The Brisbane Broncos RLFC First Five Years

As per extracts from founding co-owner Gary Balkin’s unfinished memoir of his recollections and records.

Preparing for World Expo ’88 in Brisbane was on my mind in 1986 when I was first asked to join a syndicate to tender for a Brisbane licence in the NSWRL. I had just sold my Melbourne Hotel, another in Rockhampton, had placed my first paddlewheeler on the Brisbane River and signed up for a riverside Seafood Restaurant in Eagle Street in the City, was considering buying an old historic mansion, and commissioning a second vessel on the river for Expo. Then, I became really busy…

… The Brisbane Broncos RLFC were never meant to be, when the NSWRL asked the QRL to place an ad with The Courier Mail in 1986 for Expressions of Interest in financing a team in their expanded competition. It was clearly an expected result that QRL supremo Senator Ron McAuliffe, the innovator of the hugely successful State of Origin concept, would be Chairman of the new Club. Firstly however, the winning tender would have to be accepted by the BRL, then the QRL, then signed off by NSWRL bosses Ken Arthurson and John Quayle (CEO) and their Board. We four, Barry Maranta, Paul Morgan, Steve Williams and myself were a very outside chance of winning tender approval.

However, we had several advantages on our side; we were all, in the least, former first graders in the BRL, local businessmen living with our families in Brisbane, we had the best prepared budget presented to show that we knew our plan should eventually succeed, and a further factor that we realised along our way; that Senator McAuliffe had been off-handed with the BRL clubs (he had originally started as a Valleys administrator who flew through the ranks with his undoubted great skills, but then became a powerful QRL man, as well as Lang Park Trust chairman).

We were favoured on one hand because of our business-like approach and planning, and had financial backing, but on the other hand we had the Senator who placed road blocks in our way. At the time, I owned Bonaparte’s Hotel in Fortitude Valley and many of our meetings were held there or on my Kookaburra Queen paddle-wheeler. I was the only one of the four to have direct dealings with the BRL Club Presidents and delegates during the past decade or more as being an actively involved Patron Of Souths Magpies, having known several as BRL opponents in my earlier playing years with Souths and Brothers, was friends socially with a couple and personal friends with others. After negotiations were failing, I invited all Clubs and other BRL delegates to Bonaparte’s in what the Courier Mail and Sunday Mail called a ‘clandestine’ meeting to change their minds.

We succeeded, after I reminded them that the business nous of Barry Maranta and Paul Morgan had impressed me greatly, that the opportunity with them there in rugby league could not be lost. We also promised the Club would support their sponsorship levels if they fell off after the new Club began. Barry, Paul and I showed our willingness to immediately prop up this condition by sponsoring a Queensland Club each. I gave $10,000 to the Wide Bay team (on behalf of my Kookaburra Queen; and I grew up playing football there) and Barry for Easts and Paul for another Club.

The BRL met soon after and voted 8-0 in favour of our proposal. Then it went to the QRL Board who voted 6-4 in our favour. We were the preferred tenderer. I recall when Barry Maranta rang me with the news, I hopped in the car to drive to his Coorparoo home where we celebrated equipped with French champagne and wearing a cowboy hat (for the preferred name Brisbane Broncos).

We then began to choose our players, first signing Wally Lewis and Gene Miles, then others like Greg Conescu, Brian Niebling, Greg Dowling, Colin Scott and Alan Langer.

Looking for a CEO, Steve Williams had offered to do the job but we were looking for a stand-alone manager and eventually found our man in John Ribot, who I had known, as did Steve and Paul. I heard him speak one day at a Brisbane Bullets Luncheon at the Crest Hotel, rang Paul then Barry saying: “I think we have found our man. He is a polished speaker and a good thinker.” Barry then asked Steve to phone John to join us.

We went to Sydney to interview several possible coaches. Paul and I had talked to Bob McCarthy, but in Sydney when we visited Jack Gibson at his Cronulla Beach home, he said, “Get Wayne Bennett. He is your man.”

Everyone knows the story from there about securing Wayne Bennett’s agreement.

