Rugby League: Newcastle hosts 1959-1960 Kangaroos tour reunion

You could have been forgiven for walking past this group of men and not knowing who they were.

Deep inside Wests Leagues Club on a Thursday afternoon, just casually sitting together with a drink in hand and not far from the bar.

But almost 60 years ago they were Australian rugby league representatives in the midst of a five-month, 37-game Kangaroos tour across Europe.  

TOGETHER: The 1959-1960 Kangaroos tour reunion in Newcastle on Thursday included rugby league Immortal Johnny Raper (sitting on right) and team of the century hooker Noel Kelly (sitting on left). Picture: Josh Callinan

TOGETHER: The 1959-1960 Kangaroos tour reunion in Newcastle on Thursday included rugby league Immortal Johnny Raper (sitting on right) and team of the century hooker Noel Kelly (sitting on left). Picture: Josh Callinan

And for the last quarter-of-a-century those who remain from that 1959-1960 squad – including Immortal Johnny Raper, hooker of the century Noel Kelly and Maitland-based winger Eddie Lumsden – gather annually somewhere for a reunion. The sidesteps may have long past but the strong bonds and lively banter continue. 

“We’re the only Kangaroos side who do it,” event organiser and former St George centre John Riley said.

“We look forward to it every year and try to take the caravan somewhere different each time.”

Townsville and the Gold Coast have been frequented previously but this week, for the first time, Newcastle was the meeting place. It’s still quite a long way from the original travels of young men to Italy, France and almost every corner of England.

“There were Queenslanders in that side who hadn’t been to Sydney, let alone London and all that sort of stuff,” uncompromising Western Suburbs Magpies legend Kelly said.

“And in 1959 it was 52 flying hours just to get there. We were all young guys and half of us had our first kid or our wives were pregnant. We were on about 11 quid a week and most of that money had to stay at home. You couldn’t buy an ice cream with that.”

It was a bygone era far removed from today’s professional game where players looked after their own green and gold jersey, rather than choosing what one to wear.

“We washed our own jumper, shorts, socks and our white dress shirts to wear out,” Lumsden, who crossed for eight tries on tour, said.

“It would be a matter of I’ll stretch yours if you help stretch mine. And then we’d hang them over the heaters at the pub. Quite often we were playing Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday.”

Novocastrian Clive Churchill was the non-playing coach while utility back Brian Carlson was the other Newcastle connection.

There were at least 11 players who went onto be named in Australia’s top 100, including Immortal Reg Gasnier and try-scoring record holder Ken Irvine. 

Keith Barnes and Rex Mossop were the captain and vice-captain respectively.

A tour-high crowd of 35,224 watched the first Test in Manchester on October 17. The Kangaroos won that fixture 22-14 but lost the Ashes 2-1 to Great Britain.

KANGAROOS TOURING SQUAD 1959-1960: Keith Barnes (c), Dud Beattie, Ron Boden, Tony Brown, Bob Bugden, Peter Burke, Brian Carlson, Brian Clay, Darrel Chapman, Bill Delamare, Reg Gasnier, Brian Hambly, Ken Irvine, Noel Kelly, Eddie Lumsden, Rex Mossop (vc), Barry Muir, Gary Parcell, Don Parish, Jim Paterson, Johnny Raper, Elton Rammussen, Johnny Riley, Ian Walsh, Harry Wells, Billy Wilson.