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Vale Bernie Briggs: Moree’s living treasure now the legend

Words: Bill Poulos

It was sometime in August, 1973.

Probably under that big old fig tree just near the dressing sheds at Taylor Oval.

Training had finished for Moree High School’s open-weight rugby league team and the boys were chilling out.

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.

These boys had taken the 1973 University Shield competition by the scruff of the neck and shaken the absolute living daylights out of it, and were now preparing for grand-final glory in just a few days’ time.

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Bernie and Sally Briggs at the reunion held for him at Moree Services Club in early 2015 (Image Copyright Bill Poulos)

Back then, the school motto was Play the Game, and that’s exactly what they had done throughout the year – no exceptions.

As they sat there pondering the vagaries of life, one of the boys proffered a thought-provoking question.

Some say it was team captain Terry Quinn, given his theological leanings, but the passage of time has blurred a few memories, as well as a few facts.

“What would happen if Jesus Christ ever came to Moree, coach?”

Kingmaker McLean, who was still nutting out his playmakers for the upcoming day of reckoning at Gosford’s Grahame Park, didn’t take long to respond.

In fact, McLean didn’t draw breath.

“Jesus Christ? Here in Moree? Well, we’d put him on the bench until well into the second half, probably leave him there, I’d say. We can put one of the Peachey twins on one wing and Brown on the other, and the other Peachey twin at full-back. Quinny and Haddie can stay centres and we’ll keep Deany at five-eighth and Jonesey at lock. Greasy’s a good hooker so there’s no reason he can’t stay put and Harry will do just fine at half-back. Briggs and King can stay in the second-row behind Buster and Brooksy, but we’ll have to make sure Briggs gets a crack at some goals – he kicks alright.

“Jesus Christ? Here in Moree? We’d give him a go, I suppose, but we probably wouldn’t need him.”

They all stared wide-eyed, and when McLean’s rapid-fire, pre-match plan had subsided they nodded sagely.

Yes, of course, that would be the obvious solution if Jesus Christ ever walked through the gates of Taylor Oval looking for a game.

And so it came to pass on that balmy winter’s afternoon that if the Second Coming just happened to materialise in the next day or two, the sandal-wearing boy from Nazareth would be made fifth reserve behind Stephen Dawson, Peter Gillan, Gregg Humphries and Peter Butler.

He never did show up; wasn’t really needed, anyway.

That’s just how good this team was.

Moree High had already delivered hidings to Warialda (48-6), Tenterfield (59-2), Armidale (20-6), Tamworth (14-2) Maitland (27-5), Lismore (44-10) and Newcastle (26-10).

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Bernie Briggs, aka 9, celebrates with team-mates after winning the coveted University Shield in 1973 (Copyright).

Strangely enough, however, this seemingly mismatched assemblage of teenagers that simply dripped talent stepped on to the University Shield grand-final stage as clearly-defined underdogs.

But, gee, did they have some bite.

On August 18, 1973 these profoundly gifted boys – who would develop lifelong bonds and deep friendships as they grew older and wiser – defeated Forbes High School 13-12 in a history-making grand-final.

And that one-point win was thanks to a faultless conversion off the boot of Bernie Briggs, a 15-year-old prodigy destined to become one of Moree’s finest athletes, and one of the town’s most respected and cherished residents.

Bernie, known by many simply as “9”, was for many years widely regarded as one of Moree’s living treasures.

He is now the legend.

Sadly, Bernie passed away today (January 13) after succumbing to pancreatic cancer.

He was 58.

Doctors had given him about seven months – nine at best – but he fought the hideous disease for two-and-a-half years.

It was a typical Bernie Briggs battle, and for a while he seemed to be winning . . . seemed to be edging ahead.

He had returned to work and was responding well to treatment, and throughout his excruciating journey that warm smile rarely faded.

There was family and close friends by his side – his wife and childhood sweetheart Sally, their children Brendan, Nathan, Stephen and Tamara, siblings Ian, Peter, Yvonne, Shirley and Barbara and 94-year-old father, Noel – silently hoping, praying and willing that Bernie was in that miniscule percentage that has been known to somehow beat pancreatic cancer.

