Updated: Dec 10, 2020
‘The King’ had made his reappearance to the world stage, and Elvis’ "If I Can Dream" was in Australia’s Top 25 during the 1969 Grand Final period. I can imagine the Balmain Tigers wondering similar thoughts, ‘If I can dream... we will be holding the premiership come September.’ Their dreams came true, and one of Balmain's players put his money where he mouth was.
Bob 'Bobby' Grant (pictured) and Harold 'Hal' Browne were childhood friends and their mateship had spanned decades. Their friendship had developed as they grew through the league ranks and improved their skills within the Balmain Juniors.
By the late 60s, they were now in competing teams. Bobby had left Balmain and was now proudly wearing cardinal and myrtle as a Rabbitoh, Hal on the other hand was still a Tiger.
In the same period, there was a journalist for The Daily Mirror, a man by the name of Ken Laws who would write the sporting articles for the paper, but who was also a keen Tigers supporter. A challenge was put forward, between the Hal and Ken, a friendly wager for about 200 dollars ($1400 AUD in 2020).
Ken Laws had approached Hal earlier during the 1969 season and said, "I bet you 200 bucks that you won't get on to the cricket ground on Grand Final day." "Deal", replied Hal.
On the outset, the bet looked like it was a guaranteed done deal. The Balmain Tigers had entered that season having lost in the previous '56, '64 and '66 Grand Finals to St George, who had clocked an eleventh straight trophy for the cabinet. Keith 'Golden Boots' Barnes, the fullback for Balmain, had decided to hang up his boots at the end of the 67 season, but the Tigers had fallen apart. Injuries had them losing game after game with a depleted side. Barnesy took the boots out of the cupboard, slipped those socks on, and with laces tied, he made a reapparance for the Tigers during the 68 season. This helped build the confidence, strength and tactics of the tiger team.
The 1969 season started off well at the gates, with a win against the Rabbitohs at the Sports Ground, and clocked a 16 to 7 win. Hal Browne even scored a tremendous try (picture). This win sparked a five game streak before falling to Canterbury in round six. They then dusted off their jerseys and came back to win another five games in a row. Unfortunately, during this period, Hal Browne suffered a shoulder injury. However, he couldn't back out of his bet with the journalist, so he tried to get himself as fit as possible so that he could make it to the field on game day, plus missing a Grand Final would be tragic in itself for any player.
Hal recalls, "Sadly, I was hurt and could not play and looked like losing the bet." Hal had injured his shoulder, and up until the Grand Final date, he was trying to get himself fit, but his shoulder wouldn't heal fast enough.
Game day arrived. It was 20 September 1969. The Sydney Cricket Ground provided a deafening roar from a crowd of 58825 people, clothed in stripes of orange and black, and bands of cardinal and myrtle. Flags caught in the wind, swayed from side to side, as smiles ignited on the faces of children and adults. They stood and witnessed the players running out in their confident strides. South Sydney's 'Marching Girls' with red pom poms danced across the field, enthusiastically. Cheers from fans increased decibels as the 'largest rabbit' (mascot) graced the grass, by hopping into the stadium. Balmain's marching girls praised their tiger mascot, who waved to passers-by.
Prior to the game commencing, the teams were spread out and warming up. Feeling chuffed, Ken Laws was watching from the side lines knowing that Hal wasn't picked in the team line up and he was no where to be seen, so he must have won the bet.
Ken was thinking, "I've got this parcelled up."
Bobby Grant was warming up on the field, and strangely, he noticed the Tiger mascot jogging over to him, the tiger looks confident in his pounce, and trying to speak to an unassuming Bobby. "What are you doing? Go away!", exclaimed Bobby. The tiger lifted its head and it was Hal Browne.
What had happened was, prior to the game commencing, Kevin Humphries (Balmain Club Secretary) had met Hal in the dressing sheds and asked him to do him a favour. Kevin took Hal to the back of the dressing sheds room.
Hal recalls, "Kevin asked me to wear this tiger suit that he had. I said, 'Are you stupid?' and I walked back into the other room. He told me, 'we would be the only two that would know', then I remembered the bet."
After the game, Ken approached Hal and said, "Pay up mate!" Hal replied, "I was out there, I was in the tiger suit."
Hal had ticked off every objective: He made it to a Grand Final, he was on the oval, and the Tigers took home the victory.
Against all odds, everything in the 1969 season came together perfectly and Hal had won the bet, and pocketed the cash, much to Ken's dismay.
The game itself shocked the confident and table hopping Rabbitohs. As we are aware, Tigers have large pads upon their feet which allow the mighty predatory cat to sneak softly and silently upon its prey, resulting in a quick and successful result. The same thing happened during the 1969 Grand Final game itself, and the Rabbitohs were unaware that they would be pounced upon by the underdog side. At this point, the Rabbitohs were favourites to win, having just won the last two Premierships in a row. The Grand Final is referred to as the ‘Laydown Grand Final’ due to the questionable tactics used by Balmain, as described by Rabbitohs fan and players.
Ron Coote (Rabbitohs Lock) described this tactic as,
"It was almost like cheating I suppose, but it was quite legal in those days. The refs stopped play every time someone was 'hurt'. Lurch [John O'Neill] got so frustrated with their tactics he started trying to haul Balmain blokes to their feet as they went down."
With a scoreboard of 9-0, Balmain started to ‘play injured’ every time that it appeared that the Rabbitohs were building rhythm.
Hal Browne recalled Nosa (Leo Nosworthy: Tiger Coach) stating at the training night prior to the final, “This is what we’re going to do — every time they [Rabbitohs] get a roll-on, one of you go down hurt. I don’t care who it is, just go down hurt on the ground. We’ve got to play them at our pace, not at their pace.”
The 1969 Premiership saw the last time the Balmain Tigers would win a premiership. Their next premiership wouldn't be until the Balmain Tigers merged with the Western Suburbs Magpies, which occurred in 2000. It would only take another five seasons to add a Premiership trophy to their collection.
In 1911, an eight year old child coined it perfectly when he wrote a story called 'The Tiger":
"The tiger has large padded feet so that he can steal softly upon his prey...The tiger is like the Balmain footballers, because he has black and yellow stripes. He is very wild, but not so wild as the Balmain footballers."
I think that quote describes that you should never write off a team just because their previous season didn't go too well. The tigers held on to their spirit, motivation and drive and that is evident from by their success.
Hal Browne also held on to that same TIGER determination, and the 200 bucks in his back pocket was evident of that. That was before he celebrated the Grand Final in style!
May you enjoy these stories, laugh a little, and reflect on times gone by. If I can recommend anything, ask a friend to hear theirs, if not – I will. If you have a yarn to share, please email me via my 'Contact Me' page, and I would love to hear them.