South Grafton Rebels great premiership team of 1975. Back row John Neville (manager), Ray Ide, Garry Chapman, Garvin Cannon, Ma
South Grafton Rebels great premiership team of 1975. Back row John Neville (manager), Ray Ide, Garry Chapman, Garvin Cannon, Ma

South Grafton Rebels steeped in tradition


AS rugby league is making giant strides into the 21st century, South Grafton Rebels supporters have every reason to remember proudly the words expressed by former executive chairman of Australian Rugby League Ken Arthurson.

In a written address to the club Arthurson said: "South Grafton should treasure its magnificent history. There are few clubs anywhere with as much tradition."

That history began in 1915 long before South Grafton received the name of the Rebels, when South was one of the original four clubs that formed and started rugby league on the Clarence. South Grafton is the lone survivor from that original 1915 group.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday South Grafton celebrates that momentous occasion with the club's 90th anniversary reunion.

Proceedings get under way on Friday with the meeting of old friends for pre-dinner drinks from 6pm at the sportmen's bar at South Grafton Ex-Servicemen's Club in Wharf Street.

The feature event, the 90th anniversary dinner, is set down for Saturday at the ex-servicemen's club from 5.30pm, and bookings have been heavy.

On Sunday there will be a recovery luncheon at McKittrick Park and a feast of footy with the Rebels playing the Grafton Ghosts in the Northern Rivers Rugby League competition.

This is the South Grafton Rugby League Club's fourth reunion with the first held in 1929 at the then South Grafton Water Brigade's two-storey building on the river bank at the end of Wharf Street.

Reunion number two was in 1982, 67 years after the original founding of the football Club, and held at the South Grafton Ex-Servicemen's Club, just 100m from the first reunion site. Reunion number three came in 1989 to mark the 75th anniversary of the South Grafton Rugby League Club and was to have been held once more at the South Grafton Ex-Servicemen's Club, but due to a major fire there earlier that year, the reunion was switched to the Grafton District Services Club.

When the South Grafton Rugby League Club was founded in 1915 those who wore the red and white in either first or reserve grade were Jack Greenaway, 'Squirt' McAuley, Jim Kelly, Stan Schwinghammer, Bill Tocher, Tom Reid, Bill Zietsch, Joe Dousling, A Goodwin, ?? Phillips, Carl Schwinghammer, Bert Lawrence A Beatson, L Thompson, Bill Layton, ?? Bollard, ?? Sullivan, Francis Walters, Charlie Taylor, 'Croney' McDermid, ?? Whittaker, Len Williams, 'Dollar' Blindt, Jim Hough, Bert Thompson, 'Bung' Watkins, Charlie Mulville, Ted Reimer, Harry Brown, 'Rowdy' Bates, ?? Davis, Clarry McGrath, ?? Quinn, ?? Wilks, C 'Smiler' Reid, Arch Friar.

Team member Bill Tocher became the first from the Clarence to represent Australia in football, not in league but in union, at the end of World War One.

When the conflict ended, but before the troops came home, Bill Tocher was selected to wear the green and gold for the Australian army team in an international services rugby union Test against Britain.

In the 1950s Ted Purkiss, who had played his junior league at South Grafton, went on to play premiership rugby with the famous Gordon club in Sydney and win selection for the Wallabies 1957/58 six months six nations overseas tour.

He later rejoined the South Grafton Rugby League Club as captain-coach for two seasons, taking the club to grand finals in 1960 and 1961 and winning the premiership that second year.

In the 1960s Jim Lisle who learned his football at South Grafton and represented South Grafton primary and Grafton high in inter-school rugby league games before a season in Under-18s with Grafton All Blacks, turned to rugby union in Sydney.

He represented Australia with the Wallabies in South Africa and then came back to rugby league with South Sydney, represented Australia here and with the Kangaroos, as well as captaining and winning premierships with South Sydney.

There is Mr Magic, John Ferguson, one of the code's great entertainers with his talent as a side-stepping, swerving, try-scoring flying machine.

He came up through the Rebels' junior ranks and played in the South Grafton first-grade premiership win of 1975, later playing for NSW Country, and then in turn for three Sydney clubs as well as for NSW and Australia.

Talking of NSW Country representatives from South Grafton, it started with the selection of Athol (Dohy) Arndell in the 1920s, followed by such as Ken Gray in the 1950s, Terry Stevens in the early 1970s and John Ferguson in the latter 1970s.