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Bernie Briggs with best mates Norb Annis-Brown (left) and Stan Jurd at Moree Services Club (Image Copyright Bill Poulos).

But it was not to be.

Norb Annis-Brown, Bernie’s best mate since they were toddlers growing up at Yarraman on the north-western edge of Moree, said he was forever amazed at Bernie’s determination – and tolerance.

“Around two-and-a-half years ago Bernie rang me from John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle – it’s the worst call I’ve ever got – and told me they’d given him nine months to live,” Annis-Brown said.

“I spent a lot of time with Bernie in those two years and not once did he complain.

“If it was me I’d be dirty on the world, but he did not complain once. You just can’t fault the bloke.

“He was a replica of his father, Noel – one of nature’s gentlemen – and a gifted athlete who loved his family dearly, and loved his work.

“Bernie was just a gentleman . . . he didn’t deserve this. He was a great friend,” he said.

Bernie Briggs was one of those gifted sportsmen that only run on to a paddock every generation or two.

His warm nature, genuine modesty and gentle spirit were qualities that set him apart.

His sporting achievements were incredible. They were second-to-none.

Bernie was indeed a true gentleman, and that’s a term not often used when describing elite sportsmen.

Not in this day and age, anyway.

He was part of Moree High School’s undefeated under-16s squad and, apart from his pinnacle role in the 1973 University Shield grand-final he played with that year’s under-18s Group 5 grand-final winners.

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Garruu (Gamilaraay for uncle) is a print by Bernie’s nephew Brent Emerson, created from a photo taken in September last year. “It is in honour of my uncle, Bernie Briggs,” Brent said. “Uncle Bernie is a well-known and much-loved member of the wider Moree community (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal). This portrait was completed based on a photo I took of Uncle Bernie at the rugby league finals in Inverell in August (2016) in which my cousin Stephen Briggs played for the Moree Boars,” Brent said. Brent’s work can be viewed at www.bluethumb.com.au.

He was also named the NSW combined high schools’ 15-years javelin champion – a talent he discovered by sheer chance – and was an all-rounder with the north-west area open cricket team.

Bernie played for the under-21s Northern NSW Emus cricket team that toured New Zealand and, between tours, won the 1973 State javelin championships.

He was also awarded two north-west area Blues in 1973: one for athletics and a special Blue for rugby league and cricket.

Bernie was a dab hand at kicking the round ball, too. He scored his share of one-pointers for the Moree open soccer team and in 1973 they won the regional grand-final.

He was exceptional with the other round ball as well – basketball.

Bernie was named North-West Area Education Department’s Sports Boy of the Year in 1973 and was presented with the award at a special dinner at Tamworth in early 1974.

“Quietly spoken, Bernie amassed an enviable record last year, despite that in many instances he had to concede up to a couple of years in age,” New Dawn magazine reported in March, 1974.

“Although concentrating a lot on football and cricket, Bernie is not neglecting his schoolwork and got mostly advanced passes at the final Third Form exams last year.

“Bernie is known around Moree as a quiet, modest person, and is well-liked and respected and is currently enjoying an extraordinarily successful season in the Moree first grade cricket competition,” the magazine reported.

And all this was achieved well before his 16th birthday.

Bernie also played in seven rugby league grand-finals for The Big M, in juniors and as well as seniors when the club became the Moree Boars in the late 1970s.

He helped win six of those seven grand-finals.

In all, Bernie played in 142 A-grade matches for Moree and was a long-standing life member of the club.

He collected the coveted Moree Champion A-Grade Best and Fairest Award in 1980 and again in 1984.

“You wouldn’t get many better in the bush,” Annis-Brown said.

“Bernie could’ve gone on to bigger and better things, but he just didn’t want to go . . . he loved Moree too much.”

“He was a gun soccer player and a good basketballer – the only thing he couldn’t do was swim.

“We’d go to the river at Yarraman and he was like a drowned rat – had his head out of the water all the time,” Annis-Brown chuckled.

Coach John McLean, now 76 and retired at Newcastle suburb Warners Bay, said Bernie was a cut-above.

