History of Brisbane Rugby League: The Great Norths Dynasty (1959 to 1969)

The 1960s were the decade of the North Devils. They won six titles in a row between 1959 and 1964 to rival St George’s dominance in the south.

They won again in 1966 and 1969 to claim eight premierships in 11 years and were also runners up in 1967 and 1970. There has never been a period of dominance like it in Brisbane club football. With 8 titles from 11 attempts and a further two grand finals, it was as close as anyone has got in top tier competition to matching the great St George side of the era.

For previous articles in this series, please see here.

In 1960 Redcliffe were admitted to the competition. They would become a financial powerhouse (if not always reflected by premierships) and formed a healthy rivalry with their fellow Baysiders, Wynnum-Manly. They established their big spending credentials early securing Wests international fullback Ken McCrohon for 1,000 pounds to lead the Dolphins in their first season.

While Norths dominated, two other traditionally strong clubs also found success. Valleys were Norths’ great rivals in the early part of the decade, going down to the Devils in three consecutive grand finals between 1960 and 1962.

Brothers emerged in the mid 1960’s going down to Norths in the 1964 and 1966 deciders, before finally defeating the champion side in the 1967 grand final, the first to see a crowd over 30,000. A whopping 36,000 turned out the following year to see the Brethren make it back to back titles.

By the end of the decade Valleys re-emerged, losing the decider to Norths in 1969 before dominating the league in the early 1970s.

It all started in 1959 when Norths pulled off an absolute coup. Australian captain-coach Clive Churchill was in dispute with South Sydney and the Devils swooped with a 1,000 pound offer.

This was sensational for the competition and nearly 10,000 fans turned up for the club’s first trial match. Churchill was gone to England on the Kangaroo tour by finals time but Norths surged on to take the title.

Wynnum enjoyed some success that year, finishing third and winning their first ever semi-final on the back of sensational new winger, 19-year-old Indigenous player Lionel Morgan. Norths and Brothers contested the decider, with Brothers making their sixth grand final appearance in a row.

However a hard campaign saw the Brethren forced to field a number of injured players and Norths took the match 24 to 18 after trailing 8 nil early on, to secure their first premiership since 1940.

Brothers subsequently sacked coach Bob Bax despite having appeared in six consecutive grand finals. In a move with long-lasting ramifications, Bax replaced Churchill as coach of Norths.

At this time, Brisbane still was not the undisputed centre of rugby league in QLD. North Queensland was in the middle of a strong era boasting state players like Jim Paterson, Elton Rasmussen and Bobby Banks. In a challenge match in 1959 North Queensland easily defeated Combined Brisbane by 36 points to 17.

1960 saw contrasting fortunes for the prior year’s grand finalists. Brothers dropped out of the finals entirely for the first time in seven years, while Norths went from strength to strength with their new coach, despite losing 13 players from their victorious 1959 squad.

The Devils started poorly winning only two from their first eight, but then went on a ten-game winning streak. They defeated Valleys 18 to 15 in the decider to claim back to back premierships, the first club to do so in over 30 years.

In 1961 Norths became the first team since Valleys in 1919 to win a premiership hat trick. They were challenged firstly by Redcliffe in only their second season. The Dolphins, led by star captain Ken McCrohon, finished the regular season in second position. However their lack of finals experience told and it was Valleys who lined up for their second successive grand final.

Norm Pope, the Diehards’ veteran fullback, brought Valleys from 14 to 7 down to defeat the Dolphins in the preliminary final with three second half try assists, this after being dropped to reserve grade midway through the season.

The planned design for the new stadium in the CBD of Townsville (Credit

It’s hard to believe, but at one point North Queensland rivalled Brisbane as a rugby league powerhouse in Queensland. (Credit: Queenslandgovernment)

In the grand final Norths ran away with the game 29 points to 5 after leading only 3 to 2 at half time, Their 21 year old winger Jimmy Sutton scored three tries to make it seven from his two finals appearances.

