Previous

Italian job puts Australia U20s World Championship on life support

Blue Bloods | A 75 Year History of Canberra Royals

Book Extract

DOUGAL Whitton, who along with club founders Jack Waters, Bill Hanley and Keith Hawke, and champions of the juniors John and David Stafford, and first grade captains and coaches Graham Hudson, John Kelsey and Kim Thurbon, and presidents Rex Clark, Brian Paule and Jimmy Taylor – and a claque of Life Members whose life was, and remains, and will always be, the club – is one of the genuine titans of Canberra Royals RUFC.

If there is a Mr Royals, Dougal Whitton is it.

The first Royals game Whitton saw was the 1966 grand final win over Norths. He was subsequently sideline when Mick O’Connor slotted a 40-metre field goal to win in 1979. He was there again when Mick Newham pointed the way to the goal posts in the grand final of ‘91. And he roared along with them all when Royals went undefeated to take out the John I. Dent Cup in 2017.

But the 2015 grand final is the greatest game he’s ever seen.

“It was totally surreal,” Whitton says. “I’m still not sure it happened.”

 

unnamed 4

What happened was:

After Vikings stuck with Rodney Iona in the No.10 and Christian Lealiifano played fullback, Craig McMahon scored the only points of a hard-fought first half, his penalty goal seeing Royals lead 3-0 at the break.

Two minutes back into the game and Lealiifano ran a fine line to score. McMahon put his team back in front with another penalty goal before Vikings flanker Rowan Perry was sin-binned for pulling down in the lineout. Royals winger Lausii Taliauli took advantage of the open space and popped a brilliant kick for Jason Swain to score.

Vikings hit back with a try and led 14-11 with 19 minutes to play. With 10 minutes left, Jay Cash rumbled over in his last game and it was Royals 16-14.

But then, in the 77th minute, Lealiifano – 26 Test caps for Australia, 150 games for the Brumbies, playing because he’d been left out of the Wallabies squad to play the All Blacks – drilled a penalty goal under the pump.

Royals weren’t dead – but they were close to it. Jamie Bodman got onto the field and suggested to McMahon that he have a shot at field goal.

McMahon liked the sound of that.

Royals worked their way down field, strongly, and with 38 seconds on the clock, McMahon had a snap at the posts. It missed by another set of posts. Skewed away into the void. Dead in goal. Dead.

“It wasn’t his best effort,” Bodman says.

“It was a flat-out shank,” McMahon affirms. “And I was looking for the ground to swallow me up.”

Wayne Southwell thought: ‘Well, we put up a bloody good fight. We can take plenty from it.’

Tyson Tamihere wasn’t done. He got in McMahon’s face. “Put it out of your mind! We need you now more than ever!” McMahon looked at his co-captain like he was crazy. We’re done. And it’s my fault. But he got back in line. And he did his best.

With time nearly up, Ione took his time with the drop-out before going long and downtown. The bell rang almost as he launched it.

Royals had one more chance.

The last play of the game would have 14 phases and 23 passes. There were mostly one-out hit-ups. Brendan Woodward was a factor, a hard charge through the exhausted meat of the Tuggeranong defence.

The ball went side to side, any knock-on or penalty, that was it.

 

unnamed 1 1

What happened was:

After Vikings stuck with Rodney Iona in the No.10 and Christian Lealiifano played fullback, Craig McMahon scored the only points of a hard-fought first half, his penalty goal seeing Royals lead 3-0 at the break.

Two minutes back into the game and Lealiifano ran a fine line to score. McMahon put his team back in front with another penalty goal before Vikings flanker Rowan Perry was sin-binned for pulling down in the lineout. Royals winger Lausii Taliauli took advantage of the open space and popped a brilliant kick for Jason Swain to score.

Vikings hit back with a try and led 14-11 with 19 minutes to play. With 10 minutes left, Jay Cash rumbled over in his last game and it was Royals 16-14.

But then, in the 77th minute, Lealiifano – 26 Test caps for Australia, 150 games for the Brumbies, playing because he’d been left out of the Wallabies squad to play the All Blacks – drilled a penalty goal under the pump.