Wayne worked with John Ribot re our remaining squad of 48 players total, as we had to field a reserve grade team. The first Camp for directors, staff and players was at Kooralbyn Golf Club. We had sessions of Talks, mainly of proposed culture of the Club, expectations of players, Life after Football, how after footy days because we were a one-club city it was important to become well-known and reputable for later life success.

On the final day there, John and I reported that we had agreed to deal with Valleys at Neumann Oval, where we were given an old shed to work from. I was not delighted with this, but we had been negotiating with Souths and Brothers for a take-over but the sale prices were raised beyond our hopes, so we had a final round-up of our options. I was the only director to have not seen Wests Old Boys at Gibson Park so it w-as decided that John and I visit the Club that afternoon. I thought it could work there.The sale price was lowered to the bank loan balance which West Old Boys had been financially unable to settle, so we offered to remove their individual bank guarantees and pay out the bank. We had a Club. We requested that the Wests members (led by Darcy Mitchell and Ron Atkins) remain members of the Broncos Leagues Club at no cost, adding Ron Atkins to the Leagues Club board along with a Wests Juniors representative. On the day we decided to buy Gilbert Park club and surrounds we offered Valleys a consolation payment to cover their costs. They accepted the offer.

It was approved that I be the first Leagues Club president with my hospitality experience and I stayed at the helm for 1987-1991 when Steve Williams took the Chair. Renovations began with the forthcoming poker machines approval

under the guidance of Steve, Barry and myself as Deputy Chair, and the Board. Paul did not stay on the Leagues Club Board.

I was asked by my partners to try to negotiate with Mr Frank Burnett, local boss of Castlemaine Brewery, re a main sponsorship of the new football team. Frank was an old friend, but he was hand-tied to suggest a bigger sponsorship than an amount which we thought was nowhere near enough for our budget. At that stage we were dealing with Bond Brewing, not the old Castlemaine that we all knew, so we kept talking to others. Bond Brewing thought that because they had Lang Park “tied up” that we were “small fry” but we planned to get several sponsors on board to meet our budget. As founding directors, we had already committed to $500, 000 personal guarantees with our Bank, and naturally we were reluctant to exceed our budgeted losses in the first couple of years.

At one of our Bonaparte’s meetings when some journalists met in the bar for a drink, I suddenly had an idea and approached experienced reporter and friend Kev Keliher if he would consider being our Media Liaison Officer if my co-directors agreed. He was keen, and we all knew our own media reports were of mixed results, and that afternoon we came to an agreement that Kev join our Club. So “Crusher” Keliher became integral to our success under the guidance and friendship of John Ribot who was also proving most invaluable. When signing the remainder of our playing staff, I suggested that we follow a plan we had worked well at Brisbane Souths years before by paying a good bonus to players for a Match Win on the Monday following the weekly match. This met with some enthusiasm to the extent that the Board then offered players $1500 a win on that line, many times indeed in excess of what had been offered in the BRL.

We had enjoyed a successful weekend at Kooralbyn, as stated, by which time we had other coaching, training and managerial positions approved, and were soon ready for the 1988 trial matches. We were more than happy with Wayne’s staff and teams’ progress from there, and it wasn’t long before the first match of the season was to be played.

Meanwhile off the field we had been having our dramas with the QRL and NSWRL Boards delaying our progress. We had begun planning with two named QRL directors as Broncos directors according to our negotiated agreement, when we read and heard of unwarranted and dire criticism of our direction, including personal attacks by two QRL directors. We had also agreed with the QRL to give them 30% of our profits but not be responsible for our early losses, but we had their agreement not to cause us grief by white-anting our credibility. Apart from Senator McAuliffe, a member of the QRL said something defamatory, which our Chairman, Barry Maranta, pounced on with our lawyers. In the end, the Agreement clauses was torn up without Court action, and we were left as four directors only, to bear prospective losses, and eventually hope for a profitable season.

