Rugby League

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With its future secure, league banks on its past for the stuff that legends are made of

The ARL Commission marks the anniversary of the founding of rugby league by opening a museum to the game, writes Roy Masters.

Having secured its financial future, rugby league celebrates its past today with the opening of a museum at the code's Sydney headquarters.

Eight days after negotiating a record $1.025 billion broadcasting contract, the ARL Commission will unveil a treasure trove of memorabilia - jerseys, boots, trophies, photos - as well as modern-day interactive touch-screen narrative.

The commission clearly has its foot on the accelerator and hands firmly on the steering wheel as it drives change in the game. But among the exhibits are quirky reminders of the code's rich past, including a list of telephone numbers taken from Pratten Park, the long abandoned home of the Magpies who played at the Ashfield ground before moving to Lidcombe.

The telephone numbers listed include those of the executive of the Western Suburbs club; emergency contacts, such as the police; other grounds and, importantly, the media. It is a reminder of the mutually interdependent relationship between the game and the media and comes at a time News Ltd has relinquished its first and last broadcasting rights.

One reason for this is the media company's willingness to repair its image in the wake of the British phone hacking scandal by demonstrating to the Australian public it has no hold on the people's game.

Wests' phone number board recalls an era when newspapers, radio stations and TV networks would call the club secretary on a Tuesday night and ask the names of the team selected for the forthcoming match. It was a long process whereby the secretary repeated the team for each media outlet. Today, such information is transferred in a nanosecond, simply by a click of a mouse button.


But subterfuge existed then, as it does now. Wests' former long-term secretary, Ray Bernasconi, reminded this columnist that the team selected for a semi-final at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the late 1970's included Les Boyd at lock. However, when the players took up their positions on the field, Boyd was five-eighth.

''[Coach] Jack Fitzgerald did the same thing against St George in a semi in the early '60s,'' he said. ''Darcy Henry was picked at five-eighth and Peter Dimond on the wing but when the first scrum packed down, they swapped positions.

''St George's Brian Clay looked up, ready to belt Darcy who was only nine stone (55 kilograms) wringing wet, only to find Dimond standing in front of him.''

The ruse continues today but the speed and variety of modern communication means opposition coaches are often prepared. Melbourne even anticipated South Sydney's Greg Inglis would switch from centre to fullback two games before he did.

Bernasconi is one of a band of devoted trustees of the Magpie's history, working in the club's archives every Monday. ''We dragged the board with all the telephone numbers out from behind a cupboard and gave it to the museum at Rugby League Central,'' he said.

One of the listed medical officers was Dr Len Greenberg, the grandfather of Canterbury chief executive Todd, while the other was Dr Kelvin McGarrity, a prominent Macquarie Street gynaecologist.

Many of the club doctors in those days were gynaecologists, with McGarrity being succeeded by Dr Bob McInerney, who delivered the children of many of the players, including those of Boyd.

However, Dr McInerney's wife loathed rugby league and was a reluctant visitor to Pratten Park.

Once, when the muddied, sweat-stained warriors left the field after a match, she cried out from the grandstand: ''Robert, why doesn't someone hose them?''

It was a time when players and officials mixed more closely, probably because many of these part-time administrators were former players. And unlike today, when the phone rang on a Tuesday night, it was not possible to screen calls.

Occasionally, an injured player would relieve the secretary on the phone. One journalist had a prominent stutter. He once called and a player answered the phone, obliged with the naming of the team and concluded the conversation by calling the journalist by his first name.

''H, h, how di, di, did you know it was me?'' the journalist asked.

Wests was the first club to offer journalists an afternoon tea, including scones, cream and jam. Maybe this was designed to encourage more positive stories, or wean the scribes off beer in an attempt to produce less hysterical headlines.

It did not work.

Today's museum opening falls on the anniversary of the founding of rugby league at the George Hotel in Huddersfield - August 29, 1895.