Royals weren’t dead – but they were close to it. Jamie Bodman got onto the field and suggested to McMahon that he have a shot at field goal.

McMahon liked the sound of that.

Royals worked their way down field, strongly, and with 38 seconds on the clock, McMahon had a snap at the posts. It missed by another set of posts. Skewed away into the void. Dead in goal. Dead.

“It wasn’t his best effort,” Bodman says.

“It was a flat-out shank,” McMahon affirms. “And I was looking for the ground to swallow me up.”

Wayne Southwell thought: ‘Well, we put up a bloody good fight. We can take plenty from it.’

Tyson Tamihere wasn’t done. He got in McMahon’s face. “Put it out of your mind! We need you now more than ever!” McMahon looked at his co-captain like he was crazy. We’re done. And it’s my fault. But he got back in line. And he did his best.

With time nearly up, Ione took his time with the drop-out before going long and downtown. The bell rang almost as he launched it.

Royals had one more chance.

The last play of the game would have 14 phases and 23 passes. There were mostly one-out hit-ups. Brendan Woodward was a factor, a hard charge through the exhausted meat of the Tuggeranong defence.

The ball went side to side, any knock-on or penalty, that was it.

After two minutes of attack by Royals, a ruck formed on the right and the slick and composed halfback Brent Hamlin slung a ball for Taliauli who took it into contact yet managed to flick a pass out, back-handed for Siliva Siliva.

The hooker was cooked, they all were, but with his back to the Vikings line he threw a deft, spiralling if too-high ball for inside-centre Rolando.

The Argentine shot out a left hand, juggled once, shot out his right, juggled again, before controlling it and popping a pure, short pass for Cash.

There was only one way he was going.

The front-rower crashed into four Tuggeranong defenders, throwing one off like a doll, and made hugely important metres in the context of the fixture. If there were two ‘big’ runs in those last minutes, they belonged to Woodward and Cash.

Hamlin slung the ball wide, right, for Tom Staniforth who immediately threw a bullet to Tamihere who threw another one for Johnston … with a two-man overlap.

Everyone thought he’d pass. His coach. His captain. His support players outside. The chasing ones inside. Cash and Rolando, still on the ground in the previous ruck. The thousand beer-fuelled Royals fans on Blue Hill. The greater southern mega-suburb of Tuggeranong.

He’s gotta go right, right?

The Tuggeranong cover defenders assumed it also – and their arse was hanging out. They were operating on instinct. It was: See man, hit man. Tackle whatever moves. Four of them swarmed across field, like hunting dogs run ragged by a fox.

All Johnston could think was: ‘Don’t drop the bastard’.

Mission accomplished, he scoped the Tuggeranong defence in front of him. In a split second he summoned a lifetime in rugby.

“I looked up and [front-rower Tyrel] Lomax was opposite me. I was like, ‘Well, I can get on the outside of him. And if I can’t, I shouldn’t be out here. But then their winger was backpedalling. If he’d jammed in, I would have passed it. Boddo and Woody were outside me. But he stayed out to cover those guys and I was like, ‘Well, he’s in no position to tackle me. I’m gonna have a crack.’”

Tuggeranong’s defenders continued to stream across in cover. All had eyes for the space near the corner post.

And then Johnston stepped off his right.

“No!” roared Southwell. “No!”

Jamie Bodman just kept chasing on the outside, thinking, that had to be my ball. Johnston’s mum, though, Elsabe, thought of her father, looked to the sky and whispered, “Give him wings, Dad. Give him wings.”

Johnston grew wings.

He angled in at the Tuggeranong cover-defence swarming across field. Then he angled in again, towards the posts, as Tuggeranong cover-defenders were turned inside out.

“Three steps later I thought: ‘I’m a real good show here’,” Johnston says. “So yeah.”

So yeah …

 

unnamed 2 1

A hole opened in front of him as if Moses had parted the Sea of Galilee.

