The golden Bears of Burleigh: 1979 Gold Coast premiers a team for the ages

By Max Uechtritz

They were the golden bears of a golden era of Queensland Country Rugby League yet recorded history of the game sells them short.

The Burleigh Bears 1979 premiership team boasted individuals who mixed and matched it with the finest players in the game – in Sydney and Brisbane and in a national competition.

They were Garry Thomas (Parramatta, Brisbane Wests), George Moroko (Wests, Cronulla, St George), Peter McNamara (Cronulla, Brisbane Brothers) and Ralph Michaels (Penrith, Brisbane Norths). They were coached by Brisbane Norths legend and former Devils skipper Eric Lilley.

Moroko and McNamara while playing for the Bears were members of the 1979 Queensland Country team which defeated three Sydney clubs – Parramatta, Norths and Newtown – in an extraordinary run to the finals of the national AMCO Cup competition. QLD Country were narrowly and controversially beaten 8-5 by a star-studded Brisbane side in their semi-final. Brisbane’s line-up included the names Lewis, Meninga, Close and Lang.

After finding some old clippings in a box and keen to have a nostalgic trip down memory lane, I tried the internet only to find league’s rich history of the era had a poverty of online records. This blog is an attempt to rectify that in a small way. More later on the other players in the Bears of ’79 but firstly some background on those named above, including Thomas whom I once profiled in Rugby League Week.

GARRY THOMAS

This great photo was taken and developed with special effects by Gold Coast Bulletin photographer Grant Knowles.

Garry Thomas starred for Parramatta in the 70s era that produced many of the greatest names in league. It was pre-Origin when Sydney clubs bought up all the talent in the country, so the annual representative clashes between Sydney and NSW Country were like trials for NSW and Australia. In that environment Thomas was elected in a Sydney Seconds side that boasted nine players who had played, or would play, for Australia.

They included Billy Smith, Max Krilich, Terry Randall, Geoff Starling, Johnny Mayes, Ken Maddison, Bill Hamilton, George Ambrum and Gary Dowling, who would also saddle up for the Bears in 1982-83. The team photo below shows Thomas in rare company. I hope to write separately about Dowling, tragically killed in a car accident coming home from a Bears game against Beaudesert.

Garry Thomas had a big boot, not just for goal kicking

Garry Thomas would move to Brisbane and play in the glamour Wests Panthers sides which won the 1975 and 1976 BRL premierships.

He would also figure in the Brisbane representative team which soundly defeated England 21-10 at Lang Park in July, 1975. Again, this momentous victory against the powerful English team which actually drew 10-all with Australia in their World Cup encounter a week earlier, has somehow escaped historical records. The team photo below shows Garry in company of the likes of John Lang, Harry Cameron, Lew Platz, Greg Vievers, Des Morris, Geoff Richardson and Nev Hornery. It was virtually a QLD state side.

GEORGE MOROKO

George Moroko would go on to captain the Cronulla Sharks in the early 1980s but it was his year with the Bears in 1979 that put him on the map playing for the Gold Coast rep team and the Queensland Country side which beat three Sydney teams (above) in the AMCO Cup. Yet google search entries on his name omit his Burleigh year. The below photo of him in Burleigh colours was in a clippings box my mother kept which I found in her effects only recently. Yes, time to declare I also played for the Bears in 1979 until a late-season injury that ended my career. I also shared a flat with George which is why I also know that only a couple of years earlier he had played in the Western Suburbs Under 23 team which won the Sydney premiership under the great coach Roy Masters (far right in second photo below).

When Burleigh saw Nerang Roosters recruit a number of stars from Brisbane Brothers and win the Gold Coast premiership the previous year 1978, Bears officials like Pat Toomey went about bolstering the Bears, not just with the likes of Thomas, Peter McNamara (Brothers) and Moroko (Tweed Seagulls). Other local players like hard hitting second rower John Grossi came across from the Surgery Paradise Pirates. Grossi represented the Gold Coast and was as tough as any player I ever came across. And it was the powerful Moroko-Grossi second row combination that shone right from one of our very first games, a match which augured well for the season.

That game was a pre-season trial against the glamorous Sydney Easts side captained by ‘Immortal’ Bobby Fulton. Burleigh shocked the Sydney Roosters by going into the half time break comfortably ahead thanks in part to two tries from the same subterfuge set move featuring Moroko, Grossi and five-eighth Jim Clancy. The second of those was a moment I’ll never forget as George and John came away laughing and incredulous that the Sydney stars had fallen for their ruse a second time. I can’t find the score online but from memory four decades on, Fulton came on and Easts snuck home by one or two points. For the record we won the after-game Moreton Bay Bug eating competition thanks to McNamara!

George’s season with the Bears didn’t go unnoticed and he was signed by Bob McCarthy, the new coach of Brisbane Souths Magpies. The Magpies lost a thriller of a grand final that year 17-15 to Norths and George was snapped back up by his old Sydney team Wests. He played there in 1981-82 then switched to Cronulla for 1983-84 playing 25 and 21 games respectively in those seasons. He was a highly respected captain of the Sharks. George also had some games for St George in his final year in 1985.

