‘Gene Miles was un­stop­pable on that ’86 tour, it was like he had three arms’

As deadly with the boot as he was with ball in hand, ‘Snoz’did it all in league

Rugby League Week - - Legend Q&a: Michael O'connor - By JOE McDONOUGH

What made you make the jump from league to union, where you’d cracked the Wal­la­bies side?

I was play­ing for Queens­land in 1980 un­der Bob Tem­ple­ton and Roy [Masters] came up and made me an of­fer but I turned him down be­cause I wanted to go on the Bri­tish Isles tour of ’81, but af­ter that tour when Roy came up again, the op­por­tu­nity to play for St Ge­orge was just too good to refuse. My dad was a real rugby purist and he thought back then that I’d be tak­ing a backward step, so he wasn’t too happy about it. But at that time rugby union was very much an ama­teur game; there were no pay­ments at all. So to hold down a job and to tour and play at the high­est level, it was just bloody hard.

How did you cross paths with Wally Lewis be­fore your league stint?

There’s no doubt Wally Lewis was the player of my gen­er­a­tion. He was the hard­est player I’ve ever played against. He had great vi­sion but also he had in­cred­i­ble com­pet­i­tive in­stincts . . . I re­mem­ber in my first game against him, I was cap­tain of ACT School­boys play­ing at TG Mill­ner Field in Syd­ney and he was cap­tain of Queens­land, and we were play­ing op­po­site each other in the semi-fi­nal. He wasn’t in­ter­ested in any other player on the field but me. He was a year older than me, and was in my ear all game say­ing what he’d do to me and stuff about my mother [laughs]. He didn’t miss an op­por­tu­nity to ham­mer me, ei­ther. If I got a pass away then next minute – whack! – I was on the ground. In fact, when we went to toss the coin I went to shake his hand and he re­fused and I thought, “Geez”, but he was just so com­pet­i­tive and he brought that to State of Ori­gin in later years.

What do you re­mem­ber about your de­but Ori­gin se­ries in 1985?

I think the glue that held ev­ery­thing to­gether was Steve Mor­timer. He was just so pas­sion­ate and a re­ally funny guy. We ar­rive in Bris­bane and we’re all up for it, it’s as if we’re fly­ing into Russia dur­ing the Cold War or some­thing. So we get out and into the bus and “Tur­vey” tells the bus driver to stop and pull over – and then goes, “I’ve just got to say a few words. Now we’re here in Queens­land you’ve got to un­der­stand the men­tal­ity up here. Ev­ery­body hates us . . . look at all those peo­ple out there, those fam­i­lies, they all hate us. Even this bloke, the bus driver, he hates us, too,” [laughs]. It was a wet, dour game at Lang Park and we hadn’t won a se­ries yet. I was play­ing out­side Brett Kenny and got two tries cour­tesy of him – it was one of those games where we took our chances. We went on to win that first se­ries, which was a real ca­reer high­light. We just had a good balance of play­ers and we all got on re­ally well.

Tur­vey was lucky to even play in that se­ries, though, wasn’t he?

So back then we played the City v Coun­try game at New­cas­tle on the Satur­day and I put a kick through for “Chicka” Fer­gu­son just be­fore half-time and he scored un­der the posts – but just as I put the kick in, Tur­vey’s cleaned me up with a stiff arm as he came across, be­cause he used to sweep be­hind the line, and he’s just put my nose across one side of my face. You could usu­ally get away with that sort of stuff in those days but that was a TV game, right, so the switch­board lit up at the ABC and there were so many com­plaints John Quayle had to take ac­tion. But it was quite the dilemma be­cause he was our State of Ori­gin cap­tain – so in the end I went in and pleaded his case and he got off.

You al­most cre­ated his­tory with St Ge­orge in ’85 . . .

We put so much into the year and we would’ve made his­tory, win­ning all three grades – no other St Ge­orge side had ever done that. So we got the first two grades up and we were mi­nor pre­miers, we’d com­fort­ably beaten the Bull­dogs in the ma­jor pre­lim­i­nary fi­nal two weeks be­fore that. I think we were the best side that year but we just got out-thought in the grand fi­nal [against Can­ter­bury]. Of course there was Warren Ryan and Roy Masters, who didn’t like each other, and it be­came a real tac­ti­cal bat­tle. My main rec­ol­lec­tion of that game was that they kicked for field po­si­tion. They used to kick into the in-goal to Glenn Burgess and back then if you took a bomb in-goal it was a line dropout, so you’re un­der siege then for an­other set of six. So they just played field po­si­tion with us all game and

as a result of that they changed the rule about tak­ing kicks on the full in-goal, and of course it be­came a tap restart.

You kicked goals at both club level and for rep teams. Did that come nat­u­rally?

When I was at St Ge­orge, Steve Gearin was goal-kick­ing and you couldn’t leave him out of your team be­cause he was such a good goal­kicker. I saw that and thought, “That’s a string to my bow that I’ve got to develop.” So I spent a lot of time af­ter I made the tran­si­tion prac­tis­ing my goal-kick­ing. I didn’t do a lot of kick­ing while I played rugby union but I used to play soc­cer as well. So I went back and prac­tised and prac­tised to try and get an edge to get into the Test team. And given the cal­i­bre of out­side backs at that time – I’m talk­ing Brett Kenny, Gene Miles and Mal Meninga – there weren’t too many spots and you had to have a point of dif­fer­ence. So I look back on my ca­reer and it was the best thing I ever did, spend­ing all those hours prac­tis­ing my goal-kick­ing, be­cause that got me across the line in ’86 and on that tour.

You were an in­te­gral fig­ure in “The Un­beat­a­bles” Kan­ga­roo tour in 1986. What was the high­light?

In that first Test our back­line was just so pol­ished. Gene Miles was un­stop­pable, it was like he had three arms. So I made it a pol­icy to fol­low him around all day and ended up scor­ing three tries. Then in the se­cond Test at El­land Road [in Leeds], they came out re­ally hard at us and we were un­der enor­mous pres­sure on our own try­line. Peter Ster­ling threw a cut-out pass to me out on the wing and it was go­ing into touch and I picked it up off the ground and ran down the side­line then kicked in­field – kicked for the try­line, ba­si­cally – and the ball just pulled up two me­tres from their line and I was able to out­sprint the de­fence and score the try. Wally Lewis re­gards that as the best try he’s seen but it was more be­cause of the pres­sure we were un­der at the time. And when I look back on my con­tri­bu­tion in Test matches I think any­one could’ve scored three tries in that first Test but that try in the se­cond Test was a re­ally good mo­ment.

The one thing you’re re­mem­bered for in Ori­gin above all else is that kick from the side­line in Game Two, 1991 . . .

What a lot of peo­ple for­get was that in Game One the week be­fore, we scored right on full-time and I had a kick to draw the game from the side­line and I missed it. I was just filthy on my­self. So I went out the next week and I just prac­tised non-stop, so if that mo­ment did come again I didn’t want to be in that sit­u­a­tion where I was let­ting the team down. So on the night I didn’t want to take any time to think about it . . . and for­tu­nately it was just one of those kicks that came right out of the sweet spot.

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