Tilse, Soni Tuwai, Sam Vucago, Graham Waugh, Robert Warner, Shaun Wendt, Paul West, Terry Wickey, Tom Wright.

Sources: The Canberra Times, 25 Years in the Limelight, True Blue: The Story of the NSWRL, Canberra Raiders 30 Years
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The story of the Green Machine

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3. 1983 – Building with veterans and rookies

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Canberra Raiders 1983 team.

The Canberra Raiders’ preparations for the 1983 season commenced well before 1982 was over. Coach Don Furner was constantly on the look-out for new players, as he realised right from the start his squad could not effectively compete. So focussed was he on securing new talent that he missed the 1982 round 24 match with the Sharks so he could go on a scouting expedition to north Queensland for players.

However, Canberra’s quest to strengthen its playing stocks continued to be stymied by the NSWRL’s 13 import rule and it put the new club on a collision course with the league. In late September 1982, the Raiders put a motion to the NSWRL general committee which would allow it to increase the club’s import limit from 13 to 21. The motion was defeated, the move blocked by the Sydney clubs and even fellow new chum, the Illawarra Steelers – who argued the Raiders knew the rules when they entered the competition.

The combination of the 13 import rule and a rule which deemed players who had served five years with a club as “locals” – and therefore no longer defined as imports for the purpose of any team’s stock of 13 imports – meant that the established teams had much more room to manoeuver than the two new entrants. Between players becoming “locals” and players moving on, Sydney teams had the scope to readily recruit half a dozen or more new “imports”. Canberra and Illawarra could not. Canberra’s proposal was designed to overcome the disadvantage.

With the rejection of the motion, Canberra president Les McIntyre went on the attack. “It’s an unbelievable decision. We are now two years behind the eight ball, and because we have 13 imports we cannot buy another outside player for two years. It means we cannot spend like other Sydney clubs and that’s most unfair,” he said. “Most of the premiership clubs just think about themselves and not for the sake of the game. Those 13 other Sydney secretaries will have to show better judgement for the clubs to survive. Each Sydney club, with the exception of Illawarra, buys about six to eight imported players every year; but we’re stuck with the league’s decision for another two years,” McIntyre railed.

Don Furner went further, calling for the scrapping of the 13 import rule altogether. It’s “an unfair restriction on the two new clubs. What bothers me is that at present the established clubs have an advantage as they can improve their playing strength, but we are restricted from doing so. That is unfair until we have completed our first three seasons and can then negotiate in the same way as others. We have the money to obtain the players we want, but under the present rules we are prevented from spending it,” he said.

Canberra’s frustration was fuelled by the range of players from its own local district who had been locked up by Sydney clubs – Stan Jurd and Simon Brockwell (at North Sydney); Ian Thomson (Manly); John Jarvie (Cronulla); Jamie Jones (Penrith); and Larry Corowa and Percy Knight (Balmain).

Recognising they could do little about the rules, Canberra went about recruiting the best players available from the group of players deemed exempt from the 13 import rule – as they had served five years with a Sydney club – or players from Queensland and NSW Country. It was either veterans or rookies, and the coaching staff realised that some veterans were needed to give the team some much needed experience.

In the end, the Raiders were able to snare a number of “name” players for 1983 – including the likes of Allan McMahon, Terry Fahey, Ron Giteau and Percy Knight. Despite the constraints placed on Canberra’s recruitment by the NSWRL, the signatures created claims from the Sydney league establishment that as one of the wealthiest clubs in the league, the Raiders were just trying to buy a premiership. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” club secretary John McIntyre said at the time. “The facts speak for themselves. We have paid about the same amount for three players – Terry Fahey, Ron Giteau and Percy Knight – as St George paid for one player – Steve Rogers.” That amount was believed to be in the vicinity of $150,000.

Fahey was known as the “Redfern Express” after five seasons with South Sydney and had played six Tests for Australia between 1975 and 1981. The winger had spent two years with Eastern Suburbs before coming to the Raiders on a three year deal. He was classed as exempt from the 13 import rule due to his time in grade with his former clubs. Centre Ron Giteau was also recruited from Easts, a prolific point scorer and goal kicker for the Roosters and before that, Western Suburbs. Allan McMahon was another Test player, with five appearances for Australia between 1975 and 1977. McMahon was recruited on a two year deal from Newtown after just one season with the Jets. He’d previously had a long stint with Balmain, so he too was exempt from the 13 import rule. Winger or fullback Ray Blacklock and forward Grant Ellis were also signed from the Jets.

Signing Percy Knight from Balmain was something of a struggle, as the Tigers had a one year option in their favour and wanted to keep the halfback. But Knight, originally hailing from Condoblin, had had stints with Woden Valley and the Queanbeyan Kangaroos in the Canberra district competition and wanted to return to the national capital. He’d originally risen to prominence playing for NSW Country and the Monaro team that defeated Great Britain in 1977. The Raiders eventually bought out the last year of Knight’s contract, securing him to a three year deal. Canberra also attracted forward Gary Spears from the Tigers.

Another notable off season signing was announced at a lunch at the Canberra Rex hotel on December 8, 1982. The Woodger Corporation became the Raiders' major sponsor – a three year arrangement worth $100,000 a season. Jim Woodger, the head of the company, was aged just 31 at the time. He was in the process of building his father’s real estate agency into a multi-faceted business that took in real estate, insurance, property development and petroleum retailing and supply. A banner emblazoned with the slogan “Woodger’s growing with the Raiders” hung prominently over the podium as the announcement was made – while David Grant, Chris O’Sullivan, Craig Bellamy, Jon Hardy and new recruits Percy Knight and Terry Fahey paraded in the new sponsored jerseys. The Woodger Corporation was little known at the time, but became a famous name in the district and more broadly through a sponsorship which would end up lasting six seasons.

Coach Don Furner again used the trials to find a captain for the 1983 season. “We want to give as many senior players as possible the chance to display their leadership qualities before the premiership season begins,” he said. Canberra first went to Temora, where David Grant was given his chance to demonstrate he should continue as captain in a trial match against a Group 9 representative team. In steamy conditions, Canberra unexpectedly lost 18-24. The second trial saw Canberra’s top squad travel to Burleigh Heads to meet the Gold Coast Vikings, a team on the cusp of entry to the Brisbane premiership. Percy Knight was given the on field leadership duties and in a downpour, the Raiders produced an expected 22-4 victory.

Allan McMahon got the captaincy nod for the final trial against Manly. Such was the strength and depth of the Sea Eagles, Tubby Camden, Canberra’s third grade coach quipped in the lead up: “Our firsts play Australia, the reserves meet New South Wales and the thirds play Manly”. The Raiders stuck with Manly for a considerable part of the match and six top players were rested in the second half. But the Sea Eagles eventually ran away with the match, 39-14. McMahon was ultimately named club captain when the team for round one was announced. “The others to be considered were last year’s captain David Grant, Percy Knight and Ron Giteau. McMahon will do a good job. He’s cool under pressure and reads the game well. He clinched the captaincy with a strong display in the first hour when we held the Manly internationals,” coach Furner said.

Despite the patchier than expected form in the trials, Canberra was listed as favourites for the first time for the round one clash with Penrith at Seiffert – with Footy TAB giving Penrith 3½ points start. But the inconsistent form continued. The Raiders produced a good opening, but let in seven Penrith tries in the second half and eventually went down 46-22 in front of just under 10,000 fans. It was no better the following week in the match against Parramatta at Belmore. The Eels scored eight tries in the 46-16 demolition. The off season player build up seemed to be paying scant dividends. Even Raiders fans were beginning to call the team “Furner’s Faders”.

Don Furner lost patience and publicly criticised the team in the lead up to the next match up with North Sydney at Seiffert. He said of the forwards: “They have the ability but lack the application. Once they begin to believe in themselves they will all play the kind of top team football I know they are capable of”. He also got tough at training, calling extra training sessions and team talks. It seemed to pay off, when Canberra ran in six tries in a great display of team work and attacking football. The Raiders led 10-6 at half time, but piled on four four-pointers in the second half to run away with the game 32-10. It was a sign of the style of football the 1983 team would become known for. On its day, the team could produce some sparkling attacking football and some great tries. However, the form was inconsistent, and the defence was too often found wanting.

Three firsts took place on April 2, 1983. The Raiders had shown enough form – through a one point loss to Souths and a home victory over Wests – to earn Saturday “Match of the Day” status for the clash with Cronulla at Endeavour Field. The decision of the NSWRL to feature Canberra on television for the first time was widely welcomed, but it quickly produced viewer outrage in the national capital. In 1983, Saturday matches were broadcast on commercial television, replayed at 6.30pm. Local broadcaster Capital 7, the only commercial station in town, decided it would instead show “The Sound of Music” and push the Raiders back to a 9.45pm slot. A raft of complaints could not shift the local station.

The station management probably regretted their decision later as the Raiders produced their first ever away win. It was also the first time Canberra had won twice in a row. Canberra overcame a 9-24 penalty count, driving rain, and the sin binning of Chris O’Sullivan and Gary Spears to achieve the 24-8 victory over the Sharks. The Raiders peppered young Cronulla fullback Andrew Ettingshausen with bombs and swarmed over the Sharks in defence. The tactics worked. “Don thought we could fluster the youngster [Ettingshausen] and it happened,” captain Allan McMahon said. Furner hailed the psychological breakthrough for the Raiders saying: “They’ve got no more excuses after winning away from home today”.

Raiders sponsor Jim Woodger had offered a $2,000 bonus for the team for the first away win. The players agreed it should go into a fund for Geoff Seaton, a lower grade Canberra player who became a paraplegic after breaking his neck in a preseason trial against Orange. The club collected at matches for the fund, team posters were sold for 20 cents each and the NSWRL also contributed $2,000 to the fund.