Paul Morgan had been in the process of share-broking a new brewing company, Power Brewing, with the Principal being Bernard Power, a friend to all of us over the years, and Paul proposed that the new Brisbane Broncos be the vehicle to promote the success of the Brewery. Bernard announced the sponsorship level of a million dollars a year for three years, and thus our Club became not only the first private company of big-time sport in Australia, but by far the receiver of the greatest ever sponsorship in the nation. Bernard Power had agreed to give that promise to a footy team that had never played a game.

Power Brewing was riding the right horse for when Broncos defeated 1987 Premiers Manly 44-10 in the season opener at Lang Park in 1988, the Brisbane team became the darlings of Queensland sport. I was sitting in my box across the aisle from Senator McAuliffe and Manly stalwart and ARL boss Ken Arthurson. I was smiling but they looked at me aghast at the boilover. I will never forget their expressions. But we had arrived as a force.

Three other new Clubs had been accepted into the NSWRL, Gold Coast Giants, then representing the Gold Coast/Northern NSW area, Newcastle and Illawarra. The Giants had been approved as an after-thought following the Brisbane approval, and were considered by us as a friendly Club, being owned by good friends and fellow businessmen Peter Gallagher, Bob Hagan, Doug Ryan and John Sattler, all well-known indeed in the football and hotel world, but who had been a failed tenderer for our licence.

Bob Hagan rang me one day from Sanctuary Cove, not long before it was officially.opened, and developer Mike Gore had opened the new golf course. Bob told me he had just played golf with the Denver Broncos owner and coach, and they wanted to meet the Brisbane Broncos owners while here. I really appreciated the call, and rang Barry Maranta who went down to play golf with them the following day. I was unable to get away, but Barry struck up a rapport with them and Brisbane organised several trips to our “sister club” at Denver.

As a Board, we immediately targeted women, children, families and rugby business supporters to come to our games. Various entrepreneurial ideas attracted growing crowds, and we achieved our then biggest crowd of 33, 000 to the Parramatta match at Lang Park. Richard Winten, our first Marketing manager, had moved on, and we replaced him with Shane Edwards, who was a Marketing whiz with us, engaging corporate businesses and big corporations, adding to our appeal to sponsorships. Our budget was on track to move into the black within a couple of years. Sometimes though we were concerned by limits placed on us by the NSWRL, and I recall Barry saying: ”The more obstacles in our way, the stronger we become. We are determined not to fail.” We made the Final Five each year from 1990. Our skippers’ names are etched in folklore: Wally Lewis, Gene Miles, Alan Langer in that stirring five years.

That first year 1988 we missed the final five by a whisker, having to depend on the result of the season proper’s final match between two other teams. I invited Wayne, the team and directors and staff to my historic riverside Shafston House, Kangaroo Point, provided 100 old golf balls and clubs to the boys to attempt driving across the river whilst they listened to the “decider” by radio. We narrowly missed the result we desired.

To open the 1989 Season, we held the Launch at Shafston House grounds (over two hectares) and invited over 900 attendees, using my Kookaburra Queen paddlewheeler to transport many of them there and back. The Sunday Mail declared in December in its year’s roundup that it was the Event of the Year on Brisbane’s social calendar. For the 1989 season we had welcomed (Sam) Backo and Jacko (Peter Jackson) from Canberra, Dale Shearer from Manly and Tony Currie from new premiers Canterbury Bulldogs.

Cyril Connell, the former RL international, schoolteacher and highly respected authority on rugby league, had retired, was well known to each of us, but Paul Morgan’s liaison with him at Brisbane State High compelled him to invite Cyril to be our Chief Scout in Queensland under John Ribot’s arrangements with him. Cyril travelled all over the State identifying talent, meeting and assuring his selections’ families, and becoming a “second father” to many of our younger players. By the time we won our first premiership almost five years later, many of the winning team had been “Cyril’s boys”. In those early years we took the trial games to many provincial towns and cities from Rockhampton to Mundubbera, and wherever we went, Cyril Connell was met by numbers of his former pupils and followers. He was a true legend in Queensland.

