Last weekend, when driving around a sharp bend (that overlooks one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful ocean views anywhere in the world), I remembered an incident that happened on that very spot over forty years earlier. On that day, my best mate demonstrated that he would not put up with bullying or bullshit from anyone. He bloody nearly got himself (and me) killed, but trifles like that were of no concern to him. When an authoritarian, loud-mouthed, opinionated, and big-fisted thug was looking for trouble my friend was just the type who would be happy to provide it! There were dozens of examples of my mate drawing a line in the sand against bullies both before and after this incident but this confrontation on the NSW far North Coast was the most dramatic. It was this incident that, more than any other, presaged his future career as one of Australia’s best journalists – a journalist who’s steely, bulldog-like resolve prevented public figures and politicians from taking liberties with the truth as he saw it. This grittiness… this toughness… this moral forthrightness… mixed with a bucket-load of guts has been a mark of my friends sporting, personal and professional life for the whole time I have known him.
We were eighteen… a bunch of kids, just out of school, in a couple of cars with surfboards strapped to the roofs, taking a camping, and driving tour of the beaches of Northern NSW. My mate (let’s for the sake of anonymity call him Bill… good journalists hate being placed at the centre of a story) pulled his tan Mazda 1500 over to the side of the road on the bendy track leading down to Wategos Beach so that we could check out the surf from above the bay. We had only been there for a few moments when a police van pulled up behind the little Mazda and out hopped the world’s biggest and meanest looking police sergeant. I don’t remember the exact words, but the sergeant (who we later found out was regularly discussed in Tracks Magazine as one of the most dangerous uniformed characters in NSW) boomed out something along the lines of “Move your car… now!”
My friend strolled over to the giant, looked him squarely in the eye, and responded with something along the lines of “We weren’t doing anything wrong… there is no need to be rude.”
No mate, I thought. This is not the kind of bloke who will take kindly to lessons on good manners from teenagers… especially not teenagers from out of town.
As Bill continued to glare directly into the cop’s eyes, the sergeant put one massive paw on my friend’s shoulder then planted his other fist, full power, into the insolent youth’s stomach.
Despite the wind being knocked out of him, my mate refused to buckle. He continued to stand upright and maintained his eyeball-to-eyeball contact with the cop.
Thank god Bill had the good sense to not take a swing at the sergeant. If he had, we may not be around today to tell the story.
The sergeant then smirked and hissed in a threatening tone, “Now get out of here, you hippy bastards… and if I see you again in town I’ll throw you into the lock up.”
We said nothing. We got in our cars and moved on.
Full throttle. Straight ahead. No compromise. No self-preservation.
While Bill was handy with his fists, boxing was not his primary sporting interest. Like me, my mate liked rugby. We had both played the game at reasonably competitive levels at different private schools famous for their rugby teams. After high school, the first step on the path to serious club rugby was the NSW Colts competition. Both Bill and I were ambivalent about playing “grade,” so we opted to suit up for the local sub-district (more social) Balgowlah Wombats team. While less serious, the Wombats were a good team. Along with a few youngsters like Bill and I, the rest of the team were made up of ex first, second and third grade rugby players, a few Rugby League A graders, a couple of Rugby League Sydney competition ex first and second graders and even one former Wallaby. We didn’t lose often… if ever. The coach of the Manly Colts first grade team, back then, was a renowned hard nut by the name of Barry “Tizza” Taylor. In his playing life, Barry had had more concussions than he had had hot dinners. That was the way “Tizza” like to play the game. Full throttle. Straight ahead. No compromise. No self-preservation. Concussions, for Barry, were a part of the way the game should be played. Because Barry’s colts boys were pretty unbeatable… and so were the Balgowlah Brown Wombats, Taylor liked to organize practice games between us and his super kids from time to time.
In truth, I didn’t like those games much. As a mouthy little hooker I loved to get out in the open, accept a little inside pass when running an angle off the fly half then take a gallop down field. This worked a treat in the sub-district competition. It didn’t work at all against “Tizza’s” Manly Colts. The moment I would take possession of the ball I would be smashed within an inch of my life by one of Taylor’s rangy but brutal back rowers. “Tizza” just loved rangy, loping, brutal back rowers who had no interest in self-preservation. Unlike me, Bill loved those games against the Colts. That’s because Bill played the game just like the Colts played it. Hard. No compromise.
Surprise, surprise. “Tizza” Taylor loved Bill. “Tizza” would have loved to have been able to talk my mate into giving up his ugly brown jumper for a beautiful blue Manly Colts jumper but Bill would have none of it. He was focused on a serious career and serious footy had no place in his dreams. It used to really piss me off. How come “Tizza” is always on about my good mate, I would whinge to myself. I can play too! Why doesn’t he want me? But in my heart, I knew why “Tizza” didn’t give a rat’s arse about me. I didn’t have that “couldn’t kill him with a cricket bat” mongrel. Bill did.
They thought that we were sissy silvertails
It’s typical of Bill’s approach to sport that, despite his willingness to mix it, he occasionally bit off more than he could chew. I remember one game where he bloody nearly got himself into even bigger strife than he did with Byron Bay’s police sergeant. We were playing against the one team in the competition that always gave us a run for our money. The Lidcombe Rugby Club used to practice on the same oval as the Western Suburbs Magpies Rugby League team and they played matches against the Balgowlah Browns with pretty much the same vigour (and venom) that their Magpie mates used to bring to games against the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. They thought that we were sissy silvertails and that we would succumb to a bit of the old biff. I guess they were pretty right because, despite out team being, player-for-player, way better than they were, every time the brawling started, we stopped playing good footy and they would hit their stride. We still, usually, managed to beat them, but against Lidcombe, it was always close.
