Any rugby league supporter who has been lucky enough to see a touring side against your club will understand the excitement and euphoria that this brings. Add to that a game under the lights, and not just any game, but the visit of the all-conquering Australian Kangaroos, and the Boulevard ground packed to the rafters, and you have all the makings of a classic.
And a classic it was. I am using my time machine and my rose-coloured spectacles to travel back to a dark, cold night in November 1982 when two classic kits made battle at the most iconic ground ever. The famous Black and White irregular hoops against the Green and Gold of Australia. Hull packed with internationals themselves playing against the might of the 24-game touring Kangaroo side. Hull fans getting their first glimpse of a player who was soon to become a club legend, a player with long blonde locks who stole the hearts and minds of all black and whites that night. His name was Peter Sterling.
Long queues outside of the Airlie Street End waiting to get into the ground that night gave a taste of what was to come. It was a massive occasion. The atmosphere could have been cut with a knife, to a man the team and the fans were up for this challenge. Now to any opposing player an away ground was always a little intimidating as the home fans normally gave you some stick. Well, as anyone who ever came to the Boulevard will testify this was on a whole different level. Hull fans can be very intimidating – just ask Garry Schofield who always used to hide away from the Threepenny when he came back as an opposition player.
Australia were doing Hull the honour of fielding their full test team that night, and it will always be classed as the fourth test. Sterling in an interview aftermath said that this was the Aussies’ toughest game of the whole run. “The hardest game that we had on tour was actually against Hull at the Boulevard – they lead 7-0 at half-time but we ended up winning 13-7,” he said. “The game and the crowd that night is something that I’ve never forgotten to this day.” He nailed it. Those of us that were lucky enough to be there won’t argue. Kangaroo coach Frank Stanton didn’t. Hull rose to that challenge, pushing Australia all the way, with 16,049 given as the official crowd, but so many more must have climbed over as there was little or no room to move.
Both teams were littered with stars. Australia boasted the best half back partnership I have ever seen, with the great Brett Kenny lining up alongside Sterling. They had a man mountain in the centre called Mal Meninga, a powerhouse prop forward in Les Boyd who that night thought all he had to do to intimidate was to glare, how wrong he was, well done Crooksy. They had two second row forwards of Wayne Pearce and John Reddy and someone on the bench called Wally Lewis. Not to be outdone the Hull side also had internationals throughout with our three Kiwis, Gary Kemble, Dane O’Hara and James Leuluai. We also had England internationals Mick Crane and Lee Crooks and two warhorses in Paul Rose and Mick Harrison. The Hull team assembled under then coach Arthur Bunting was so strong that we even had key players missing, but still packed a punch.
The game that night went by in a flash. Hull never took a backwards step for the whole 80 minutes, and there were fights, proper fights with real fisticuffs at regular intervals. The Hull lads wanted the Australians to know that they were in for a hard night, Rose and Harrison, and a youngster called Crooks gave better than they took, even if to the detriment of their own team-mates. Just ask Leuluai. There was no Steve Norton that night, nor no Trevor Skerrett or Charlie Stone, and the proudest moment was our local Hull-born pack taking it to the best in the world. Crooks that night was a warhorse, he was absolutely immense, there wasn’t a tougher man at that time. His handling skills and his right hook, what a man. Proper old school. He was a baby on the field with rugby league icons, but he didn’t care. He’d swing at you no matter who you were or what your reputation was.
But despite how good Crooks was it was the rebel Mick Crane who really excelled that night. He got the club Man of the Match and was just magnificent throughout, tormenting and frightening the living daylights out of the Aussies with his handling, stepping and ability to break through a tackle. Steve Norton is rightly viewed a “God” to many a Hull fan, but Craney on his day with his hangover and fags was right up there. Few have been better, or more intelligent with ball in hand.
Hull started off the better and went ahead via two penalties from Crooks and a superb try from who else but David Topliss, a proper Hull legend who would soon go on to win his Great Britain place back. There were only three point tries in those days, so it was 7-0 to Hull at half time and it must have been 79-78 in boxing points for the punch-ups. Those Aussies certainly knew that they were in a fight, but the game wasn’t just a bloodbath. It was at times an absorbing end to end affair and you took the risk of missing the action with every blink. Now bearing in mind that this was a game played midweek and both teams had played at the weekend this Tuesday night was a great game, no quarter was given and certainly anything taken had to be earned. The Aussies had tries disallowed but they were for blatant forward passes, and Hull could and should have been further ahead.
The Threepenny Stand was at its intimidating best and the Hull players responded to a man. The Best Stand gave a response and Old Faithful rang round that ground. We have days when we know that we as fans have played our part, this to me was one of them. It was easy to get behind Hull then though. Hull ruled the world in 1982 with three trophies to our name and boasting the tag of current league leaders for the 82/83 season, a tag the side wouldn’t relinquish.
Australia came out fighting in the second half, and scored tries from Eric Grothe (2), and Kerry Boustead with Big Mal kicking two of the goals. Now I know I have Black and white tinted glasses, but Dane O’Hara defiantly scored in the corner, John Holdsworth, or more probably his linesman got that call wrong. It could have been so different, and me along with most if not all of the people who attended that night felt hard done by. In fact the fanatical in us was convinced under no circumstances were Australia allowed to lose that game, and that we would have undoubtedly won without the bloody ref and his bloody decisions. Oh what a referee. Nothing changes.
The game against Australia remains one of the highlight’s in my time supporting Hull. I have been lucky in seeing us win just about everything and this would have been the Cream on the top of the largest cake ever. That Australian team is still hailed as one of the best touring sides ever, they revolutionised rugby league, and Hull so very nearly beat them that night. In my head we did. We should have, and no-one will ever forget it.
Hull XIII: Gary Kemble, Dane O’Hara, Steve Evans, James Leuluai, Paul Prendiville, David Topliss, Tony Dean, Mick Harrision, Keith Bridges, Paul Rose, Wayne Proctor, Lee Crooks, Mick Crane. Bench: Barry Banks, Mick Sutton.
Tries: Topliss. Goals: Crooks 2
Australia: Greg Brentnall, Kerry Boustead, Mal Meninga, Steve Rogers, Eric Grothe, Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling, Craig Young, Max Krilich, Les Boyd, Wayne Pearce, John Reddy, Ray Price. Bench: Wally Lewis
Tries: Grothe 2, Boustead. Goals: Meninga 2
N.B. The squad photos used for this article are from the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons.