Wests and the unhappy third merger (Part 9)

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This is the ninth article in the series where we’ll have a look at the 17 rugby league clubs that have come and gone in the last 113 years.

Who were they, what happened to them, who were their best players, what legacy did they leave behind and what did they achieve?

In Parts 1 to 8 we looked at the 15 other clubs to go. Today we’ll look at the Western Suburbs Magpies, while in the final instalment we’ll look at the Balmain Tigers, two foundation clubs that disappeared in the unhappy 1999 merger.

Western Suburbs entered the competition in 1908 and departed at the end of 1999.

If Newtown were a team of battlers, then Wests weren’t far away from them in their struggles for both success and survival over the years. One of the nine foundation clubs, they should have achieved much more than just four premierships in their 92 years, but the game’s continual expansion didn’t do them any favours in the earlier seasons, particularly when the residential eligibility rules were in force. Under these rules, a player had to live in the club’s designated area in order to play for the club.

Wests lost both territory and players when new teams were added to the competition, firstly when St George were added in 1921 and then again when both Canterbury and Parramatta entered the league in 1935 and 1947 respectively. For example, when Canterbury joined the competition in 1935 the residential eligibility rules saw half of Wests’ 1934 premiership-winning forward pack turn out for Canterbury as they then lived in the Canterbury district for rugby league purposes.

Wests’ early days in the competition were anything but successful, and they picked up five wooden spoons in their first ten years, although they went close to a premiership win in 1918 when they finished second to Souths on the table by just two points in a year when the premiership was decided on a first-past-the-post basis. History repeated itself in 1925 when they once again finished second to a rampant South Sydney team.

Premiership glory finally came for the club in 1930 when they finished as minor premiers, winning 12 from 14 games, and progressed through the finals to meet St George in the grand final. In what was his last match in the big time, Wests captain-coach and halfback star Jim Craig led his team to a decisive 27-2 victory, with prolific Wests try-scoring winger Alan Brady running in three tries.

Wests finished third the following year and made it as far as the preliminary finals. They finished second on the table in 1932 but lost in their grand final clash with Souths, and then they dropped all the way to last place and their sixth wooden spoon in 1933 under captain-coach Bill Brogan.

The Magpies well and truly bounced back in 1934 under mercurial fullback and captain-coach Frank McMillan, finishing level with a star-studded Eastern Suburbs team on top of the table, and they then went on to defeat Easts 15-12 in the decider.

Wests then struggled for the next dozen or so years after winning their second premiership, making the finals three times for no result and picking up wooden spoons in both 1940 and 1942 before finally finishing on top of the table once again in 1948. They went on to defeat Balmain 8-5 in the grand final to claim their third premiership. They finished in the top four for the next three years running and then ended the season as minor premiers in 1952, going on to take their fourth title by defeating Souths 22-12 under rookie coach Tom McMahon.

Generic vintage rugby league or rugby union ball

(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Cue the era in which Wests were dubbed ‘the Millionaires’ as the growing poker machine revenue stream from the Wests Leagues Club at Ashfield funded the acquisition of players of the calibre of Kel O’Shea, Dick Poole, Ian Moir, Harry Wells, Noel Kelly and Arthur Summons. Unfortunately Wests’ investment was more than matched by the money available at St George, and the best Wests could do over the next dozen years was to finish as runners-up in 1958, 1961, 1962 and 1963, with St George winning premiership after premiership.

Between 1966 and 1973 Wests were just plodded along, making the semi-finals only once and finishing with their 11th wooden spoon in 1971. They had a resurgence of sorts in the mid-70s under coach Don Parish and captain Tom Raudonikis, making the semis in both 1974 and 1975, and they began to build a reputation as a non-compromising club, boasting the likes of hard men Les Boyd, John Donnelly and Bob Cooper. Games against Wests at Lidcombe Oval became brutal affairs.

Roy Masters came on board as coach in 1978 and oversaw their transformation from the Millionaires of the 1950s and 60s, to ‘the Fibros’, complete with face slapping and worse, prior to his players taking the field. He had an immediate impact, with the Magpies topping the table, but they were knocked out in the preliminary finals by eventual premiers Manly. They made it as far as the finals again in 1979 and 1980 but dropped out of contention in Master’s last year at the helm in 1981.

The rest of the 1980s and most of the 1990s were a big disappointment to loyal Magpies supporters. The bits and pieces of the Wests team went on to pick up four more wooden spoons in the 1980s – they were lucky not to join Newtown in being cut from the competition at the end of 1983 and were nearly punted again just a year later. They somehow survived and relocated to Campbelltown in 1987, and then Warren Ryan came on board as coach in 1991, rebuilt the club to some extent and took them as far as the semis both that year and the next.

Their next finals appearance came in 1996 under coach Tom Raudonikis, but they were really just making up the numbers by then and were eliminated in Week 1 of the semis. The end of the road was now clearly in sight for the Magpies, who were struggling to compete in the player market inflated by the Super League split. They dropped down the ladder in 1997 and then took out back-to-back wooden spoons in 1998 and 1999, their final years in the competition.

The NRL wanted to reduce the number of teams from 17 in 1999 to just 14 in 2000, and the struggling Magpies looked like they could join the South Sydney club and be culled from the competition altogether. Instead Wests opted for survival – sort of – through a merger, and after initial talks with Canterbury failed, an agreement was reached with Balmain. The Western Suburbs Magpies were gone from the NRL.

Some great players turned out for the Magpies over the years, with none better in modern times than Arthur Summons, Keith Holman, Peter Dimond, Arthur Clues, Harry Wells, Kel O’Shea, Paul Langmack, Jim Cody, Dave Barsley and Russell Mullins. And they had more than their fair share of colourful characters along the way, including Tom Raudonikis, Noel Kelly, Les Boyd and John Donnelly.

Western Suburbs Magpies facts

  • Tommy Raudonikis holds the record for most games for the Magpies with 202, just shading Keith Holman with 200.
  • The tough winger-centre Peter Dimond hold the record for most tries for the club, with 84 tries.
  • The great fullback from the 1940s Bill Keato holds the record for most points for the club, with 776 points.

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