With the tour delayed, as a result of Manly and Cronulla needing a Grand Final Replay to decide the NSWRL Premiership, the Kangaroos hit the ground running upon arrival in Britain. After opening their tour with a 39-1 win over Blackpool Borough, they recorded comfortable victories over Cumbria, Great Britain U/24’s, and defending English premiers Bradford Northern, before taking the field against Warrington for their fifth encounter in just 12 days.
The Warrington born Bob Fulton led a relatively strong Australian team out in front of a packed house at Wilderspool for their mid-week match with ‘The Wire’. Despite their packed program to start the tour there was no hint of it, or the drama to follow, when the Kangaroos jumped out to an early 10-2 lead after tries to Raudonikis and Gerard.
Goal Kicker Steve Hesford kept Warrington in the game with six goals, and with the Australian’s unable to build on their early dominance the large crowd began to sense an upset in the making. With the 10,000 strong crowd making their presence felt, the game headed towards a famous and controversial finish
Two decisions from referee Joe Jackson so incensed the Australians that they refused to shake hands at the conclusion of the match. Firstly Jackson ordered Balmain’s Alan McMahon from the field for allegedly biting Billy Benyon, before awarding a late try to Alan Gwilliam in the games’ final moments. The Kangaroos protestations would matter little at the final siren with Warrington left to celebrate a famous victory.
After their shock loss to Warrington, the Australians made six changes to the side for a Sunday Afternoon Non-Test International with Wales. Challenged all the way, tries from Bob Fulton and Tommy Raudonikis were enough to see the tourists home 8-3 but injury brought a premature end to Vice Captain Greg Pierce’s tour. A quick turn around saw them grace Headingly for the first time on the tour, where they recorded a 25-19 victory in their last warm up game before the first Test against Great Britain.
First Test v Great Britain – Central Park, Wigan.
Australia confronted a Great Britain team led by veteran five-eighth Roger Millward. Despite his advanced years, Ray Price was full of admiration for the British skipper in Perpetual Motion. “In 1978 Roger Millward was still skipper,” Price wrote. “Although he had been in Test football for a decade he was still a smart, hard-to-catch little bugger.”
Price and his fellow forwards were faced with a physical challenge from a forward pack containing the likes of Steve Norton, Brian Lockwood, Phil Lowe, Len Casey, George Nicholls and Jim Mills. Players Price described as “typically Pommie tough-men”. While suggesting they might have lacked for speed or fitness, Price explained that they stuck with what they were good at. “They took us on in tight and tried to let the ball and their fists do the damage,” he wrote.
Despite the Brits best efforts, the Kangaroos pack got the points in the First Test with Rod Reddy especially strong, earning Man of the Match honours. Bob Fulton and Kerry Boustead took advantage of the forwards platform to score tries, and Mick Cronin’s four goals were enough to see Australia claim a 15-9 win and a 1-0 Ashes series lead. For Fulton, who would finish the campaign as the Kangaroos leading Try-Scorer, this would be his only Test Match four pointer of the tour.
Celebrations of their go-ahead victory in the Ashes were interrupted when the team was required to travel to Naughton Park four days later, to square off against English Champions Widnes. The Chemics, in the middle of what would be a two-year undefeated stretch at home, were primed for the challenge and took it right up to the Mick Cronin led Australian team.
In front of 12,202 fans, Widnes led 7-2 at half-time and for the second time in a fortnight, the Kangaroos were staring down the barrel of defeat at the hands of club opposition. Second Half Tries to Ian Schubert and Bruce Walker gave the tourists hope of a get out of jail victory but, despite having scored two tries to one, they were undone by the boot of Mick Burke who saw the Chemics home 11-10. Despite this two week period in 1978 seeing the Kangaroos lower their colours twice to club teams, as at 2018, it is yet to occur again.
— Jim Mills (@millsjim44) October 25, 2018
Second Test v Great Britain – Odsal Stadium, Bradford.
Hull and Salford posed little trouble for the Australians on their way to a potential Ashes clinching contest at Odsal Stadium in Bradford. With 26,000 fans in attendance, it would be no easy feat for the Kangaroos to overcome a British side stung by criticism directed their way after their First Test defeat.
Despite losing captain Roger Millward to injury, the Brits took the game head on and in a physical contest kept the series alive with an 18-14 win. Ray Price scored a try late in the contest to keep Australian hopes alive but acknowledged the efforts of the victors. “The Poms played well in a really tough match,” he wrote in 1987 but felt other factors had an equal influence on the result. “As usual the Pommy referee, in this case Mick Naughton, gave the home team every chance,” Price opinioned.