The Raiders earned six TV appearances all up in 1983 – two mid-week KB Cup matches, plus further premiership matches against Manly, Norths and Canterbury. The Raiders qualified for the second round of the KB Cup by defeating Balmain 22-20. Canberra squandered a 16 point lead after conceding 18 points to the Tigers in the second quarter – and trailed 18-16 at half time. But Canberra fought back and inflicted a fifth straight defeat on Balmain. The players shared in $8,000 prize money and took the usual $500 for the win as well. Canberra proposed that the club’s second KB Cup appearance for the year, a match against Easts, be shifted to Seiffert Oval, so as to attract a stronger crowd. Instead of the usual 3,000 people who might turn up at Leichhardt Oval, the home of the KB Cup, John McIntyre predicted the match would be played in front of 10,000 at Queanbeyan. The request was turned down on the dubious rationale that KB Cup matches are only played outside Sydney at venues which are “non premiership” grounds. The Raiders would go on to be knocked out of the mid-week Cup by Easts in a one sided match, 32-16.

Another first for Canberra came on May 22 – a “red letter day” for the Raiders, according to club secretary John McIntyre. It was the first time that the Raiders won in all three grades – in round 13 over the Newtown Jets. The firsts won 31-12 at Seiffert, running in five tries, four in the second half. Jon Hardy played strongly, despite the fact he’d played 72 minutes the previous day in Newcastle for City Seconds, in a clash with Country – and had to rush back to Queanbeyan for the match. As Canberra’s first representative player in the club’s short history, the next night Hardy was presented with a plaque to commemorate his selection.

The clear highlight of the 1983 season was round 16 when the Raiders took on Parramatta at home. Parramatta had defeated Canberra by huge scores in their previous three meetings. The 54-3 defeat from 1982 to this day ranks as the worst loss in Raiders history. And when the Eels came to Seiffert in 1982, they were on their way to a third straight premiership, after back to back grand final wins in 1981-82. But in a remarkable upset, the Raiders held Parramatta scoreless, the first time in 18 years, and toughed out an 8-0 victory in front of 15,578 fans.

Ron Giteau scored all the points for the Raiders that day – a try and two penalty goals. The Raiders led 4-0 at half time through two penalty goals. During the break, coach Furner asked the team if they could continue to stifle the Eels in the second half. “To a man, they all shouted ‘yes’!” Furner said. The only points in the second period came from the try from Giteau, scored at the 47 minute mark. The Raiders just smothered Parramatta for the rest of the match. The Eels were without Peter Sterling and Eric Grothe on Test duty, but the Raiders too were missing captain Allan McMahon, Jon Hardy and regular fullback Steve O’Callaghan. The next day, the headlines in Sydney read “Eels humbled by discards” and “Eels stunned”.

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Ron Giteau, cover of Big League, 1983.

Second rower John McLeod later recalled: “I remember we beat Parramatta 8-0 around the time that Irishman Bobbie Sands died [in jail from a hunger strike]. In the sheds after the game one of us yelled out, ‘What’s Parramatta and Bobbie Sands got in common? Ate nothing, ate nothing!” Hooker Jay Hoffman said later of the match: “I don’t think there would have been too many better wins from a club point of view. It wasn’t luck, it wasn’t because they were missing their stars, we just played better footy.” Halfback that day, Chris O’Sullivan said: “That would be the pick of them in the early years. We just went out and got stuck straight into them. We knocked them around severely, we really gave them a bashing. We were in their faces. They didn’t cross our try line and never looked like it either.”

The Raiders ended the season with a reasonably respectable nine wins and in 10th position on the competition ladder. The 495 points scored was the sixth best in the league – with 193 of them produced by goal kicker Ron Giteau. This was achieved despite some of the big name signings spending reasonably long stretches on the sideline. Allan McMahon (18 appearances) was troubled by a groin injury, as was Percy Knight (17 appearances). It would be McMahon’s last season in first grade. The 1982 player of the year, Jon Hardy (15 appearances) also missed much of the season with a broken arm.

It was the lesser known players who proved to be some of the stronger performers – such as Steve O’Callaghan, hooker Jay Hoffman, halfback Chris O’Sullivan and Craig Bellamy, who filled numerous positions, from winger to five eighth. O’Callaghan was as solid as a rock after being shifted to fullback at the start of the year. He readily withstood the extra pressure associated with the new “turn over” rule. It saw teams kicking downfield or “bombing” the fullback much more, as they would simply turn over the ball to the opposition if caught in possession on the sixth tackle. O’Callaghan ended as 1983 player of the year. In addition, a number of new players were blooded in first grade, including Sam Backo, Ashley Gilbert, Paul Elliott, Grant Ellis and Gary Wurth. Backo, a 22 year old prop, was selected in his first full premiership match in round five against Wests. He was a newcomer for the Raiders but not to Canberra. He’d played for Valleys Statesman in 1981 in the local Canberra competition, before spending a season in Cairns in 1982. He was man of the match in the 30-22 victory over Wests, topping the tackle count and making a number of strong bursts up the middle.

Off the field, Canberra’s crowds continued to be strong, while not reaching the highs of 1982. But despite the club’s progression, the Sydney critics were still out in force. The NSWRL was in a state of disruption, with league chief Kevin Humphreys forced to stand down in May over allegations of impropriety. Ken Arthurson would ultimately take over, and John Quayle would be brought in as NSWRL general manager. Clubs in Sydney continued to struggle financially and in late July of 1983 reports started to emerge about a restructuring of the premiership in 1984. Stories in the Sydney media – from columnists Ian Walsh and Greg Hartley – suggested a plan was about to be considered by the NSWRL for a “super league” of 8-10 of the strongest clubs – with others, including Canberra, relegated to a second division. It was argued Canberra did not attract enough fans in Sydney and that it was too expensive for Sydney clubs to travel to Canberra. The creation of two divisions would also allow the season to be shortened - avoiding a repeat of the start of the 1983 season, which saw heat wave conditions forcing matches to be rescheduled to the evenings.

The Raiders, despite being one of the few financially stable clubs, were sufficiently concerned about the rumours to respond publicly. “In my view, the present rules do not allow the NSWRL to axe any club. The only way teams can be eliminated is by a change in the rules or by clubs dropping out voluntarily. The NSWRL should not stand back and let any club be decimated by rumours. Rumours and inaccurate claims should be stifled. The present campaign is not doing the game any good. Canberra was admitted to first grade and we are engaged in a five year plan to make the agreement viable. We have made a huge investment and don’t want to see the $2 million we have already spent go down the drain. Our coach is on a five year contract, some of our players have three year contracts. The present rumours are already affecting our ability to attract young players,” Les McIntyre said.

A decision on restructuring the 1984 premiership had been mooted for a meeting of the NSWRL general committee on August 1, but in the end it was made clear that a decision on the shape of the 1984 competition would come only after the Grand Final. When that decision was announced, any concerns Canberra had would prove unfounded. But the decision would still shock the rugby league world.
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Don Furner
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The story of the Green Machine

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4. 1984 – Not bad for a bush team

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Canberra Raiders 1984 team.

The NSWRL produced a bombshell when the structure for the 1984 premiership was announced. In late September 1983, both the Magpies and the Jets – foundation clubs, but clubs struggling financially in inner city locations – were axed from the competition. The Jets had been contemplating a move to Campbelltown, on the south-western outskirts of Sydney and had experimented with playing from Orana Park. The NSWRL left open the possibility of Newtown returning as Newtown-Campbelltown in 1985. But the Jets’ last match in 1983 – a slugfest 9-6 victory over the Raiders at Campbelltown would turn out to be the team’s last match at top level.

The Western Suburbs Magpies did not accept the decision and undertook a legal challenge – financed by a fund-raising rock concert. Les McIntyre’s view that the NSWRL constitution did not permit teams to be excluded from the competition – expressed when he thought Canberra was in the firing line – proved correct. The courts decided exactly that and by early December 1983, Wests were reinstated by the league. At the same time, the NSWRL constitution was changed to ensure that the governing body did have the power to determine which clubs were invited into the competition. Concerns about the length of the season and playing early rounds in the heat of summer – which had contributed to speculation about a smaller premiership and the introduction of a second division – were addressed by a March start to the competition and by cramming the first four rounds into the space of two weeks, playing mid-week rounds on Wednesday nights.

Canberra had shown signs of improvement in 1983 and the club was determined it should continue to build in its third year. Coach Don Furner reflected on progress during the off season: “We were a 20 minute team in 1982. This year (1983) we’d play well for 60 minutes against the top sides. We’ll keep improving in 1984. Our target this year was six or seven wins but it was beyond all expectations to win nine premiership matches and a KB Cup game against Balmain. Last year (1982) we conceded 100 points for every 30 we scored. This year (1983) we got 80 points for every 100 we gave up. Next year (1984) I’m aiming at one for one”. Furner also knew where most improvement was needed in preparing for the 1984 season – defence. “There has been a lack of concentration in our defensive pattern. What has been happening is that our defence holds out a top side for an hour, but then we crumble. Some guys don’t know how to place themselves or take short cuts when they’re tired. We gave away a lot of points in the last 10 minutes when opposing teams would rush on three or four tries after we’d battled to hold them,” Furner said.

A further build up in depth in the playing squad was part of the agenda, but it was signalled early on that the Raiders would not go overboard in recruiting or retaining players during what was known as “the silly season”. For the first time in the club’s short history, Canberra faced players coming to the end of their contracts and decisions on which of the squad needed to be kept. “The silly season is here, but we are determined not to get involved in an auction. There are limits to our football budget and we have to engage the players we think will serve the club best,” Furner said as far back as July in 1983. “It is inevitable we will lose some players and gain some others, but I think we will hold onto most of the players we want to keep. We have tried to develop as many youngsters as possible during our first two seasons and we want to see them consolidate their careers with us. Many of the original youngsters were on two year contracts with an option and I expect we will want to exercise those options.”

As soon as the 1983 season was done, Furner hit the road, again searching for talent in NSW Country and Queensland – but also amongst the Sydney clubs. Dean Lance (Newtown) and Jamie Jones (Penrith) were early successful signings. Lance secured a two year contract with an option, and it was thought that the centre would “add sparkle out wide”, while also being able to cover five eighth, half back and lock. He ended up being a tackling demon at lock or the second row, and captain of the club. Jones was a former Queanbeyan Blues player, who could play both prop and hooker.

In terms of retention, Chris O’Sullivan, Steve O’Callaghan and Jon Hardy all tested their worth on the market, and kept the club waiting on contract offers. But by mid-October, all confirmed they would remain with Canberra.