Sydney club Balmain toured Brisbane at season’s end and Norths thumped them 42 to 10 to enhance their reputation. 1961 also saw Brisbane win the Bulimba Cup for the first time since 1950, in a tight encounter against Toowoomba.

1962 was a repeat of the previous two years, a dominant Norths defeating Valleys comfortably in the decider to become the first club in Brisbane history to win four consecutive titles. The 22 to nil thrashing in the grand final left Valleys as the first team in 50 years to fail to score in a decider. Cult hero Fonda Metassa, ‘The Golden Greek’, scored two tries and powerful prop Jim Weier scored from a bullocking 50 metre run!

Norths made it five in a row in 1963, this time defeating Souths by 18 points to 8. Australian prop Henry Holloway joined Redcliffe as captain coach and helped the Dolphins to third place. Wynnum won their first 8 games after signing international five-eighth Johnny Gleeson from Toowoomba but faded and missed the finals once he left for the Kangaroo tour. The tour also dashed Wests’ hopes as they crashed out of the semi-finals without test stars Barry Muir and Ken Day.

Instead, Souths stepped up to challenge the champions and they produced a massive upset to belt Norths 23 to 3 in the major semi-final, with international fullback Frank Drake starring for the Magpies.

Norths bounced back to knock Redcliffe out of contention and then their forwards got over the Souths pack to win a tight grand final. Long term Captain and centre / five eighth Bill Pearson left for Bundaberg at the end of the season.

The Norths juggernaut kept rolling in 1964, although finally some cracks were starting to show. Valleys returned to form and won the minor premiership ahead of Brothers, with Norths relegated to third. But the Northsider’s big match experience prevailed in the finals.

Brothers met them in the grand final, with club legend Brian Davies returning for a final season after years at Canterbury and St George. Unfortunately Davies was injured in the major semi-final, which would not have helped The Brethren’s chances of an upset.

Norths nearly fell in the preliminary final, only winning 9 to 7 after Valleys captain Des Mannion missed four shots at goal. The winning try was scored by new recruit Elwyn Walters, who would end up at South Sydney. Then in a dour grand final, a single try scored by Norths’ Fonda Metassa was enough to seal a sixth consecutive title.

1965 is a year close to my heart. After only five years in the competition the mighty Redcliffe Dolphins won their first premiership. Included in their side was a talented youngster from Roma, Arthur Beetson and a speedy winger, Kevin Yow Yeh.

Of course, after winning their first premiership it was inevitable that the floodgates would open … but in fact that was the last title for Redcliffe for nearly 30 years, well after the BRL had lost its top tier status. I guess it’s some compensation that the Dolphins have won a further eight titles since then, with the next best in the post 1987 era being Wynnum and Burleigh with four each.

But back to 1965. Coach Henry Holloway switched young Arthur Beetson from the centres to the pack and in a season where the top four teams were very evenly matched, it was the Dolphins who emerged victorious. Brothers, led by test forward Peter ‘Pedro’ Gallagher, finally ended the Norths dynasty in the minor semi-final. Meanwhile Valleys advanced to another grand final with a tight win over Redcliffe despite trailing with only four minutes to go.

Redcliffe then turned on the class, with Kevin Yow Yeh scoring two tries in each of their preliminary final and grand final victories. The preliminary final win over Brothers with a man down for most of the second half was brave. The grand final victory was even better after they lost both starting props to injury during the week. In front of a record crowd of over 25,000 Redcliffe held Valley’s try-less to win 15 to 2.

The Dolphins’ success in 1965 was short-lived. Their two stars, Beetson and Yow Yeh were both snapped up by Balmain the following year. 1965 also saw three Brothers players taken by Wests in Sydney, while the QRL took rep players Ken Day and Mick Veivers to court to try and prevent their defection south, to no avail.

Norths returned to winner’s circle in 1966 but it took a mighty effort to defeat Brothers in the grand final. The Devils bolstered their stocks in the offseason, signing QLD representative Bob Duncan from Toowoomba plus others from Ipswich.