“Compared to Tests these days,” Price wrote, “it was a pretty spiteful series.” It was perhaps the officials treatment of a few unsavoury incidents that raised Price’s hackles. “I got headbutted by Jim Mills, there were a few brawls and Graham Olling was put out for weeks when he was kneed in the back.” Mills was extremely lucky when he remained on the field after another, more obvious, headbutt delivered to First Test man of the match Rod Reddy.
Third Test v Great Britain – Headingly, Leeds.
Rocked by their third defeat of the tour, the Kangaroos came out breathing fire in their next three matches racking up 83 points and conceding just eight in victories over Wigan, St Helens and York. With confidence full restored they were set for their Ashes deciding Test in Leeds.
Despite just making two changes to the team that suffered defeat in the Second Test, it was a completely different Kangaroos team in the Third Test. The biggest crowd of the entire campaign was on hand to see a ruthless and comprehensive performance from the tourists. The game was all but over at half time, after tries to Boyd, Gerard and Peponis saw the sides separated by 17 points at half time.
The Brits would score two tries in the second half, but the 23-6 scoreline flattered the home team. It would prove a portent of what was to come in subsequent years with the Australians not suffering defeat at British hands again until 1988 and just four more times in the 20th Century.
A French Sojourn to forget.
“We went to France at the end of the ’78 tour, and it was a disaster,” Price recalled in Perpetual Motion. “For starters, if we didn’t speak the French language, generally they didn’t want to know us. Secondly, their referees were the most one-sided in the world.” Not content to leave it there, Price suggested the officials would allow tries to the home team over the dead ball line and call Australia back for “imaginary” forward passes. “If the penalties were 5-1 the French team’s way, we thought we were getting a pretty fair go”.
From the Australian backrowers assessment of the trip to France, you will no doubt have rightly guessed it was an abject disaster for the tourists. They lost three of their six matches in France, including both Tests, to finish their long campaign on a sour note. For the home team it would be the last hurrah of the one time world force who are still yet to taste victory against Australia since these encounters in December 1978.
In the days of semi-professional Rugby League players, it isn’t at all surprising that when a group of 28 were sent a long way from home, that there are plenty of tales of them letting their hair down after hours. The 1978 Kangaroos were particularly well stocked with characters, meaning their exploits off the field have almost become as famous as those on field in the years that have passed since their tour of Britain and France.
Removing hair from the faces of unsuspecting victims was a practical joke of choice, with Kerry Boustead alleged to have taken scissors to the moustache of a journalist who had over imbibed and Rod Reddy similarly accused of removing Max Krillich’s eyebrow. The Manly hooker was only prevented from gaining his revenge on the plane ride home when Reddy awoke with Krillich poised and ready with razor in hand.
Ray Price himself was responsible for the majority of the team missing a function held in their honour in France. Unable to travel to Spain because of the need for a Visa, the team decided on another international road trip to Andorra. “I had a map of France and on it Andorra was only about 12mm away from where we were staying,” Price wrote of the reason behind the mass absence.
If it wasn’t bad enough they missed the function, they didn’t make it to Andorra either! The players instead left to console themselves with the contents of makeshift eskys, one of which was a baby’s bath that was found by the side of the road. One player missing from the expedition was Tommy Raudonikis, who was instead one of the few players to attend the function and, according to Price, had done his best to make up for their absence “with the amount of grog he’d put away and the entertainment he was putting on for the hosts.”
The future New South Wales State of Origin Coach was one of a number of players who purchased dilapidated cars to get around town. Given the state of their purchase and the dirt cheap price paid to purchase them, they were the subject of some serious neglect from their owners. Raudonikis, in response to dares, on separate occasions put a keg through his windscreen and ploughed over a tree that lay by the side of the road.
The most infamous off-field moment of the trip came when members of the team crossed paths with British punk band The Jam. Details of the incident are hazy but the aftermath saw Kangaroos Team Manager Jim Caldwell bloodied and hospitalised after being allegedly glassed by The Jam’s lead singer Paul Weller. He would be joined in hospital by The Jam’s bassist Bruce Foxton, while the rest of the band was asked to seek alternate accommodation by the owners of the Dragonara Hotel where the Kangaroos were based. Weller would be the only person to front court as a result of the fracas but had his wounding charge dismissed.
Then, on the 10th of November after 72 days and 22 games, the tour was over. The 14th Kangaroos to tour Great Britain and France completed their campaign with 16 wins and 6 losses. Playing in front 209,603 fans they retained The Ashes, scored 607 points and conceded just 265.
While the 15th and 16th Kangaroos would finish their campaigns without a loss, you’d have a hard time convincing Ray Price that they were better than the 1978 squad. “It was a fantastic performance really,” Price wrote of the Bob Fulton led team’s time in the northern hemisphere. “Even though we didn’t make history like the next two Kangaroos but Bozos Roos were the best Australian team I played with.”
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