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The seeds were sewn for Ian Heads’ latest book back in the winter of 1969, the season he was appointed chief rugby league writer of Sydney’s Daily and Sunday Telegraphs. Have covered the ebb and flow of a fascinating league year, Heads was there — squeezed into the inadequate seating which masqueraded as a ‘press box’ at the back of the Sydney Cricket Ground’s famous old Members Stand — when underdogs Balmain shaped up to South Sydney in the Grand Final, Saturday September 20, 1969.
What unfolded that afternoon before a crowd of 58,825 became the stuff of legends, as the spirited Tigers unwrapped an intriguing plan aimed at bringing down the 3–1 on hot favourites Souths — a champion team bidding for their third straight premiership triumph.
A marathon match that stretched way past the standard 80 minutes — to 103 minutes! — largely due to the ‘go slow’ tactics devised by Balmain’s shrewd coach Leo ‘Nosa’ Nosworthy was a compelling experience. Throughout, fans on both sides waited for what surely was the inevitable — of Souths’ champions Ron Coote, Bob McCarthy, John O’Neill, Denis Pittard and the rest eventually bursting away to victory. But as the second half unfolded and Balmain edged away to an 11–2 lead, gradually the impossible became possible. Could this young Tigers team, peppered with a handful of shrewd old-stagers, really hang on against the mighty Rabbitohs?
In gathering the secrets and tales that make up The Great Grand Final Heist, author Heads had valued support from an old Telegraph pal, leading sports journalist Norm Tasker, in working through the close to 100 interviews eventually tackled, the pair of them digging deep beneath the surface of perhaps the most extraordinary premiership decider ever played to get to get to the bottom of a game which has been tagged in the years since ‘the greatest grand final upset in history’.
The story told is an immensely colourful one of a ‘mystery’ coach, the quiet man Nosworthy, controversy surrounding referee Keith Page, and rumours of a hefty late ‘plunge’ (on Balmain) engineered by some of the colourful characters who made up the Sydney gambling scene in those days. In the years since, the controversy has continued to flare from time to time … Did Balmain mangle the spirit of the game in the tactics they employed? … Were Souths too cocky? … Did they feel the sting of a rough deal from the ref. Along the way, there is drama, humour and sadness.
Via the picaresque tale it tells of the two old clubs in ’69, the pair of them surrounded by larger-than-life characters and with the accompaniment of an ancient feud bubbling away in the background, the story stands as one of the most intriguing of them all in the game’s long history.
The Great Grand Final Heist has won wide praise — and stands as a companion piece to 2014’s The Night the Music Died, Ian Heads’ best-selling book on the theme of unlikely dreams realised against all odds on the rugby league playing field.
From The Weekly Times 16 August 2017