They played the game: hundreds turn out to pay tribute to Moree’s Bernie Briggs
THE 350-plus guest list read like a who’s-who of Moree sporting legends and heroes, and they were all back home last weekend to pay tribute to a man who many believe to be the greatest of them all – living treasure Bernie Briggs.
Briggs, a natural-born sportsman and one of Moree’s most respected citizens, has fought the big battles over the decades – both on and off the paddock.
But when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer midway through last year he knew the road ahead would be long and hard.
About three months ago a few of his mates got together to organise a reunion to pay tribute to the man who helped redefine Moree sport in the 1970s and 1980s.
They just wanted Briggs to know that he wasn’t going into battle alone. And, once Moree’s ever-reliable bush telegraph notched up a gear, old team-mates, friends, family and former work colleagues rallied to his side.
All the well-known names of country rugby league were there: the Jurd brothers and the Peachey boys made the trek to Moree, as did the Mathers, Quinns, Walfords, Flicks and Allen brothers.
Heck, there were enough Shearers in town to knock over 500 woolly wethers before smoko.
Many hadn’t been back to Moree since those heady days of the 1970s when the Moree Boars were an unstoppable force; an era when rugby league was king.
It was a time that brought the coveted University Shield to the far north-west for the first time when, in 1973, Moree High School overcame bolter’s odds to beat Forbes High School by one point.
The nail-biting match, played at Gosford’s Grahame Park, is still rightly considered to be Moree’s proudest sporting achievement.
And it’s a special moment in the town’s history because of one man – or boy at the time.
Briggs, at just 15 years of age, had 8000 sets of eyes on him when he lined up a goal from the sideline with just 10 minutes left to play of that now-famous 80 minutes of football.
John Brooks had just crashed through the Forbes defence to plant the ball right in the corner and bring Moree High School to within two points of Uni Shield glory.
With the score 12-11 Forbes’ way, it was left to Briggs to convert Brookes’ try and rewrite local sporting history.
And that’s exactly what he did.
When that oval-shaped ball floated across the black dot, with those 8000 sets of eyes following its every move, Briggs brought Moree to national sporting prominence.
He single-handedly – or footedly, if there is such a word – embedded the sports-mad town into rugby league folklore.
Briggs says he felt “sheer elation” when the flags were raised and Moree took a 13-12 lead.
“But I remembered that we still had 10 minutes of football left and that the game wasn’t over – even though we got one point in front, the game wasn’t finished,” he said.
Briggs likes to play down that special moment, just as he likes to play down everything else he’s done and achieved over the years.
He reckons he’s just the bloke that’s there to fix your phone – he’s worked for Telstra since before the dial-up days – and humbly says the records he created, rewrote and smashed over the years were just part of growing up in the bush.
“I’m just a hometown boy; a boy from Yarraman,” he smiles.
Briggs is Moree born-and-bred – raised at the small village of Yarraman on the northern edge of town – and no amount of coaxing, lucrative contracts or big bucks could’ve dragged him away from the place.
And, mind you, during those early years there were plenty of big, fat, juicy carrots left dangling.
In 1976 he played a season with Macquarie United in Newcastle, but it wasn’t too long before he jumped on the red rattler at Broadmeadow Station and headed home to the black-soil plains.
“I finished school and went to Newcastle for 18 months but came back to Moree,” Briggs said.
“I never had any big plans to go to Sydney or anything; there were a few offers, but it didn’t really worry me.
“I’ve always said that if I had (good mate) Stan Jurd’s determination, I might’ve made it in Sydney. Stan is just one of those blokes that got to where he did through sheer determination and ability,” he said.
As Jurd’s brother Robert said: “You simply can’t buy class – and Bernie Briggs is all class.”
Briggs’s sporting achievements are incredible. He was a 1970s sports prodigy, a freak.
He was part of Moree High’s undefeated under-16s outfit and, apart from his pivotal role in the University Shield win, played with that year’s under-18s Group 5 grand-final winners.
He was named the NSW combined high schools’ 15-years javelin champion and was an all-rounder with the north-west area open cricket team.
Briggs also has the distinction of being awarded two north-west area Blues in 1973 – one for athletics and a special Blue for rugby league and cricket.
He also played for the under-21s Northern NSW Emus cricket team that toured New Zealand and when he found some spare time, won the 1973 State javelin championships.
Briggs handled the round ball just as stylishly. He scored a few goals during the season for the Moree open soccer team and that year they won the regional competition.
All of this at just 15 years of age.
