Fifty Years Ago - The 1971 Grand Final


In the final look back at the 1971 NSWRFL season, it's a review of the Grand Final which saw South Sydney claim the title for what would be the last time in over 40 years. Check out George's review of the action.

"Souths win RL thriller!", was the headline, that Sunday, 50 years ago. It was relegated to the bottom half of the page by an awful story of a woman shot dead in her home and (beside that) a picture of Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman at the birth of their second child.

The grand final story (two paragraphs on page one), was continued onto page 2 and included a photo of Souths Captain John Sattler, with his dad Ivan.  

The report by Herald writer Peter Allen, told us little about the match, other than the dominance of pre-match favourites South Sydney, who'd had one hand on the J.J.Giltinan Shield twenty minutes into the 2nd half.    

Converted tries to Jack Gibson's St George team in the 65th and 68th minutes changed the match and brought the crowd to their feet.    

I was lucky enough to be able to watch a 35minute edited video of the match and I can assure readers, that Mr Allen - who no doubt had constraints on the space he had available - left out, lots of the detail and drama that are part of every Grand Final.  In the Herald Sport section, pages 76 and 77 were devoted to analysis by Alan Clarkson and Col Pearce. The 48-point BOLD headline across two pages read;   



The first 10 minutes was devoted to the usual bash and barge - also known as the "softening up period".   Neither team got on top, but Souths did get themselves deep into the St George half and at the 11th minute Souths half Bob Grant launched a field goal attempt, but had it waived away referee Holman.  

St George restarted from their 25 and the match went back into a series of completed sets, followed by kicks.  

During one of these, McCarthy broke a tackle and threw a terrible pass that Dennis Pittard (amazingly) caught above his head and proceeded to then weave his way downfield, avoiding defenders, only to be tackled five yards out. 

He played the ball to Bob Honan, who decided to try and barge his way over, only to lose the ball in the tackle.  Neither team was able to dominate play, with possession almost 50/50 and errors from both sides causing play to break down way too often.   

After two sets each, following Honan's near miss, Souths kicker Eric Simms potted a field goal to open the scoring.  A 1-nil score was not so strange back in 1971.  

South's hooker George Piggins, who had real problems pleasing the referee two weeks ago against Manly, continued to displease Mr Holman.  

Five minutes after Sims one pointer referee Holman penalised Piggins for feet across the tunnel - yes folks back in 1971 the ball was supposed to be ‘fed' into a tunnel created by both front rows  - unlike 21st century scrums where the ball is fed directly behind the 2nd rowers feet and the whistle blower has apoplexy if the team feeding the scrum don't actually get possession.  Anyway, Saints Fullback and skipper, Graeme Langlands had two opportunities to slot penalty goals in the latter part of the first half, but missed both.  One was directly in-front 35 yards out and the other on the quarter line on a 45 degree angle.  

The teams trooped off after 40 tough minutes with the score Souths (1) - St George (0).  

Although behind at the break Saints first half was inspirational. They were outweighed in the forwards, where most of the match was played, but stuck to their task. 

Alan Clarkson, at the Herald, in his assessment of the first half wrote; 

"They (St George) would not back down as Souths hurled their "big guns," McCarthy, O'Neill and Sattler, at them. Several times, Souths were only inches from the line, but they swarmed around the man with the ball like ants around honey. This sterling defence made Souths look very mediocre at times, and they luckily led 1-0 at half-time. There was no pattern to Souths' play. The forwards went singly, while the rest generally stood back and watched what was going on." 


The second half was everything that the first was not.  Souths went from running one out, to passing and running the ball and Saints threw caution to the wind, when they realised (behind 11-nil) that they had nothing to lose. Looking on from the distance of 50 years George Piggins stands out, although he was not officially man of the match. That honour went to Ron Coote. 

Piggins did not score any tries nor kick any goals, but the Souths hooker used the long dead skill of ‘stealing the ball - legally' from his opponents in the play the ball situation to change the momentum of the match and secure possession for his team.  He and his front row partners also won crucial scrums denying the hard finishing Saints opportunities to go on the attack.   