Part way through one particularly nasty Lidcombe versus Balgowlah game one of the many brawls in the match erupted near the sideline. The stoush just didn’t let up… and was threatening to involve the supporters from both teams as well as the players on the field. One particularly enormous Lidcombe supporter bellowed encouragement to his mates to beat the crap out of the Balgowlah pea-hearts. Of course, such disrespectful encouragements to violence were like a red-rag-to-a-bull to my good mate. Bill is a big guy.
At eighteen he was not as stocky as he is now, but he was not insubstantial. That being said, the loud-mouth on the sideline would have been 18 stone and 6’4. Bill was maybe 6’2 and not much more than 13 stone dripping wet. Bill slowly and deliberately wandered over to the sideline, looked the big bloke up and down and advised him that “If he wasn’t such a pansy he would be on the field playing and not sitting on the sideline.” Note: He could have called him a “sissy” or a “pussy” or a “woos” rather than a “pansy”. I’m buggered if I remember. It was forty years ago!
The big bloke was unimpressed. I swear, you could see smoke coming out of the massive Lidcombe supporter’s ears. He started to lumber towards Bill but, just in time, two or three of the Lidcombe supporters grabbed the big fella in a wrestling hold while one yelled at the top of his voice, “No, mate… don’t do it. You’ll get arrested if you hurt him.”
The furious bloke took their word for it… and realizing that his mates would not let him go, decided to settle down. The referee then managed to convince everyone that it would be best if we all got back to the game.
It wasn’t until after the game that Bill discovered that he had tried to pick a fight with the Western Suburbs Magpies (and the Australian Kangaroos) number one enforcer of the time. If things had gone badly for Bill, he may well have ended up in a sorry state.
Basketball, to him, was something you did when there were no rugby games on.
Around the same time, my mate was also playing rugby for his Sydney University college. He fondly remembers the moment, in an inter-college match, that one of Australia’s future Prime Ministers walked over his back on the bottom of a ruck. I wonder if that Prime Minister ever knew that the bloke sitting across the table from him politely, but firmly, walking all over him in an interview had met with him in battle on the sports field?
Other than rugby, Bill was a handy basketballer, too. He only played lower grade hoops at high school because… well, because he was kinda forced into the game. It wasn’t his sporting love. Bill spent a lot of time at my place as a youngster, and the rule was that if you came to visit Radio Ave, you had to learn to play hoops. No back yard cricket was ever played at our place. It was always back yard basketball. Bill could have been a first-rate power forward. No doubt. With his willingness to bang bodies, his agility for a big dude, and his determination to never take a backward step he would have been a beast on the “low block” or “in the paint” if he had been interested enough to practice the game but basketball, to him, was something you did when there were no rugby games on.
Bill’s athletic aggression had nothing to do with his trying to prove to the world that he was a hard man. My own personal nemesis, in junior rugby, once beat me to a pulp after a game for having the hide to take too many tight heads from his team’s scrum. My fisticuffs skills weren’t great, and I was an easy target for an opponent who was fond of a blue. A few weeks later, in the competition grand final, the same bloke took the opportunity to belt me a few times throughout the game just so that I would be clear on what might happen if I won too many scrums. I had no idea that Bill had noticed. Mid-way through the second half the “tough guy” made the mistake of taking the ball under his arm and rushing straight at Bill. Big mistake. Bill hit him in the chest with his shoulder so hard that you could hear groans of horror from parents on the side lines. As the bloke went down in a crumpled heap I heard Bill growl under his breath, “how do you like that, you dirty bastard!” Bill’s aggression was always about justice rather than about personal status. The same still applies in his work!
My mate, the ever polite but “don’t even think about messing with me or bullshitting to me” interviewer, hasn’t played rugby, or even basketball, for a long time. He still loves rugby… but now he is a watcher and an amateur analyst. These days he walks a lot and has the occasional hit of tennis. Of course, tennis is way more genteel than rugby. John McEnroe is lucky that, in his prime, he didn’t come up against opponents like Bill. There were people in tennis like Borg who could bore you to sleep, Connors who could annoy you until your blood boiled and Nastase who could rant loud enough to wake the dead but there were very few genuine “don’t mess with me” hard men (…well, maybe with the exceptions of Dale Collings and Mark Edmondson). Bill would have found a way to stop McEnroe’s petulant raving. He would have. Even if Mac had had the help of a referee and body guards my mate would have sorted him out. It is not in Bill’s nature to stand idly by while an idiot behaves badly.
I’m glad that my mate took up a profession where he got to challenge people (in authority) who care more about their positions and their power than they do about serving and being truthful. I’m not only glad for it, but I am also grateful for it! His willingness to stand his ground against bullies and hard nuts while maintaining an air of calm and respectfulness has always filled me with admiration. I would never have had the guts or the talent to pull it off.
If you like watching my mate Bill doing what he does as a journalist I can tell you that, just like “Tizza” Taylor, you would have liked watching him play sport as well. A bloke who stands for no nonsense and who refuses to let ratbags get away with being ratbags is not only a great athlete to watch but also a godsend to have on your team. He’s also the kind of person you would want as a friend.