Rugby league?s fabulous 1950s
By MAX GODBEE
PLAYERS and supporters of Grafton All Blacks Rugby League Club, forerunner of Grafton Ghosts, could certainly call the decade of the 1950s 'the fabulous fifties'.
In that period the All Blacks won four Upper Clarence Rugby League premierships including two against arch-rivals South Grafton in exceptional and nailbiting circumstances.
South Grafton had come out of the previous decade, the 1940s, as top dog winning both the 1948 and 1949 premierships and unchallenged in 1950, unbeaten and holding a big pointscore lead until record floods in June washed out the rest of the year's competition and a premiership went begging.
The experts tell me that the 10 years of the 1950s decade starts with 1951. All Blacks had not won a first-grade premiership during the 1940s and that great letter from my good mate David Heptonstall recently published in The Daily Examiner has set minds recalling that 1950s era and just how exceedingly well the All Blacks club went during the 10 years.
David's letter dealt mainly with The All Blacks 'come from behind win' to take that 1956 title 22-19 from South Grafton after the men in red and white had led 17-4 at half-time.
David Heptonstall, one of the most gifted rugby league centres to ever play on the North Coast, began his senior career at Berry, followed by five years with All Blacks and then five seasons with Coffs Harbour Diggers, before retiring.
While in Grafton David also played first-grade cricket for Westlawn captained by the remarkable Reg McLennan.
Together with his best mate, the blond-headed teak-hard forward Dick Gilbert (now living in Townsville), David graduated from Hawkesbury Agricultural College in 1954 and both were appointed to Grafton.
The two, together with another All Blacks great, Kerry Mead, who graduated in 1953, had played cricket and rugby union for the college.
David married Grafton girl Nancy Munns and one of their sons, Paul, has been the welfare manager for the West Tigers since the club's formation in 2000.
Looking back at the 10 years of that 1950s decade in The Clarence Valley there were 18 spots available for teams to play in grand finals, plus all clubs available for 1951 when officials ruled no grand final but a first past the post season discarding semis and finals etc, and All Blacks won that year.
In the following nine years of the decade South Grafton were involved in six grand finals and All Blacks, besides their 1951 victory, were involved in another five, meaning that between them the two clubs had taken up more than half the available berths.
United were involved in three grand finals for one win, Glenreagh in two, winning both, and Maclean and Orara Valley each in one for one win apiece.
The All Blacks were supreme in winning four premierships all up, 1951, 1953, 1956 and 1958, while South Grafton, hampered with major injuries when the big games came up, managed just the one victory, 1959.
Two of the All Blacks wins, those of 1956 and 1958, were all the sweeter for the club as they were against the arch-rivals from across the river, South Grafton.
Bruce McLennan, who had played his early football with South Grafton and then first grade in Sydney during the early 1940s, returned to the Clarence, South Grafton and representative football and figured in South Grafton's 1948 and 1949 premiership victories, as well as their big effort in the months of 1950 before the floods came.
Bruce dearly wanted to coach and applied for the position with South Grafton but was beaten for the 1951 job by Adie Lawrence. He then applied to coach All Blacks and was successful.
All Blacks were rebuilding from a period of ordinary seasons and Bruce's experience and influence over the new and older players was to be a major factor.
All Blacks in 1951, although beaten twice by Maclean, won their other 10 games to take out the premiership on 20 points, one ahead of Maclean.
Maclean had won nine and drew 12-all against South Grafton to finish on 19 points. That was the rejuvenation of All Blacks and with South Grafton they dominated berths in grand finals for the next nine years.
After the 1951 experiment Upper Clarence League officials switched back to the former system of semi-finals for the topfour placed clubs, with the minor premiers having the right to challenge if beaten in the semis or preliminary final.
The top four in the 1952, were in order, Maclean as minor premiers, United, All Blacks and South Grafton. South Grafton beat United 17-12 in the minor semi and Maclean edged out All Blacks 14-10 in the major semi and then South Grafton beat Maclean 10-8 in the preliminary final.
Maclean used their right of challenge and in another tight clash on the Grafton Showground Maclean, led by Val McLennan, turned the tables beating South Grafton 9-7 after the teams had been locked at 7-7 just short of full-time.
Each side had scored a try ? worth three points in those days ? with Ron McGowan crossing for Maclean and Robin Munro for South Grafton.
With time almost up Maclean fullback, the great Billo Laurie, landed a long-range penalty goal to give Maclean the premiership 9-7. Billo kicked two goals and a field goal during the match to bring up his 100 points for the season.
All Blacks, with Clarrie Shaw as captain-coach, beat United 8-5 in the 1953 grand final and the following year the Neville Clough-led United won the 1954 premiership beating All Blacks 6-5 with Gerald Goodger gathering all United's points, booting three penalty goals.