Furner failed to lure Easts forwards Ian Barkley and Royce Ayliffe and St George back Michael Beatty after making contract offers. But he did convince another Saints player to sign on a two year deal – half Ivan Henjak. Henjak first arrived in Canberra from Yugoslavia, aged 2, with his parents. He played with the Queanbeyan Kangaroos under 18s before attending St Gregory’s College, Campbelltown – where he was spotted by St George. He was just 18 when he made his debut for Saints, and made regular first grade appearances in the 1983 season. When the club announced the signing of the 20 year old, Furner said: “With Henjak and Chris O’Sullivan we now have two of the top halfbacks in the Sydney premiership. Both are young so they have great prospects of going a long way as the club climbs the ladder”. When Ron Sigsworth (Newtown), the younger brother of Manly player Phil Sigsworth, was signed on a one year deal in late December, the Raiders said he would be the last of their major buys for 1984.

Furner aggressively used the three trials in March 1984 – against Group 9 at Temora, Illawarra at Dapto and Easts at home at Seiffert Oval – to test combinations and some little known players.

Half back/five eighth combinations of Chris O’Sullivan/Craig Bellamy and Ivan Henjak/Percy Knight were pitted against each other over the course of the three matches. On the eve of the trials, Henjak admitted his goal was to oust O’Sullivan from the half back spot. “Chris is one of the best halves I played against last year and I have a lot of respect for him. I’m happy to play anywhere to make the first grade squad, and have played a bit of five eighth, but I would prefer half back,” he said. Henjak did not manage to secure a starting spot for round one, but six weeks later, a Henjak/O’Sullivan halves partnership would debut and would be the most lasting and successful of the 1984 season – first with Henjak at half back, and later in the season with Henjak at five eighth. Players like Billy Walker and Mick Aldous – who had come to Canberra for their work, and had played lower grades for Sydney teams – were also given a shot during the trials. The former Souths winger, Walker, would go on to unexpectedly make 21 appearances in the 1984 season.

Despite running on significant numbers of new players at half time in each of the trials, the Raiders somewhat surprisingly secured three wins – though two were very slim. Canberra just defeated Group 9 (20-18), and then secured a 17-16 victory over the Steelers through a Ron Giteau field goal with 30 seconds left in the match. The preparations were completed with a 16-8 win over the Roosters in front of 7,150 fans at Seiffert. Furner was left feeling confident. “I don’t get excited about trials. The real season starts next week, but it’s good to have so many talented players competing for our 55 graded places,” he said.

As the 1984 season commenced, Woodgers announced the company would be continuing as major sponsor of the Raiders for the next three years. The company’s head, Jim Woodger was thinking big – saying the association could develop in the future into a private franchise arrangement, if the NSWRL were to approve. “A club franchise is a tangible, viable promotional tool,” he said. “It would be an exercise in marketing the skills of the rugby league player. The players would be full time employees of the club. I believe it is a mistake to treat athletes as players and not as employees. Because of its localised nature, Canberra is an ideal target for private franchise. Of all the sponsorships available to the business houses, I am convinced rugby league is the best vehicle. Our company was virtually unknown before we linked with the Raiders. Now the Woodger Corporation is identified throughout New South Wales.”

Raiders’ secretary John McIntyre was in synch with Woodger. “There is no doubt licensed clubs are struggling and this has affected the ability to fund football clubs at the old levels,” he said. “This situation has given big business the opportunity to consider takeover of football clubs. The days of sports clubs always running at a loss are numbered.”

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John McIntyre and Jim Woodger outline a vision for private franchising of football clubs.

At the same time, McIntyre was looking to the future in another way. Buoyed by the crowd response in Canberra’s first season, a new “crowd shelter” was built on the southern hill at Seiffert Oval. It was also announced a $663,200 new grandstand would be built at the northern end of the ground, capable of seating 5,000 people, for the 1984 season. It was to have been financed by a $250,000 State government loan, with the remainder to come from the Queanbeyan Leagues Club and the NSWRL. However, as 1984 kicked off, McIntyre announced the club had shelved the grandstand project while consideration could be given to a long term plan to shift the club headquarters to Canberra itself. It should have come as no great surprise to the district – the idea that games could be played at Canberra’s Bruce Stadium was initially flagged in the Raiders’ original submission for admission to the NSWRL. McIntyre believed a bigger ground was needed in the heart of Canberra which could serve a number of football codes. “It is inevitable that the Raiders will be more closely identified with Canberra in the years to come… Seiffert Oval is ideal as our home ground at present but as we climb the premiership ladder, and as more people switch their allegiance from their favourite Sydney clubs to their own home grown club, we will need more modern facilities.”

In the week leading to round one, coach Furner announced a third club captain in as many years – goal kicking centre Ron Giteau. The captain in 1983, Allan McMahon, had gone to England to play during the Australian off-season, but returned with his arm in a sling (torn wrist ligaments). He was named in third grade for round one and did not subsequently return to the top team. Giteau felt fortunate, as he believed his own form in the trials could have been better and competition for places was strong. The extent of competition could be gauged by the names of players selected in lower grades for the first match: Ivan Henjak, Craig Bellamy, John McLeod, Terry Fahey, Sam Backo, Angel Marina, Lui Bon, Jamie Jones and Carl Frommel.

The season started well, with wins over the Sharks at Cronulla (18-14) and the Magpies at home on the Wednesday night (22-12). Two tries to Chris O’Sullivan in the last ten minutes secured the win over Wests. The bubble burst against the Bears at North Sydney Oval (a 32-8 loss) – but Canberra bounced back with a big 29-4 win over the Rabbitohs at Seiffert. With all grades performing well, it was something of a shock for Don Furner that after four matches, Canberra was running second on the club championship. “At the start of the season, I predicted 30-35 wins – about 10 for each grade – and we have already won nine from 12 so we are looking good,” he said.

After losing to Parramatta at Belmore, the Raiders produced their first ever winning streak of three matches. The clash with St George at Kogarah Oval saw the first pairing of former Saint, Ivan Henjak with Chris O’Sullivan in the halves. St George coach Roy Masters said before the match that he was not perturbed by the prospect, because “neither of them can play there anyway”. A superb first half from the forward pack, led by John McLeod and Dean Lance, paved the way for a 12-2 lead for Canberra. Despite Saints throwing everything at them in the last 20 minutes, sustained defence secured the 12-8 win – a Craig Young try in the 75th minute was the only breach in the line. After the match, Don Furner made only one comment: “The halves seemed to work out alright, didn’t they?”

That was followed by an Anzac Day match up with the Steelers at Wollongong. Illawarra had not lost at home in 1984. Trailing 10-8 with less than five minutes remaining, Terry Fahey went on a rampaging run off the back of a Paul Elliott pass – he simply trampled over the top of Illawarra fullback Wayne McPherson on the way to the try line. A Giteau conversion delivered the 14-10 final score. By this stage, Canberra had remarkably not been placed lower than fourth on the competition ladder. The Sydney critics bandied around terms like “pretenders” and “lucky” – and their next opponent, Easts, professed not to agree in the lead up to the Seiffert Oval fixture. It turned into the most comprehensive win in three seasons, a 44-12 drubbing, in which Terry Fahey scored a hat trick.

Canberra went into their match against Manly at Brookvale Oval in second place on the ladder – with Manly in fourth – and it would be the fourth weekend in a row that the Raiders had been designated as a TV game. It was finally no longer unusual that Canberra was playing in front of the TV cameras. There seemed to be a genuine chance that Canberra could finally topple the Sea Eagles – one of four teams they had not yet beaten, along with Balmain, Penrith and Canterbury. But it was not to be. It was a 28-10 loss, marred by defensive and handling errors. “You can’t drop the ball 24 times before the third tackle and expect to beat Manly,” was Don Furner’s comment. The next three matches would be against Canberra’s other three bogey teams. The Raiders would not overcome Balmain – just losing 14-12 in a “brilliant exhibition of hard, running rugby league” – or Penrith, but the round 13 match against the Bulldogs was one of the season highlights.

Canterbury came to the nation’s capital on a seven game winning streak, competition leaders with just one loss on the ledger. Ultimately, the Dogs would go on to take the premiership in 1984, halting Parramatta’s run of three titles. Almost 16,000 crammed into Seiffert Oval. They saw the Raiders execute Furner’s pre match plan “to make the Dogs chase and tackle all day after their tough match against Manly last Wednesday night”. Furner went on to explain: “I wanted to keep the forwards running hard onto the ball with the backs feeding off them and this created gaps consistently. The boys did a great job to keep them in check and it’s a great thrill to score our first victory over Canterbury since entering the competition.” Early in the second half Canberra led 14-4 and while the Dogs came back, Canberra held on stoutly to run out 18-14 winners.

By the mid-point of the season, Canberra had surpassed all expectations. The team had not fallen any lower than fifth spot and spent five weeks in second. In the three grades, Canberra had won 17 games. First grade was close to a scoring percentage of 100 points for to 100 points against. Furner was still circumspect. “All we want to do at this stage, and I’m confident the club can, is to improve on our first round performances and lift our scoring percentages even more. A scoring ratio of between 120 per cent and 125 per cent puts you in the five and if you can achieve up to 140 per cent you are a definite semi-final prospect,” he said.

The second half of the season saw the Raiders produce some inconsistent performances, but there were enough brilliant days to keep the team in the hunt for an improbable run at finals football. When the Raiders were firing on all cylinders, both defence and attack were very impressive. Instead of being referred to as the “Faders”, the media started to refer to Canberra as the “Green Machine”. There were two standout matches on the run home.

Three time premier, Parramatta visited Seiffert Oval in round 19, the match of the round on a Sunday afternoon. Canberra had caused a massive upset in 1983 against the Eels, and a record crowd of 17,407 turned up to see if this new Green Machine could repeat the feat. They could. It was a battle in the first half, the struggle between the forwards underlined when a clash between David Grant and Parramatta forward Chris Phelan resulted in 15 stiches between them. Canberra then played Parramatta at their own game in the second half, and came out on top. The Raiders trailed 10-8 with less than 15 minutes remaining. But a repeat set on Parramatta’s line gave David Grant his chance. He crashed over for a try and Giteau’s conversion delivered a 14-10 lead. The Eels challenged strongly in the final minutes, but could not score.

