Ahead of Friday's #NRL game between Penrith Panthers and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, writer Rob C...
7 hours ago
During the almost 115 years that a game called rugby league has been played, there has been no shortage of the heroic. Indeed, those of us to whom it really is The Greatest Game of All would argue that it demands a measure of heroism just to get out on to the pitch and to stay there.
Never was that more true than in the second Test between Australia and England in 1958, in Brisbane. It is a match that has attracted a number of honorific titles, none of them entirely satisfactory. It is sometimes known as the second Rorke's Drift Test, named, in the first instance, after the battle in the Zulu Wars in 1879, when 139 British soldiers successfully defended a ford over the Buffalo River against somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 African warriors.
Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded for the day's fighting - almost enough for a rugby league team - including a record seven to one regiment. Much later, the engagement was the subject of the film Zulu, but it was still fresh in the folk memory in 1914, when an earlier set of rugby league tourists from these shores - then calling themselves England - played Australia in Sydney in the deciding Ashes Test. England won a gruelling game at the Cricket Ground 10-6, a string of injuries leaving them with only 10 men on the field by the end.
That epic victory duly became known as the Rorke's Drift Test. The first Battle of Brisbane, in 1932, was a different matter, a brutal affair which Australia won 15-6 despite being down to 10 men for part of the game and packing down with just three forwards. That was the backdrop of valour in adversity against which the second Battle of Brisbane - almost exactly half a century before the epic Wimbledon final described earlier in this supplement - was measured. It still stands out as rugby league's finest hour.
Forget calling it the "second" Rorke's Drift or the "second" Battle of Brisbane. If you are looking for a Desert Island Game of Rugby League at its rawest and most courageous, this is the match that is first and last in line. Great Britain, as they were known by this time, went into the match at the Exhibition Grounds on the back of a heavy defeat in the first Test at Sydney three weeks earlier. One important difference, however, was that three of the finest British forwards of all time, who had missed that match, were fit and available for the second Test.
Brian McTigue, Vince Karalius and Dick Huddart all made their Test debuts in Brisbane - the latter after almost being sent home for disciplinary reasons after the first match of the tour. One can only dream now of being able to add a trio like that to a British pack. The rest of the team does not read too badly, either, for those who know their rugby league history. It included Eric Ashton, Mick Sullivan and Dave Bolton in the backs, along with a brash 18-year-old named Alex Murphy at scrum-half.
Murphy had set out his stall early on the tour, when Australia's Keith Holman was described to him as "the best scrum-half in the world". "He hasn't played me yet," said Murphy - but he had a shocker against Holman in the first Test. He was taken to one side by the British captain, Alan Prescott, who told him in no uncertain terms how much he needed to improve. Even at that tender age, Murphy would not have taken that from many people. But Prescott had a presence, a force of personality, that made him listen.
That single-minded determination was to become the enduring theme of the match. Prescott had an unusual background for a rugby league prop forward of his era. For one thing, he started his career as a winger and retained enough of that pace to be deceptively quick when he graduated to the front row. In 1956, he became the first forward to captain Great Britain, and he was a logical choice to lead the 1958 Ashes tour.
Not that the tour began smoothly. There were wrangles over selection, talk of rifts in the camp and a 25-8 thrashing in the first Test by an Australian side whose back-row forwards - Kel O'Shea, Norm Provan and Rex Mossop - dominated proceedings. Great Britain were also criticised for taking their squad for the second Test to Surfers Paradise for a week - a move, suggested by one Eddie Waring, that was easy to misrepresent as going on holiday. The Australian manager, Norman Robinson, called it "the last place I would take a team preparing for a Test match".
Despite all the distractions of Australia's biggest seaside resort, though, the Lions - the selected 13 plus two reserves - found it the ideal preparation. Tom Mitchell, the Great Britain manager, great British eccentric, man of mystery and some-time spy, left behind the best account of the match, and he was always confident that the side was ready. "The team as a whole were reaching top physical condition and imbued with a confidence that coursed through every fibre of body and mind," he wrote in his memoirs. "[They were] an unrecognisable, relaxed but resolved collection of men compared to those sombre individuals of 14 June - a mere three weeks that seemed to belong to another age."
That confidence faced the most severe test before the match had even got into its stride. After just three minutes, Prescott - such an essential part of British plans - shattered his right fore-arm in a tackle on Mossop. Interviewed about it 25 years later, Prescott left no doubt that he knew the seriousness of the injury from the start. "My arm struck his head and smashed," he recalled, in his matter-of-fact way. "It went numb and I knew it was broken. I thought to myself 'You can't go off. This Test match has got to be won.'" There were, of course, no substitutes in those days.
They were an innovation not introduced until 1964 and subsequently copied by other team games. So a badly injured player had the choice of leaving his side short or soldiering on. There was never any doubt which Alan Prescott would choose. Photographs of the match capture the extraordinary nature of his courage. With his right arm hanging uselessly by his side, he is tackling and handling the ball with his left, and packing into scrums on his left-hand side to try to protect his fracture. While this personal drama was beginning to be played out, Great Britain were taking the lead.