The second half was just two minutes old when the ‘new' Souths appeared.  The Rabbitohs had kicked off and Saints took possession, went through their set and Langlands kicked the ball all the way to Souths 25 yard line, where opposition fullback Simms caught the ball and ran it back to the defence line.  Tackles two and three were conservative runs of about 8 yards. On tackle four, the ball went through two sets of hands to Piggins, who put the fast-running Gary Stevens into a gap, Stevens passed to Ron Coote and he fed the ball to centre Ray Branighan who brushed off two defenders to score in the corner.  Souths led 4 nil almost before the fans had retaken their seats after queueing for their half-time pie.  

The next 10 minutes saw both teams working for opportunities in a much more, free flowing play, but a penalty against a Saints player for "knees in the tackle" gave Souths' possession on Saints 25 yard line.  The tap was taken and two tackles later Paul Sait was tackled and played the ball quickly.  Dummy half Bob Honan, passed to John Sattler, who ran diagonally across field and turned into the tackle, off-loaded to Coote, who ran the 6 yards to score with a prostrate Langlands smashing his fist into the turf, in frustration.  Souths 7 - Saints nil.  Simms converted the try to stretch the lead to 9.  Two minutes later, referee Holman penalised the Saints front row and Simms converted from in front.  At 11 nil and only 20 minutes left, the valiant Saints, were looking down the barrel.  

After the kick-off Souths captain Sattler carried the ball to the 35 yard line but lost it as he was tackled. From the scrum Saints hooker Rasmussen won possession (against the feed) and half Billy Smith weaved his magic. Off the last tackle he went down the blindside, drew defenders and passed to Barry Beath who scored. Langlands, who'd missed his only two shots into the wind, converted from wide out and the score was Saints 5 - Souths 11.  The kick-off fell to Smith who, running flat out was floored by George Piggins. Piggins was warned by referee Holman that a repeat would see him sent off.  Langlands using the strong wind kicked the ball from his 25 to Souths 25, setting his team up for more attack. Try-scorer Beath carried the ball to within 5 yards of Souths line, played the ball to Smith who saw an opportunity for an overlap, passed to replacement Cox, who put Ted Walton over on the right-hand side.  (Walton's rise from reserve grader to ‘johnny on the spot' was a rugby league miracle. Walton equalled Langlands as highest try-scorer in the 1971 finals series).  Langlands converted from the right-hand touchline and the 68,000 plus fans came alive.  Saints 10 - Souths 11.  

Now those final twelve minutes.   

Souths restarted play and the possession changed hands twice until the Rabbitohs got their chance.  

At the 71st minute Eric Simms got into position but missed with his field goal attempt. Langlands caught the ball and ran it back into play. Saints took two more runs and then George Piggins (at marker) struck for the ball as it was being played by a tired St. George forward and gained possession for his team.  More importantly he denied possession to Saints. 

Souths won a scrum in the 73 minute and their big forwards hammered Saints line. Second rower Gary Stevens got over the line but was pushed back.  On the last tackle the ball went out along the line to Branighan but he was tackled. 

Saints front rower Peter Fitzgerald, was replaced by Mick Dryden at the 75th minute and Saints won the scrum then kicked on the sixth tackle. Souths winger Keith Edwards fumbled and there was a scrum.  Souths won the scrum and their forwards carried the ball downfield, one out until referee Holman called for a scrum after the sixth tackle.    

Saints won the scrum and they had one more chance to get the ball downfield and either kick a field goal or even cross for a try. It was not to be. That man George Piggins did it again. He raked the ball back in the play-the-ball and two tackles later Ron Coote broke the line and passed to Bob McCarthy, who crossed untouched to score beneath the posts.  With the conversion by Simms souths led 16 - 10, and there were just 90 seconds left on the clock.  The hooter sounded and referee Holman set the final scrum. The ball bounced out onto the blind side, was fallen on and Holman blew his whistle for the last time. Souths had won their fourth Grand Final in five years.

PS:  Apology for misspelling Ray Branighan's name all season.  At least in this final trip down memory lane, I got it right.


Two weeks and 50 years on, the match was as exciting to watch this time as it was when I was 10 years old. Back then, like most primary school boys I didn't really understand the details but joining the adults to watch the Grand Final, was part of growing up.   

I had decided (how or when, I'm not sure) that I was a Souths fan - that was easy to do - they were the star team.  They'd won in 67, 68 and 70 and I had been taken into their dressing room by a friend of my dad, who was a referee. Uncle Clive wasn't a relative, but like most family friends, it was polite to call him uncle. It is a fleeting memory of awful smells and half naked men, but I'll never forget that feeling of being part of something big.