Don Furner’s reaction after the match would be often repeated during the rest of the season. “Not bad for a bush team, are they?” he said. “It was a team effort but the forwards played a big part in our win today. The big men took it up and the rest worked hard on defence without stopping. We knew if we let them run they’d do it all day. We tackled, tackled and then attacked. Most importantly we kept possession and it was a good win.” Parramatta would again go on to make the Grand Final in 1984, but their coach John Monie admitted: “The Raiders broke us up the middle – that has not happened to us before and it must not happen again. Canberra’s defence was excellent and their big men hit us hard with a result we dropped a lot of ball that they were able to make good use of.”

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Sam Backo, who produced a man of the match performance in Canberra's first win over Manly.

The Raiders were “not bad” again when they took on Manly in round 23 at Seiffert Oval – and beat them for the very first time. The headline in The Canberra Times the next day screamed: “Historic victory puts Green Machine into top five contention – Raiders hit Manly 16-12”. The Raiders produced some inspiring defence right from the kick off. Manly winger Kerry Bousted returned the ball only to be flattened by Dean Lance and Ashley Gilbert. Defence like that continued for the rest of the game, with Gilbert recording 36 tackles and Lane 30. Sam Backo played like a man possessed, more than matching Manly’s international Noel Cleal – producing ferocious tackles and bursts in attack which left Manly scattered.

With just two matches left in the season – against Penrith and Canterbury – Canberra was teetering on the edge of missing the finals, in seventh spot. It was not looking good when the Raiders trailed the Panthers at half time at Seiffert Oval in round 25. But Canberra came back with four brilliant tries to overwhelm the opposition 30-10 - despite playing with just 12 men after Gary Spears was sent off 15 minutes into the second half. Sadly, Canberra could not back up. The Raiders were smashed 36-0 on the Saturday afternoon in round 26 at Belmore by the Bulldogs. The season looked all but over. If Penrith could beat Parramatta the next day, the Raiders would miss the finals. And if Souths, Illawarra or Balmain were to win, then play offs for the last spot in the finals could ensue.

Ron Giteau later remembered that the team had drinks at David Grant’s house on the Sunday as they waited for the results to come through. As it turned out, Penrith could not prevail over the Eels and make the finals for the first time in their 17 year history. Nor could Balmain or Illawarra produce a win. But when Souths beat Norths, the Rabbitohs finished equal fifth with Canberra on 30 competition points – and with a better for and against points differential. Giteau remembered: “We thought, that’s it, we’ll have a few drinks. Then when the results went our way we all looked at each other and thought, ‘****, we’ve got to aim up again on Tuesday’.”

The match was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Canberra’s first appearance at the home of finals football. But the Raiders could not match the Rabbitohs. Canberra looked lethargic and had no answers for Souths strong defence and kicking game – which kept them pinned in their own territory for long stretches. It was a 23-4 loss, Canberra’s only points coming from Giteau penalty goals. The Green Machine’s magnificent run at the finals had come to an end. But Canberra had proved it was a genuinely competitive club in just three seasons. The first Raiders team to make the finals did go on to play that next weekend – third grade had qualified for the elimination final at the SCG against Wests. But they too would taste defeat at the old headquarters, 22-16.

The successful year on field was capped by a major announcement on 13 November at the Lakeside Hotel: the Woodgers Corporation would buy a controlling interest in the Canberra Raiders for a total of $1 million. The Raiders had become Australia’s first privately owned football team – putting into effect the concept floated at the start of the season. Under the terms of the deal, Woodgers would pay the Canberra District Rugby League Football Club $200,000 a year in advance for the next five seasons. The CDRLFC had a company structure which meant it had members, rather than shareholders – and in exchange for the payments, the board made Woodger the major member, delivering the company a controlling interest in the club. Jim Woodger and another member of his corporation, John Leaver, would become board members of the CDRLFC as part of the arrangement. While billed as a private franchising, in effect the existing management would maintain considerable autonomy over operations and influence at board level.

Raiders’ chairman Les McIntyre said: “It’s an exciting step and one we believe will have a major impact on the future administration not only of rugby league, but on all football codes. Initially, part of the additional funds generated will be specifically earmarked to develop the game at junior levels”. NSWRL chairman Tom Bellew and NSWRL general manager John Quayle were also present for the announcement. Bellew said: “We are pleased to see Woodgers represented on the Raiders board and they will be able to provide valuable business expertise to the club and also have some say in the running of the club. This move will ensure the financial viability of the Raiders for a number of years when others are struggling”.

Jim Woodger promised not to get involved in the detail of the day to day operations of the Raiders. “We believe that although the club is already one of the best administered in the league, we can make a major contribution that will benefit the team both on and off the field. We are confident the club will not only perform well in 1985 but also finish the year with a surplus.” Time would tell how the arrangement would unfold in 1985 and beyond.
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greeneyed
Don Furner
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The story of the Green Machine

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5. 1985 – A bump in the road

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Canberra Raiders team photo, 1985.

1985 would prove to be a bump in the road for the fledgling Canberra Raiders club. The run towards the play offs in 1984 was unexpected. Being on the cusp of the finals in the club’s third season in top company was not foreseen in coach Don Furner’s five year plan. It created great anticipation about what might be achieved in 1985, and ultimately, the expectations would not be met.

The strong on field performance in 1984 saw the club’s off contract players attracting the interest of others. Craig Bellamy was approached by Cronulla coach Jack Gibson, while Easts targeted prop Sam Backo. But the young club was prepared to flex its relatively strong financial muscle. “The fact Bellamy and Backo are on the market has been publicised and that’s stirred up a bit of interest from other clubs. Cronulla might want Bellamy but we have more money to spend. We’ll keep the players we want. We’ll match whatever offers they attract,” Canberra’s John McIntyre said. And so it was – the Raiders re-signed Backo and Bellamy, along with halves Chris O’Sullivan and Ivan Henjak, and forward Jon Hardy.

Former captain David Grant agreed to stay with the Raiders on a two year deal, but on greatly reduced terms, forgoing a sign on fee and playing on an incentive based contract. Forwards Ashley Gilbert and Gary Spears also agreed to similar new incentive based arrangements - but John McLeod parted ways with Canberra, after the terms put to him weren’t acceptable. Another former captain, Allan McMahon, retired after missing most of the 1984 season with a knee injury, and took up the role of Canberra’s reserve grade coach.

Meanwhile, the Raiders sought to continue the build-up in player strength. Terry Regan signed on a two year deal from Easts. He was a firebrand forward, the NSW Country Player of the Year in 1981, the sort of player Don Furner believed he could turn around and get the best from. Backs Phil Carey and Michael Blake and second rower Brett Atkins signed from Manly. Furner secured Carey’s signature on a trip to Townsville – with the winger on a scuba diving holiday on the Barrier Reef, and Furner scouting players at the Foley Shield final. That trip produced the signing of a 19 year old forward from Collinsville, Les Morrissey, who played in the Foley Shield final and was part of the Queensland Country side. Paul Thompson (Illawarra, half), Mike Smith (Penrith, second rower) and Peter Davis (Woy Woy, fullback) rounded out the recruitment list.

The Raiders trial preparations for 1985 produced mixed results. A trip to Parkes to meet the Group 11 premier at Pioneer Oval attracted a crowd of 2,500 and resulted in an expected 48-4, eight try win. The score line wasn’t quite as pretty in Bathurst, where Canberra received a 40-12 drubbing at the hands of the Cronulla Sharks. It was not an issue for coach Furner: “This was a trial game and my players did what they were sent out to do. As was the case in Parkes, and in any trial, I only wanted to assess my squad. We played as well, if not better than them for 59 minutes, then they scored three tries from kicks and subsequent lucky retrievals. After the game, I said to Jack Gibson that I hoped he hadn’t used up all his luck before the season begins”. It was turned around seven days later at Seiffert Oval in front of 6,000 fans. The Raiders put on a second half blitz to win 36-6 over a Manly side that had turned out in the mid-week National Panasonic Cup.

Preparation off the field under the new era of professionalism and partial private ownership overlooked no fine details. The 1985 season preview in The Canberra Times carried a story declaring that the players would be “Dressed for action”. The players received a kitbag, a club pullover and shirt, shorts and socks, a Woodgers t-shirt and a track suit. It was obligatory for the track suits to be worn at all games and when travelling by bus to away games, while the Woodgers t-shirt was to be worn “as often as possible” to recognise the major shareholder. A system of fines was also put in place: $50 for being late for training, and $100 and dropped for missing training without a valid excuse.

As to the bigger picture, coach Furner kept the focus on improving the points differential, looking for an outcome of 120-130 per cent. “If this can be attained we will make the final five. But we will not know until we have seen how the opposition has improved. If they improve at a greater rate than we have, it will be a different story,” Furner said in the week leading to the first clash of the season against Illawarra. Unfortunately, by the end of the season, the points differential was in negative territory, around the 80 per cent mark.

The season started in front of a disappointing crowd of 4,872 at Seiffert against the Steelers. Ron Giteau was named on the wing as captain, the first time an incumbent captain had held his job for more than a year. Peter Davis was selected at fullback, forcing Steve O’Callaghan into reserve grade. Chris O’Sullivan and Ivan Henjak formed the first grade half/five eighth combination. It was something of a rough ride for the Raiders in the season opener. Canberra raced to an 18-2 lead after 21 minutes – but the Steelers fought back, with two tries in two minutes just before half time producing a 20-20 score line at the break. The Raiders eventually prevailed 34-24. “Our forwards went well and our halves kept the ball moving. We had a 10 minute lapse which could have cost us the game but we came back strongly after half time,” was the summation from Don Furner.

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Ron Giteau, Canberra Raiders captain, 1985.