“Bernie was a prime example of a great sportsman and a great young man, and that’s because of the way he was brought up and the way he grew up,” McLean said.

“He was a fellow that could take a great deal of responsibility.

“Bernie was a leader, and very respectful. I simply can’t praise him enough for the type of person he was,” he said.

Bernie was a gifted athlete with a talent that could’ve taken him far and wide, but he chose to stay in his beloved hometown despite the countless offers over the years to stretch his wings.

Bernie and Sally

Despite enduring the anguish and suffering of a journey that was never going to have a happy ending, Bernie and Sally Briggs in 2015 gladly agreed to be the faces of the New England and north-west Daffodil Day Local Heroes awareness campaign for Cancer Council NSW. Their photo and stories were featured with in-print and online promotional material that helped raise awareness and much-needed funds for cancer research. The gesture was typical of Bernie’s willingness to chip in and help others travelling a similar journey, despite the personal battle he was fighting. (Image: Cancer Council NSW).

Good mate and fellow University Shield team member, Michael “Buster” Duke reckons Bernie suffered “silo syndrome”.

“Every time he’d drive past the silos, he’d turn around and go back – I swear to God Bernie had no idea what the back of the speed limit signs heading out of Moree looked like,” Buster smiled.

Even as early as 1975 Bernie was offered a cricketing scholarship at a private school in Queensland but he preferred the black-soil plains of Moree and Yarraman.

John Brooks, who scored that crucial University Shield try that Bernie so miraculously converted, said his good friend was indeed a hometown boy.

“Often you’ll hear the older guys being a little bit disparaging about younger players who could’ve done this or could’ve done that, but you never heard that about Bernie,” Brooks said.

“Bernie was never part of that small-town culture where sometimes you beat up your own when they didn’t take the next big step.”

The 1973 University Shield squad has remained close over the years.

There have been huge reunions as well as quiet get-togethers, and now the team is coming home again . . . to bury one of their own.

“Bernie was the sort of bloke that would light up the room when he walked in,” Brooks said.

“He was a team-mate, but he was also our friend.”

Brooks often smiles at that stellar 1973 season and how the University Shield was, as Bernie once joked, brought back to Moree because of sheer, unadulterated fear.

It’s a good-humoured revelation that came about shortly after the team’s reunion on the Gold Coast in 2013 when Brooks was contacted by the assistant coach of the Forbes team.

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Bernie Briggs with Uni Shield team-mates at the huge Moree on the Gold Coast reunion at Broadbeach in 2013 (Image: Kim Hadfield).

“He’d heard that we’d had this reunion and wanted to know if we had any memorabilia and what-not from the game,” Brooks said.

“He told me that during the course of the grand-final, their coach was beside himself. Apparently they knew they were in trouble at half-time, even though they were in front.

“They reckoned they’d never played against a forward pack like us guys. He said his team was used to running over the top of forwards, but our boys would be running and passing and backing up.

“He said they knew they were in big trouble.

“I told Bernie the story and he said, ‘did you tell him the way we were playing was because of fear – they were big bastards’,” Brooks laughed.

“This guy told me that our match-plan was just so superior to theirs, but I really didn’t want to break it to him that we never really had a match-plan – it was just ad hoc where everyone did their bit.

“Everybody had a particular skill-set that made that team as one but the way this bloke was talking, it was if we had this technical thing happening.

“I was scratching my head listening to him, but as Bernie said, we were playing on pure fear because they were big bastards,” he chuckled.

This group of boys went through the 1973 season unbeaten – but it didn’t go without incident, according to Brooks.

“Once we played Armidale and they had a little five-eighth called Andrew Donnelly, who was quite good,” he said.

Donnelly was arguably Armidale’s best junior rugby league player at the time, and was only a couple of years away from playing for South Sydney Rabbitohs.

“He was a State boxer as well, and he thought he had Bernie’s measure, so after a little bit of roughing up it came to blows,” Brooks said.

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Bernie Briggs makes a charge for the line (Image supplied).

“Bernie, who was only 15, put him on his arse.

“Donnelly was about 17 and the star of Armidale . . . you’ve never seen a side get so deflated.

