Roy Masters with Wests players at the SCG.

Roy Masters oversaw some unique - and controversial - coaching methods during his time at the helm of the Western Suburbs Magpies.

The "face-slapping" scenes Masters oversaw weren't the only off-centre tactic employed by the man who went on to coach St George to a grand final appearance before embarking on a stellar career in journalism, but they are the ones best remembered.

In 1983, the Magpies were on the verge of following fellow foundation club Newtown in being expelled from the league as the competition began to streamline the number of Sydney clubs in the wake of the previous year's addition of the Illawarra Steelers and Canberra Raiders.

Titled "Roy goes back to Lidcombe",  this article first appeared in Rugby League Week in November 1983, written by acclaimed journalist Ian Heads.

Roy Masters went home to Lidcombe Oval the other day. Just as he had on countless days in six extraordinary years of his life, Masters steered his car through the high wire gates and parked it in the lee of the grandstand hill.

Later, as a power mower traced mesmerising, geometric patterns on the green spring turf, Masters, Wests' Svengali during an amazing action-packed period, relived what Lidcombe - and Wests - had meant to him.

For a morning Masters was a Magpie again, spilling out recollections of the days from 1978-81 when Wests were the talk of the town - and Masters their coach and mouthpiece.

"This is a place where we [Wests] felt very comfortable," he said.

"The factories, the industrial areas, the warehouses ... the surroundings were right for us. Opposition teams hated coming here."

How true. Wests were the terror team of '78-79 with their physical aggression and barroom brawl style and almost equally as formidable in '80-81 when they swapped the broadsword for the rapier, changed their ways and became exciting, free-running try-scorers.

In four years under Masters' coaching at Lidcombe, Wests won 34 games out of 44.

Roy Masters feels very strongly about Wests - about what happened to them in those years, and what has happened to them now. He describes the club as having been made "sacrificial lambs" by the NSWRL.

"They have been very badly done by," he said. "There are other clubs in as much, or more financial trouble than Wests at the moment. The decision carries on the vindictiveness shown towards Wests in recent years."

Masters recalled his years with Wests with great affection as he sat in the old wooden grandstand.

"I suppose it's like life ... you tend only to remember the good things. But my memories of this place [Lidcombe] are certainly good ones - and I have no regrets about those years."

"I had offers from just about every club in Sydney at some time during my stay here," he said.

"It cost me money to stay. To leave would have meant selling out on some of the principles I held to so earnestly myself. So I stayed until I felt my usefulness was on its last legs.

"In the last season here [1981] I started to feel frustrated ... I was becoming curt and explosive to the players ... it was time to go."

WESTS-MANLY FEUD

"It all began in an early-season exhibition match in Melbourne in 1978. The day was billed as a football spectacular," said Masters.

"The basic idea, we believed, was that the two teams would travel together, and put on an exhibition game of fast, open football.

"But from the start Manly's attitude was a superior one. The plane from Sydney was diverted to a different airport in Melbourne - at the airport they virtually refused to speak to us.

"When the bus came the Manly group went straight to the back. We were left up front like pariahs. When we got to the hotel we found that Manly had re-booked themselves in elsewhere.

"In the match, they came on heavy and hard in the first half. So at halftime, we decided we'd give a little back. Surprisingly on the plane back to Sydney everything was fairly pleasant again ... but the damage had been done."

That match, 600 miles from Sydney, kicked off the greatest feud, on and off the field, in the game's modern history.

Brutal matches followed, and the bitterness today between the "haves" (Manly) and the "have-nots" (Wests) is as deep as it ever was.

That Manly voted for Wests to be dropped from the competition ensured the scars will never heal.

THE MASS EXODUS

"I always knew 'Joe' [John Dorahy] would go," said Masters.

"But with [Les] Boyd, Manly had to pay $15,000 more than Wests' offer to entice him away. You could say that was his loyalty factor.

"Ray Brown disappointed me. He had played for Wests only one year and had won an Australia jumper in that year. He was never here long enough to get the real feeling or love of the place.

"I thought Brown would have become a great Wests captain ... and one of the 'greats' for Wests.