The first road trip was to Campbelltown in week two. Parramatta had agreed to hold a home match at what was then called Orana Park, for the opening of a new $1.25 million grandstand. In what was billed as a “Gala Day” of entertainment, it wasn’t much fun for Canberra, the Raiders chances blown away by a star performance from Steve Ella who had been shifted to five eighth. The Raiders came back in the second half after trailing 24-6 at half time, eventually going down 36-22. The Raiders then went further afield, travelling to Wagga Wagga for a mid-week Cup clash against the Bulldogs. It was a Canterbury homecoming for Steve, Peter and Chris Mortimer, raised in the Riverina township. Ron Giteau gave Canberra a 6-0 lead at half time through three penalty goals. But that was the end of the scoring for the Raiders. Another loss, 16-6, with Canberra failing to get out of their own half in the final quarter.

Things started to look up the next couple of weeks. The Green Machine’s third game in nine days saw Canberra come from 10-0 down in a see-sawing match against North Sydney to win 28-20 at Seiffert. Terry Regan was the man of the match, with the crowd’s chants of RAIDERS-RAIDERS changing to REGAN-REGAN. He was given a standing ovation when he was replaced and came to the sidelines.

In the next match against South Sydney at Redfern, Regan was sent off after a shoulder charge on five eighth Neil Baker. The report from both touch judges was for an elbow to the head. Souths had had no answers in the first half. Canberra led at the break 20-0 and Regan was one of the try scorers before his 39th minute dismissal. But despite the one man advantage for the entire second half – and a 17-4 penalty count in favour of Souths – the Raiders held on grimly. The Rabbitohs could not score until the 65th minute, and their only other try came two minutes from time. Coach Don Furner said his team’s 26-12 victory was his team’s most complete away performance to date. Regan was subsequently cleared by the judiciary of the elbow. Frustratingly, it was ruled to simply have been a shoulder charge.

But then came some drubbings, from Penrith, Cronulla. Furner reacted each time with re-shuffles. “In the past two weeks, we’ve been beaten by 70-20, so something has to be done to get back on the winning track. If these changes don’t have the desired effect, we’ll have to make more changes,” Furner said. The dire warning appeared to have impact. “The Raiders are back – and how” was the headline in The Canberra Times after the Anzac Day clash against Wests at Seiffert. Canberra scored six second half tries in the 44-12 victory. But it was followed up by another drubbing from the Bulldogs. The team was struggling on the competition ladder, hovering around eighth – the defence, in particular, not strong enough.

That improved in the next clash with Manly, one of the competition leaders. The best home crowd of the season (10,367) so far turned out at Seiffert, and their hopes lifted when a Chris O’Sullivan try in the second half pushed the Raiders to an 18-6 lead. The forwards were producing their best in both attack and defence. But two Manly tries gave the Sea Eagles a 20-18 lead with 14 minutes remaining. A desperate defensive struggle ensued. Just six minutes from time, the Raiders levelled through a penalty goal and the Raiders somehow held on for the draw – Manly missing a field goal attempt in the final five minutes. Canberra went on to fall to the Roosters by two points – courtesy of a late penalty goal for a Terry Regan high tackle – and to Balmain by three. Coach Furner bemoaned: “In the past three weeks we have played some our best football and only come away with a point. With an ounce of luck we could have had six points… If we had won the three games we would have been in the top five”.

Improvement was shown in the next five rounds. There were four victories – kicked off by a trouncing of St George, who were played their home match at Newcastle. In the middle of those victories was a 24-10 loss to the Eels. The Parramatta clash was now traditionally the biggest home match of the season. The grandstand at Seiffert was now almost entirely filled by season ticket holders – 2,300 of them, with only 2,500 seats available. “It’s when we have games like this one against Parramatta that we wish we had two grandstands,” John McIntyre said in the lead up. The record crowd set in 1984 of 17,407 wasn’t broken – but the 16,114 who did turn out were disappointed in the Raiders’ performance. The Raiders seemed “stage-struck” by the atmosphere of the large crowd, producing lots of early errors. The Eels went to a 24-0 lead shortly after half time – apparently not at all disrupted by the coaching duties being taken over by Ray Price at the last minute, while John Monie was holed up in his Queanbeyan hotel room with food poisoning.

In contrast to the big crowd at Seiffert, the Raiders played the next week at North Sydney Oval in front of just 1,408 people. North Sydney were struggling and the Raiders scored seven tries in the 42-10 win. It still holds the record as the lowest crowd to ever attend an official Canberra Raiders premiership match at any venue – a record that seems unlikely to ever be broken.

The Raiders still held some faint hopes of making the top five at that stage. But from there things started to go downhill. The run home was difficult, and the Raiders did not win a match in their last eight games of the season. Everything turned for the worse.

In late June, Terry Regan was suspended for the rest of the season, after an allegation of biting from Glenn Mansfield in the match against Parramatta. In evidence, touch judge Ross Pickard said: “He appeared to push his head into the Parramatta player’s stomach area. Then Mansfield came towards me saying ‘He bit me, he bit me’ and lifted his jersey and showed me two rows of teeth marks on the left side of his body.” Terry Regan attempted to argue he was wearing a mouth guard at the time, but judiciary boss Jim Comans was having none of it.

Craig Bellamy was hospitalised the same week, after he got hit in the eye with a clump of mud at training. He had to have both eyes covered in padding for a few days so the injured eye would rest completely. In addition, Chris O’Sullivan suffered strained knee ligaments, forced to miss games for the first time since 1982 and after having played 92 consecutive games (81 in first grade and 11 in reserves). Both spent most of the month of July on the sidelines.

The closest the Raiders came to a victory in those final eight games was a 12 all draw against Wests at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Monday Night Football. Monday night games were staged for television in the latter stages of the season for the first time in 1985, and came complete with a dance troupe known at the Rockettes, fireworks, and later, mascot Wacka the Emu. Canberra’s commercial broadcaster CTC7 wasn’t interested in screening the match, not even in a late night slot, but the ABC’s 2CN covered it for radio. It was the Raiders second ever appearance at the Sydney Cricket Ground and it seemed as though the Raiders might achieve their first win at the famous old ground when leading 12-6. But late in the match, prop Sam Backo fumbled a kick over his line, allowing Magpie Michael Neil to score and snatch the draw. An anguished coach Don Furner said: “That’s five games this season we’ve lost or drawn because of one mistake”. CTC7 would relent and screen the Raiders’ next Monday Night Football appearance, against Balmain, as a “sports special” from 9.30pm. Some Raiders fans probably wished they hadn’t, with the Tigers giving Canberra a 30-12 mauling.

The losing run included a 24-6 defeat by Easts at Seiffert, after the Roosters played all but 12 minutes with 12 men – that’s how bad things were. The season wound up with a 50-6 humbling at the hands of St George at Seiffert – and a 10th placed finish on the competition ladder.

While things were going pear shaped for the first grade team, they were going gang-busters for the Allan McMahon coached reserves. In the second half of the season, Canberra’s second grade won nine, drew two and lost one match. The team went eight games without a loss, a club record in any grade. The team also rose from 10th on the competition ladder to second by the end of the regular season – clinching second spot with a 16-8 win over the minor premier, St George, in the final home match.

In week one of the finals, Canberra fell to Parramatta 22-10. The team’s preparation was disrupted when Ansett cancelled the Raiders' 8.15am flight on the morning of the game, due to a lack of cabin crew. Ansett offered the team a trip to Sydney on a “mail bus” instead and did not arrive until after midday. The following week the team was propelled into a Saturday “sudden death” final against a star studded Canterbury Bulldogs team containing the likes of Daryl Brohman, Phil Gould, Mark Bugden, Phil Sigsworth, Steve Gearin and Steve O’Brien. At the end of 70 minutes regulation time, the match was locked at 8-8, forcing 20 minutes of extra time. With just four minutes remaining, a try to 19 year old Garry Wilson secured the 12-8 win. For the preliminary final against the Eels, the reggies got to travel to Sydney the night before, staying in the luxurious surrounds of the Camperdown Travelodge. It must have worked, as this time it was a convincing 18-8 victory, with Sam Backo, Gary Spears and Grant Ellis leading from up front. It was the first senior Raiders team that had made the Grand Final.

The Raiders opponent was St George, a team that had lost only four games all season – including one to Canberra. St George did not keep any players on the sidelines so as to save them for first grade - but then Canberra had refused to “stack” its team by qualifying first graders in the finals stages of the season for the finals as well. Saints fullback Brian Johnson scored the first try, but Canberra immediately hit back, with halfback and captain Paul Thompson setting up Les Morrissey for a four pointer. Prop Sam Backo then made a huge break up the middle of the field, and passed to Paul Thompson who went in close to the posts – giving the Raiders a 12-4 half time advantage. Shortly after the break, Thompson put up a bomb to the in-goal. Saints fullback Brian Johnson was under little pressure but spilled it, allowing Peter Davis to dive on the ball. Angel Marina missed the conversion, a low miskick hitting the cross bar. It would later prove crucial.

St George came back through two quick tries. There was a suspect pass in the lead up to both, but the scores were deadlocked at 16 apiece with 21 minutes remaining. A thrilling finish ensued, with Saints putting on the pressure and the Raiders tiring in the heat. Just a few minutes from full time, the Raiders had finally worked their way into field goal territory. Thompson’s first attempt was charged down, but Canberra re-gathered. Another attempt. Missed. St George charged downfield, and their own attempt sprayed well wide with two minutes left. Canberra’s effort to quickly get to the other end of the field failed when Grant Ellis could not handle a pass from Backo. It gave St George the final set of the match in possession and the ball was thrown everywhere. With just six seconds left, Alan Neil raced away to score for St George. The forward pass from Brian Johnson in the lead up was not suspect, it was blatant – but it was missed by referee Mick Stone. The final score was a heart breaking 22-16 to St George. But despite the heart break, the club and Canberrans had some taste of what it’s like to be there on Grand Final day – and could be proud of the achievements of the team.

While all that was happening, there were even more significant developments off field. On 1 August 1985, the news broke that the Canberra Raiders were chasing Australian and Queensland centre Mal Meninga. Meninga was playing with Brisbane Souths and was contracted to the Queensland Rugby League, under an arrangement that kept their star players in the local competition. Meninga had decided it was time to test himself in the NSWRL, and the QRL granted permission for Canberra and Manly to negotiate with him. Easts joined the race soon after. On 7 August, Don Furner and John McIntyre went to Brisbane for discussions with Meninga and fullback Gary Belcher, who was also playing with Brisbane Souths. Both players were on the plane to Canberra to have a look around within a week. “We are hopeful of getting Meninga and feel if he signs with us, Belcher will probably come here as well” John McIntyre said.

