If the order of the day was for a crafty half that played well above his weight, then John Salter would be on the menu.
Salter was at the helm for the Magpies in the 1979 grand final and darted his way to a Queensland jumper in 1977.
John Salter Q&A
Can you remember your debut for Souths?
I was in the Queensland six-stone schoolboys’ rugby league team in 1966 then went to Brisbane State High School from 1967 to 1971. I played rugby for Easts in 1972 and 1973 with Greg Holben in the halves and was selected for Queensland under 18s against NSW before the Australia v Tonga rugby test at Ballymore in 1973. Souths approached me to play league after that game. I took up the offer and made my first grade debut in 1975 against Norths at Lang Park. I marked Tommy Bishop. I got a valuable league lesson and we got thumped.
In the 1976 finals, Souths finish equal with Valleys and Wynnum in fifth spot. You have to play the last round against Redcliffe and lose 32-13 on the Sunday, then beat Valleys 19-12 on the Tuesday, Thursday beat Wynnum 17-12 just to make finals and then Saturday beat Redcliffe 14-6 in the elimination final. That’s four games in eight day - hell of a big eight days - then play Wests week two of the finals in the knockout semi.
I still don’t know what justification there was for installing a final five with an eight-team comp and when three teams finished equal fifth, why they didn’t use for and against. It meant there was a three-way playoff to determine the fifth spot and whilst we undoubtedly had momentum, Wests the defending premiers led by Geoff Richardson, were a very good team and they proved slightly too good for us, going on to become back-to-back premiers. The 1976 finals series saw the introduction of a new era for Souths players including Pat Phelan and Marshall Colwell from Townsville, which was to prove transformational.
You got a Queensland jumper in 1977 but you cop some knees in the back when you’re scoring a try and Queensland lose by a point 14-13.
Wayne Bennett took over as Souths coach in 1977 and 'Stretch' was very innovative, having a huge influence on the way I played. I was selected to play City v Country and then Queensland for the interstate series. It was such an honour to play for Barry Muir as he was a massive motivator - he found his niche as a rep coach and I related and responded to him. I scored the first try early at Lang Park, but received a knee in the back and broke four transverse process vertebrae. A few think it should have been an eight point try. I know 'Garbo' thought so and often suggested had the referee 'Hollywood' Hartley not been a Cockroach, it would have been. The match has become somewhat famous over the years. I marked Steve Mortimer and he and me with an 18-year-old Allan Power all debuted that day. Greg Oliphant replaced me and Tommy Raudonikis replaced Turvey at half time, which led to their massive blue in the second half and subsequent series of boxing matches. When you look at the New South Wales team you shake your head at the calibre of their talent, with Arthur Beetson as captain.
The 1979 grand final didn’t go well. What happened?
No, it didn’t. Valleys, led by Ross Strudwick and with a 19-year led Wally Lewis in his second grand final and Tommy Duggan up front, were an exceptional team going into September without losing a game from May. We beat Wests 22-13 in the elimination semi and then just snuck home against Easts 18-16 after being down 14-0. Applying hindsight, that was probably my best ever game, but despite Stretch’s valiant efforts, we sub-consciously may have considered it our final, forgetting we still had one to go. 1979 was a huge year for Souths - its first grand final since 1963 and tragically we lost Pat Phelan to a boating accident in the Brisbane River right outside Davies Park in January, which really rocked us. Everything we did that year including making the grand final was about Pat, who at 25 was on the cusp of a brilliant career and while having him for the 1979 season may not have changed the result, his loss was massive. His younger brother Chris came to Souths from Townsville in 1980 and went on to have such a stellar career for Parramatta and Queensland. Then 1980 we lost again to Norths, and I played in a star-studded winning reserve grade side that day, Souths being in all three grades. In 1981 we finally got there in Arthur’s last ever game, via the famous last minute try from my good mate Mick “Panther” Reardon, who lives close to me on the Gold Coast. I played in the reserves, losing, where I marked Ollie in a game where three internationals and five interstate reps played. My knees were shot and 1981 was my final season.