"Tommy Raudonikis and I went to make Brown an offer which was worth $8000 a year more than Tommy was getting at the time.

"Tommy said to me: 'I don't give a stuff about that ... I just want to make sure he stays at the club.'

"But to stay at Wests, Brown demanded $1000 less than he accepted to play at Manly ... that was his loyalty factor.

"Then a month later [1979] Tommy rang me at school and told me he had an appointment to see John Singleton.

"I lent him my car. I was down at the NSW League for a coaching panel meeting and later that night he arrived with a signed contract. It was far bigger money than Wests could have paid him. Tommy and I went out and got drunk."

SLEDGING AND FACE-SLAPPING

Tommy Raudonikis cops a slap.
Tommy Raudonikis cops a slap. ©Rugby League Week/NRL Photos

Before big matches at Lidcombe, particularly in 1978-79, the rough, tough Wests side, featuring hard men like Donnelly, Gibbs, Cooper and Foster, would often "sledge" their rivals - taunting them verbally before a game.

"I don't suppose it won us any friends," said Masters bluntly.

"But it was just something we did. It was one of a number of things that happened which I didn't have to stage manage.

"Wests were a good 'talking' team - and it was an extension of that."

In 1979 Wests featured in a famous (or infamous, depending on which way you look at it) segment on Channel 9 show 60 Minutes.

The segment, showing Wests players slapping each others' faces in a build-up to a big match, became front page news.

"It happened at a time when we were under fire from all directions," said Masters.

"We had been branded a team of thugs and the 60 Minutes people approached us, asking us if they could do a show on Wests' methods.

"They followed us virtually everywhere for weeks; they must have taken 60 hours of film. There was not a thing we could hide from them - and there is no evidence of planned violence in any of that film.

"They did 5-6 weeks of dressing room scenes. Before the Manly match, which was a very big game, the players were very emotional in the dressing room - and that's when the face-slapping took place.

"Ray Brown and Les Boyd locked horns and I had to pull them apart. The 60 hours of filming was finally reduced to a 20-minute segment - and in that 20 minutes they showed the face-slapping scenes four times."

That match against Manly in 1979, which brought a thrilling win for Wests, recalled one of Masters' greatest memories of Lidcombe.

Roy Masters was named Coach of the Year at the Dally M awards in 1980 and 1985.
Roy Masters was named Coach of the Year at the Dally M awards in 1980 and 1985. ©Rugby League Week/NRL Photos

"At halftime in that game I ripped hell out of Tommy Raudonikis.

"He was missing tackles. Tommy never said a thing - he just led the team out in the second half. We played superbly and won the game.

"After the game Tommy pulled me to one side and told me he had broken his thumb - and he had a massive break. But he never complained. He knew the rules, he was either on the field doing his tackling or off it getting treatment.

"Such was the courage of the players in those days."

It was around that time that skipper Raudonikis described Wests as being "like starving dogs".

"It was true," said Masters. "There wasn’t much money there, and the only way they could get paid was to draw people through the gate."

The surroundings were right for us. Opposition teams hated coming here.

Roy Masters

That they did, drawing crowds as big as 25,000 in a mini-era which will be remembered as one of the great ones - and certainly the most controversial one - in the Magpies' history.

The stories flowed:

  • The day that a Wests forward downed an opponent as the teams crossed after tossing up before a match - a new tactic.
  • How the late Garry Dowling would doze in front of the video, and Masters would belt him across the head with a program to wake him.
  • When Ron Giteau slammed down his beer and stormed from the bar when Masters derided his claim that he would turn out a successful goal-kicker.
  • The bitterness he felt at the suspensions of Donnelly, Dorahy and Boyd.
  • The day Wests finally beat their SCG hoodoo.
  • The day Wests whipped a Manly team which included Brown, Dorahy and Boyd by six tries to nil.

Eventful, memorable days - which lived again through the words of Roy Masters.

As we left Lidcombe we bumped into Wests' current president John Brooks.

Brooks' parting words to Masters were: “We'll see you here next year, when St George play Wests!" It was the spirit of the fighting Magpie and Roy Masters, who knows about that spirit, smiled and wished him a genuine "Good luck."