When I was a kid in the 70s my dad used to take me to Rugby League matches. We used to go to Bear Park to watch the (North Sydney) Bears play. I don’t remember much about going to the footy, and I certainly don’t remember anything about who played for the Bears but I remember seeing Arthur Beetson play. Yeah I know, he didn’t play for Norths. When I used to go he must have been playing for Easts because I would have been too young to see him at Balmain. I remember him charging up the paddock. I also remember my dad always calling him ‘Big Artie’ and raving on about what a great footballer he was. He was big and strong, and other players would hang off him trying to bring him down but he’d always offload the ball before they did. This was a time when League was full of big personalities and he certainly was one of those. Long after I stopped going to games I still enjoyed watching him on the telly, whether he was playing or coaching, and talking to my dad about how great ‘Big Artie’ was. It was one of the few sporty things I could talk about with my dad.
‘Artie’ Beetson had a remarkable football career. He captained Queensland against New South Wales in the inaugural State of Origin game in 1980. Rumour has it he actually coined the term ‘State against State, mate against mate’ and the biffo in that match certainly set the tone for future State of Origin games. He was also the first Indigenous player to captain a national team in any sport. He played 28 Tests for Australia and captained two. He played 235 club matches between 1963-81 in Sydney and Brisbane first grade competitions. He captained Eastern Suburbs to back-to-back Sydney first grade premiership wins in 1974 and 1975. He finished his Sydney career with Parramatta in 1980 before returning to Redcliffe in the Brisbane first grade competition. His coaching career included leading Queensland to Origin series victories in 1983, 1984 and 1989, while at the club level he was also at the helm of the Roosters and Cronulla. (Stats from ABC website) That’s a pretty impressive career.
The Powerhouse Museum has three Rugby League programs in the collection that relate to ‘Artie’ Beetson’s career.
Arthur Beetson began playing Rugby League in his home state of Queensland but moved to Sydney in 1966 to play for Balmain in the New South Wales Rugby Football League premiership. In his first year he was selected to make his representative debut for Australia against England and scored two tries.
Maureen Goddard saved a number of Rugby League programs, including one from this match, donating them to the Powerhouse Museum’s collection. In an article inside, the rather purple prose describes the crowd’s anticipation, and the game as one where “Sydney fans will wish both sides an even break from Dame Fortune because these are evenly matched teams and we are all looking forward to 80 minutes of football in which skill must be the deciding factor”. And so it was. In another program, “The third test was a match long to be remembered by the capacity crowd at the Cricket Ground with Australia playing attacking football to clinch the Ashes”. (Rugby League News, July 23 and September 17 1966)
In that same year ‘Artie’ Beetson played with Balmain in the Grand Final against St George. The program for the match proffered this observation: “Today’s grand final completes a long season which has passed all too quickly with the playing of an exciting pre-season competition, the visit of the Englishmen and a premiership which has been full of interest since it began at the start of April. Now we have the two best sides left in to play off for the title of 1966 premiers…..The interest normally created by a grand final is intensified this year by the presence of St George and Balmain as rival teams. St George with its unprecedented 10 successive premiership victories is striving to maintain its winning streak. Balmain, traditionally battlers who excel in tight matches are seeking to dethrone the kings.” Alas it was not to be as St George maintained their winning streak defeating Balman 23 to 4.
The other program in the museum’s collection relates more to the Grand Final in which Artie didn’t play due to suspension following a stoush with another player. There is no mention of him in the program at all.
This was an upset win of Balmain over the South Sydney Rabbitohs 11-2 and Artie had to watch from the sidelines.
While hanging out on Facebook the night his passing was announced, I spoke to my friends about their memories of ‘Big Artie’. Amongst the impressive career highlights they quoted, most of them spoke of him being a really good bloke, working with Indigenous kids, biffo and his great love for meat pies. To quote my friend Pete ‘he ate a LOT of pies’. I think that’s a pretty good way to remember a remarkable footballer.
Rebecca Bower, Curator