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16th of July 2018

Sport



Vale Sir Laurence, the aristocrat who stood squarely behind rugby league

“Oh, no,” they all chorused, according to Quayle. “The Chief Justice [who had recently retired from the position] would be ideal but wouldn’t be interested.”

But Quayle persisted, desperate to find someone to play the role of Tom Sawyer and whitewash, not a fence, but a code’s reputation.

Rugby league had been handcuffed by the press to an identity, not necessarily of its own making, and Sir Laurence was all those perpendicular adjectives Quayle needed: upstanding, upright, up front and straightforward.

The then NSWRL chairman, Tom Bellew, (whose son, Geoff, coincidentally is a NSW Supreme Court judge), approved the approach.

Quayle says: “I rang his office. We had a chat. I explained our problems ... clubs challenging decisions of our own judiciary, drugs. He said he’d be delighted to accept.”

Sir Laurence proved to be the upright nail that refused to be hammered down.

“The clubs stopped appealing,” Quayle said. “They complained, saying, ‘You’ve got us going before the Chief Justice!’ None of them were game to challenge.”

However, Sir Laurence did allow a rare appeal, concerning an on-field incident. When one of the lawyers expressed dismay, Sir Laurence replied that he had applied the Admiral Nelson rule.

Asked to explain, Sir Laurence said: “I put the telescope up to the blind eye.”

He enjoyed lunch preceding big rugby league games, this suave presence who could have stepped out as leading man from a 1940’s black-and-white, Thames Films movie, mixing with the broken noses and the cauliflowered ears. 

Quayle’s enduring memory of Sir Laurence is the occasion a young indigenous player appeared before him, challenging a ban imposed for a positive test to a performance enhancing drug. The player had a young family and was desperate to secure a contract with a Sydney club.

Sir Laurence rejected the appeal but the following day Quayle received a phone call from Sir Laurence’s wife, Penny.

“She explained that Sir Laurence felt for the family, three young kids, including a baby,” Quayle said.“Football was the player’s only income. Penny said they would like to make a little gift. The next day, two boxes turned up at Phillip Street [then the headquarters of the NSWRL]. There was a bassinette, blankets, baby clothes, anything to do with young children.”

Quayle phoned the suspended player who arrived, assuming his drugs ban had been over-turned.

“I told him Sir Laurence had given him a gift,” Quayle recalled. “The young fellow said, “But he’s the bloke who put me out’. I told him, 'No, the game put you out'.

"I showed him the gifts and he broke down and said, ‘No-one has ever given me anything’.

"Some time later, I received a handwritten letter from the player’s wife. She wrote that it was the ‘nicest thing to ever happen to us’.”

Perhaps Sir Laurence was always conscious of the role of his mother, Jessie, who devoted herself to indigenous causes.

Quayle says: “The presents to the young family was not a one-off. He would regularly call for updates on players who had appeared before him. It was rarely the graded player, more often the Under-20’s player. He wanted to know how the player was handling being out of the game.”

It was not the only gift this open-hearted and clear-headed man bequeathed the game.

“He gave us credibility,” Quayle said of this species of Australian aristocrat who stood firmly behind the code, squaring off across the perceived moral grand canyon to the “better class of chap” on the other side. “We’d never got near the top end of town before,”

Quayle says he would always bring Sir Laurence to mind as an antidote to his bad memories of the costly legal challenges of the Super League war.

“I would count the barristers in court every day ... News Ltd had 15 and the ARL had 13,” he recalled.“Yet Sir Laurence was happy just to have lunch with us.”

Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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