PETER MCNAMARA

As the RLW photo file says, Peter McNamara was a big fella who learned his craft at Brisbane Brothers under David Wright and Bob Cock then flourished into a leader of the pack. Peter was captain of the 1979 Burleigh Bears and led by example throughout. He played for the Gold Coast rep side then, as mentioned, in that amazing QLD Country side in the AMCO Cup that year. To knock over Newtown, North Sydney and Parramatta in succession is an amazing feat and had to come from forward domination. McNamara was central to that enforcer role along with Australian second rowers Greg Platz and Rohan Hancock, George Moroko and fellow Gold Coaster and future Test hooker Jay Hoffman (Southport). In the backs were stars like Colin Scott and Alan Smith along with Nerang’s Ian Dauth.

They were coached by former Queensland, NSW and Test star centre John McDonald who went on the coach Queensland in the famous first State of Origin in 1980 and become one of the game’s leading administrators.

McNamara had three seasons with Cronulla (1981-83), playing under coaches Greg Pierce and Terry Fearnley and alongside Steve Rogers , Gavin Miller and Dane Sorensen.

RALPH MICHAELS

Big Ralph Michaels – as he was always referred to – came to Burleigh after playing first grade in Sydney (Penrith) and Brisbane (Norths). Ralph was good friends with coach Eric Lilley after their stint together with the Devils. Sadly, both men have passed away. Until being injured, I was lucky to play alongside Ralph in the Burleigh centres for a time or on the wing if Mick Toomey played centre. We swapped around. Ralph and Mick would be the mainstay centre partnership in the finals series and grand final. He played for the Gold Coast and won another premiership with the Bears in 1982.

ERIC LILLEY

The man who brought out the best in his handful of imported players and locals including Bears juniors was coach Eric Lilley.

When he died his old club posted a touching tribute which would resonate with the Burleigh club: “Eric Lilley, a champion winger and a champion bloke. Toowoomba born, the Wynnum Manly junior was conscripted into the army and saw service in Vietnam in 1967. He played five seasons of first grade 1970-74, played finals footy in all four of those years (the breathtaking 1970 grand final was a highlight) never missing a top grade game in that time. He played two Bulimba Cup games 1971-72. In 1973 he was appointed the Devils’ skipper. He scored 57 tries. You wouldn’t meet a nicer bloke.”

Eric had an easy manner as a coach which belied his great experience and clever footy brain, characteristics which meant his players would jump through hoops for him. The shot below, supplied by his daughter Jane, shows his sheer elation at winning a game. Perhaps it was moment the Bears sealed the grand final, beating Nerang 16-2. The man with the dark hair celebrating on his right is team manager and great Bears character Pat Toomey. His son Mick is a current day board member of the Burleigh Bears Leagues Club.

The grand final featured tries by classy centre Mick Toomey and flying winger Brian Beazley and five goals to Garry Thomas. Remember, tries in those days were only worth three points. Beazley was a true winger, gifted with extraordinary, pure speed and a great step. When he got a sniff of the line it was almost impossible to stop him. Archie Moore on the other wing was speedster as well and a tall man hard to tackle. I seem to remember him scoring five tries in one game for the Gold Coast at some stage in following years.

One of Burleigh’s best all season – and one of the best of that era on the Gold Coast – was the nuggety five eighth Jim Clancy. He was as tough as they come and extremely talented to boot. He played rep footy for the Gold Coast but could have gone on the even higher honours except that rugby league came second for Jim to his work. From memory he was a dairy farmer and would turn up to training after a 12 hour physical working day.

Mark Newman was a tough-as-teak forward who just never stopped working. He reminded me in that sense of “Mr Perpetual Motion” Ray Price. Mark and I had played together at Nerang the previous year and so it was two successive grand finals and premierships for him. Lock Paul Bugler, hooker Lee O’Neil, Chippy Duncan, John ‘Guru’ Gorry , Gary Adamson and Wayne Homer were other Bears stalwarts along with two blokes who were the essence of the club – Terry Toloa and Joe Tangata-Toa.

No matter where you put Terry or Joe – from front row to winger – they did the job and then some.

Joe Tangata-Toa
Mick Toomey tackles with Bears hooker Lee O’Neil in support with Nerang’s Queensland fullback Ian Dauth looming

As mentioned here and in a previous blog on Mick Argeros who captain-coached Nerang Roosters 1978 premiership team, the lack of available historical record of that era led me to dust off the archives and delve into new ones. Short on money but long on talent, club spirit and organisation, Queensland country teams of that time were helping lay the foundation of the high octane years of dominance by Queensland in the State of Origin.

I hope that pieces like this draw out other photos and stories to recognise the players, coaches and administrators who made silk out of the proverbial sow’s ears.

Meantime a few more relevant images.

Peter McNamara playing for Brothers and (below) George Moroko playing for Wests and Cronulla.
George Moroko (centre) at St George. That’s Test prop Craig Young at right.

***MANY THANKS TO GARRY THOMAS, THE BRISBANE LEAGUE OLD BOYS (FACEBOOK PAGE BLOBS) AND IAN COLLIS AND DAN’S COLLECTABLES AND GETTY FOR SOME IMAGES USED HERE. CREDIT TOO TO STEVE RICKETTS WEBSITE.

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