In the shadow of his 80th birthday, the old warrior has a crook back which gives him hell and plays havoc with his golf swing. But as has been his way through life Noel Raymond Kelly, aka Ned , heads resolutely on, still golfing regularly down at his much loved Long Reef, still full of the good-hearted gruff humour and the generous spirit that has been the trademark of one of the very special lives of the rugby league century. Ned remains a treasure of the game - and a nod of appreciation in his direction+ from those charged with running it these days would seem entirely fitting on the milestone occasion of January 22 when the 80 years clock clicks over.
The fact is that a profile of the rugby league story in the wider sense – one that is a saga of courage, dedication, achievement and an unflagging work ethic accompanied by continuing care for the game – dwells within the stocky frame of Noel Kelly. For any youngster enamoured of league, a trip to the local library to borrow Ned’s 1996 book Hard Man will reveal inspiration galore in the story of his unlikely climb to the very pinnacle of the game from the base of a tough, no favours, impecunious country upbringing. His arrival from Queensland in Sydney in 1961 with his wife Chris and a new baby, came shakily, via a rusty old ute in which the only air-conditioning was courtesy of the holes in the floor. Never was the going easy; all that was achieved in the years that followed came through hard yakka. In his early days on arrival in Sydney to join Wests, Ned worked three jobs.
In trying to sum him up years ago, I wrote: “around football he constructed a life built on simple things – love, hard work, fair treatment of his fellow human beings, friendship, good humour.” That formula, encasing his talent as a footballer, produced a glittering career at the highest level which included 25 Tests and a place in rugby league’s Team of the Century. When the Great Unpredictability of football provided a low key ending for him as a player in Wollongong in 1970. Ned linked up with that most friendly and welcoming of clubs North Sydney – and as a coach put some real steel into the Bears in five eventful seasons. From there came the final leg, which continues to an extent to today – of his unofficial role as an ambassador for the game – the fact being that Ned, being a gregarious bloke of generous spirit was happy to grace the podium at functions beyond counting, telling his stories, reminding people what a great thing it is to be involved in a game such as rugby league. He doesn’t do quite as much of it now – but keeps his hand in, remaining as Patron of the Northern Suburbs Men of League chapter. Ned chides himself for overdoing the footy trips: “I was carrying on like a 21 year old, going away for all those weekends. I woke up that Chris was sitting at home on her own all these years. I scaled back ….…there were a few reasons.
If the story of Noel Kelly, footballer is here and there overly robust (he was sent off 17 times in his senior career), well, that’s just the way football was back then – i.e. dog eat dog and every scrum a mini-war. Ned started his football as a lock forward but was destined to spend his entire senior playing days in the front row, at hooker or prop. Today’s perpetually sore neck which plays tag with his aching back reminds him constantly of that. But the wider picture of his football days and hard working life beams out an uplifting message for any young reader: All is possible.
On an early summer’s morningI spent a couple of hours with Ned at his Collaroy Plateau Home, essentially just `talkin’ football. These are just a few of his scattered observations
- The 2015 grand final: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better one. JT wrote the script.”
- Jonathon Thurston: “I have never seen anyone better than him. He is a great 80 minutes player – and he gets whacked, week after week."
- Greg Inglis: "Greg is a lovely bloke but he either doesn’t know how good he is or he doesn’t know what a day’s work is. He can come out and destroy a team if he wants to. But I wouldn’t have him as skipper. He wasn’t ready for that but I hope he gets another chance sometime."
- Sam Burgess: "He’s a cracker. If I was at Souths I’d make him captain. His two brothers will play better when he’s there."
- "More athletes than footballers play the game today. You see big blokes who are being paid top money who can’t even play the ball."
- Cameron Smith: “A great player….the best dummy half in town….but he’s a `centre-forward’ not a hooker and I honestly think he’d have more trouble fitting into my position than I would into his. When scrums were fair dinkum every one of them was a struggle; you’d push your guts out, you’d be getting smacked in the mouth and blokes would be tramping all over you. It was a tough deal; you’d walk out of some scrums buggered."
“I’d bring back the scrum, he says, “and make it work. Rugby union manage that and League could too. The scrum would bring back a contest for the ball…something that has virtually gone from the game.” A single referee would do him and Ned believes the game should also make better use of the Sin Bin …..and wonders aloud why the Kangaroos’ war cry (which featured before games on his three tours) was ever dropped. “The crowds loved it,” he said. “It was great entertainment…great theatre.” Ned urges more support too for country football, lifeblood of the game’s long years. “It’s going backwards out there,” he says.
We stray into a subject of some sadness, talking of great players who have left the arena, and the numbers of others struggling with health problems. The tone brightens with recall of their qualities as Ned ruminates on champions of his experience …of the likes of Reg Gasnier (`the best centre), of Johnny Raper and Graeme Langlands (10 out of 10)…….He muses further over the great warrior Chang……”he wore a chip on his shoulder…………but there was no better player,” he says.. You could have played him anywhere ….even hooker!”
At the milestone of his 80th birthday, Ned remains a fan, notwithstanding his concerns over some aspects of the modern game. “I’ve always been loyal to the Wests Magpies – and always will be, “he says. He still goes to games from time to time during each season, admitting however, “but geeze I can get comfortable in the chair in front of the TV sometimes…especially if the weather is a bit crook!”
The worrisome back brings a wince to the Kelly dial as a he climbs from his seat on my departure, but the handshake at the door from the meaty Kelly fist is as firm as ever – and so too the steady gaze…… yet with the familiar sense that a twinkle is never far away…..