Biff: Rugby League’s Infamous Fights
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Last Day of School
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For close to a hundred years, the biff has been part and parcel of rugby league. And it was condoned for most of that time. As rough play like stiff arms, high tackles, spear tackles, facials and stomping were weeded out of the game, the punch remained. As recently as the 1980s league bosses would say there was nothing fans liked to see more than two forwards trading blows.
But the biff has all but disappeared in recent years, when the league finally realised there is nothing in the rule book that allows players to punch on. In Biff, Glen Humphries looks at some of the most infamous brawls in rugby league, from the Earl Park Riot and a match abandoned after it became a brawl to the most violent grand final and, finally, the punch that changed everything.
As well as offering a ringside view of the brawl, Biff also looks into the reasons behind the fights and what happened to the players afterwards. Some of them escaped suspension and some were rubbed out of the game, while others missed the chance to play in a grand final or found their careers cut short after being on the receiving end of a nasty punch.
Read an excerpt
St George Vs Balmain
These days, St George is best known for those 11 premierships between 1956 and 1966 – and fair enough too. Regardless of the era to be that good for that long is a jaw-dropping feat. But for a time in the club’s first decade it carried a very different reputation. To some the St George side were nothing but a team of thugs who never should have been allowed to join the competition. And one player, forward Harry Flower, would be singled out as a man whose actions showed he had no business being in rugby league.
That wasn’t always the case for Flower. For the first few years of his career in the 1920s, he attracted praise from the NSW press; he wasn’t the biggest player on the field but he gave it his all. Still, that wouldn’t be enough to stop him from being dropped to the lower grades.
He managed to make his way back to the top side for the 1928 season, the one where both his reputation and that of the club would suffer black eyes. That downward slide began in the Round 5 match against Western Suburbs at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Flowers would be one of four players sent from the field – three from St George and one from Western Suburbs – in a game The Sun said “Feet, fists and heads were used without discrimination”.
Another report said “a crowd of 9000 left the ground disgusted with the shocking exhibition. The match was a disgraceful exhibition from start to finish. Such sustained rough play has not been seen in a Sydney football match for many years, if ever.”
In the first half Flower and Western Suburbs halfback George Mason had a set-to during the play-the-ball, with the referee giving the pair their marching orders. Flower didn’t seem too bothered by this turn of events; a newspaper photo of him and Mason leaving the field shows the Dragon’s face split by a broad grin.
Dragons lock-forward Aub Kelly wasn’t quite so pleased when he was told to head to the dressing sheds. Charged with stomping on the face of an opposing player, Kelly was abused by the crowd as he left the field. He singled out one person in the members stand and planned to take things further before a friend wisely intervened and pulled him away.
Kelly’s actions would prompt outraged letters in the paper, including one from the amusingly named Arthur Macarthur. “It is bad enough, in all conscience, for gentlemen members to have to listen to lurid language and misconduct by non-members,” the snobbish Macarthur bleated, “without being threatened with assault by players.”
The last player to be marched in that match was the Dragons’ William Ives, who had made a break but was pulled up just short and expressed his annoyance by punching the tackler.
Flower would end up with six weeks while fellow combatant Mason got three. Ives was rubbed out for three games while Kelly was controversially ruled out for the rest of the season. In Flower’s appeal, there were allegations that referee Miller had it in for him. A team-mate had run into Miller in the week leading up to the game and later claimed the ref told him “you have two hard men in St George. Flower is a wild cow.” Another witness claimed to hear Miller say “I fixed them” in the sheds after the game. Not surprisingly, Miller denied the allegations.