s there a more romantic, fairy taleesque ending to a rugby league player’s career than Royce Simmons’s exit? Will there ever be?
An unfashionable but loyal and reliable workhorse over the course of his 12-seasons of service between 1980-91, the Penrith Panthers’ veteran hooker had crossed for just 13 tries in 237 first grade appearances. But in his last-ever premiership game, the 1991 Winfield Cup Grand Final against the Canberra Raiders, he crossed for two. One was a bullocking effort from firstreceiver, knocking over The Brick With Eyes, prop Glenn Lazarus, on the way to the tryline. For the other, he stormed onto an offload from firebrand forward Mark
Geyer, sending the people of Penrith into delirium.
As this year’s NRL big dance looms, sit back and take in the wisdom of a true rugby league grand final hero, who is still paying for his very costly words on the presentation podium 27 years later ... What are you up to these days, Royce? Are you still connected to the game and more importantly, to your beloved Penrith Panthers?
I work for Panthers in the commercial area. I run a networking club involving 60 Penrith businesses. We watch Penrith home games and run other sponsor events. It might be going to Queenstown for an adventure weekend, or going to the Cox Plate to watch Winx run, maybe to the Australian Open tennis ... Then we might have a game of golf or lawn bowls with the first grade players. What we find from it all is that people get to know each other; they become good friends and they do a lot of business with each other. It suits me right down to the ground. It’s a bit damaging sometimes; you have a few late nights, but overall I really enjoy it.
How did the rugby league journey start for you way back in the day?
My first footy team was actually in rugby union. I lived in a lile place called Canowindra, which was out in Group 11 league territory. At that stage they had a first grade side, second grade, under-18s, but no junior rugby league. But they did have junior rugby union. It was quite strange. So I started to play football at Canowindra in rugby union and played right through till I was 16. In the middle of all of that, my dad was a butcher. He bought a butcher shop in a lile town called Gooloogong, which was only about half an hour’s drive away. So we moved out there; that's where I finished my primary school. So to really get to play rugby league, I went to Cowra, where I went to high school.
Who were your rugby league heroes growing up?
From a real young age I’d run around pretending I was Graeme Langlands. I followed St George; Billy Smith, etc. Barry Beath came from Gooloogong. He played for St George for years, back when they had some of their real good sides. Ian Walsh played just across the way at Eugowra. So I had St George imprinted into my head. I came down and trialled for them in, it must have been 1978. I didn’t make it. Then I came down again and trialled with South Sydney in ’79. I think my first trial with them was a fih grade game. I wasn’t really that sure that I’d make it there, either.
Had you thought of Penrith as an option before their coach Len Stacker came along and reached out to you?
Oh look, I knew lile of Penrith at the time. As I said, I followed St George. But when I came out here and had a trial, I decided to stay here; it suited me. At the time, Penrith was virtually a big town, and it was quiet ... a lot quieter than it is now. So for a boy from Gooloogong, a lile town
“You get there and sometimes it’s: wow, we made the grand final. So you might relax just that little bit. And that’s all you need to get beaten.”
of 150 people, it probably suited me be er to be here. I got a job out at Penrith Golf Club. I was a greenkeeper by trade, so I ended up out at the local club. Being out on the course, I quickly got to know a lot of Penrith people.
In between the 1990 and ’91 grand finals, the Panthers altered their colours from brown and white to that liquorishallsorts design. Did that change the spirit or the culture of the club much?
Personally, I don’t think it makes any difference whatsoever what colour jumper you’re wearing; I’m talking playing-wise. But what it did do was ... I think our jumper was one of the worst-selling jumpers in the competition. Aer we changed it, it went straight to the top. So obviously our brand went out to a bit bigger audience. All of a sudden, people wanted to be a part of the biggest-selling jumper, sponsors wanted to be a part of it. I’m a big one for tradition; I like to stick to whatever you’ve always done. And at the time I thought: oh, we probably shouldn’t be changing our colours. But the commercial side of it was great in the end. According to that old rugby league trope, you have to lose a grand final to win one. But losing one really ripped the heart and guts out of the entire Penrith district in 1990, didn’t it?
I remember in the early days at Penrith, we didn’t win too many games. To be fair, we generally tried pre y hard each week, but we had to rely on the sides not playing well to win some games. We weren’t spending the money that other clubs were spending. We had some big blokes who played hard, but we probably lacked some genuine class and in particular, speed. In 1990, I thought I’d be prepared for what happened, from going through all those
other setbacks. But nah, I wasn’t. It knocked the socks off me. I was destroyed a er it. Obviously everyone was. I remember just si ing out there on the field and everything was numb. You'd be talking to a few of the other boys and look up and you saw the other blokes li ing the Winfield Cup above their head and doing the victory lap. You have to sit there and watch it all. It’s a part of learning. It was a pre y tough few hours and few days ... 12 months, really, until we got another opportunity to reverse the roles.
