Moree High’s win against Tamworth was a pivotal point in the chase for 1973 Uni Shield honours
In 1973, Moree High School threw its name in the ring for a crack at the University Shield, a schoolboy rugby league knock-out competition steeped in history.
The squad, made up of names that would later be etched in local and State sporting history, faced a mammoth task.
It was a pipedream, pure and simple, and during the early part of the season, most people treated it as that – a pipedream.
Not many people gave these boys a chance. Coach John McLean had faith in them, and so did their families and close friends.
But, by and large, this was a team having a shot at the impossible.
For the first few weeks of the 1973 footie season, the good folk of Moree went about their business in the usual way.
Most worked six days, and long days at that. But when Sunday rolled around, if home games were scheduled, just about everyone crammed into Taylor Oval to watch three grades of footie, sometimes four.
There was always standing room only and the tall iron-mesh fence bordering the grounds would be draped with hessian to stop tight-arses getting a free look.
In the opening rounds of the University Shield competition, Moree High put together three whopping wins against Warialda (48-6), Tenterfield (59-2) and Armidale (20-6).
They were played on school days in front of empty grandstands – the hardworking folk of Moree simply couldn’t get to a midweek game of footie to watch a group of kids chase the impossible dream.
Team member Mike Hadfield well remembers those early days.
“There was not much interest in those games because they were all played on a Wednesday during school time,” Hadfield said.
However, the match against Tamworth, held at Taylor Oval on Saturday, June 16, changed all that.
Townsfolk downed tools that Saturday afternoon and marched on Taylor Oval to watch a dream become a reality.
More than 5000 spectators filed onto the cherished ground and watched Moree High School put Tamworth High School away.
It was truly David-versus-Goliath stuff.
“Very few people were interested in our journey until the game against Tamworth High School,” Hadfield recalled.
Tamworth High was a University Shield powerhouse.
After all, the school had won 12 University Shield grand-finals since the competition was first held in 1922 – and four of those wins were during the decade leading into the 1973 season.
“The lowly rated Moree High School team had not even played in a Uni Shield grand-final whereas Tamworth High played in the six grand-finals prior to 1973 and won three of them,” Hadfield said.
“This game, I believe, catapulted our journey. Could we defeat the famous Tamworth High School side? In hindsight, it appears that many people thought we could, given the attendance that day,” Hadfield said.
Tamworth was coached by Roy Masters, who, the previous year coached the inaugural Australian schoolboys’ representative side that toured Great Britain – undefeated, mind you.
The team took on all-comers in 12 matches and won the lot. They scored 402 points, including 108 tries.
Squad members in the UK included future stars Craig Young, Les Boyd, Ian Schubert and Royce Ayliffe.
Two other members – outside centre Stephen Fishenden and five-eight Gary Hollis – were in the Tamworth team against Moree that chilly winter afternoon at Taylor Oval.
Moree High School was pitted against a juggernaut. Pundits and purists said a hometown win was impossible; local supporters said otherwise.
Moree High achieved the impossible that day and defeated Tamworth High, 14-2.
Roy Masters spat the dummy. He marched his deflated team off the paddock and onto the bus, and declined an offer of free entry for the entire team to Moree hot pools for an after-game wind-down.
“Following that win, many supporters started thinking that maybe the fairytale could come true,” Hadfield smiled.
And that fairytale did come true.
In the following weeks, Moree High School’s open-weight rugby league team rattled off wins against Maitland Boys High (27-5), Lismore High School (44-10) and Newcastle Technical High School 26-10) to set up a date with Forbes High School in the University Shield Grand-Final at Gosford’s Grahame Park on Saturday, August 18.
So important was the game against Lismore, the Moree Cup the same day was put back two hours so people could watch the match at Taylor Oval before heading to the races.
Moree High was one of 184 schools vying for University Shield honours in 1973.
The team met opponents in a competition that is built on history and acknowledged as the initial springboard to rugby league greatness.
Against overwhelming odds, this group of mismatched teenagers took on all-comers and soundly defeated them – the 1973 University Shield series was the year of the underdog, and a defining moment in Moree’s sporting and civic pride.
Moree High School defeated Forbes High School 13-12 to give them a permanent place in schoolboy rugby league folklore.
Moree was never supposed to win the game – it just wasn’t in the script – but a successful conversion by 15-year-old Bernie Briggs off a John Brooks try in the dying minutes of the game sealed a narrow victory.
Now, 50 years on, Moree High’s open-weight rugby league team’s rags-to-riches glory in 1973 will be celebrated at a reunion planned for August 18-19-20 at Moree.
Organisers want the weekend to be all about coming home to where it all started – Moree.
And, they stress, the reunion is not just about the university shield team, but a chance for all former Moree-ites to come home and catch up with family and friends.
The focus, of course, will be on rugby league, especially the University Shield-winning team, but it’s also about Moree people getting together for a weekend to remember.
Watch this space!
Words: Copyright Bill Poulos