Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


Beetson, Mr Arthur, AO

9:44 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I seek leave to speak for 20 minutes.

Leave granted.

Mr President, I thank the Senate. 'He was a giant of man, a giant of a footballer and a giant of a bloke'. Those are the words of sports journalist Mike Gibson talking about champion footballer Arthur Henry 'Artie' Beetson, who passed away on the Gold Coast on 1 December last year. I was one of those who attended his memorial service at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 18 December last year to pay my respects to this remarkable man.

Big Artie, the kid from Roma in Queensland, was a champion prop forward, perhaps the greatest in the history of Australian rugby league football. His club career spanned 17 years, from 1964 to 1981, playing 291 games for Redcliffe, Balmain, Hull Kingston Rovers, Eastern Suburbs and Parramatta. He scored 38 tries and kicked just the one field goal. He captained Queensland in the first State of Origin game. He represented Australia in 14 tests, two as captain.

Arthur Beetson was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2003 and features in Australian rugby league's list of its 100 greatest players. He has been named in the Australian Rugby League Team of the Century, the Queensland Rugby League Team of the Century, and the Indigenous Australian Rugby League Team of the Century. But Arthur was not one for accolades and ceremonies. He did not attend the 2008 Centenary Ball where he was inducted into the Rugby League Team of the Century. At the time he said he would not be attending because of his fears for the future of the game, as well as the fact he could not wear shorts and thongs to the event.

His hand-eye coordination and sharp reflexes saw Arthur excel in many sports; but it was rugby league where he made his name. He dominated in an era that was arguably the toughest—the final days of the brutal unlimited tackle and no replacement rules. In fact the Bulletin magazine described the 1966 season as 'open season for head hunters, the kidney kickers and the vicious stiff-arm tacklers'—especially when traditional rivals like the mighty Balmain Tigers and South Sydney lined up.

Queenslanders claim Artie as one of their finest, but it was in New South Wales where we saw so many of Arthur's greatest achievements, on and off the field, playing with Balmain, Easts, and Parramatta, and coaching Cronulla Sutherland. Artie's league career started in Roma, but it was when he moved to the 'big smoke' in 1964, playing in the Brisbane rugby league competition, that he really started to make his mark. He played in the 1965 Redcliffe Brisbane rugby league premiership winning side, winning the club's player of the year award.

Talent scouts from Sydney got the word to Harry Bath, the Balmain coach, that the kid from Roma was 'the real deal'. He headed to Balmain along with another talented Queenslander, Kevin Yow Yeh, at the conclusion of the 1965 season. Artie debuted for the Balmain Tigers at the SCG on 2 April 1966, against the all-conquering St George Dragons. Legendary Saints players Graeme Langlands, Johnny King, Reg Gasnier, Eddie Lumsden, Billy Smith, 'Poppa' Clay, Ian Walsh, Kevin Ryan and Johnny Raper, just to name a few, played that day. The Tigers, I am pleased to say, upset the Dragons 19-16, Artie winning man of the match honours. He played for the Tigers for another four years, playing 74 games, scoring six tries and kicking that one field goal. He famously missed the Tigers' great victory over Souths in the 1969 grand final through suspension. Two weeks earlier he had been sent off in the major semifinal, also against Souths, by referee Keith Page and he copped a two-week suspension. He described the send off as one of the great regrets of his life in football.

Artie joined Jack Gibson's Eastern Suburbs team in 1971 where he stayed until 1978, by which time he was captain/coach of the club. He captained Easts to their 1974 and 1975 premierships—they were the first for almost 30 years—playing for Easts a total of 131 games, scoring 17 tries. In 1979 Artie headed to Parramatta for his last two seasons of Sydney club football. Artie battled injury. In two seasons he only played 16 games for the Eels. One highlight though was the Eels 8-5 Tooth Cup final win over Balmain in 1980. Artie was instrumental in the success of State of Origin football. He was a proud Queenslander and was directly involved in 17 State of Origin matches between 1980 and 1990 for the Maroons—the first as a player and then 16 as coach. His coaching record was 11 wins and five losses.

Artie made his international debut in 1966 in the third test of the series against Great Britain. Those who saw the game remember his sensational kick ahead to set up Johnny King for the match-winning try. On 16 December 1973, Artie captained Australia for the first time in the second Kangaroo test against France in Toulouse. Australia won 14-3. He also captained Australia against Great Britain in the second Ashes test of 1974 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. In that test, Australia lost to Great Britain 16-11. Arthur Beetson was the first Indigenous player to captain Australia. The final days of Arthur's playing career were spent back in Redcliffe as captain/coach of the Redcliffe Dolphins. He finally hung up the boots at the conclusion of the 1981 season.

Off the field, Artie devoted time and effort to supporting league in Indigenous communities around Australia. He spent time in places like Eveleigh Street in Redfern, talking to young people, undoubtedly inspiring many of them to improve their lives—certainly encouraging them, where he could, to pick up a footy. He had a soft spot for kids from the bush, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. He was a natural athlete. He was a junior champion at tennis, a boxer, a squash player, and unbeatable at pool and snooker. He was also a famous tooth man and constantly battled with his weight. When Jack Gibson heard that Artie was losing weight, he replied 'Don't worry, he'll find it again.' Another great story tells of an end-of-season Pacific cruise, where Arthur embarked a hefty 16 stone and returned a fortnight later tipping the scales at 19 stone.

At the SCG memorial service, Arthur Beetson's fellow Rooster and great mate, Johnny Peard—the bomber—stole the show with some wonderful anecdotes about his mate. I am indebted to the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter, the only genuine Labor Party periodical in Australia, which recorded Johnny Peard's words:

Arthur had a lot of hotels. One day at The Big House, then a wharfies pub, a coach stopped with 57 Aboriginal players who ordered 57 schooners. 'Who's going to pay for these?' 'I guess I will', said Arthur. One of the footballers came over to Arthur at the bar and asked if he could take his photo. Arthur put a comb through his hair and smiled. The footballer skipped away, pulled a framed photo of Arthur off the wall and boarded the bus.

Johnny Peard also reminisced about a trip he made to Ivanhoe with Arthur. I will let the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter take up the story:

In Ivanhoe, John was told to get the newspaper. He stopped at the convenience store. 'Do you want today's paper or yesterday's?' 'Today's', John replied. 'In that case, you'll have to come back tomorrow'.

Tariff at the motel was $150, the receptionist advised. 'We'll pay that with pleasure', said Arthur. 'With pleasure', said the receptionist, 'its $450'.

T-bones cost $3.95. Arthur was astonished by the price. 'That's right', said the butcher. 'With meat, they cost $13.95'.

Let me say this about Arthur. He wrote in his autobiography how glad he was that he found rugby league in Roma all those years ago. He said, 'The game has taken me around the world and to places and achievements I could never have possibly dreamed of when I was skinny little 'Bones' Beetson, running barefoot down by Bungil Creek.' From Bungil Creek in Roma, to Brisbane, Sydney, and the international stage, Arthur Beetson's contribution to Australian sport has been exceptional. He has inspired many Australians from many different backgrounds. Artie loved footy. He described it as the greatest game—'balancing athleticism and toughness'. His contribution to the game was immeasurable; his achievements historic.

For my part, I simply say: he is the greatest rugby league forward I have ever seen. He was a legend. He is a legend. My sincere sympathy goes to Artie's family, friends, and fans.

Senate adjourned at 21:5 9