The big fullback ploughed through the space and over the line. And a thousand Royals fans on Blue Hill went batshit crazy.

After planting the ball Johnston threw it into the air off his knees. And was swamped by team-mates and knocked over. “It was an unreal feeling to be in it. I got squashed underneath and lost my breath a bit. I was yelling – ‘Oh, boys, you got to get off me!’” Johnston says.

“Plus Rodney Iona and Jake Knight from Tuggeranong were pinned under it with me. Poor bloody Jake had a cramp.”

Johnston saw some light and climbed back to his feet. And then “it was like the whole club was on the field. And then the noise.”

After the howling maelstrom had subsided to an ecstatic hubbub, Johnston found Keith Hawke. The oldest of the old boys. A 49er. An original. And a terrific bloody bloke.

“To see how proud he was, and all the older guys, of our team, and to be part of that team that broke the drought … we’d gone close a number of times in that 24 years and not got it done. So to actually get it done and to do it in such dramatic fashion after the bell against a very good team …”

Johnston’s voice trails off and he shakes his head, reliving the wonder of it.

“It was a super proud moment,” he says.

Kim Thurbon was in the grandstand, on his feet, applauding.

“I just couldn’t be happier for them, it was fantastic. They deserved it. They were the best team and had the best coach. They didn’t have the best players, they had the best coached players,” Thurbon says.

Whitton says Johnston’s try was “remarkable” but adds that it was Pedro Rolando who kept the dream alive. “He kept the faith and never gave up.”

Assistant coach Bill Swain says “before the game there was a school of thought that Pedro was a good halfback playing inside-centre and that Nigel Ah Wong and the other centre, Franky Fainifo, would run over the top of him. But He didn’t miss a tackle all day. In fact he cut them in half.”

Rolando says he doesn’t remember if Siliva’s pass was meant for him.

“I just tried to grab it. And then I juggled the ball – two or three times!

Because I think I was very tired, and Vikings were very tired, no one put too much pressure on. So I have time with the ball. And I grabbed the ball, gave it to Cashy, he run, he run, and then the ball came on.”

In very rugby fashion, in which no Pinhead can flash over for a try unless a couple of Pigs have their face in the dirt, Cash was yet to peel himself off the bottom of the ruck when Johnston went over.

And great emotion spilled onto Viking Park.

Rolando has played over 150 games for Royals, all in first grade, and hesitates to name one standout match. But for pure passion, the premiership in 2015 is hard to top.

“I have never seen that many people watching a game. Not just Royals people, it was like the whole of Canberra. They said 5,000 people there, including the other Canberra clubs. Amazing experience, very emotional,” Rolando says.

“When I talk with my family back home, and with my friends, I tell them everyone is very friendly at Royals, it’s like you are mates with everyone – young, old, doesn’t matter.

“The club welcomes everyone and makes everyone feel like part of something, which I think is very important nowadays, to feel like you belong somewhere.”

Jon Rollings has always known it.

A Life Member, integral in saving the club when the licensed club was lost in 2003, he found McMahon and wept on his shoulder. Ask him why and Rollings says “it’s a good question.”

“I’m very attached to the club because it did so much in shaping me through my late teens and 20s. It’s where all my friends were. And are. It’s just such a really deep connection with the club,” Rollings says.

“And then you go from my experience where we barely lost a game in the eight or so years that I played, and then into the drought, and then coming so close so often … the outpouring at the end of that game was at least in part because it looked like it was going to be another one where we came so close, and just fell short.

“And then Macca, one of our greatest servants, missed that field goal.

And then to actually jag it after the siren … it was relief, exhilaration, all sorts of emotions. And everyone who’d stormed that field, they were all experiencing the same thing. And it just kind of spilled over.

“Mate, it was just fucking beautiful.”

There followed a party that lasted a week.

unnamed 3 1

The book can be purchased online here in the Royals Online Shop and at the Merchandise Tent on game day.  Or come join us at the Book Launch on the 13th July at The Hellenic Club, Woden, 6:30pm, Apollo Room and pick up a signed copy on the night.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top