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The day I almost died on the field: An extract from Wally Lewis: My Life

Summer Reading

Queensland’s favourite rugby league son almost died from a freak on-field injury. He recounts the episode in this second extract from his biography, Wally Lewis: My Life.

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At Valleys our defence of the 1979 premiership was underway. The big-spending Dolphins had gone all out, landing Test coach Frank Stanton.

I don’t think Frank liked the way I conducted myself and probably thought I was a smart-arse. One day at Redcliffe I noticed him near the coach’s box staring at me for some reason. A staring contest with the Test coach! It continued all game. When Redcliffe cut him loose after one season, he returned to Sydney with a seething dislike of me and the Brisbane competition, and all involved in it. As Queensland gained State of Origin ascendancy over the next few years, and I spun into his orbit at Test level, it only got worse. The Sydney journos chimed in – yes, we know you’ve won Origin but you could never handle the weekly grind of Sydney club football, could you?

A fiery 27-13 win over Wynnum at Neumann Oval saw us secure the minor premiership by a point from Souths, who beat us 22-14 in the major semi-final. Peter McWhirter suffered a broken cheekbone which ended his season. After last year’s grand final loss, Souths were always highly motivated when they saw Valleys in the headlights.

We now faced sudden-death against Norths in the preliminary final. Adding to the mounting pressure, Struddy was spiked by Bryan Niebling’s running shoes at training and had ten stitches in his foot and could hardly run. To be honest, no-one was going to beat the Devils that year, but we did our best.

We led 14-10 in the 53rd minute when I attempted a ball-and-all tackle on a rampaging Mark Graham on the Hale Street wing and went down for the count. I’d copped an elbow to the neck and suffered a laryngeal spasm. I couldn’t breathe. Trainer Brian Canavan ran on and cleared my airways with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which club president Dr Tom Dooley said saved my life. Nine minutes later Norths won a scrum against the feed, Graham broke through a couple of defenders and sent Mark Murray darting away for the winning try. Norths held on to win 15-14.

They had a great side. Five-eighth and captain Mark Murray’s two tries sealed it; he was an explosive player who could bust a game wide open. Graham was a superstar and one of the best ball runners I ever saw. Halfback Ross Henrick was a tough little bugger, God rest his soul, as was hooker Greg Conescu, an extremely gifted player.

The manner of Norths’ 17-15 win over Souths in the grand final was a real boost for Brisbane rugby league. One of the code’s true gentlemen, Graham Lowe, produced an outstanding coaching effort – Muppet rates him as good a coach as any. And don’t forget looming in the background was one of the finest rugby league brains ever – club president Bob Bax. The 1980 premiership had Baxy all over it.

At the end of 1980 I went on a fantastic P&O boat cruise to Honiara, Port Vila and Noumea with a group of mates from the surf club and Valleys – Brian Ball, Alan Mihle, Peter Flynn, Greg Moore and Chooka Boyle. You know the deal, what goes on tour stays on tour.

The 1981 season was as important as any I played. Critical was my move to the five-eighth position, initiated by Arthur Beetson (now coaching Redcliffe).

No-one knew his way around a rugby league field like Arthur, so playing against him for the first time was a unique experience. Trying to prevent him unloading the ball in the tackle, his most famous skill, was next to impossible. He got me high on several occasions. “Sorry mate,” he’d say.

Arthur was in charge of the Brisbane and Queensland Residents sides, and although I was still regarded as a specialist lock, he handed me the number six jersey for the City-Country trial at Lang Park on May 17.

His reasoning was straightforward. “You pass well and it gives us the chance to keep Norm (Carr) in the side.” In the pack, I was aware of the chaos of close-range football – the tackling and the need to get up and back into the defensive line quickly. At five-eighth you had extra time and space to be creative. To see the possibilities. I grew to appreciate the switch.

After Brisbane’s 50-9 win over Country, Arthur even tipped I’d play five-eighth in the Test series against France. Ray Price was the incumbent lock and he’d be hard to shift. Earlier in the season, Struddy went one better, predicting I’d be Test captain but that would have to wait. “Some blokes are players, you’re a leader,” he said.

I played five-eighth in the first interstate clash at Lang Park, which we lost 10-2. Before the return clash at Leichhardt Oval, a shuffle of the backline pushed me back to lock, and despite another gallant performance we were beaten 22-9. I was the only Queensland-based player named in the Australian side for the two home Tests against France.