In 1955 South Grafton met Glenreagh in the grand final, again at the Grafton Showground. South Grafton had beaten Glenreagh in a semi-final but it was different picture in the grand final with future Australian representative George Smith playing a crushing role to help Glenreagh win 25-0.
A club record crowd was at the Grafton Showgound for the 1956 grand final local derby with All Blacks, captain-coached by former Sydney first grader Ron Beaumont, pitted against South Grafton, led by former Casino and Group One representative Eddie Walker.
South dominated the first half starting with a try to winger Don Holdt after just two min- utes.
Dynamic halfback Eric Lawrence seemed to be everywhere in attack and South Grafton went into the break well in command at 17-4 with tries to Holdt, Lance Kinney and Noel Butters and four goals to Eddie Walker.
Centre Leo Casson had landed two penalty goals for All Blacks.
Eric Lawrence became ill and for the second session was more a passenger playing a mixture of wing and loose forward, with winger Eddie Kapeen taking up the halfback role.
Grafton rearranged their forward pack and began to get on top, gradually pulling back the deficit and then taking the lead 20-19 and finally 22-19 as the Grafton supporters roared approval.
All Black forwards Dick Gilbert, John Lohan, Ian Patterson, Darcy Gorton, Eddie Cooper and Harold Thomsett each had big games, and masterly in their backline in the second half was the centre pairing of David Heptonstall and Leo Casson and the driving force of fullback Ron Beaumont.
The trio received strong support from wingers John Appleton and Kevin Hankinson and halves Bert Clapham and John Leese.
For South Grafton Noel Butters, who rotated between the forwards and the backline, was supreme, along with prop Cliff Holroyd, five-eighth John Moy, centre Jack Cowan, winger Lance Kinney until injured, and Eric Lawrence's first-half display was something to behold.
I wondered why Dave Heptonstall, who told me often it was the most exciting game of his career, was missing from the All Blacks after-game celebrations.
In a recent letter he told me that it was because of his job as AIS cattle manager at the Graf- ton Experiment Farm.
Fred Cromack was waiting for him with a truck to pick up the cattle, take them to the Grafton station and load them on to railway trucks for dispatch to Lismore for the North Coast National Show.
"We finished loading at 9pm and I had to wait until 2am for the train to depart," Dave said.
All Blacks also played in the 1957 grand final at the Grafton Showground but this time were beaten by the Bob Bell captaincoached and well-drilled Glenreagh outfit.
It was the Harold Blinkhorn captain-coached All Blacks against South Grafton at the Showground again for the 1958 premiership decider.
South Grafton would have dearly loved to have had their great forward, Noel Butters on duty but 'Slippery' in helping South Grafton beat Lower Clarence in the preliminary final the week before, incurred a broken leg and was not to play football again for 18 months, and due to further injuries Souths were also without the dashing Eddie Kapeen and try-scoring prop Amos Daley. There was some good news when captain-coach and former Queensland representative Athol Halpin, who had been in extreme doubt, passed a late fitness test and led the Red and Whites on to the field.
He was looking good in combining with Lance Kinney to set up the first try for hooker Peter Sullivan but not long after, suffered the recurrence of a knee injury and his involvement was heavily restricted.
Centre Gerry Herden kicked a penalty goal for All Blacks and then fullback Kevin Schwager did likewise for South Grafton to see the Rebels leading 5-2.
The score stayed that way though the first half and right up to three minutes from full time when South appeared certain to cross for their second try and seal the match. They were attacking close to the Grafton line with two overlaps when in a flash speedy All Blacks forward Paul Sullivan saved with a cheeky intercept and ran nearly the full length of the field before grassed by winger Brian Gill.
A quick play the ball and second rower Eddie (Buck) Buchanan dived over for the 5-5 equalising try.
The crowd went quiet as youthful All Blacks five-eighth John Archer lined up the difficult conversion attempt and then kicked true to the tremendous roar of Grafton supporters.
Just a minute or two remained and All Blacks had once again pulled a premiership game out of the fire, winning 7-5.
However, that was the last premiership.
Grafton All Blacks' form fell away in the next four years and in 1963 the club joined with United to form the successful Grafton Ghosts Rugby League Club.
Conversely South Grafton after 1958 played in the next four grand finals with Halpin leading them to the 1959 premiership over Terry O'Brien's Uniteds 14-2 and then finishing off the decade with an 8-11 loss to Orara Valley in 1960.
The Rebels started the sixth decade with a 1961 premiership win over Lower Clarence coming from 12-0 down to win 17-12 and then were beaten 11-8 by the Peter Horne captain-coached Lower River in 1962.