Just as Sydney’s rise damaged the BRL, the movement of funds towards the cities harmed country football. Brothers matched this offseason drive, nabbing test players Johnny Gleeson and Dennis Manteit from Toowoomba. That year, Gleeson captained Brisbane to victory over the touring British, their first since 1932.

Suncorp Stadium generic

Rugby league looks different in Brisbane in the modern era. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Norths advanced to the grand final in a close win over Brothers. One of those Ipswich imports, fullback Peter ‘The Boot’ Lobegeiger, kicked a 55 yard penalty goal to put Norths in front. The finals were all close affairs that year.

Valleys knocked defending premiers Redcliffe out in extra time and were then themselves defeated by Brothers by a single point, with the Valley’s winger pulled down 5 metres from the line as the full time siren sounded. In the grand final, Norths scored in the first five minutes and that was the only try as defence ruled the day, The Devils winning 9 to 6.

It was later alleged that coach Bax had issued instructions to his team to take out rival star five-eighth Johnny Gleeson, who was knocked unconscious by a late, high tackle in the 30th minute. It was a controversial match all round with two players sent off and a spectator attacking the referee before being hauled off by two of the players.

In 1967 Norths finally lost in a grand final, to their great rival Brothers. It coincided with the end of the unlimited tackle rule, which also ended the run of the great St George side in NSW. The QRL also continued to look at ways to prevent their best players heading south. Players representing QLD had to sign a contract to not take up a Sydney offer for 12 months.

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Coach Henry Holloway left Redcliffe for Valleys and brought the minor premiership to the Diehards. But finals specialists Norths and Brothers were too strong at the business end of the season. Norths advanced to the grand final over Valleys in a match where Norths winger Fonda Metassa scored the only try. Brothers joined them, leaving Valleys to go out in straight sets.

The grand final in front of over 30,000 was won by the Brethren 6 points to 2 with no tries scored. No quarter was given in a match described as “gripping” and “one of the hardest and closest grand finals in history”, with Brothers’ star number 6, Johnny Gleeson having 6 bottom teeth broken off by an opposing front rower but playing on.

Brothers went back-to-back in 1968 in a season overshadowed by controversy. Boasting two Australian representatives and a number of QLD players, the Brethren were in the midst of a strong period. They dominated a rising Easts side in the grand final winning 21 to 4.

But this was overshadowed by 25 test veteran, Wests’ halfback Barry Muir being ejected from the BRL competition. Firstly Muir took his team off the field in a game against Valleys after being set off, forfeiting the match. He was suspended for four weeks as a result.

In August Muir was dismissed again and this time spat on referee on his way off. This was beyond the pale and he was banned for 12 months and the Brisbane referees association further banned him from playing for life and coaching for five years in any match they officiated.

After serving his ban Muir returned to coaching in Brisbane. He later put some steel into an outgunned QLD team during the 1970s, coining the term Cockroaches for the men from the south.

In 1969 Norths closed out the decade and also their golden era with one final victory. The league was now a TV product with replays on Saturday and Sunday nights and in an early bit of brand awareness teams first adopted standardised nicknames and logos.

Norths recognised the importance of field goals in the limited tackle era, when they were still worth two points. They found an Australian Rules player, Barry Spring, who was signed for $200 after putting them over from everywhere in a pre-season training session.

The contract was written up on the back of a beer coaster! Field goals were the order of the season, including five in one game.

Wests returned to the finals with Australian second rowers Richie Twist and Ian Robson, while the champion Brothers side missed the finals. Valleys proved to be the surprise packets, but were shut out of the grand final by a dominant Norths forward pack led by Peter Hall.

Veteran Fonda Metassa scored a try in his fifth title with the Devils and his last game of football. With ‘The Golden Greek’ moving on the Norths era was finally over.

A Team of the Era (1959 to 1969) (finals appearances, grand finals, premierships)
Fullback:
– Peter “The Boot” Lobegeiger (Norths, Easts) (QLD 7 games) – 10,4,1. 1 try, 30 goals and 2 field goals in finals.