The pursuit of Meninga’s signature turned into something of a saga. Figures for a contract value of $130,000 and $150,000 floated about. Reports that a decision was imminent proved repeatedly incorrect, as Meninga wavered over his choice or determined to hold more talks. Manly publicly scoffed that the Raiders led the race for Meninga, but by early September that had turned around. Don Furner made another trip to Brisbane in a bid to convince him. Manly’s interest had suddenly “dropped off”. Then on 4 September, a press conference was called in Brisbane. Meninga confirmed he would join the Raiders on a two year deal. Reports he’d receive $70,000 a season were denied – “grossly exaggerated” – but the package did include a promotional job with a Canberra building firm and the standard $500 match winning bonuses.

An ecstatic Don Furner said: “It’s a credit to Mal Meninga that he has decided to come to a club such as Canberra and help it grow. He’s the right type of fellow for us and the money part was not the over-riding thing”. Meninga was handing compliments to the coach: “I’ve been very impressed by his attitude to coaching. The club is in its infant years and Furner has indicated some big names might be signing up. Hopefully my signing will help with any future deals”. It did. Easts winger John Ferguson signed for two years one week later. By the end of September, Gary Belcher had signed and discussions had opened with Queensland back rower Gary Coyne. The signing would prove to be a critical turning point in the history of the club.

Mal Meninga's signing - The inside story

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Mal Meninga on the cover of Rugby League Week on his signing with the Raiders. At the time, there was not a single sports shop in Brisbane that had Raiders jerseys in stock, and one had to be flown especially from Sydney for the photo shoot.

When Mal Meninga decided he wanted to play in the NSWRL, he first needed permission from the Queensland Rugby League. Meninga later said: “I saw Senator McAuliffe [QRL supremo]. He said there was a clause for good service after five years and my case would be looked on in a favourable light. The QRL were fine. The only thing was McAuliffe tried to persuade me to join Manly, I think because of his friendship with Ken Arthurson [Australian Rugby League executive chairman and former Manly chief executive].”

Meninga had dinner with Manly coach Bob Fulton and Manly and Queensland player, Paul Vautin. “I wouldn’t have minded going to Manly,” Meninga recalled. "I like the Manly lifestyle and there were a lot of Queensland players there. I like the sea and the surf. I had long talks with Wayne [Bennett, his coach at Brisbane Souths]. We wondered why they weren’t successful. They were a team of individual brilliance, but you can’t really function as a team when you rely on individuals.”

Canberra was the only other real option for Meninga. “I never really considered going to Easts” he said. On Canberra, Meninga recalled: “I discussed Don Furner’s prowess as a coach with Wayne. He said Furner’s ideas and tactics favoured my style of play. I didn’t want to go to a different sort of coach. The money Canberra and Manly offered was the same, but Canberra was really where I wanted to be – in the country”.

Meninga was undecided between the two, but Manly’s approach to the negotiations settled it. “Doug Daley, Manly’s chief executive rang me one night” Meninga said. “He said, ‘I want you to make up your mind now or we’ll call the whole thing off’. I said ‘I can’t make up my mind now’. When he kept the same attitude, I said ‘I’ll go to Canberra’.”

Pioneering Raiders teams

1985 Canberra Raiders Reserve Grade Grand Final

Canberra Raiders line up: 14. Peter Davis 15. Angel Marina 16. Ian Hamilton 17. Les Morrissey 18. Garry Wilson 19. Michael Blake 20. Paul Thompson (c) 21. Darren Watters 22. Paul Elliott 23. Ashley Gilbert 24. Gary Spears 25. Wayne Jensen 26. Sam Backo Replacements: 37. Grant Ellis 32. Paul Martin 34. Gary Britt

St George 22 defeated Canberra Raiders (Les Morrissey, Paul Thompson, Peter Davis tries, Angel Marina 2 goals)
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greeneyed
Don Furner
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The story of the Green Machine

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6. 1986 – Promises, promises

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1986 was the fifth year of the five year plan that Canberra Raiders coach Don Furner often spoke about. It looked a promising season, with the likes of Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher and winger John “Chicka” Ferguson signing on with the Green Machine. Coach Don Furner believed that the squad he’d assembled had the ability to make the finals and genuinely challenge for a title. “We now have the playing personnel to worry any side in the competition. We are in a better position than I had expected at this stage in the club’s growth and I fully expect us to finish in the top five this year,” he said as the season loomed.

On January 9, 1986, Meninga, Belcher and Ferguson all had their first training run with Canberra. Ferguson signed on a two year deal from Eastern Suburbs, and though he was already 31 years of age, he was the Dally M Winger of the Year in 1985 and represented both New South Wales and Australia that year. Wynnum Manly forward Gary Coyne joined Raiders pre-season training in February – after Canberra secured his early release from off season duties with his French provincial club. Former South Sydney centre Mitch Brennan also joined his brother Rowan at the Green Machine, from the Queensland competition. Steve Walters, a hooker from Brisbane Norths, was a completely unheralded signing.

To the public, Mal Meninga appeared to be settling in well in Canberra. He took a job as a salesperson with Frank Clark Industries, a sink and bath manufacturing company. He said shortly after: “After so many years in the police force in Queensland, it will be a new challenge to be a salesman… The players have made me feel right at home and have been easy to mix with. I think I will have a very harmonious association with the club and am looking forward to helping the Raiders get into the finals and maybe win a premiership.”

But things weren’t so smooth in reality on the training paddock. Meninga would later say: “The training was very archaic. Don believed in training not too early. We began on January 9 and then trained every day for a month. There were lots of long runs. I thought, ‘It must be the Sydney training methods’, but you don’t score 16 kilometre tries. It was hard physical stuff. By the start of the season, it was as hot as buggery. I was as fit as I’d ever been, but not rugby league fit. We’d done no ball work.”

The first trial match was set for February 9 against North Sydney at Seiffert Oval. Terry Fahey returned to the squad, after not having played since middle of 1984. Mick Aldous beat Belcher to the starting fullback, with Belcher being selected on the bench, along with Sam Backo and Steve Walters. Gary Coyne was selected in the reserves squad, after having just arrived in Canberra. The day before the Norths trial, the news broke that Don Furner had been appointed national coach, and would mentor the Kangaroos in a three Test series against New Zealand and the year’s end Kangaroo Tour to Britain and France. An excited Furner said: “This is the ultimate appointment for me after coaching as long as I have. I’m thrilled to have the added responsibility. Every player dreams of representing Australia and once you begin coaching you aspire to the Test job.” Club secretary John McIntyre hoped there would also be benefits for the Raiders. “It will have a rub off effect in attracting future players, and for fellows like Mal Meninga, John Ferguson and Gary Belcher, it will convince them they made the right decision to join us,” he said.

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Canberra Raiders winger Terry Fahey.

Canberra lost the first trial to North Sydney, 20-10, in hot conditions. The Raiders trailed 10-0 at half time, fought back to level the scores 10-10 with 15 minutes to go, before the Bears ran away with it with two late tries. Don Furner was not concerned, with lots of player interchange during the match. “Trials are just that. We use them to let us look at all the players to see how they shape up,” Furner said. Mick Aldous injured the medial ligament in his left knee in the match – and when Belcher came on for him he gave the backline “sparkle”. Meninga played with a heavily bandaged knee, which had been operated on in the off season, and had a quiet game. Young hooker Steve Walters, just 20 years of age, impressed.

The second trial against Eastern Suburbs at the Sports Ground on February 16 produced another loss, 10-4. It was also played in hot conditions, with a hose left running on the sideline to cool the players. The Raiders’ only points came from a Mal Meninga try, just before full time, giving the result some slight respectability. Furner remained unconcerned, but only John Ferguson posed any danger in attack. The final warm up match against Wests at Seiffert on February 23 was described as a “major trial” by coach Furner. “This is getting pretty close to what the team will be… If this combination doesn’t fire, then there are others in the lower grades who will get a chance,” Furner warned. In an ominous sign, Jay Hoffman was selected in reserves. Canberra ran out 28-20 victors, in a good attacking display, but the Green Machine was also very brittle in defence. “I’m still looking at positional combinations, but today’s team is about 80 per cent of what I want,” coach Furner said after the match.

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Canberra Raiders hooker Jay Hoffman.

The season opener was a Brookvale Oval clash against the Sea Eagles, and Furner produced some selection surprises. Dean Lance was named captain – and hooker – for the match, after Furner had looked at both Lance and Mal Meninga in the captaincy role during the trials. Jay Hoffman, Canberra’s hooker since the inaugural season, was named in reserve grade. However, Lance didn’t end up taking the field. He was diagnosed with a fractured rib, suffered in the final trial match, and Hoffman ended up being given a reprieve. Young centre Darren Meredith, a recruit from Canterbury, lined up alongside Mal Meninga, who took the captaincy reins. Gary Coyne debuted for the club at prop. Chris O’Sullivan and Craig Bellamy won the battle as starting halves combination.

The gloomy conditions at Manly ended up being reflected on the scoreboard, a 20-12 loss. Eight of Canberra’s points came from Mal Meninga goals. The Canberra Times headline the next day screamed “RAIDERS RAVAGED”. “It was a disappointing performance. We’ve never won a grade match here for five years and it looks as though we’ll have to wait for another year to win here. We didn’t value the ball highly enough, and we can’t blame the backs because they didn’t have the ball,” coach Furner said. The match was telecast live nationally on ABC TV, but it ended up being played in front of just 3,282 people. The home club received a compensation payment for the live broadcast of $15,000, but given the poor turnout, Manly said it was not enough.

Crowds were on the Canberra club’s mind as well, as preparations were made for the first home match of the year against the Tigers. The attendance in 1985, an aggregate of 94,506, was the worst to date, down 33,106 on 1984. “We have sold all the private boxes in the grandstand this year and the number of reserved seats sold in the grandstand is at an all-time high,” club secretary John McIntyre said. “Last year’s attendances were affected to some extent by bad weather conditions and in our opening game against Illawarra we had to compete with the Food and Wine Frolic which was held in conjunction with Canberra Week. Also we played Western Suburbs on Anzac Day, the attendance wasn’t as good as expected. This was because a lot of people like to play the traditional Australian game of two up.”