Then there was the strong man of the 1930s South Grafton teams, railway worker Fred Atkins, who went on to win the world professional heavyweight wrestling championship in America.

After in-depth research I found that the legendary Dennis Pye had played the most games for the club, many as first-grade captain.

Dennis switched from soccer as a 16 year old to join the Rebels Under-18s side in 1972 and went on to play 309 competition games for the club, 40 in Under-18s, 23 reserve grade and 246 in first grade, before retiring in 1988.

Dennis will be one of the speakers on Saturday night.

There are literally dozens of great players to have contributed to the class and glamour of the South Grafton sides.

Add to the names already mentioned the magnificent Lawrence family with Joe, twins Adie and Artie and younger brothers Eric (Flip) and Keith (Lightning).

Adie and Artie were so good at amassing huge scores in their youth it was decided they had to be put in separate teams.

Then there has been Ron Gill, Frank Dreise, Val and Bruce McLennan, Ken 'Boxer' Walters, goal-kicking fullbacks Brian Graham, all with Sydney first-grade experience.

Brian Graham's older brother Maurice played fullback in South Grafton's 1949 premiership win and went on to become one of the Gordon's finest rugby union players.

Other great players include the ironbark tough Noel Butters, Darcy Patricks, John Schwinghammer, Jack and Geoff Cowan, Don Graham, Ray Pereira, Frank (Jumbo) White, Mark Eggins, Phillip (JB) Walsh, the versatile Ray Ide, Steve Farrell, Michael Jones, the Stevens brothers Terry and Kevin (Stumpy), Ron and Peter Hambly, Ron Phillips, Dave Clay, Paul and Steve Danvers, Matt McKee, Tony Muller, Scott Cooper, Xavier Sullivan and Brad Lloyd, as well as the high points accumulators, Group One's highest scorer for three seasons Ross Martin, Matt Laurie twice, Doug Walker, and Dallas Waters once.

Great player/coaches have included Paul Hassab, John Plummer, Viv Hodge, John Brown, Gary McGuire, Harry Reed, Mark McIntyre, Lindsay Johnston, Mark Hooklyn, Steve Cornish, Matt Donovan and Stevie Kirby. The try gatherers such as The Wizard Garry Chapman who led the Group One try-scorers six times including four times with The Rebels, Lance Randall, twice top try scorer, Mark Laurie also twice including a record 37 in 1994, and Doug Walker, 2003 leading try scorer.

There are, of course, others who have thrilled crowds and teammates with classy play.

Historian and former Rebels' club secretary Terry Frazer researched The Daily Examiner files well and recorded much history in his anniversary books of 1982 and 1989. They tell of attempts to start a rugby league competition on the Clarence following the 1908 inception of rugby league in Sydney.

Things came to a head when an article in The Daily Examiner of March 20, 1915 stated several of the leading rugby union footballers would switch to league if the game was established locally.

A public meeting held at TB Smith's Willow Tree Hotel later that month accepted a motion from J Hough, seconded by South Grafton team captain Joe Dousling, that a league competition be affiliated to the NSW Rugby League.

A further meeting was held at Durringtons Hotel on April 3 and the foundation members of the Clarence River Rugby League were elected: Ald Johnson as patron, Ald Strauss president, J Kelly, J Mulherin, W Murphy, A Pollack, H Malor and W Zietsch as vice-presidents with J Hough secretary and T Butcher treasurer.

Many men were already in uniform and the numbers increased dramatically each month as the dark clouds of World War One (1914-1918) rolled across all lands as four teams contested the 1915 first-grade competition, South Grafton, Unitechs, Westerns and the mixed team Federals.

Federals and South Grafton met in the final in front of a large crowd at McKittrick Park with Federals winning the premiership by one point, 6-5.

By 1916 so many Australian men were in armed services training camps or overseas the Clarence River Rugby League went into recess for that year as well as in 1917 and 1918.

With peace returning to the world and the youth of Australia coming back home, people of the Clarence once more turned their thoughts to sport and the Clarence River Rugby League competition was revived amidst much enthusiasm in 1919.

Again four teams contested the first-grade competition, Westerns, South Grafton, Diggers and Federals and again Federals won, with South Grafton runners-up.

Federals made it three in a row winning again in 1920 and for the third time South Grafton were runners-up but won the reserve grade title.

South Grafton also gained seven berths in the Clarence River representative team, Carl and Eric Schwinghammer, Jack and Bill Zietsch, Ken Maughan, Benny Herden and Bert Thompson.

