The 1963 Grand Final Controversy -
time to put it to rest

  • by Willow
  • January 26 2005 12:00AM

On the 24th August 1963, in the days of poor ground drainage, the St George Dragons and the Western Suburbs Magpies met on a muddy Sydney Cricket Ground pitch to battle it out. It was the grand final and the Rugby League premiership was up for grabs.

The ?63 grand final still rates as one of the most talked about matches in the history of the game. For many, it epitomised the spirit of Rugby League when photographer John O'Gready captured rival captains Norm Provan and the much smaller Arthur Summons in a brief muddy embrace at fulltime. Entitled 'The Gladiators', the photograph won many international awards and set the standard as an enduring symbol of Rugby League mateship.

But for others, the match will be remembered for the controversial and match-winning try, scored by Dragons winger Johnny King. Debate raged over the tackle on King and claims that the referee had called ?held?. Accusations that referee Darcy Lawler had made a wager on the outcome of the game are still being made to this day.

From the opening whistle the 1963 decider was a gruelling affair. The wet SCG pitch quickly became a quagmire and players became unrecognisable as the ground turned into a grey, thick mudheap. At one point, St George five eighth, Bruce Pollard was blinded by the mud so badly that he couldn't pass or catch the ball, forcing him to swap places with John Raper in the back row. Raper set up the best movement of the match when he broke the line and found Reg Gasnier in support. Reg, with a Wests defender hanging off him, sent the ball to Norm Provan who was backing up out wide before finding Johnny King in support who came within a whisker of scoring.

As the match developed, it was clear that Wests had a game plan to target the Saints centre three quarters. Wests' player, Gil McDougall singled out Reg Gasnier and other Wests players joined in. Eventually, Gasnier was bashed out of the match and became a passenger in the backline.

Just before half time, Wests had a try disallowed. Then with only 15 minutes to go and the score favouring Saints 5-3, Johnny King scored ?that try?, thus creating a sensation in Rugby League circles that was to rage for years. If ever there was an example of playing to the whistle, this was it. With a defender hanging off him, King overcame the slippery conditions long enough to score in the corner.

After the match, the debate continued. King claims it was a simple matter of 'play on' while Wests legend, Noel Kelly claims that King was tackled and that Wests 'were robbed'.

In the midst of the noisy and muddy atmosphere, no one doubted the word of any player. Indeed, the only clear issue was that St George had won their eighth consecutive Grand Final defeating a gallant Wests team, 8-3 and in doing so, destroyed the Magpies? hopes for the third year running.

30 years later, I had the opportunity to watch the match in full, playing back the controversial try.

The claim that referee, Darcy Lawler, changed his mind and was corrupt throughout the match was utmost in my mind. These accusations have largely been hearsay as most people have never seen the match or have only caught glimpses of it on TV snippets. I looked closely for contentious decisions and found that for the most part, the referee allowed play to flow.

After seeing it several times, frame-by-frame, I think we can put this one to rest. There is no clear indication that King was held and there were no hand movements or hesitations from the referee, who was in good position.

In fact, King hit the mud on his knees, slid away from the tackle, and put his hand on the ground. He wasn't held.

For rest of the match, there was very little opportunity for both sides in the mud. Scrums were hard to pack down with players often losing their footing.

As a final adjunct I was intrigued by another incident which never gets a mention. Earlier in the match, Saints were leading 5-0 before Wests struck back with a try under the posts. Goal kicker Summons had the chance to convert and make it 5-5, which would have been a big boost under the conditions... but he missed from right in front.

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