Benny Elias is one of the most iconic figures in Australian Rugby League and is now a multi-millionaire businessman. I spoke to him in 2008 for Rugby League World.
Is it Ben or Benny?
It’s Ben in business and Benny in footy!
What were your early days at Balmain like?
I made my debut in 1982 for a side who had won the wooden spoon the year before. But the new coach Frank Stanton was a phenomenon. He had a three-year plan which worked and Keith Barnes, the CEO, had the knack of keeping all the great players at the club for less money than they could have got elsewhere which is unheard of now. With Garry Jack, Steve Roach, Wayne Pearce and myself we had the nucleus of a great team.
What are the highlights of your Origin career?
There are two – my first and last. We beat Queensland in my first Origin in 1985 at Lang Park and we went on to win the series under Steve Mortimer’s captaincy. Then in 1994 we went to Lang Park for the decider, mine and Mal Meninga’s last Origins and we beat them 27-12. That’s the game when my mum came onto the pitch at the end with me bleeding all over the place, past all the security and everything to put her arm round me!
Were you disappointed to only get five Test caps?
Yes but I was behind Royce Simmons for a long time. I got in in 1985 but then broke my thumb in 1986. There were some big highlights though. I played in a very special team that won the World Cup in 1988, alongside Alfie Langer and Wally Lewis. League was huge in New Zealand at the time and the All Blacks were pretty worried about it. There was so much interest that they had to move from Carlaw Park to Eden Park but we managed to win quite comfortably. If the Kiwis had won, the interest levels in the game could have exploded. Then there’s the 1990 Kangaroo Tour. I played in the second and third Tests and was on the field when Mal scored that famous try at Old Trafford – one of the best moments of my sporting life. In the third Ellery gave me the big speech about it being his patch but we still won. INXS were there and I gave my jersey to Michael Hutchence who then wore it in concert. Great memories!
Tell us about Ellery Hanley and the incredible impact he made at Balmain in 1988.
Ellery Hanley is the greatest player I ever played with and that includes Wally Lewis. Balmain hadn’t been in a Grand Final since 1969 and this bloke came in and made an amazing difference. He did things unknown to Rugby League at the time. Myself and Keith Barnes [the chief executive] picked him up from the airport when he arrived from England and I can remember that the first conversation was nothing about the social life or the climate. It was about football. That’s all he wanted to discuss. He could not get to a football field quick enough. He was over to do a job and that was to get us to a Grand Final. We had some super professional players like Steve Roach, Wayne Pearce and Garry Jack but this bloke was a cut above. It was amazing because we thought that Pommy football was just a social kind of football but Ellery Hanley was just an amazing breath of fresh air. He was so committed. He was the first to training and the last to leave.
We were 55/1 to win the Grand Final when he came. We needed to win 12 games out of the last 13 because we were just mid-table. We were no Premiership threat but we got the wins we needed which was an amazing feat. But unfortunately we all know what happened in the Grand Final and the rest is history. He was deliberately targeted but a lot of the great players have been deliberately targeted over the years. That’s no secret. That’s a credit to his ability I suppose. Canterbury’s coach was Phil Gould and he probably thought that nobody would be sent off in a Grand Final. I actually recall shaking him at half-time and telling him that we needed him. I told him that it was a Grand Final and he’d get over his concussion later but he just looked at me and told me that he just couldn’t go on. I was quietly disappointed because I’d have thought that after all the efforts he’d have played concussed. We’d have rather had a 50% Ellery Hanley than no Ellery Hanley. As soon as he came off, the Bulldogs became more positive and confident. It was unfortunate but that’s the way life goes.
Were you disappointed he didn’t come back to Balmain?
Keith Barnes was our CEO and he’d also captain-coached a Kangaroo tour. Keith was the reason Ellery came over and he was also responsible for bringing Lee Crooks, Garry Schofield and Shaun Edwards to Balmain. The disappointing part of Ellery was that he gave us his word that he’d play for no other club than us but unfortunately he came back in 1989 to play for Wests. It was disappointing because I’d come to know Ellery very well and I spent a lot of time with him. If we’d had Ellery we could have dominated for the next few years. He never gave me a reason why he didn’t come back to the Tigers. If it was a money thing then it was understandable but I’m sure we made him a good offer. We would have found the money somewhere. He made such an impact that you just had to have him in your side.
Can you still see your drop-goal attempt hitting the crossbar in the ’89 Grand Final?
I can still hear the noise it made! It was a heartbreaking defeat to a great Canberra side. We lost in ’88 too but that was more memorable because we’d been 50-1 to make the final but when we got there Ellery was taken out by Terry Lamb and the rest is history.
A number of other high-profile Englishmen played with you at Balmain. How did you rate them?
Keith Barnes did a great job in getting them over. Ellery was the most amazing, professional player I came across. He was sensational for us in 1988 getting us from mid-table to the Grand Final.
Garry Schofield played earlier and longer. He had the most magnificent, natural ability to be a tryscoring whiz. He had terrific vision and was always in the right place at the right time. We have a very good friendship still to this day.
Shaun Edwards struggled here. He wasn’t here for long and he was a lot more arrogant and cocky than the other Englishmen. He was very professional but found it hard to adapt to the Australian way of life. He didn’t seem to regard being here as a pleasure. But he was a great player, a real individualist though. He was the British halfback but couldn’t get into our top side and I think he let that anger out with the way he behaved – just getting the job done and going home after training. He didn’t socialise with us.
Then there was the legendary Lee Crooks. We thought we knew how to drink beer but Lee came over and taught us a lesson. He had a beautiful nature and was a great bloke. He was a magnificent ballplayer and had all the qualities as a player.
Andy Currier was here too. He wasn’t so high profile but he was a great goalkicker and set up a good try in the 1989 Grand Final. He wasn’t in the same league as the other four though.
Didn’t you once bite your hand to get Mario Fenech sent off?
[laughs]…Yes. I asked Blocker [Roach] to start a fight and that’s when I bit my own hand. The referee said he saw everything and sent Mario off for it.
Were you ever tempted to come to England?
Yes. David Topliss made me many offers to get me to Wakefield but, for some reason, I didn’t have the gumption to do it. I was studying hard for a degree, always conscious of the fact that there was life after football. I also got offers from Leeds and Warrington.
Being born in Tripoli, how big a shame is it for you that Lebanon didn’t qualify for the World Cup?
It’s a huge shame because there are so many good players and they’d have made a big impact because of the size of the Lebanese communities here. But it doesn’t say much for the game that there were 16 teams at the last World Cup and only 10 now.
What do you do now?
I retired at 29 and had 48 mobile phone shops which I sold in 2002. I then met Max Delmege who owns Manly and we’re involved in commercial real estate. I’m a director of Balmain, I sit on two public boards and I’ve got two beautiful kids. Life is great.