Briggs also played three times for Northern Division against Great Britain – the third time he was “off his game” and soon after the match was admitted to hospital with pneumonia.
But mention any of these incredible achievements to Briggs and he smiles shyly.
“I just loved sport. It was good; it was just something we did as kids,” he says.
But it was much more than that; Briggs was simply a natural who could turn any sport into an art-form.
John Brooks, who scored that crucial Uni Shield try that Briggs converted, recalls how his team-mate became NSW 15-years State javelin champion, and all because of a bit of schoolboy horseplay.
“Our coach John McLean made all of us University Shield boys go to the school athletics carnivals to set a good example for the rest of the students,” Brooks said.
“Anyway, Buster (Michael Duke) threw a javelin to Bernie and said ‘come on Bernie, show us how the old black magic works’.
“So Bernie just threw the damn thing and John McLean went and measured it out and figured that in that one throw, Bernie had broken the State record.
“Needless to say, Bernie gets picked for the north-west, goes to Sydney and wins the State athletics title for 15 years javelin,” Brooks laughed.
“People say ‘that can’t be right’, but that is exactly what happened.”
Briggs, who turned 57 in January, says the Uni Shield win 42 years ago is one of his proudest sporting achievements.
“I rate the uni shield win of course and the grand-final wins with Moree are right up there was well,” he says.
“I played in seven grand-finals for Moree and we won six of them, juniors through to seniors. The one loss was against Inverell at Inverell in 1975.
“I had played the major-semis at Moree and was called up from the juniors to play in the final. We lost by a point, but the last grand-final I played in was against Narrabri at Burt’s oval (in Moree) and we won by a point.”
Now Briggs faces his biggest challenge but, in that typical tenacious way that made him a home-grown champion for decades, he remains upbeat.
“Everything is going good,” he said.
“I’ve been on chemo and it’s doing its job at this stage, and it’s not affecting me as much as it does other people.
“It’s not making me crook, which I’m very grateful for,” he said.
A small ‘get-together’ that snowballed into something very special
IT started out as just a simple get-together for a mate in need, but quickly transformed into Moree’s best-kept secret that more than 350 people knew about.
Bernie Briggs had an inkling that something was afoot when he was told that a few of his old University Shield mates were coming home to Moree for a low-key get-together.
Uni Shield team-mate Mike Hadfield had thrown the idea out there as a way for Briggs to again meet up with a group of mates that had, between them, created Moree sporting history 42 years ago.
Hadfield got in touch with Gary Maidens, one of Briggs’ good mates and work colleagues, and before you could say “Moree High School 11-12 with a kick to come”, they knew that this quiet little get-together was going to be something big – and something special.
Surprisingly, it was still kept a pretty good secret – until Briggs and his wife Sally walked arm-in-arm into the Moree Services Club last Saturday afternoon.
“I knew something was on, and originally I thought it was just the Uni Shield guys coming back,” Briggs said.
“But Mike linked up with Gary and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s been amazing; it took me half-an-hour to get through four tables.
“Gary told me that the Uni Shield boys were coming home, but I knew that it wouldn’t be just them. I thought maybe a few more, but not this many,” he said.
“It doesn’t surprise me one bit though what’s happening, and it’s all because of great Moree people and great family and friends.
“I’ve been friends with a lot of these people since we were five, six and seven years of age and it’s great to see them all here together again,” Briggs said.
Maidens, who helped co-ordinate the tribute that included a barbecue dinner for about 350 guests as well as a huge auction that raised nearly $15,000, said he was amazed at how one of Moree’s biggest surprise parties had remained, well, a surprise.
“Mike (Hadfield) said that we should have a bit of a get-together and I explained that there would be a few footballers around here that would want to go too, and it just grew from there,” Maidens said.
“It was all just word-of-mouth and went off incredibly well.
“Our local butchers Leggies and Reado’s donated all the meat for the barbeque and Joe Flick and Ricky Walford brought up a few footy jumpers for the auction.
“Men of League also donated other memorabilia, and Alan and Liz from M&G Travel in Moree donated a return trip to Sydney,” he said.
Maidens said donations and prizes also came in from Kelly’s Store, Country Rugby League, Royal Hotel Social Club, Moree Bakehouse, Stan Jurd, Moree Services Club and club greenkeeper Dean Hislop.
Former long-serving Group 4 president Frank Fish said the night was a fitting tribute to a Moree sportsman who had done his hometown proud – over and over again.
“It’s been a great night and it’s a really nice thought and gesture from the Moree boys to put it on for Bernie the way they have,” Fish said.
