Published in Thirteen
by Lewis Mills
The 1986 Kangaroo Tour
Oldham v Australia
November 4th 1986, The Watersheddings
You can get a soundbite to tell you any side of a story you want to believe. While the past is a foreign country, of course, conversely the more things change, as the story goes, the more they stay the same. And so it is looking back on the visit of the Australian tourists to Oldham in the winter of 1986. In the news, government minister Norman Tebbit had been complaining about ‘BBC bias’ in reporting American activities – in Libya. A goal-shy Manchester United had managed to snatch a draw at home to Coventry City. And local league batsmen in their winter nets were discussing expensive overseas imports, with the reported arrival at CLL club Milnrow of Joel Garner, one quarter of the West Indian international fast bowling ‘Fearsome foursome’.
In the ‘eighties, after the international ban had ended and before Sky television, people saw the Australian rugby league tourists -the ‘Kangaroos’- in the same way that our forefathers must have seen Viking longships – that by the time you saw these awesome strangers, they had already arrived and it was probably too late to defend yourself.
Wally Lewis’s 1986 Kangaroos had set about this tour of the UK and France in much the same fashion as the all conquering ‘Invincibles’ had in 1982. Before their visit to Watersheddings, the tourists had amassed 52 tries and 266 points in their previous seven games. The Aussies had already put Hull KR, Leeds, Halifax and league leaders St.Helens to the sword. The first Whitbread Trophy test at Old Trafford had been won convincingly in front of 50,583 fans. In contrast, at the weekend Oldham had managed to hold on 32-20 against relegation threatened Barrow. Mug shots of these tourists began to appear on the back page of the Oldham Chronicle that would have been just as at home on the front page; the giant Mal Meninga, a 16-stone centre when such a thing was just a frightening glimpse of the future, and the squat, deceptively fast Terry Lamb, who had scored five tries in a previous match against Hull Kingston Rovers. Lamb was to achieve the rare feat of playing in every tour game, including the tests, in both England and France, scoring a remarkable nineteen tries in the twenty games. Surely the Watersheddings was just another point on the Kangaroo trail of rugby league destruction.
However just as much as winning becomes a habit, all good things must eventually come to an end. That week in Oldham, a Moorside family revealed that they had found and brought home their wayward son, found rallying with the Moonies in New York at the Reagan-Gorbachev peace talks. Further down Ripponden Road, another group of Oldhamers were gripped with ideas that seemed mad to the rest of the rugby league community. This was not an Oldham team to be written off lightly in domestic matters. Fresh from an appearance two weeks before in the Lancashire cup final, Oldham were unbeaten at home so far that season, and a baltic Tuesday night at Watersheddings was nobodies idea of a leisurely port of call. High and exposed, it made playing at other Lancashire grounds feel like a stroll on a Paris boulevard. You can only imagine what Dale Shearer, who had played his junior rugby in tropical Sarina, Ipswich and Brisbane Norths before moving to Sydney, would make of such frigid climes.
The Oldham players were preparing themselves to ambush the Kangaroos. Terry Flanagan said afterwards, “we treated it like a test match. As far as we were concerned we were representing Great Britain”. Manager Frank Myler, used the game to allow captain David Hobbs and others, to nudge current Great Britain coach Maurice Bamford.
The ‘Roughyeds’ contained Australians such as the clever loose forward Stuart Raper and the barrelling Bruce ‘Bruiser’ Clark, and players who had played previously against the Kangaroos like Des Foy, Hussein M’Barki, Terry Flanagan, David Topliss, and Mick Worrall, who knew what to expect. “[The Oldham players] will be staggered by the pace of the game,” said Hobbs. “You can have your cup finals and big matches. The fastest games are…against the Kangaroos…They move up on you so quickly that they pressurise you into making mistakes. We have to be ready to meet the challenge right from the kick off.”
Hobbs’ players were true to his word. In front of 5,678 fans on a bitterly cold night, the game fragmented into a brawl in the sixth minute, with Martin Bella and Steve Folkes from the ‘Roos and the Roughyeds’ Worrall and Paul Sherman sent to cool down for ten minutes. With Oldham up 2-0 they suffered the cruel loss of Hobbs, injured in a two-man tackle. Oldham refused to buckle, and tackled bravely to hold this lead for 18 minutes, before the master poacher Terry Lamb added two tries in the 21st and 25th minutes firstly taking an inside pass from Michael O’Connor to score near the posts. The second was after Gary Belcher returned a long Mick Worrall kick, and combined with fellow Queenslander Shearer to put Lamb over in the corner in front of the Watersheddings end. What cold? O’Connor goaled from the touchline to add to his penalty, and the Kangaroos led 14-2.
These rapier thrusts did not pierce the heart of the Oldham side. Before half time a Mick Worrall break was followed by a magnificent handling move, which saw the supporting Ray Ashton combine with Gary Warnecke before Colin Hawkyard scored next to the posts.
After heading to the break 8-14 behind, Oldham dominated the first 20 minutes of the second half, but crucially could not score another try, only adding two Hawkyard penalties to their tally. On 62 minutes Benny Elias shot past tired Oldham markers twenty metres out to put Australia 18-12 ahead. After Paul Langmack failed with a drop goal, the game was not out of reach until on 74 minutes Greg Alexander swooped up the touch line for a 22-12 Australia lead. However Oldham were last to score when in the dying seconds Raper burst clear from a David Topliss pass and his grubber kick was picked up by Foy to score. Oldham left the field to a standing ovation, and Australia were left to ponder on their walk to the Pavilion the awful scare they had received in winning by only six points.
The Smiths’ performance at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester that weekend had been denounced by the paper as “occasionally sloppy and over rehearsed” and that Johnny Marr “preferred to prance around the stage in an appalling suit.” So perhaps the headline of the Oldham Chronicle exclaiming a “Superb Oldham” performance should be considered high praise indeed. Sydney television commentator Rex Mossop was even more forthcoming, saying “It was easily the top show by a club side…Oldham can feel mighty proud of their effort. Your forwards were far more constructive than Australia’s…the half backs were the equal of the Aussie pair.” Flanagan said “There was some old fashioned English grit and courage…we showed the test lads what can be done.”
Thursday’s news came and the famous Oldham performance had received its 15 minutes. Australia went on to Elland Road for the second test on the way to finish their 20 game tour undefeated. Oldham had to look forward to a trip to Hull KR on Sunday without the injured Hobbs. Ron Atkinson, the Manchester United manager, was sacked after five and a half years to be replaced with a young, successful Scottish manager. Now does anybody remember what his name was…?
Oldham 16 (Tries: Hawkyard, Foy. Goals: Worrall 3, Hobbs)
Australia 22 (Tries: Lamb 2, Elias, Alexander. Goals: O’Connor 3)
Oldham: Jeff Edwards; Paul Sherman, Des Foy, Gary Warnecke, Hussein M’Barki; David Topliss, Ray Ashton; Bruce Clark, Terry Flanagan, Neil Clawson, David Hobbs, Mike Worrall, Stuart Raper. Subs Colin Hawkyard &Tom Nadiole.
Australia: Gary Belcher; Dale Shearer, Chris Mortimer, Mal Meninga, Michael O’Connor; Terry Lamb, Greg Alexander; Phil Daley, Ben Elias, Martin Bella, Steve Folkes, Les Davidson, Paul Langmack. Sub: Paul Sironen.