The Mighty Chang: Langlands' perfect foil at Saints

Graeme Langlands was a shy kid from Wollongong when he joined the mighty St George club in the midst of their 11-year run as the undisputed premiership kings.

He went on to become one of the all-time greats, reaching Immortal status in 1999 after narrowly missing selection among the original Immortals in 1981.

He played 227 games for the Dragons over a 14-year career and captained Australia 15 times.

Published below is the story of how he was welcomed to the Saints fold by a player who was the perfect foil for Langlands in the Red V glory years.

The final piece of the three-part feature is published further down, detailing his thoughts on the end of his career as he reached the final months of his time at St George, which would ultimately be remembered for his performance wearing his infamous white boots in the 38-0 shellacking at the hands of Eastern Suburbs in the 1975 grand final.

This is the second of a three-part piece on Langlands which ran over three Rugby League Week issues on June 28, July 5 and 12, 1975. It was titled "The Mighty Chang", written by Philip Jenkins.

"Graeme, meet Billy Smith." The two youngsters shook hands briefly and a happy night continued.

But in that quick handshake was forged the beginnings of the most remarkable rugby league partnership of them all.

Chang and Little Billy.

Throw in all the great partnerships you can think of: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Crosby and Hope, Bonnie and Clyde, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, scotch and dry - and this one matched them all.

It was 1962 and the men of St George were celebrating yet another premiership win, and receiving their payout for a year's hard work.

St George halfback Billy Smith tries to outpace British prop Cliff Watson during a match for Australia against Great Britain, 1970.
St George halfback Billy Smith tries to outpace British prop Cliff Watson during a match for Australia against Great Britain, 1970.

Saints had just signed Graeme Langlands from Wollongong. And not long before he had celebrated his 21st birthday.

"Come up and meet the boys," said Saints secretary Frank Facer to Langlands.

So, the shy youngster from Wollongong made the trip up the coast and met the men with whom he was to make league history.

Not long before, Changa laughed when St George offered him £800 to join them.

But it was a laugh of total disbelief.

Chang, you see, had never earned more than £50 a season before playing football.

"I couldn't believe it," he says today. "It seemed too much money."

So, Chang signed, bought a house in the heart of St George territory and, with his mother Zell, moved to Sydney.

The night he signed, the Langlands career almost ended before it began. The injury problem that was to haunt his career reared its head again when he had a few beers too many and accidentally thumped his arm through a glass door in a Wollongong pub.

Fifty-two stitches and several hours later, doctors at Wollongong Hospital had him patched up.

Dragons great Graeme Langlands.
Dragons great Graeme Langlands. ©NRL Photos

A centimetre deeper and Langlands may never have played football again.

That next year, 1963, Langlands quickly teamed up with Billy Smith and formed a close mateship with the amazing Johnny "Chook" Raper.

It was quite a trio. Great footballers all - and now, in their mature years, each one admits he was no angel in those days.

The Langlands-Smith partnership is something to behold. It began in the premiership-winning team of '63 when Chang was fullback and Smith a centre - 12 seasons later it's going just as strong. Today the rapport between Langlands and Smith is absolutely uncanny.

If Smith puts a little kick over the top you can bet your life Langlands will be the first man on the spot. They keep each other going.

Would Chang still be playing if Smith wasn't still there?

"Probably not," says Langlands.

Raper and Smith both feature in Langlands's list of greatest players. Raper, who along with Frank Facer has probably had the greatest influence on Chang's career, is at the top. Then in a bunch he rates Gasnier, [Norm] Provan and Smith. "All different, but all great in their own way," says Chang.

In late September 1963 the young Langlands, after a mighty season in which he scored 15 tries from fullback, won a place in the Kangaroo team. He was picked as a winger but played only 15 minutes in the position on the entire tour.

He quickly gravitated to the centres and became Reg Gasnier's partner; in England they still talk about that combination as the greatest of them all.

The biggest thrill in Langlands's entire football life came in early November on that tour. He was picked to play centre for Australia in the First Test at the magnificent Wembley Stadium.

Before the match, with his hands shaking and knees knocking from the pre-match nerves which still haunt him today, Chang met the Duke of Edinburgh. He went out and played the game of his life, scoring a try and kicking five goals to spearhead a great Australian victory.

"I'll never forget that match; it was a tremendous experience," says Langlands today.

That was his first Test. Today the score stands at 34 Tests, 11 World Cup and World Series matches and seven overseas tours. Looking back over all the tours Langlands rates that 1963 team as the greatest of them all.

With his fiery, win-at-all-costs play on that tour Langlands became an arch-villain with the English crowds. It was the start of a love-hate relationship which still exists today.

But in 1963 Chang had the last laugh. Australia won the Ashes in England and France and he flew home to Australia with a bag of 201 points, from 17 tries and 78 goals.

The rugby league world lay at his feet.

