Sir Joh's rugby league legacy

While it is easy to have profound concerns about aspects of the Bjelke-Petersen record ? especially in the latter years of his Premiership ? he did do rugby league a great favour:

The legacy and record of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen as Premier of Queensland is currently being dissected ? and not too favourably in many quarters. But there is one little known aspect of his record that deserves to be revealed and acknowledged (and it benefited rugby league, though NSW Blues supporters might vigorously contest that by the time they have read this piece).

The 1960s was a poor decade for rugby league in Queensland. The Maroons were generally hammered by the Blues and Queensland was lucky to get one or two players in the Kangaroos team and the exodus of players to Sydney clubs continued unchecked.

But, in 1968 Ronald Edward McAuliffe was elected President of the QRL. That marked the beginning of a new, and eventually golden, era for rugby league that culminated in the State of Origin series now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Even though he was then a Labor Senate candidate, he invited me to join the QRL Public Relations Committee in 1969. I was then State Secretary of the Young Liberals ? and McAuliffe gained some delight in having a Liberal on his team.

In 1971, the QRL organised what was really a revolution in rugby league ? an eight week live in training camp for 20 of the game?s most promising players. The players camped under the Frank Burke Stand at Lang Park, and they had to get leave from their employers to take part because the day?s program ran from 5.30 in the morning till the early evening.

McAuliffe rang me a couple of weeks before the camp started and told me he had a ?problem?. That was some understatement! The ?problem? was that one of the players chosen was a young police constable who had his leave application to attend the camp rejected out of hand.

At the time Queensland had a Country-Liberal Government, headed by Mr Joh Bjelke-Petersen, McAuliffe figured I might be able to get a Liberal MP to help get the constable leave.

I made enquires and was told to ?forget it?. There was no way a second or third year constable could get EIGHT weeks leave. But McAuliffe persisted, ?you will have to go higher up the tree,? he commanded.

I knew the Premier through my political role, but I hardly knew him well. But after a phone call from the great rugby league icon, Duncan Thompson, who extolled the potential of the young policeman in most glowing terms, I decided to seek a meeting with the Premier himself.

To my absolute surprise, his private secretary gave me an appointment to see him that afternoon. We sat down in his office, without any staff in attendance, and I outlined that a young police constable from the Darling Downs needed eight weeks leave to attend a training camp designed to make Queensland competitive against NSW. That got the Premier interested!

Ron McAuliffe had told me to stress that the player did not smoke, drink, or swear and went to church every Sunday and was ?a good country lad?. I knew that worked wonders when Joh commented ? ?How wonderful, Florence and I must meet the young man sometime.?

The Premier made some notes, told me he would ?see what he could do? and that I should ring him on Friday before he went back to Kingaroy for the weekend. We were cutting things fine. The camp was due to start on the Sunday ? two days later.

The three days wait was a nightmare. McAuliffe, about half the Toowoomba Rugby League hierarchy, and the player himself, badgered me to find out what was happening. When I told the player I had ?gone to the top? he asked ?who?s that?? and my response staggered him to put it mildly.

On the Friday morning I rang the Premier?s office and was put straight through. It was a short conversation that went something like this:

?I have spoken to Max (Hodges ? Police Minister) and Ray (Whitrod ? Police Commissioner) and they have said no way, but I have decided the young man will attend the training camp. I hope he enjoys it?.

The rest is history. The young policeman concerned was Constable Wayne Bennett! He was one of the stars of the training camp, and went on to represent Queensland later that year.

I suspect he would always have made the grade. But there can be no doubt that the intervention of the then Premier of Queensland and some wise ?coaching? of yours truly by Ron McAuliffe, put him on the road to doing so.

At the time none of us, least of all the Premier of Queensland, had any idea how profound an impact Wayne Bennett would make on the game, and on the Maroons in particular.

The QRL training camp had another important beneficial impact on Wayne Bennett. One of the other squad members was Greg Veivers, who went on to be a Kangaroos Vice-Captain. He introduced Wayne to his sister, Trish.

Trish Veivers, as anyone who watched the moving Australian Story would know, is now Mrs Trish Bennett and perhaps the influential part of the entire Wayne Bennett success story.

I have profound concerns about aspects of the Bjelke-Petersen record ? especially in the latter years of his Premiership ? but he did rugby league, and the Maroons and Broncos in particular, a favour that deserves to be recognised with his passing.

From Jeff Wall, rugby league writer for Published: 27 April 2005 (Revised: 27 Apr 2005)