South Grafton struck a golden patch in the early 1920s, premiers and unbeaten in 1921, 22 and 23

The club had Charlie Griffin as captain/coach in 1931 and won the premiership and cup finals.

Challenge Cup football was the vogue from 1932 and at their annual meeting which drew record attendance South Grafton had 49 applications for the position of first-grade coach.

Chosen was former NSW representative Jerry Brein (sometimes shown as Brien but pronounced Breen).

Brein also coached the two South Grafton schools of the time, South Grafton Public and St Joseph's Convent and coached a Grafton-South Grafton schoolboys team to victory over the visiting NSW Schoolboys 11-0.

As well Brein coached South Grafton to regain the premiership trophy, the Jack Kelly Cup.

Cup football continued to grow and South Grafton became The South Grafton Wanderers and for a time changed colours from the traditional red and white bands ('blood and bandages') to black and gold.

The competition area widened bringing in teams as far south as Coffs Harbour and below.

In 1933 several hundred South Grafton avid supporters travelled by special train to Coffs Harbour to cheer the Wanderers to victo- ry 11-10 for the feature Banana Growers Cup to end the season with South Grafton club holding the five major cups of the district. South Grafton's player strength waned and then returned and by 1939 the South Grafton Wanderers were premiers of Upper Clarence and Group Two and held all 10 cups open to them, as well as two shields, including the prestige Weiley Shield, the symbol of local rugby league supremacy.

World War Two was well under way in 1940 and although league continued most clubs comprised young player or those who, because of the nature of their employment, could not enlist.

The South Grafton Wanderers dominated the early years of the 40s and as football jumpers were virtually unprocurable, the South Grafton Wanderers wore green sloppy Joes and won all their games with players such as Ron Gill, Bruce and Val McLennan and Bert Mood.

Former South Grafton fiveeighth Frank Dreise returned from Sydney premiers Balmain and formed the great Royal Blues side, taking most of the Wanderers and playing inter-district sides at the Grafton Showground.

Despite losing their top 10 or 11 to The Royal Blues, South Grafton formed an extra team, returned to the traditional blood and bandages jumpers and played on Ellis Park adjacent to the Rushforth Road on the outskirts of town.

With the war over the Clarence River League in 1946 became an effective controlling body again and the touring Great Britain team captained by Gus Risman came to town to play the North Coast on the Grafton Showground.

Three Clarence players were in the North Coast side ? Ron Gill, Bruce McLennan and captain Frank Dreise ? but the Ashes-winning Brits easily prevailed 53-8.

The Ulmarra Ramblers in 1947 won the first of the revised local premierships and then South Grafton beat Grafton all Blacks for 1948, won again in 1949 and without loss led the 1950 chase until floods washed out any chance of playing the semi-finals or final.

The Grafton Showground was once again the venue when in 1954 the Brits played the Combined North and North Coast Division with 17-year-old Brian ? or 'Cappie' ? Graham, of South Grafton, the fullback and lone Clarence player in the home side, while one-time South Grafton centre Wally Sneddon was referee. Once again Great Britain were too strong, winning 44-14.

South Grafton were Clarence grand finalists in 1955, 1956, and 1958 but lost each time, in turn 25-0 to Glenreagh, 22-17 to All Blacks and 7-5 to All Blacks.

Captain coach, former Queensland fullback Athol Halpin, turned that around in 1959 in leading the Rebels to a 14-4 premiership win over United.

Starting warm favourites in the 1960 grand final South Grafton, led by Ted Purkiss, went down 11-8 to Orara Valley but Purkiss and the Rebels made amends in 1961 by beating Lower River 17-12.

In 1966 the three Clarence clubs, Lower Clarence, Grafton and South Grafton switched from Group Two to a RichmondClarence competition in Group One.

South Grafton made the semifinals in all three grades that year, the only one of the Clarence-based clubs to make it in any grade.

In the 38 complete seasons of the competition since, the Rebels have been first-grade semi-finalist 24 times, reserve grade 18 and Under-18s eight.

They have played in 11 firstgrade grand finals, winning two and amazingly only one of the 11 have been played on McKittrick Park, that in 1975 when the Rebels won first and reserve grades.

The first grade Rebels beat South Lismore 17-8 and the Rebels also won reserve grade by beating Ballina 20-14.

There have been no premierships since but the Rebels have contested another nine first-grade grand finals.

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