In December 1978, the 14th Kangaroos completed their two and a half month, 22 game, tour of Great Britain and France in Toulouse. The Frank Stanton led squad successfully retained The Ashes 2-1 against Great Britain, but hold the dubious distinction of being the last Australian team to lose against club opposition and suffer Test Match and Series defeats against France. Despite this there are many judges who rate this team the best of all Kangaroo Squads to leave our shores, one such judge is 1986 Parramatta Premiership Captain Ray Price.
In my books it was a magnificent Kangaroo side. The 1982 an 1986 squads may have gone through Britain and France undefeated, but I reckon the 1978 team would have beaten them both.
Ray Price – Perpetual Motion 1987
A member of both the 1978 and 1982 sides, Price was well placed to compare them but understood that his opinion might be disputed by most fans. So what was his explanation for those who disagreed? “Club football was stronger in England in 1978,” he wrote in Perpetual Motion. “Sure, we lost both Tests in France, through diabolical refereeing and because, with the Ashes won, we relaxed,” he explained. “Man for man, talent vs talent, the 1978 side was better.”
A quick look at the squad and its easy to see why Price, and those who agree with him, rate the ’78 Kangaroos so highly. Captained by the Immortal Bob Fulton, the team was stacked with all-time greats Michael Cronin, Steve Rogers and Max Krilich. All five in 1985 were named in Rugby League Week’s Masters side, selected by a team of experts as the best Kangaroo side from 1970-1985.
A three-time Manly Premiership player and two time Kangaroo Tourist, Bob Fulton was considered one of the greatest players of his time. Representing Australia 35 times, seven times as captain, he would be a member of three World Cup winning sides.
An incredibly versatile player, Fulton was a try scorer of rare proficiency. He would finish both his Kangaroo Tours as Australia’s leading Try Scorer and his career at Manly with club record for tries scored.
His status as an all-time great was recognised when he was named as one of the four original Immortals in 1985. He was inducted into the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2008 and named on the bench in the NRL Team of the Century in the same year. Many judges, including Roy Masters, believing his versatility counting against him when nominating starting positions.
As a Coach he would lead Manly to Premierships in 1987 and 1986 and the Kangaroos on successful tours of Great Britain and France in 1990 & 1994. As a result Fulton holds the rare distinction of winning Premierships and Ashes Series as player, captain and coach.
The inaugural, and to date only, player recognised by the Eels as a Champion of Parramatta in the club’s Hall of Fame, Cronin played in seven Grand Finals and won four premierships in his 216 game career in blue and gold. A two time Rothmans Medallist as the NSWRL’s Fairest and Best Player, upon his retirement after the Eels 1986 Premiership win, Cronin would hold the record for most points in a NSWRL Season, in NSRWL History and in Test Matches for the Kangaroos.
As good a picture as this paints of his greatness, it pales in comparison to the appraisal of him by Price, a team mate of Cronin in most if not all of his games at Parramatta. “Michael Cronin was the finest player I played with and I was fortunate never to have played against him. He was also the greatest person I played with.”
“He was one of the greatest goalkickers the game has ever seen, holding just about every point scoring record worth having, but he was just as great as a centre. There have been a lot of fine goal-kickers and a lot of fine players, but very few of them can claim to be regarded as greats on both counts.”
Described by fellow 1978 Kangaroo Tourists, Mick Cronin and Rod Reddy, as ‘the complete player’ Steve Rogers was one of the most stylish players to play the game. Despite his aesthetic attacking prowess he was one of the best defenders of his time. “His ability to wrap up a player ‘ball and all’ was his biggest asset. I can’t remember getting past him,” Cronin said of Rogers defensive abilities.
Price was effusive of Rogers combination with Cronin describing them as the country’s best centre pairing and right at their prime in 1978. A three time Kangaroo tourist, Rogers was also a member of the 1975 and 1977 World Cup winning sides in 22 appearances for his country. A 200 game player at his beloved Cronulla Sharks, Rogers would play in their 1973 and 1978 Grand Final defeats and would retire as the club’s greatest point scorer. Recognised as the best player in the NSWRL on two occasions as the 1978 Rothmans Medalist and the 1981 Dally M Award, he would also be inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame.
His ability was noticed early by representative selectors with Krilich earning City Seconds honours before cracking First Grade at Manly. Injury would curtail the career of Krilich who was not just the preeminent hooker of the late 70’s and 80’s but the leading captain too.
Captain of Manly in 1978 he led the team through the most gruelling Finals campaign any team had endured before or since. Needing to play six games in 16 days, as a result of a drawn Semi-Final and Grand Final, the Sea-Eagles Premiership win is arguably one of the most spectacular in Rugby League history.
In 13 Tests for Australia, he would captain the team on 10 occasions including all five Tests on the ‘Invincibles’ Kangaroo Tour of 1982. A two-time Sea Eagle Premiership player, his career was brought to a premature end as a result of neck injury in 1983.
This quartet weren’t the only ones to receive praise from Price in Perpetual Motion. “As well as our masters, there were Graham Eadie, a dynamic fullback who rates with Australia’s best and also at his prime on this tour, Craig Young, who played all five ’78 Tests and has probably never played better, Rod Reddy, who was certainly a better player in 1978 than in 1982, Tom Raudonikis, one of the toughest competitors to ever wear the green and god, and even a player like Larry Corowa, who didn’t play a test but in 1978 was probably the fastest and elusive winger we had ever seen.”
Just three members of the 28 man squad were Queensland based, 19-year-old Kerry Boustead, his Brisbane Easts team mate Rod Morris and Redcliffe halfback Greg Oliphant. Not surprisingly the largest contingent came from NSWRL Premiers Manly, who provided eight players including Krilich and Eadie. Parramatta had the next biggest with five including Price and Cronin. There were some surprises though, with the omission of Russell Gartner, a 1977 World Cup Winner and star for Manly in the 1978 Grand Final Replay. Premiership team mate John Harvey was also the subject of controversy when he declined the invitation to join the tour for personal reasons.
“It was pretty obvious why Frank Stanton was called Cranky Franky,” Ray Price wrote in Perpetual Motion. “On the ’78 Tour he ruled with an iron fist.” With his methods resulting in success at club, city/country and state level already in 1978 its understandable that it was his way or the highway in Britain and France.
Having won three premierships at Manly in five seasons, Reserve Grade in 1973 and First Grade in 1976 & 1978, its no surprise his players revered him. “The feeling he generated in that 1978 (Manly Premiership) side was unbelievable,” is how Bruce Walker, a member of Manly’s 1978 Premiership Team and a 1978 Kangaroo Tourist, remembered Stanton’s methods. “The guys were so together that there was no way we were going to lose.”
He didn’t always engender the same feeling from his players at international level though with his attempts at keeping them fit, united and hungry. “Plenty of Test players who come under him reckoned he did it in an impersonal way and in many ways he could be vindictive,” Price wrote but with a caveat. “As long as you trained hard and played hard and did the right thing under his many rules, he was alright.”
With an unbending regimen from the first day of the tour to the last, Stanton definitely ensured the players had every opportunity to train hard. Up at 7am every morning, the players would have a morning walk through their Leeds base before being put through their paces with two daily training sessions.
Given that he would lose just three of his 26 international matches in charge of the Kangaroos, it is hard to fault his methods. In 1982 he would become the first Australian Coach to lead a team on an undefeated tour of Britain and France. A hard man, he left his mark on the Kangaroos and on International Rugby League.
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