“Poor Bernie had to get up at assembly and apologise to the school for putting this bloke on his arse,” he laughed.

Mike Hadfield, the Uni Shield team-mate chiefly responsible for co-ordinating reunions and get-togethers over the years, including annual Moree on the Gold Coast gatherings, said Bernie fought cancer with the same unshakable doggedness he played sport.

“We have not only lost a legendary athlete and sportsman who was respected and, in some cases, feared by his opponents but we have also lost a fair dinkum Aussie good bloke,” Hadfield said.

Coach McLean, who nurtured this group of boys by instilling pride while using his own special brand of alchemy to extract greatness, regards the team as family.

“All this time we have been like one big family, and what means the most to me is that the boys still consider me as being part of that group, even after more than 40 years,” McLean said.

“You have to remember that I was a teacher, and a teacher is usually alienated from the students, but with this lot of boys they’ve kept that friendship alive.

“We’ve kept in contact when we’ve had our reunions, and, even apart from those there’s always been contact, just like a family, and that’s what it’s been like all these years,” he said.

“To lose Bernie, who was a big part of that family, is just so devastating.

“Sadly, that is the way of this dreaded cancer. It has no respect of who you might be or what you are,” Mclean said.

Work colleagues Garry Maidens and Jimmy Drenkhahn agree that it would be a long day’s march to find someone cut from the same cloth as Bernie Briggs.

“Anybody who ever met Bernie, even for a short period of time, remembered him – that’s just the sort of bloke he was,” Drenkhahn said.

Maidens, who lost his brother Billy to cancer just three weeks ago, agreed.

“I knew Bernie for a long time and worked with him for a long time and I’m yet to find anyone as sincere or as honest – you simply just won’t find a better bloke,” Maidens said.

“Bernie was just a gentleman; a top bloke and a great bloke to work with.

“People will never forget him . . . because they’ll never find another bloke like him,” he said.

Words Copyright Bill Poulos 2017

Author’s note:

When Moree High School won the 1973 University Shield grand-final against Forbes High School at Gosford’s Grahame Park I was in 6th Class at West Moree Primary School.

I was 12 years of age and a year off high school.

We had a very good teacher, Mr Hunter, and at the beginning of the year he appointed me editor of the newly-formed school newspaper, The Children’s Weekly.

It was a big news week for The Children’s Weekly when Moree defied the odds and brought home the University Shield.

You see, Tommy Hanlon Jr, a bona fide celebrity in his own right, was also in town.

Tommy was a huge name in the entertainment industry back then and was in Moree with his travelling circus – and he had granted me a warts-and-all exclusive about circus life.

His American accent alone was enough to make Tommy a celebrity, but he had already won a couple of Logies and was co-host of talent show Pot of Gold with Bernard King.

As far as 1970s celebrity status went, Tommy was right up there.

Unfortunately for Tommy though, the boys from Moree High School pushed him off the front page of The Children’s Weekly and buried him toward the middle of the paper.

Mind you, The Children’s Weekly was only an eight-pager – two foolscap pages folded landscape – so Tommy still made page four.

In 1973 I was a kid in awe of these footy players from the “big school” that had brought home schoolboy rugby league’s Holy Grail.

Now, more than 40 years later, when I get a chance to catch up with these proud Moree ambassadors I am still that kid.

That’s the sort of effect that these blokes have on people who remember that golden era of rugby league in Moree.

Winning the 1973 University Shield grand-final is a vitally important chapter of Moree’s history.

It should never be forgotten.

And neither should Bernie Briggs, the man who helped make it happen.

Bill Poulos

FOOTNOTES:

Please click this link for Bernie’s funeral arrangements: http://deluxecafemoree.com.au/tributes-flow-for-bernie-briggs-as-funeral-arrangements-announced/

The following link is a series of articles written when a get-together was held for Bernie Briggs at Moree Services Club in early 2015. It was published in the Northern Daily Leader on March 7, 2015: http://deluxecafemoree.com.au/they-played-the-game-hundreds-turn-out-to-pay-tribute-to-morees-bernie-briggs/