The bottom line was that performances were not up to expectation, and the club was hoping that the recruitment drive would turn attendances around. But so concerned was the club about attendances, the board decided not to allow local ABC radio station, 2CN to broadcast home matches, arguing it was better for local audiences that the ABC cover the Raiders away matches. The underlying aim was to encourage people to go to the ground, rather than listen on radio at home, but it caused controversy. “The football club did not give us any reason for stopping the broadcast of home games,” Bronwyn Allan of 2CN said. “In their correspondence, they just said that the board had decided it would be more advantageous if away games were broadcast. Unfortunately, it is just not economically viable for us to cover games in Sydney. We have received a lot of feedback from listeners indicating that the broadcast of home games has created interest in the Raiders that they didn’t have before. We are hoping that the club has not completely closed the door on live broadcasts of home games, because we are still keen to cover them,” she said. Viewed from the standards of today, with wall to wall live radio and television coverage of rugby league matches – home and away – it’s a fascinating historical oddity.

Don Furner persisted with the idea of Dean Lance as the Raiders new hooker in round two, naming him as rake and captain for the clash with Balmain – a team the Raiders had not beaten since entering the competition. But the Tigers took the two points, winning 26-20. The Raiders ran out to a 14-2 lead after 23 minutes, with two tries to Ashley Gilbert, but two quick tries to the Tigers saw them go to the break leading 16-14. A try to Gary Coyne in the second half was not enough. “We did everything but win. We played as well as they did, but just couldn’t win. If we played like that last week, we would have beaten Manly,” coach Furner said.

Craig Bellamy copped knees in the back against the Tigers, and while no bones were broken, he had stabbing pains when he walked. So Paul Martin, just 18 years old, was named to make his debut for the round three match against the Steelers, taking over for Bellamy at five eighth. It proved to be another loss, 22-10 at Wollongong. Furner promised sackings, as the Raiders went 0-3 to start the season. “We were the far superior side for the first 60 minutes of the game. I was quite confident at half time with the scores at 8 all. Then we starting dropping balls and missing tackles and they got a few penalties and took advantage of them… Terry Fahey had the chance of scoring four tries – he scored one and dropped the other three,” coach Furner said.

A win came for the Raiders in their next outing, the first round of the Panasonic Cup against Norths at Leichhardt Oval. Canberra trailed 0-6 until the 10th minute of the third quarter, but ran out 17-6 victors. Gary Belcher was man of the match, scoring two tries, the second a 60 metre effort. It was a needed confidence boost as Canberra prepared for the round four match up with the Sharks. Steve Walters came on as a replacement in the match – and in round one – and he was named for his starting debut against Cronulla. Don Furner had been criticised for selecting Dean Lance at rake – in the days when hookers actually won the scrums – and he bit the bullet. “Walters is in because both times he came on as a replacement he played well and he deserves his chance. Lance will move into the back row. Too many people blame the hooker for losing scrums. This is wrong. With the way the game is played today the hooker cannot be blamed alone,” Furner said.

Lance would, in any event, not play in round four, after being carried off the training paddock with badly damaged ankle ligaments on a stretcher the day before the Cronulla clash. Chris O’Sullivan took over as captain this time, with Meninga under pressure as a result of some quiet games to start the season. But Meninga gave the final pass for three tries in the 26-12 victory over the Sharks, and kicked three from six goals. “If we keep up that sort of form we will worry a lot of sides,” coach Furner said.

That wasn’t to be. The Raiders went on another three game losing streak. “RAIDERS PLAY DROPSY FOR HUMILIATION AT HANDS OF WESTS” was the headline for the 16-6 loss to the Magpies. “FURNER IN SHOCK” was the headline after the 22-16 loss to the Panthers. A loss to the Roosters followed – despite a decision to fly to that and the next two away games, to see if that improved preparation and performance. The bus trip to the away clash against Wests had taken seven hours, interrupted by, among other things, bushfire. In round seven, Easts played for 49 minutes with a man short – after David Trewhella was sent off for a high shot on Ashley Gilbert – but the Roosters scored 17 points and three tries with just 12 men on the field. Roosters coach Arthur Beetson placed signs around the Easts dressing room such as “Today is the first game of the rest of the season”. It was described by The Canberra Times as “the most humiliating defeat yet”.

The first signs of discontent in the camp started to become public. An opinion piece from Mark Wallace in The Canberra Times reflected on a poor start to the season, with just one win over a “mediocre opponent”. Wallace reported that each week, the main feature of the first session of training is “Mad Hour”, where the players are put through a rigorous fitness session – but no ball work. The question was posed: why not more ball work, given the poor handling of the side? Wallace concluded that “the writing is on the wall for Furner” with a losing team and dwindling supporters… and a “tailor made replacement” in Raiders reserve grade coach, Allan McMahon.

There was also more drama off field. Major backer, the Woodgers Group, was broken up in early April, with the transport and petroleum interests going to Finemores in Wagga, while Jim Woodger continued with the real estate arm – and the $200,000 sponsorship of the Raiders. Rumours were flying that Woodger was looking to offload the sponsorship arrangement, but he denied it. “Not only do I think it’s a good thing, it’s a commitment. When you make long term commitments – even if some people think they are unfashionable – you don’t walk away from them. If that support was to be withdrawn from the club, quite simply it would decimate them. Also, if you did that, you would waste all the money you spent the previous four years,” Woodger said. The fears of supporters, however, would eventually prove to be founded.

The Raiders won 32-6 over North Sydney in round eight at Seiffert. Belcher starred, scoring two tries and made great territory with his kicking and Meninga also made some great runs. But the pressure had been mounting on coach Don Furner. The record of one win from the first seven games had been the worst since 1982, and questions were being raised about his appointment as Kangaroos coach. He came out fighting after the win over the Bears. “Just because Cronulla isn’t doing well this year doesn’t mean Jack Gibson isn’t a good coach. The coach is as good as the team. Put a good coach with a good team and he will do well. Put him with a bad team and he might not,” Furner said.

But Canberra again went on a losing streak. The Raiders lost 14-8 to the Bulldogs, despite scoring two tries to one, in a forgettable match. The Green Machine was then bundled out of the National Panasonic Cup, 20-12, in another loss to Balmain, despite leading 12-10 at half time through tries to Chris O’Sullivan and Mal Meninga. The Tigers win was sealed by a try to English import Tony Myler in the 76th minute. Canberra somehow managed to lose 10-8 to Souths, after the Rabbitohs kicked four field goals and a penalty goal – plus the only try of the match. The Raiders only points came from four penalty goals. Four penalties were awarded in the first two minutes by referee Greg McCallum. It was that sort of match. And with Meninga on duty for Queensland, the Raiders were blitzed by the Eels in the second half, in a 28-18 loss. Belcher scored two tries, and Eels coach John Monie could not understand why he’d been left out of the Queensland team. But that was not much consolation for him, either way.

After 12 rounds, it was already 2-9 for the Raiders, and the season had completely unravelled. With the team bumping along the very bottom of the ladder, the Raiders were little to no chance of making the top five. The next match produced a 10-7 win over the Dragons, but it was described as Canberra “fumbling their way to victory” – despite a 15-7 advantage in the penalties. Canberra’s 10 points came from five penalty goals from Meninga, including one from the sideline. Even more losses followed… Manly, Balmain. Belcher joined Meninga in the Queensland team in the second Origin clash, but that meant both were ruled out of the Manly clash. O’Sullivan notched his 100th first grade game for the Raiders in the match against Balmain, but it was not much fun. He suffered concussion and went off in the first half. Coach Furner said: “It’s been a frustrating year for us. We have played good football against some of the top teams and yet are still near the bottom of the ladder. We want to finish with another six or seven wins for the sake of our credibility.” Halfway through the season, all that was left was playing for pride.

The Raiders won 26-12 over the Steelers in round 16 at home, just the fourth win of the year – and it was announced that day that coach Don Furner would again coach the Raiders in 1987. “I want to have another year to see if we can produce better results than this year. We have a better side this year and are playing better than ever, but we are still at the bottom. I’ll have one more year, but who knows, after the Kangaroo tour I might feel like doing more,” Furner said. But things were not so smooth behind the scenes. News of a “player revolt” emerged just days later when it was reported a petition was signed by 12 first graders refusing to play another season under Furner.

Captain Dean Lance went public about the reported revolt: “Everyone wants to blame someone when the club isn’t winning. Of course we aren’t happy with the way we have been going, but we are hardly going to blame the coach for everything. I’ve heard about all the rumours but I don’t know where they are coming from. None of the players have said anything to me about Don and I’m a bit sick of it. We had a meeting with Don last week and we are all behind him for next season.”

Club secretary John McIntyre also supported Furner. “Furner can’t do anything more than he is doing now, we are very pleased with him. To sack a coach when he has been appointed Australian coach is insanity. He can’t get out there and catch the dropped balls or do the tackling for them,” he said. Furner reportedly met with the players, and assured him of their loyalty. “He met with us as a matter of courtesy and we talked about our problems, but there was never any crisis,” Gary Belcher said publicly at the time.

But Mal Meninga would later reveal what was happening at the club, while stuck at the bottom of the ladder. “We started looking for excuses and the first excuse is to blame the coach,” he said. “We weren’t happy with the way things were going. I approached Don to change training. I thought it was boring and lacked imagination. I said, ‘This is what I’m used to with Wayne,’ which was a lot more skills work and skills under pressure. At Canberra, we’d play on Sunday and without 24 hours rest we’d keep ‘mad hours’ running like crazy under trainer Brian Burke. With Don we’d train 30-40 minutes until he was happy. It was just team work, no skills involved. We’d just run up and down the field passing the ball. Don had this crazy idea we couldn’t train in tracksuits or beanies because it would give us the edge over opposing teams when they came down to the freezing conditions. All we were allowed to do was pull our socks up. I told him we needed skills work under pressure. His answer was to race up and down the field faster passing the ball.”