The crowd-favourite trio of the Walters twins, Kerrod and Kevin, along with their Ipswich “backyard mate” of yesteryear Alan Langer were showing a thrilling combination on the field that enthralled spectators and TV watchers throughout the State. Kevin had joined us for the 1990 season from Canberra. That year we finished third.

John Ribot had originally in 1987 signed up the Broncos’ destined to be all-time great, “Alfie” Langer, then Chris Johns and Billy Noke from St George (Sydney). Chris Johns was to become integral to our great centre pairings in those first years, first with Gene Miles, then with Tony Currie, then Steve Renouf. Champion centres all of them. John had identified Terry Matterson, then 21, who became a crowd favourite. Matterson and Johns were selected to play Origin for NSW, and in 1992 when John secured Glen Lazarus’ signing plus that of Trevor Gillmeister from Sydney Easts, we had toughened up our forward pack enough to convincingly win our first premiership. We defeated St George 28-8 convincingly. We had lost only four games that year. Two other youngsters hitting top form also were popular whiz kid and “super-sub” half John Plath, and  fullback Julian O’Neill.

When we as a Club were invited to Wigan for the World Club Title, with our team to play the Wigan Warriors under British RL supremo Maurice Lindsay’s chairmanship, all directors including our 1992 chairman Paul Morgan made the trip The tour included the Test match at Wembley that Australia won, with five-eighth Kevin Walters again showing his class, his passing game with Chris Johns and Steve Renouf outstanding. At Wigan, we were treated to some heavy fireworks and smoke effects still apparent while the game had started, and spectators were left agape with a big Pommy prop prostrate on the turf. Shouts of: “Bloody convicts! Send home the convicts!’ erupted around us, seated in the middle of Wigan supporters. I could not resist yelling:” Come On the convicts!” We won, with a forceful performance by our props Andrew Gee and Glen Lazarus, and our always brilliant Alan Langer and Steve Renouf. We were World Club Champions.

Both wingers Michael Hancock and Willie Carne (who in 1989 had replaced Smokin’ Joe Kilroy in the Broncos team) were Australian wingers, and Wendell Sailor was a Broncos youngster yet to play first grade. Young Alan Cann, who had joined our ranks as a 16 y.o., and others like Gavin Allen and Mark Hohn, had come of age with a big bang, and our playing stocks and Club sponsorships were on the rise. On the radar also were three big young forwards, Brad Thorn, Petero Civoniceva and Shane Webcke, all destined for greatness, and later a young Darren Lockyer, a fullback perhaps destined for “immortality” as a player. Yet we were still getting grief from the NSWRL, especially CEO John Quayle, who seemed to us to be intent on derailing our front-line progress.

From England and Ireland on that trip in late 1992, we headed for Denver to enjoy a few days and tour our sister club the Denver Broncos. It was in Denver one morning that Paul asked me to Lunch down the road from our hotel. Paul was already privately hatching his plan for a public company, and he wanted a different direction. Paul wanted me to join him in his venture, to leave Barry and Steve behind in purchasing their share, which converted to new shares they could continue to own or on-sell as part of the public company, explaining his preference for me to remain on his Board, to move forward to continue a new form of ownership of the Broncos. I was against the idea of splitting the private company, and declined, saying that we had started as four, were at last beginning to succeed, so why should we break up the four. Paul and I had a few more drinks, then returned to the hotel, and we didn’t mention it again. Perhaps I under-estimated how Paul was so resolute in his plan. Undoubtedly he was a man who I admired greatly. He had great vision.

Back in Brisbane, we celebrated our First Five Years success at a dinner for 14 in my private dining room at Shafston House. The four owners plus John Ribot, Shane Edwards, Wayne Bennett and our wives sat around the boardroom dining table and enjoyed a happy night.

As the New Year swung into 1993, as the globe sped through towards the Millennium, Brisbane Broncos RLFC and the other 15 Clubs were to face great upheaval in moves that were to result in the NSWRL becoming the NRL, but in the process we were to snare another four premierships in eight years. There would be greatly improved pay for the players and a good rapport between the Broncos and the NRL. A forecast of the Future however was, at the time, an unpredictable question for our football code throughout the rugby league world.