Lees recalls 'ugly farce' of '54

Cheers, "Smacka": Merv Lees with friend and St George Immortal Johnny Raper (right) at his surprise 80th birthday at Cronulla Sharks Leagues Club. Picture: John Veage
Cheers, "Smacka": Merv Lees with friend and St George Immortal Johnny Raper (right) at his surprise 80th birthday at Cronulla Sharks Leagues Club. Picture: John Veage

WHEN former NSW and St George rugby league centre Merv Lees received a surprise 80th birthday from more than 100 of his friends and family on Saturday, it heralded in a crazy sporting era when almost "anything went" — and when the rule book was virtually thrown away.

"Smacka" Lees, of Caringbah and a daily regular in the front bar of Cronulla Sharks Leagues Club for many years, doesn't appear to have suffered too much from his tough life. They have even put his name to a bar coaster.

He apparently gave as good as he took on the field, hence his nickname, and he remains a part of history: the infamous abandoned game between NSW and Great Britain in July, 1954, which isn't likely to be repeated.

The match was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, between the second and third Tests, and with the series tied at one all.

While the NSW Blues under captain and league Immortal Clive Churchill fielded a full strength side, they learned the British were treating the game with contempt and suspected the British would try to "soften up" the NSW Test players such as Churchill, Keith Holman and St George's Ken "Killer" Kearney.

Indeed, British props played on the wing, a second rower at fullback and a hooker at blindside prop, and Churchill was credited as saying years later: "Beyond any doubt, the Englishmen did not take the field to play football."

NSW led 15-3 at the break but after referee Aub Oxford sent off British five eight Ray Price for abusing the linesman, the game deteriorated with a punch in every tackle.

An all-in brawl erupted when English half Burnett threw a punch that missed Churchill and collected the back of Aussie winger Noel Pidding's head.

League correspondent George Crawford wrote: "Every player on the field at one time or another took part in vicious incidents . . . boots, fists, stiff arm tackles, and strangleholds made the game an ugly farce."

With more than 20 minutes left, frustrated referee Oxford gave up on the brawling players and walked from the SCG, leaving more than 27,000 spectators shell-shocked.

A crowd gathered around the British dressing room and hurled abuse. The Great Britain captain for the match, Charlie Pawsey, later offered an apology on behalf of his team. Today, 58 years later, Lees can still recall details of the historic and abandoned match.

"We [NSW] were not going to back down once the fisticuffs started," said Lees who broke his jaw three times during his career.

"It was on for young and old. Still, we were surprised when the ref walked off. But once it was over, players from both sides got together for a drink. That's how it was in those days."

It was reported that players from both teams attended the South Sydney's annual ball the night of the game, had a good laugh about the game but were apologetic afterwards.

It was the last game that Aub Oxford officiated as he quit rugby league for good.

Lees' son Matthew, who organised the surprise 80th birthday, said of a father who worked as a cellarman, roof tiler and publican:

"He'd do anything for me. Growing up he'd take us on good holidays and we'd always get spoilt.

"He's not just a dad, he's one of my best mates and a bit of a legend."

As ex-players such as Billy Smith and Johnny Peard, who turned up on their walking sticks, along with the likes of Dragons Immortal Johnny Raper, Great Britain and Sharks prop Cliff Watson, Barry Andrews, and even Peter Carroll from the 1950s era, "Smacka" has made and kept plenty of other mates during his ritual 10 beers a day and a bus home.