Wednesday, 26 October 2011

From Millionaires to Fibros

The last two great eras in the history of the Western Suburbs Magpies club were built on two contrasting foundations.  The image and ethos of big-spending Wests’ star-studded ‘Millionaires’ side of the late-1950s and early-1960s was poles apart from the rough-and-tumble, working-class ‘Fibros’ team of the late-1970s and early-1980s which, ironically, had many of its best players poached by rival clubs.

After winning the 1952 premiership, the Magpies wallowed in the competition cellar for three years, collecting the wooden spoon in 1953 and 1955.  But the club embarked on an aggressive recruitment drive to climb the ladder again in 1956.  With abundant revenue from a newly-purchased leagues club, Wests lured all-time greats Kel O’Shea and Harry Wells from Queensland and Wollongong respectively, and fellow Test representatives Darcy Henry and Ian Johnstone from NSW country centres.  

The tactic paid immediate dividends: the Magpies returned to the finals in 1956 after beating Newtown in a playoff for fourth place, before claiming outright fourth spot in 1957.  Eliminated by Souths in each season, Wests finished second in the minor premiership in 1958 and hammered the mighty St. George Dragons in the major semi to advance to the grand final.  The Magpies were overwhelmed 20-9 in the decider as the Dragons claimed their third consecutive title, but the black-and-whites had asserted themselves as a premiership heavyweight.  Wests had acquired the services of former Test centre Rees Duncan and Dapto teenager Peter Dimond in 1958, with the bulldozing winger making his Test debut in his first year with the club. 

The Magpies finished second in the 1959-60 regular seasons, but were beaten in consecutive preliminary finals by Manly and Easts respectively, while the club’s big-spending ways continued unabated.  Criticised for inflating player payments and inciting bidding wars for players throughout the Sydney premiership and beyond, the Magpies nonetheless signed Test three-quarters Dick Poole and Ian Moir for the 1959 season.  Former Wallaby half Arthur Summons joined the club in 1960, while Test fullback Don Parish and Team of the Century hooker Noel Kelly followed suit in 1961. 

Wests claimed the fourth minor premiership in club history in 1961, but were beaten 9-4 by St. George in the major semi and swamped 22-0 by the dominant Dragons in the grand final.  After finishing third in 1962, the Magpies defeated Balmain and Parramatta to advance to another grand final against St. George, where they were narrowly beaten 9-6 in a tense decider.  But Wests came even closer to ending the Dragons’ run in 1963.  After beating St. George three times during the season, including a 10-8 victory in the major semi, Wests went down 8-3 in one of the most controversial grand finals of all time.  Rumours of referee Darcy Lawler placing a large wager on the Dragons have shrouded the ‘Mudbath’ grand final ever since, with two contentious calls singled out by proponents of rort claims.  Peter Dimond was denied a seemingly fair try, while St. George winger Johnny King leapt up and ran in for a try after Wests players vehemently asserted they had heard Lawler call for King to play the ball 20 metres further back.

It was the end of a golden period for the club.  Despite retaining 1963 Kangaroos Dimond, Kelly and captain Summons, the Magpies finished seventh out of ten teams in 1964 and did not return to the finals for another decade.  The steady flow of Test players and up-and-coming stars the club managed to recruit had dried up, and Wests returned to also-ran status.

The Magpies began to build a formidable line-up again in the mid-1970s, led by tenacious halfback Tom Raudonikis, who captained Australia in the Ashes-deciding third Test on the 1973 Kangaroo Tour amongst 29 Test appearances.  Future Test players John Dorahy and Les Boyd linked with the club in the mid-1970s, while cult hero forward John Donnelly joined from Gunnedah in 1975 and represented Australia in his first season in Sydney.  The unfancied Magpies made the finals in 1974, but the arrival of coach Roy Masters in 1978 saw the club reach – and arguably exceed – its potential.