The electrifying young Murphy made the first of his devastating breaks, McTigue was in support and Ashton was able to send Jim Challinor over for the first try of the game - worth three points in 1958. Gordon Clifford's penalty cut the lead to a single point, but two goals from the British full-back, Eric Fraser, made it 7-2 before apparent disaster struck for the second time. After 29 minutes, the Lions' stand-off, Dave Bolton, broke his collarbone trying to put Sullivan away. This time there was no debate, no room for argument; he had to come off. "He was disconsolate, saying 'I've let you down, Tom'," Mitchell wrote. "Never have I seen an injured player so distressed.
He knew, of course, that his captain was in serious trouble and that his role at stand-off was of monumental importance." The attempted solution was to move Karalius from the pack to number six. The Wild Bull of the Pampas, as he was known in Australia, is remembered primarily for his toughness and ferociously combative, competitive approach. He was, for instance, Murphy's unofficial on-field "minder". "Nobody ever took any liberties with me," Murphy recalled decades later. "It was like having one of the Kray twins as your best mate."
But Karalius, who died earlier this year, was a skilled footballer as well. As soon as he slotted into the unfamiliar role of stand-off, he was organising his backline and setting up moves. Indeed, that was the key to the match: despite the adversity and the ever-rising casualty toll, Great Britain never stopped playing enterprising rugby. Before half-time, they made it 10-2, with the irrepressible Murphy again combining with McTigue, the Wigan miner with hands like shovels but the touch of a concert pianist, who sent Sullivan over. If ever there was a time and a place to be a fly on the wall midway through a sporting contest, it must surely have been that day in the dressing rooms at the Exhibition Grounds.
The Australian doctor on duty that afternoon was adamant on the subject of Prescott's injury. "'This man cannot continue - it must not be considered'," Tom Mitchell quotes him as saying. "But when the team rose to go out, Alan led them. If he hadn't done so the game was over - the quest for the Ashes was blown away." Prescott's speech on the subject was short and to the point. "Come on lads, let's go and destroy these Aussies," he shouted on his way back into the arena. Karalius was another matter, unable to get off his bench because his back had seized up. "Without him on the field the position was the same as with the captain - certain defeat," wrote Mitchell, who managed to prise him to his feet, straighten him up and push him down the tunnel. "How he stood up to the first 10 minutes I will never know." Within those 10 minutes, though, Karalius had taken Murphy's pass, beaten both Australian half-backs and set up "Gentleman" Johnny Whiteley to send Ike Southward away.
Australia got one back through Bill Marsh, but Southward's second, created by Whiteley and McTigue, kept Britain's noses in front, despite the attrition rate among their ranks. Apart from Bolton, Prescott and Karalius, Fraser (elbow) and Challinor (shoulder) should have been off the field, but gritted their teeth and ploughed on. The pressure seemed that it might tell on them when two of Australia's powerful outside backs, Brian Carlson and Peter Dimond, scored unconverted tries. Roared on by a crowd of almost 33,000 at the Ekka, as the ground is known, the Aussies were on a roll. But then Karalius, buried in a gang tackle, somehow managed to scoop the ball up to Murphy, whose dazzling pace saw him score under the posts and effectively decide the match, despite Holman's late effort to make it 25-18.
After the game, Great Britain had five players wrapped in blankets, waiting to be taken to the hospital, but they and their team-mates had earned themselves a sort of sporting immortality - none more so than Prescott. He realised at full-time just how much his arm was hurting, but he had got through it.
To their credit, Australia might have been as rugged as ever, but made no attempt to target his wounded limb. Two weeks later, an inevitably much-changed British side played the deciding Test in front of 68,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground and won by a record 40-17 to retain the Ashes. Prescott, in blazer and sling, was carried around the SCG by those who were fit to play.
For a genuine sporting hero, the rest of his life was not unduly kind to him. He retired from playing in 1960, briefly coached his club St Helens, but then largely dropped out of the public eye, dying in sadly reduced circumstances in 1998, after living for some years in a nursing home, where Murphy was among his regular visitors.
His memorabilia, including his Great Britain caps, had long since been sold or had simply disappeared. Whenever a member of that team of heroes passes away, however - as Southward, Ashton, Challinor, McTigue, Karalius and Tommy Harris have done - they are always remembered, first and foremost, for having played in "Prescott's Match". The Exhibition Grounds are still there in the inner suburb of Brisbane known appropriately as Fortitude Valley.
Since the opening of Lang Park as the city's main rugby league stadium, they have been reduced to their original function as agricultural showgrounds. If you ask the old-timers in the Jubilee Hotel across the road about its history, however, they will tell you that it was where that match took place. They might call it Prescott's Match, Rorke's Drift or the Battle of Brisbane, but they all know which indelible epic of bravery and sheer bloody-minded determination they are talking about.