Three quarters:
– Fonda Metassa “The Golden Greek” (Norths) (QLD 13 games) – 18,6,5. 13 tries in finals. 2 tries in 1962 grand final, 2 tries 1964 minor semi-final and one in the grand final, 2 tries in 1968 minor semi-final, try in the 1969 grand final.
– Bill Pearson (Norths) (QLD 5 games) – 11,4,4. 1 try in finals. Captain 1960-1962.
– Mick Retchless (Valleys) – (QLD 3 games) 19,5,2. 11 tries and 2 field goals in finals. Captain 1969-1971 Man of the Match 1970 and 1971 grand finals.
– Henry Hegarty (Norths) – 16,6,5. 5 tries in finals. 2 tries in the 1961 grand final. Man of the Match 1966 grand final. Captain 1968. Came down from Cherbourg to play with Valleys but they didn’t pick him up from the train so he went home. Came down for Norths the next year and lived with Bob Bax’s mother. Played in 5 out of North’s 6 straight premierships.

Halves:
– Johnny “Swivel Hips” Gleeson (Brothers) (10 tests, QLD 20 games) – 8,3,2. 1 try in finals. Went on two Kangaroo Tours and only ever lost a single test match. In 1966 captained Brisbane to their first win over Great Britain in over 30 years.
– Ross Threlfo (Valleys) – 21,5,2. 3 tries in finals. Captain 1965. BRL Best and fairest in 1965, tied with Arthur Beetson. They shared 50 pounds.

Forwards:
– Peter “Pedro” Gallagher (Brothers) (ARL Hall of Fame, 17 tests, QLD 12 games) – 17,6,2. 2 tries in finals. Captain 1964-1967. Captained Australia in 1 test and went on two Kangaroo Tours.
– Les “Bowser” Geeves (Norths, Easts) (QLD 4 games) – Hooker. 17,6,4. Captain 1966-1969. Man of the Match 1966 grand final. Later became a QLD and Australian selector.
– Lloyd Weier “The Kilkivan Colossus” (Norths) (3 tests, QLD 1 game) – 9,3,3. 1 try in finals. Man of the Match 1962 grand final.
– Arthur Beetson (Redcliffe) (Immortal, ARL and QRL Team of the Century, ARL Hall of Fame, 29 tests, QLD 3 games, NSW 17 games) – 6,2,1. Captain 1981.
– Dennis Manteit (Brothers) (4 tests, QLD 15 games) – Forward. 8,3,2. Man of the Match 1967 grand final. 1967/68 Kangaroo Tourist.
– Ian Massie (Norths) (QLD 5 games) – 13,5,4. 6 tries in finals. Man of the Match and 2 tries in 1963 grand final.

Reserves:
– Bob Poulsen (Norths) (Brisbane rep) – Forward. 9,4,4. 2 tries and 1 goal in finals. Man of the Match 1959 grand final.
– Des “Big Red” Mannion (Valleys) – Forward/Half. 20,4,0. 2 tries, 12 goals and 2 field goals. Captain 1967-1968. Played for QLD schoolboys in cricket but chose rugby league. Another player described him as “He was just a complete footballer he played lock as well as five-eighth, he could kick the ball, had a great step and wonderful timing with his passes.”
– John Bates (Norths) (QLD 1 game) – 13,4,4. 4 tries in finals. Man of the Match 1961 grand final.
– Wayne Abdy (Brothers) (QLD 3 games) – Lock. 8,1,1. 2 tries and Man of the Match in 1968 grand final. Considered one of the fastest forwards in the game and scored a try in Brisbane’s famous 1966 victory over Great Britain.

Other notables: Clive Churchill (Norths), John Wittenberg (Wynnum), Lionel Morgan (Wynnum), Ken McCrohon (Redcliffe), Henry Holloway (Redcliffe), Frank Drake (Souths), Elwyn Walters (Norths).