Tapping into the working-class psyche of his Wests team, Masters developed an ‘us-against-them’ mentality within the side which corresponded with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of play.  Wests’ adoption of the ‘Fibros’ moniker during this period was down to puppeteer Masters.  It was a reference to the Fibro (short for Fibrous Asbestos Cement) sheets that were a popular building material at the time, particularly for inexpensive housing in working-class areas – such as Sydney’s Western Suburbs.  Masters stirred his players up before a pre-season match against Manly’s ‘Silvertails,’ as he called them, a wealthy club based near Sydney’s northern beaches. 

The promotional match, staged in Melbourne, erupted into a series of wild brawls and a bitter feud was born.  The ‘Fibros’ vs. ‘Silvertails’ fixtures over the next few seasons were some of the premiership’s most brutal and ferociously contested clashes.  Another tactic employed by Masters involved his players firing themselves up by engaging in vigorous face-slapping sessions with each other in the changing rooms before matches.  The novel method attracted controversy when it was aired as part of documentary on top-rating current affairs program 60 Minutes.

On the back of this passion and fire, Wests won the minor premiership in 1978 after posting a club record 16 regular season victories.  But the Magpies were rolled 14-10 by the Sharks in the major semi and went down 14-7 to arch-nemesis Manly in an explosive preliminary final.  Wests finished fourth in 1979 but were eliminated by Canterbury on the first weekend of the finals, after which rival clubs pillaged the Magpies’ playing stocks.  Test stars John Dorahy and Les Boyd, along with NSW hooker Ray Brown (a non-playing reserve for Australia in the 1979 Ashes series), signed with Manly, exacerbating the ill feeling between the two clubs.  The cash-strapped Magpies also watched club legend Tom Raudonikis and future NSW Origin rep Graeme O’Grady depart to play for Newtown.

Undeterred, Masters found a new batch of players to enforce his fire-and-brimstone approach.  John Ribot joined from the Jets and was transformed from a hard-working lock into one of the game’s most damaging wingers; Jim Leis was the inaugural Dally M Rookie of the Year in 1980 and represented Australia, while Terry Lamb was another eye-catching newcomer; and ‘Lord’ Ted Goodwin, a former international and superstar St. George fullback, enjoyed a late-career renaissance as a forward with Wests.

Masters was named Dally M Coach of the Year for his efforts in taking his new-look Wests side to within one victory of the 1980 minor premiership.  After a dogged campaign, the Magpies were eventually eliminated in the preliminary final by Easts.  But the club’s strongarm tactics came into conflict with the NSWRL’s efforts to clean up the game in the early-1980s.  ‘Dallas’ Donnelly was slapped with a 14-match ban against the Sea Eagles in the first match of 1981, and Wests finished sixth to miss the finals for the first time since Masters took over as coach.

Terry Fearnley, who took Parramatta to consecutive grand finals in 1976-77, replaced the St. George-bound Masters in 1982.  Discipline still proved a problem, however, with Bob Cooper receiving an unprecedented 15-month suspension for his role in a vicious brawl in a match against Illawarra.  Against the odds, Fearnley guided the Magpies to the finals in 1982, but the coach and several key players departed at the end of the season as the club’s financial situation deteriorated.  Wests’ exhilarating ‘Fibro’ era had abruptly come to a close and the Magpies finished last under coach Len Stacker in 1983. 

The club was excluded from the 1984 premiership along with Newtown, but was reinstated following a court appeal.  The remainder of the 1980s offered few highlights for the Magpies, before they enjoyed a brief comeback with consecutive finals appearance in 1991-92 with shrewd coach Warren Ryan at the helm and a host of former Bulldogs players, including internationals David Gillespie, Paul Langmack and Andrew Farrar, in great form.  Raudonikis returned to coach the club in its last five seasons, taking Wests to the 1996 finals, but standing alone in a 14-team NRL competition was not a viable option and the Magpies entered a merger with Balmain in 2000 after collecting consecutive wooden spoons in 1998-99.

The Magpies, who retain a direct presence with a side in the NSW Cup, maintained a solid identity within the Wests Tigers joint venture and rejoiced in the club’s 2005 premiership triumph.  The rich history of each club is celebrated and remembered, including those talented and colourful teams of yesteryear with contradicting cultures – ‘The Millionaires’ and ‘The Fibros.’

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