“I like Don as a bloke; he’s very good at promotional work. His philosophy about losses was ‘let bygones be bygones’ and make sure we do better next week. There was no video or analysis. It got to the stage where I tried to get the players to training a bit earlier to practice ball handling under pressure. The plan for matches was basically four forwards up and a good kicking game,” Meninga recalled.

“The players had a meeting to discuss their grievances. Don had heard the rumours. He approached me and we had a meeting. I told him a few home truths, what I felt we weren’t happy with, and asked that Wayne’s coaching methods be introduced. Towards the end of the year, he did compile dossiers on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition,” Meninga remembered.

Reserve grade coach Allan McMahon was given a shot at coaching the first grade team in the round 18 match against Wests at Seiffert Oval, while Don Furner was on Australian coaching duty. McMahon had been approached by Meninga and McMahon as early as May about the squad’s dissatisfaction with Furner, but they had been told to talk to club director, Jim Woodger. Meninga and Belcher had been left out of the Australian team and Meninga produced a man of the match performance in the 38-6, seven try win in front of a crowd of just 3,413. “It was a great win for our morale,” McMahon said. “The forwards set us going forward and we played in their half for most of the game. We played like a team in the top five.” In New Zealand the same day, Australia won over the Kiwis 22-8. The Raiders victory, however, appeared to have uncovered more seeds of discontent.

In the days after the Magpies win, Mark Wallace of The Canberra Times reported an unnamed Raiders player as saying: “We wanted to prove what a good coach Allan McMahon was. He takes more time to explain things to you.” Wallace stated that the same player had been at the forefront of publicly denying rumours of discontent. Don Furner was having none of it, when put to him that one of the reasons the team had failed in 1986 was because it was too accustomed to his methods after five years. “Usually after five years you get a whole lot of new players.” John McIntyre said: “We’ll have about as much money to spend as we did last year. We’ll be looking for about five players and we could be springing a few surprises.” Wallace concluded, after both statements from Furner and McIntyre: “Make no mistake, Don Furner’s last season as a coach will be a success. Just as a player is only as good as his last game, a coach’s reputation stands on the record of his last team. So if there are players who stand in the way now, they will not be there next February.”

A public face off between Furner and McMahon followed. McMahon publicly stated he would not coach the Canberra reserves in 1987 if not appointed before the end of the 1986 season – but Furner insisted that there would be a review of the coaching staff at the end of the year. McMahon said: “It’s not much good waiting until the end of the year to find our if you have a job or not. I need time to plan what I am going to do next year. Midway through the 1985 season, I was approached by Don and asked if I wanted to coach the reserve grade this year. When I said yes, I was told I had the job. But this week, when I asked for confirmation of the coaching job for next season, I was told the decision would be made at the end of the year.” Rumours were rife that former Sharks great Steve Rogers could be added to the Raiders coaching ranks in 1987 at the time, as he was taking up a job in the district. Furner responded: “Allan has made his decision. I told him the coaching positions would be assessed that the end of the year, but for some reason he could not wait until then. It’s the same for players and coaches. Contracts are negotiated at the end of the season,” Furner said.

Furner took back the coaching reins in round 19, producing the first ever win for the club at Penrith, before more duty with the Kangaroos the following week. McMahon took the team to play indoor cricket on the Monday night, instead of the usual “mad hour”. A third win in a row ensued, a big 32-8 victory over Easts. It was only the second time in the club’s history that it had recorded three wins in a row.

The public spat between coaches continued the following week, with McMahon saying he did not want to leave the Raiders. “I just want to get on with the job of getting the Raiders to give of their best. Loyalty is what it’s all about and this is greater than any need to move to Sydney or anywhere else,” he said. But with McMahon at the helm again in the round 21 match against North Sydney, the Raiders failed to get a record fourth straight win. “We have played so well in our last three games and to come out today and perform like we did just isn’t right,” McMahon said after the 31-10 loss at North Sydney. Furner and Australia delivered a clean sweep over the Kiwis the following Tuesday night at Lang Park.

The behind the scenes manoeuvering between Furner and McMahon was even more complex than it appeared. Mal Meninga later stated that before Furner was re-appointed for 1987, Warren Ryan – who had coached McMahon and captain Dean Lance at Newtown – had rejected an offer to leave Canterbury and come to Canberra as Furner’s replacement. Jim Woodger had approached Allan McMahon for advice on the best coach available and had recommended Ryan. He had a dinner with Ryan at the Coachman Restaurant and later forwarded an offer in writing to him, with the knowledge of John McIntyre. It was later reported to be a five year $70,000 deal. Two days after Ryan rejected the offer, Furner was extended for another season. It was only then that some pushed for McMahon for first grade coach.

That push was slowed, however, when on 10 August, it was announced by John McIntyre that Queensland coach Wayne Bennett would join Furner in a co-coaching role. “We’re looking at Don and Wayne as co-coaches next season, but that’s something we’ll have to discuss with them and they’ll have to talk over between themselves,” McIntyre said. An appointment was set for Bennett to come to Canberra on 21 August for “official talks”. Days later a report emerged that a Brisbane consortium wanted Bennett as their inaugural coach for a new team from the Queensland capital in the NSWRL – but he’d rejected the offer, given his commitment to Canberra. After that report, McIntyre quickly further clarified: “Don will assume the mantle of coaching director for the club, which will leave Wayne with a virtual free hand with the first grade side.”

And the McMahon push was stopped in its tracks when this headline appeared in The Canberra Times: “RAIDERS’ MOLE WILL BE AXED: MCINTYRE”. A story in Rugby League Week alleged a long running crisis at the Canberra club, was set to blow it apart, with the Furner-Bennett co-coaching deal aimed at heading off the storm. McIntyre said he had “a pretty good idea” who was responsible for the story. “They [Rugby League Week] certainly didn’t speak to me, they spoke to a source with the club who will not be with the club next year, I assure you,” McIntyre said.

Mal Meninga and Gary Belcher backed the planned Furner-Bennett set up – rejecting a “gentleman’s agreement” which would have allowed them to leave the club part-way through their contracts if they were not happy. “These stories are harming the club. I would rather just get on and play football. That is my job,” Belcher said. “Having two first grade coaches could be a problem I suppose, but Don is a very reasonable man and I am sure he would not interfere if Wayne came down here. Don would obviously advise Wayne in some way, but I think Don would step back and give Wayne room to move. Their coaching methods are very different and they have lots of different ideas. On field, their proposals are probably very similar,” Meninga said.

Bennett came to Canberra as scheduled on 21 August. Peter Jackson, a Queensland three quarter from Souths, came too for contract negotiations with the Green Machine. Bennett asked for two weeks to decide, but Jackson was happy with the Canberra offer and just needed a release from the Queensland Rugby League. Canberra also announced it had sought, and been granted, permission from the Queensland Rugby League to negotiate with Australian prop forward Greg Dowling.

On the field the Raiders limped on with losses to the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs, but pulled off a 19-12 win over eventual premier, Parramatta in the second last round. “It makes you wonder where we would be if we won some of those close games earlier in the year. To beat Parramatta we had to have everyone playing well. Meninga was outstanding, the halves played well, our forwards got on top. Everything went right. Our win shows just how close the competition is this year when the bottom side can beat the top side. When we first joined the competition, the difference between the top sides and bottom sides was 100 yards. Now it’s down to 10,” Furner said.

He later added: “If a coach has a lousy year, he can normally expect to be sacked or asked to resign. I’m going to be with the club for a long time yet, so I’ve got to do what’s best for the club in the long term. It’s not fair to ask somebody to come in and just take over after a season like this. What I want is for someone to come and help me with first grade next season. I’d then be able to encourage him to take over more and more as the season goes on. I’d be looking for someone who would be with us for about three years after I’ve stepped down.”

But still the club was waiting on an answer from Wayne Bennett.

The Raiders finished the season with a 18-18 draw against the Dragons, and the next day, the answer the club was looking for came. Wayne Bennett agreed to a four year term with Canberra, assisting Don Furner in 1987, and taking over as head coach for three years from 1988. “I’ve signed and I’m confident it’s the right move to make,” Bennett said. “Going into the job with Don’s full approval is a big plus. Usually there can be a bit of drama attached but I have no reservations about working with someone I regard so highly.” Bennett said he wanted to continue as Queensland coach, after being prevented from taking club duties in 1986 by the Queensland Rugby League. “I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit I wanted to coach Queensland,” Bennett said in taking the Canberra appointment. “I can’t see how players can go down to Sydney and be recalled yet coaches can’t,” he said.

Lower grade coaches Allan McMahon and Bob Camden were not retained in the coaching line up.

So the season that started with promises, promises had been a disaster on field, and embroiled in turmoil off it. Canberra finished eleventh, just three competition points from the wooden spoon. With Bennett on board, could things be different in 1987?

Wayne Bennett's signing - The inside story

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Wayne Bennett, co-coach with Don Furner for the 1987 season, at Seiffert Oval.

Wayne Bennett would later tell the story of his signing with the Canberra Raiders: “I’m good at selling what I believe in but I’m not good at selling myself. So I’m sitting in the Canberra Raiders waiting room. Coach Don Furner and club boss Les McIntyre have the door shut in the main office and big Peter Jackson is sitting beside me. Jacko had long been wanted by a stack of Sydney clubs but until now had stayed at Brisbane Souths.

I said, ‘Pete, what are you going to do today? What are you going to ask for?’

‘Seventy thousand dollars, Wayne.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Bloody oath I am.’ He said, ‘I know I can get that. What are you going to ask for?’

I said, ‘I don’t know, I was going to ask for about $40,000.’

He said, ‘You’re kidding me. You get in there, you’re worth as much as I’m worth.’

So he talked me up, started pumping me up. I went in there and asked for $65,000, and they said, ‘That’s fine, mate’.

I came out and gave Jacko a big hug. I said, ‘Seriously Jacko, thanks – I would have gone for $40,000.’

There was no debate, no argument and it probably wasn’t an over the top price, but Jacko had given me the courage I needed. So the deal was done. I was the co-coach of the Canberra Raiders.”
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