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Every season there?s a couple of rising stars who burn bright in their first few games or season, who the media compare with the stars of the past. A young player might be called ?the next Meninga or Johns?. In years to come they?ll talk about ?the next Fittler or Lockyer?. Sometimes these players achieve that mantle, sometimes they burn and crash. The game is littered with players who never fulfilled the media?s expectations when they were bright and shiny and full of promise.
In 1975 Australia was a fast moving and changing place ? young women were topless on page three of the afternoon papers, ?R? rated softcore porn movies dominated the cinemas, the Whitlam government was in bad trouble and soon to be dismissed, and the mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs hit an all time low.
The Rabbitohs won the ?wooden spoon? for the first time in 30 years, winning just 6 out of 22 games. Their mighty pack with four or five internationals was humbled week after week. One of South?s all-time greats: Clive Churchill ? the ?Little Master? (after whom the Grand Final Best and Fairest award is named) was their coach, sacked and replaced by player-coach Bob McCarthy. Souths started the season full of promise, but somewhere, somehow, during the season the wheels fell off. Game after game was lost and injuries mounted.
The club was in turmoil. The club promoted two Aboriginal players ? a 22 year old 5/8 called Andrew Donnelly (who had scored 500 points in two seasons) and a older player, Ambrose Morgan. Despite Donnelly?s obvious skills, it was Morgan, the big koori (Aboriginal) second-rower/prop whose star burned bright on debut.
Ambrose Morgan was about 6? 1? and 16 stone - a big man even in today?s game. He was not a young man when he burst onto the scene with the Rabbitohs. Souths had graded him in third grade six years earlier but he?d only played a few games, concentrating on the famous ?Redfern All Blacks? and trying to better his peoples? lives around Redfern.
Morgan was captain and coach for the ?All Blacks?, the players would wait and see if Ambrose was at training or even playing before committing themselves, such was the players? respect for him. Morgan was known throughout the community, white and black, and was called the ?King of Redfern?.
Ambrose had only played a few third and reserve grade games over the years, but he was called up against the mighty Eastern Suburbs in an Amco Cup semi-final at Tamworth. Morgan came on with Souths trailing 2-9, and although Souths eventually lost the match, Morgan cut up the opposition scoring a try and setting up another for his good mate Donnelly. Fast and big, with a step and uncanny ball skills, the afro-haired smiling giant Morgan suddenly stood astride the league world like a colossus.
Morgan was trumpeted as ?the new Beetson?, high praise indeed after the match against Artie Beetson himself. Big Artie was then at his peak with Easts (stunning grand final winners over Saint George 36-0) and to give the dynamic prop this tag was a big call.
Ambrose had the world at his feet, a chance to both make it in the big time and help his people as well, but no-one could have guessed what was to happen next.
The Sunday papers, August 17, 1975 had the front page story. ?LEAGUE STAR SLAIN: Redfern?s ?king? shot in nightclub?. Morgan supplemented his meagre league earnings with work as a painter, labourer and a nightclub bouncer. Morgan had told some men they couldn?t enter a club he was working at, caught them coming through a back door, there?d been a fight.
An hour and a quarter afterwards, while Morgan drank at the Kiwi Club in Sydney?s Quay St., a man in a cowboy-style poncho pulled out a sawn-off .22 rifle, shouted ?Morgan!?, and shot Ambrose in the chest. As Morgan lay dying, the man backed away and escaped.
Ambrose Morgan, ?King of Redfern?, a man held in awe by local Aborigines and respect by whites, was never to achieve all his league glory and honours. Morgan played just 18 matches, 3 in 1st grade, scoring 1 try. He didn?t underachieve and burn and crash, his time was brutally cut short.
As the local community and the South?s team struggled to come to grips with the tragedy, Donnelly played the next day scoring two tries, dedicating his game to the ?King of Redfern?.
References: Gadigal Information Services Website South Sydney Rabbitohs Official Website The Sun Herald 17 August 1975 (NSW State Library collection) The Sun and Daily Mirror, 10 July ? 20 August 1975 (NSW State Library collection)
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