They played the game: Moree High’s 1973 University Shield win remembered
FORTY-five years ago a group of Moree High School open-weight footballers were catapulted to the top of schoolboy rugby league’s food chain when, amid unparalleled pomp and pageantry, the prized University Shield was brought home to Moree for the first time.
The squad, made up of names that would later become etched in local and State sporting history, faced a mission impossible of epic proportions.
Ranging in ages from 15 to 18, the players’ entry into sporting folklore began at Taylor Oval in early 1973 and was completed six memorable months later at Grahame Park in Gosford.
Trained and inspired by coach John McLean and led by captain Terry Quinn, the team won a series of matches across NSW as they pursued their quest for schoolboy rugby league’s holy grail.
Moree High was one of 184 schools vying for 1973 University Shield honours.
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, Moree High took on all-comers and soundly defeated them – the 1973 University Shield final was the day of the underdog, and a defining moment in Moree’s sporting and civic pride.
Although early-season faith was evident, no-one really expected the team to achieve so much.
In an interview prior to the team’s 30th reunion in 2003, second-row reserve Gregg Humphries said it wasn’t until about the third round that the team started to realise that something could happen – that they were in with a real chance.
“It was unheard of for a town west of Tamworth or the Great Dividing Range to do so well, let alone win it,”Humphries said.
“And it was also a big ask for a town the size of Moree. You’d have to go back to the 1940s when Taree won the Shield to find something similar.”
Fullback Paul Peachey, who later signed with Penrith Panthers, remembers early in the season when team members approached coach John Mclean, asking if they could keep the school-issued jerseys.
“I think it was about the second game, and he told us we could have them when we got to the quarter-finals – then he walked off laughing,” Peachey grinned.
READ: The year 1973 was an incredible 12 months in Moree’s rugby league history
But it was the players that had the last laugh when their journey was complete.
“Terry Quinn still has his jersey in perfect condition,” Peachey said.
“He never wore it again afterwards – that’s just how much that win meant to him.”
The school motto in 1973 was “Play the Game”. And that’s exactly what the team did as they completed the season undefeated, an achievement crowned in a climactic rendezvous with Forbes High School at Gosford’s Grahame Park.
The Forbes outfit, after coasting through the southern zone elimination matches, was an unbackable favourite, Humphries said.
“They were a hot side that were expected to win, and win comfortably,” he said.
READ: Uni Shield 45-year reunion to be a highpoint of Moree Boars’ centenary celebrations
Moree, competing in the knock-out competition’s northern zone, 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 simply there to make up the numbers was making headlines across NSW.
Moree ran away with the semi-final 26-10, thus cementing a berth in the University Shield grand-final.
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On the same afternoon Moree High whitewashed Lismore at Taylor Oval, the school’s 16-years team won its division in the Peel Schools’ carnival at Tamworth.
“Moree had to win at Tamworth that day to make the State titles, but the problem was that there were five or six players out of the team with Uni Shield commitments,” Peachey said.
“It was an incredible task for them, but they still won – it was a fantastic effort and one of the highlights of the year.”
Not since the University Shield was first decided in 1921 had a Moree team achieved so much, and never has anything like it been repeated in the 40 years since.
Boys became men on August 18, 1973, when the 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. The boys 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.
Despite impressive 238-41 for-and-against statistics leading in to the final, the team – on a high after seven straight wins – was expected to come crashing back to earth at Grahame Park.
The final was edge-of-the-seat stuff; a nail-biter played in front of 8000 spectators – the equivalent of Moree’s population at the time – and one that is still talked about 44 years after the event.
READ: Moree University Shield ties that bind still strong after 45 years
It was the largest crowd to ever file through the turnstiles at Grahame Park, only bettered when the ground was transformed into Bluetongue Stadium 17 years ago.
Peachey remembers with absolute clarity the dying seconds of the game.
“The funny thing about it all is that when the siren went, the crowd heard it first,” he said.
“The cheers were so loud that we really didn’t know the game was over until everyone came running out on to the field.
“When it was all over, all I could feel was disbelief – it was an incredible day – and at that moment I was particularly proud to be a boy from the country in front of all those people, a boy from Moree,” he said.
Words: Bill Poulos
Article updated August 18, 2018
Vale Bernie Briggs: Moree’s living treasure now the legend
It was sometime in August, 1973.
Probably under that big old fig tree just near the dressing sheds at Taylor Oval.
They were buggered.
Coach John Mclean had trained them hard but a tough work-out was crucial – this group of teenagers had in the past few months turned NSW junior rugby league on its ear.
They had firmly placed Moree on the sporting map and were now only days away from cementing their hometown’s entry into rugby league folklore.