Give me your best Mal Meninga story.
I remember 'Stretch' telling us in 1978 he had this smouldering superstar under his guidance at the police academy and that turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. Mal exploded on to the scene in a pre-season game against Brothers in 1979 where he kicked five goals and scored two tries. He was incredibly shy and quiet when he joined us, which were certainly not personal traits that some of us possessed, but eventually his confidence grew and he became unstoppable on the field. Pretty quickly 'Stretch' stressed the halves had to get the ball to Mal as quicky as possible so he was one on one with opposing centres – many of them were left eating dirt as a result of his deadly fend and powerhouse running. While not exactly rocket science, it was wise advice indeed.
Is it true you played A grade cricket too?
In my first three years at Souths - 1974 to 1976 - I was playing A grade cricket for Easts and we didn’t commence pre-season training at Souths until Australia Day, so from January to March was very busy. A number of people at Souths suggested it was time to make a call, so I did, but one of the regrets of that decision was never getting to play cricket in the UK. I still play over 60s veterans and I can’t wait for the Ashes series in the UK.
Who did you play with or against that would be a superstar in 2023?
Simple answer is Wally, another State High old boy. He was the complete player including a punishing defender - that I can attest to from personal experience. I liken him to Cam Munster but Wally, at this point at least, may be ahead when it comes to defence. Both seem to always have plenty of time to plot and orchestrate in attack, with great awareness of the opposition’s whereabouts on the field and the vision to orchestrate and inflict maximum damage on any defence.
Which half did you enjoy or not enjoy coming up against?
I am staggered that so many people have the fondest of memories of Brisbane rugby league in the 1970’s and there were a lot of halves in that era at all the eight clubs. Tommy Bishop, Ollie, Col Part, Ross Hendricks, Terry Saunders, Noel Cowell, Tony White and of course Struddy at Valleys. But perhaps the closest to the way I liked to play was Wayne Lindenberg at Easts, who was originally from Toowoomba and was an excellent all-round sportsman. He was incredibly quick, both feet and hands.
Where is your Queensland jumper?
Framed and on the wall with the program all autographed.
From a personal perspective, one of my halves partners, Allan Brackin, is a very close mate of mine and we talk and see each other regularly. I am still bewildered about the events at the end of 1979, when the Souths administration amazingly let Bennett go across to Brothers, given we had progressed so far. Equally surprising, was the decision to replace David Gould at hooker in 1980. The dummy half was critical to the way I played, and Gouldy was far and away the very best I played with - lightning quick and expansive service from the play the ball and a very elusive, incisive runner, much like Damien Cook today. Bob McCarthy took over as coach in 1980 and history suggests he did not rate me as highly as a player as 'Stretch'. But Bob was a great bloke and very knowledgeable from his South Sydney, Blues and Kangaroos experience. He and his reserves sidekick, Ivan “Caspa” Cohen, created a hugely successful club wide atmosphere which was wonderful to be a part of. Some of most enjoyable times in footy were in The Ghost’s reggies in '80 and '81, interacting and playing with great characters such as 'Wild Bill' Argeros, Billy 'Bog' Kallis, Chris 'Big Bikies' Thorley, Peter 'Jet Boots' Ryan, 'Beatle' Turnbull, 'Brook' Seabrook, Allan ‘Seaweed” Power and a very young 'Badge' Belcher. On the paddock, Mal was a standout of course, John Grant was a great player, you couldn’t ask for better go forward props than Bob Kellaway and Dave Brown, both Greg Veivers and Bruce Astill were outstanding leaders and Gary Belcher is the best open field runner I have seen. No one can overstate the administrative contribution 'Slim' McLelland made over 30 years at West End, but in quiet, nostalgic and reflective moments, Patty Phelan and 'Garbo' very quickly enter and dominate my thoughts.