Graeme Langlands on Kangaroos duty.
Graeme Langlands on Kangaroos duty. ©NRL Photos

 

This is the third of a three-part piece on Langlands which ran over three Rugby League Week issues on June 28, July 5 and 12, 1975. It was titled "The Mighty Chang", written by Philip Jenkins.

The Mighty Chang: Part III

Graeme Langlands, world record-breaking footballer, like all of us, regrets some of the decisions he has made.

And now in moments of quiet reflection Chang would probably admit that the worst decision he ever made was to make himself available again for representative football this year.

"I wish to hell that I had stayed out," a bitter Langlands said midway through the recent World Series.

At the time Langlands's morale was at its lowest.

Criticism of his form - when playing with injuries - and of his selection in the Australian team to play New Zealand had stung him deeply.

A moody, downcast Langlands after the match against New Zealand revealed that he was on the verge of quitting representative football - finally and irrevocably.

I asked him how close he was to dropping out that week.

"I was close all right. . . bloody close," he said.

"I was sick to death of the constant 'bagging' I was getting from men who had urged me to make myself available in the first place."

That week probably marked the first time in 13 years with St George that Chang turned his back on advice from his long-time mate Frank Facer.

Facer advised Langlands to hang up his representative boots.

"You have nothing to gain and everything to lose," he told the great fullback.

Others urged him to stay on. "You can't do half a job, you must keep going," they said.

Chang did.

Whether he continues to make himself available for the second half of the World Series is anyone's guess - even Langlands can't answer that one.

Chang's bitter feeling in that week reflected the deep nature of the man.

Introspective and moody at times, he can be charming company at others - a man who takes a real delight in discussing the subject he knows best, rugby league.

The sensitive and perceptive pen of the great rugby league writer Tom Goodman probably summed him up best of all.

Goodman described Langlands as: "this reticent man, this introvert who has been called surly".

Most people in rugby league probably now wish that Langlands had stuck to his decision of last year and retired from representative football after that epic performance in the Third Test.

What a career it had been ... and what an ending that Test match produced.

Those 13 points took the total to 104 against England - Graeme Langlands, the boy from Wollongong, stood as the first man in the 68 years of Test history to top 100 points in Australia-England games.

Today he also stands as the only man ever to appear in six Test series against England.

Yet after all that, Chang came back - and now he regrets it.

The much-publicised night of trouble at the Australian team's Brisbane hotel added to his worries in the lead-up to the World Series.

Reports of larrikinism and alleged racial insults by members of his team hit the headlines.

"They were small incidents blown up out of all proportion," said an angry Langlands.

"League players seem to be targets for all the 'knockers'. From what I've heard, some other touring Australian sporting teams make league players look like a bunch of choirboys.

"But you never read a word about them."

Dragons great Graeme Langlands.
Dragons great Graeme Langlands. ©NRL Photos

Chang of course had his share of troubles as a hot-headed young fellow on those early tours.

In early 1968 he and Billy Smith were fined their full tour bonuses for alleged misconduct on the '67 Kangaroo tour - the "Man in the Bowler Hat" tour.

A mature Langlands was later to admit: "We were no angels ... that's for sure. But the behaviour on that tour was much better than it had been in '63.

"In 1967 we were treated like second-class citizens - we stayed in a hotel at Ilkley with rats running around the lounge and stairs."

Six years later, Langlands was captain-coach of the 1973 Kangaroos.

They stayed in an old but elegant hotel and came back with the Ashes - and with a reputation as the best-behaved of all recent touring teams.

It seems to back up the Langlands philosophy: "Treat rugby league teams like first-class citizens and they'll act accordingly."

Today, with seven tours, magnificent memories and enough injuries to keep St. Vincent's Hospital busy for a week all behind him, Chang is in the twilight of his remarkable career.

Physically the injuries might come against me later in life ... but it's still all been worth it.

Graeme Langlands

With his wife Lynne, daughters Jacqueline, 8, and Monique, 4, and Aruma the dog, Langlands lives in a stylish, two-storey home at Sylvania.

Rugby league bought him the house.

Rugby league also bought him the brewery truck which will continue to make him a good living when his football days are over.

Langlands will play one more year with St George - at least.

After that?

"I'd like to give it a go as a non-playing coach," he says.

"If that's not successful I would like to go into the administrative side of rugby league.

"The game has been good to me. It has helped me see the world and helped me on my way in life. I want to put something back in."

The injuries of such a long, gruelling career so far have not reacted against Chang.

The worst was a terrible groin muscle tear which required a pain-killer almost every match in one season - and then miraculously disappeared overnight.

"Physically the injuries might come against me later in life ... but it's still all been worth it."

The interview over, Chang rose to leave.

"Would you do it all again?" I asked.

Langlands smiled: "Most definitely". And walked away to join his teammates, some of whom were kids in short pants when this most remarkable of rugby league players first ran onto the field.