“I coached Bernie in northern division in Group 4 sides and he was a very good footballer. If you had a team full of players like Bernie Briggs you had a good team; you had a winning side.
“Bernie could play anywhere from centre to five-eighth, lock to front-row. He was the sort of player that you could put anywhere on the field.
“He has done a lot for the Moree club through Group 4, and has always been a great ambassador for the game,” Fish said.
A special bond that remains steadfast after 42 years
IT’S often been said that a significant event, something so special that it transcends the extraordinary, can create friendships that last forever.
And that’s exactly what happened 42 years ago when a group of high school mates from Moree did something so out of the ordinary that their triumph is widely recognised as their hometown’s greatest sporting accomplishment.
When Michael “Buster” Duke, Terry Quinn, John Brooks, Mike Hadfield, Bernie Briggs, Harry Allen, Peter Peachey, Greg King, Richard Brown, Stephen Dawson, Paul Peachey, Tony Dean, Peter Gillan, Stephen Jones, Gregg Humphries, John Brazier and Peter Butler were selected as Moree High School’s open-weight football team and given a shot at schoolboy rugby league’s holy grail – the coveted University Shield – it was considered an ambitious pipedream that that was eons away from reality.
But when this group of kids ranging in ages from 15 to 18 were put on the paddock, something magical happened.
It all came together under the astute guidance of coach John McLean and this determined group of boys destined to become lifelong blood-brothers achieved something that most pundits thought impossible.
They started winning.
The team’s admission into Moree sporting folklore began at Taylor Oval in early 1973 and was completed six memorable months later at Grahame Park in Gosford.
Moree High was one of 184 schools vying for 1973 University Shield honours. It is a competition built on history, and acknowledged as the initial springboard to rugby league greatness.
Competing in the knock-out competition’s northern zone, Moree High began the season by giving Warialda a 48-6 drubbing.
They then annihilated Tenterfield 59-2 before giving Armidale a 20-6 shellacking.
In round four, the team delivered a 14-2 beating to Tamworth – coached at the time by Roy Masters – before outgunning Maitland, 27-5.
After soundly defeating Lismore 44-10, Moree went in to the northern zone semi-final against Newcastle Technical High at Tamworth’s Scully Park.
By this stage, a team once touted as small fish in a big pond were warm-blooded predators circling their prey.
Moree ran away with the semi-final 26-10, thus cementing a berth in the University Shield grand-final.
Not since the historic Shield was first decided in 1921 had a Moree team achieved so much, and never has anything like it been repeated since.
Boys became men on August 18, 1973, when McLean’s team turned around a 10-5 deficit at half-time to stage a remarkable second-half comeback and snatch the University Shield, 13-12.
Moree High School had defied the odds.
They were never supposed to win the game – it just wasn’t in the script.
The 18-7 scrum count in favour of Forbes – it was seven-all at half-time – underscores Moree’s tenacity and it’s that one remarkable season of footy that has bonded this group of boys forever.
Now ranging in ages from 57 to 60, these men are just as close today as they were 42 years ago.
There have been two reunions in recent years. The team got together in 2003 at the old Moree Leagues Club to celebrate 30 years and two years ago reunited at the Gold Coast as part of a huge back-to-Moree reunion.
Last weekend they arrived home to honour one of their own.
Bernie Briggs was last year diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. He won the Uni Shield for Moree when he converted a John Brooks try in the last 15 minutes of play, and was last Saturday reunited with his team-mates at the Moree Services Club.
“We were only kids when we won the Uni Shield, and we’ll never, ever forget it . . . it’s great that we could get all the guys back together,” Briggs said.
Brooks said the bond between players was as strong today as it was all those years ago.
“There’s been a connection between all us boys since those days,” he said.
“Bernie was the one out of the box, though. He was the youngest in the team but he was always ‘the one’.
“He was only 14 and I was 15 – the same as four of the other boys – and the rest were all seniors.
“Bernie was the youngest but he was shortening up a lot of guys a lot better than what we were,” Brooks laughed.
“It’s interesting how we won all those games. Everybody did their little bit and we all had a skill-set.
“We laugh about it, and talk about how it all worked, and we’ve all had this connection ever since then.
“It’s often said that it can happen out of something like that – and Bernie’s obviously a part of it.
“The whole idea of getting together again just lit up because of the nature of the person we did it for.
“It was organised not to be just about the University Shield, but a night for Bernie. He is just a genuinely nice bloke – he’s one of those special people,” Brooks said.
Words, Images Copyright Bill Poulos 2015