My arrival in camp before the first Test in Sydney took me by surprise. After leaving Brisbane at 7am, I waited around Mascot airport for a couple of hours, and when no-one turned up, caught a cab to the Sydney Cricket Ground. The ground was empty and I sat in the Members’ on my own for another couple of hours.

Eventually a bloke turned up. “Where’s the Australian team meeting?” I asked him. “What do you want to know for?” he replied. “I’m one of the players.” “Of course you are.” He was serious. Welcome to Sydney.

At around lunchtime, officials and players started to file in. “Sorry Wally, we were supposed to meet this morning but it was called off.” No mobile phones in 1981.

I felt like the proverbial fish out of water but things soon improved. The famous Australian trainer, Alf Richards, one of the world’s nicest blokes, couldn’t do enough for me. If you needed something, you just asked Alf. Another Test debutant and my partner in the halves, Steve Mortimer, would become a friend for life.

The 1983 preliminary final loss to Redcliffe, 28-10 at Lang Park, Wally’s last of 135 games for
the Valley Diehards. Behind, The Angry Ant, Ross Henrick, who won a premiership at Norths, played State of Origin and coached Valleys to three premierships.

It was soon apparent coach Frank Stanton had me in his sights. My instructions were clear, just feed my outside backs, Steve Rogers and Mick Cronin. Stanton knew I wouldn’t have been as fit as the Sydney blokes and decided to let everyone know it. “We’re going to respect France,” he told me. “And do our very best. I don’t want you to come down here and think this is going to be easy.” The next day, he paired me up with renowned fitness freak Ray Price in a series of 400-metre runs.

The toughest distance at the best of times, I was soon trailing Ray by a considerable margin. “You’re not doing those real good,” Stanton quipped. “I’ll keep trying Frank. If France are giving us a hammering, I’ll be there,” I said. He didn’t take too kindly to that comment.

Before my Test debut at the SCG on July 4, I was violently ill. I vomited quite regularly before games. It’s just nerves. The bigger the game, the more likely it was to happen. Steve Mortimer was the same. He was talking a million miles an hour, and like Stanton, was telling me just to get the ball to our outside backs. Keep it simple stupid! It cost me a few opportunities that day.

We thrashed France 43-3 and won at Lang Park a fortnight later too, 17-2. The results didn’t stop the New South Wales papers from singling me out. Frank told them I had natural talent, but wasn’t as fit as the Sydney players.

After both Tests I played club footy the next day. A couple of days before the standalone State of Origin match on July 28, I scored three tries against Easts at Neumann Oval, which lifted Valleys into the top four.

In Origin camp Arthur was about to drop another bombshell. “I can’t play,’ he told me. “I’m having trouble with my knees, my arms, everything. My form’s not that good. Even playing for Redcliffe, I’m having trouble.”

“Mate, as soon as you step on the field, it’ll be OK,” I reassured him. It was too late – he’d already advised Ron McAuliffe not to pick him. “And I want Wally as captain,” he told the Senator.

Initially named Arthur’s vice-captain, I was stunned. Rod Morris was mentioned as a possible skipper and he was terrific, but he hardly ever said a word on the field, just went about his business. I talked all the time and always had.

“There’s no way I can captain the side,” I told McAuliffe. “Look around me, it’s a team of internationals.” “No,” he replied. “They’re your teammates. They’re not captains. You’re a captain.”

I was 21 and felt way out of my depth but worked hard not to show how nervous I was. In that second Origin match I learned more about captaincy than any match I’d played. The last 12 months had been a spectacular ride – a fringe rep player, selection in the first Origin game, Australian Test five-eighth and now captain of Queensland. My career had been completely transformed.

Plenty of people didn’t think we’d win the second Origin match, particularly without Arthur. New South Wales caught us on the hop and raced to a 15-0 lead, before Brad Backer scored our first try eight minutes before halftime. To see how the side then responded was fantastic; we won 22-15. The crowd of 25,613 saw how Queensland were prepared to compete with their backs to the wall. We were two from two! There was no turning back; Origin was here to stay.

My Life: Wally Lewis retails for $39.99 in softback at QBD and Dymocks stores and limited signed copies in hardback can be ordered at www.stevehaddan.com.au for $59.99.

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