We’re obviously steering this chat towards your grand exit from the game against those rascals, the Canberra Raiders, in 1991, but it all could’ve ended very differently for you, hey?
That last year was a tough year for me. I did my ankle really early in the season. I was out for weeks, then I came back, played a game, did it again and was out for weeks again. I think I only played 11 first grade games in 1991. I remember coming back, it was our last home game of the season, so it was my last game at Penrith Park ever. I was finishing up that year. The first grade side was going really well, and I’d missed long, long periods with injury. I’d come back and played three or four reserve grade games. One night at training, Gus came into the sheds and said, “Righto, it’s our last game at Penrith Park, and this is the side ... and Royce will be leading us out.” It wasn’t as captain, but because it was my last game there. We beat Balmain pre y easy. I got to kick a goal from in front and all that sort’ve stuff. I eventually found out that before Gus had
“You get the odd bloke turning up who’ll say, 'I haven’t had a beer with you yet.' But he’s probably fibbin.”
told me he’d be picking me for that last game, he had actually told the whole side that I’d be playing. He also said to them “and he’ll be playing every other game right through to the grand final as well”. So that was a good confidence-booster: to get there and end up playing in a grand final, when a few weeks earlier I thought I might be there as a token member of the squad.
Did the Panthers as a team change all that much from how you did things in 1990 compared to 1991? Or were you just a really good team who happened to go that one step further the following year?
Quite a few things happened differently that next year. You get there and sometimes it’s: wow, we made the grand final, so you might relax just that li le bit ... and that’s all you need to get beaten. The other team, they’d been there, they’d won before, they knew what to expect from it. There’s that li le learning curve. I think in 1990, Ricky Stuart had the ball on a string: every time he kicked it, it would bounce for the sideline, would bounce here, there. Then the following year, Greg Alexander had the ball on a string. It went everywhere he wanted it to go and we kept ge ing repeat sets. People say to me: you were unlucky not to win the Clive Churchill Medal – I get that said to me all the time. Bradley Clyde, who won it, played great in a beaten side. But if you ask me who should’ve won, it would be Greg Alexander. Greg was fantastic that day. He steered us all around, kept barking orders at us to stay patient, keep grinding, all that stuff. I thought he was outstanding that day.
You’d only scored a handful of tries across 12 seasons of first grade. What made you think you could barrel over Glenn Lazarus and score a try in a grand final?
We were mucking around with the ball too much. We passed it out a few times, and it came back and I got it. I just thought: bloody hell, let’s just se le it down. I thought, just run hard and get as far as you can, and se le things down. I didn’t want us pushing a pass and all of a sudden we’ve turned it over. So I just virtually stuck my head down to run as hard as I could and ended up ge ing over the line. Glenn Lazarus ran over a lot of blokes in his career. What a great player he was. I think I was lucky enough to hit him on his sternum. I don’t think his sternum was in too good a shape. I think he was carrying a few bumps and bruises. My
boo ead hit him right in the middle of his sternum. That’s what helped.
And so onto that second try, where you almost jumped over team-mate Mark Geyer’s head in celebration as you virtually sealed the club its maiden premiership. Was that your experience and footy instinct at play to put you in position for MG’s offload?
You could say it was about instinct ... They went for the short grubber – they had to because they needed to get the ball back to give themselves an opportunity. I could see Mark Geyer over on that side of the field, and I could see about five of their blokes. Scoy Gale was aiming to land the ball right on the ten metre line. I could see four or five of them charging onto the ball, and I could see MG charging into THEM. My instinct was to get over there and make a tackle! It was four or five on one, so the likelihood of them geing the ball is very high. Mark is running in quick and he’s going to keep going, so I’ve got to make a tackle, and a good tackle, because we don’t want them offloading the ball or anything. So I was going in there to make a tackle. I certainly wasn’t going into that situation to score a try.
On the podium aerwards, you told the people of Penrith you were looking forward to having a beer with every one of them. Did you get there in the end?
I’ve gone close. I’ve made sure I’ve got 99.9 percent of them. You get the odd bloke turning up who’ll say, “I haven’t had a beer with you yet, Royce." But he’s probably just fibbin ...
The Tim Sheenscoached Canberra Raiders (below) enjoyed great times across the early '90s. Indeed, Ricky Stuart (above right) broke the Panthers' hearts with a lethal kicking game in the 1990 decider. But Penrith's Greg Alexander had the ball on a string in the 1991 grand final.
For Panther forwards Paul Clarke (left) and Barry Walker, the scoreboard said it all on grand final day.
Panthers stalwarts John Cartwright and Brad Izzard embrace coach Gus Gould. Thirsty work for big MG. Royce embraces the Winfield Cup.