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Manly and Souths great John O'Neill.

He was known as arguably the toughest, most uncompromising player of his era - a bloke who gave as good as he got.

John O'Neill won premierships with Souths and Manly and also represented NSW and Australia.

The man called "Lurch" was a big softie at heart but he was a feared opponent who lived by the old-school adage of what happened on the field, stayed there.

 

This Rugby League Week story was first published on April 17, 1971 about one of rugby league's toughest gladiators. It was titled "Man Called Lurch" and written by Stuart Calder.

"Billy Smith broke his arm on my head ... I think most of the blokes heard it," John O’Neill said. "That’s the way it is out there - you win one, you lose one. You can't win 'em all.

"And you cop it sweet. In the papers they said Billy broke his arm when Gary Stevens tackled him. So that's what everyone thinks. No one squeals.

"I don't blame Billy for having a go at me. You've got to subdue the opposition. Believe it or not, I'm sorry he busted his arm. No one likes to see someone stuck out of the game for months."

John O’Neill, the big South Sydney prop, the man feared by the opposition, hated by the opposition fans, admired by his own teammates, loved by the Rabbitoh crowds, discoursing on the toughest game of them all.

O'Neill speaks candidly. He is a tough man, hard and frank. He speaks straight from the shoulder, and shows me the shoulder, the right collarbone.

"You see this big lump here," he says.

There is a bump sticking up on his shoulder, about an inch high and four inches long, like a mountain ridge down his shoulder blade.

"That happened in the only game I've ever been really knocked about in. The Poms did that to me in the state game last year.

"Dennis Hartley kicked me on the shoulder and dislocated it. That was the day I busted my hand on Cliff Watson's head.

"I didn't squeal when Hartley kicked me. Watson didn't squeal when I whacked his head.

"It just happens. You're in the front row and you know you've got to get on top and don't let them get on top of you.

"The pack that gets on top usually finds themselves in the winning side, and everyone likes to win ... I don't know anyone who likes losing."

Together with John Sattler, his front-row colleague with South Sydney, John O’Neill today makes up probably the toughest prop forward combination in the world.

John O'Neill in action.
John O'Neill in action. ©Rugby League Week

O’Neill is generally regarded as the hardest man in Sydney football. He is now accorded, or at least shares that place with John Sattler, the position once held by another iron front-rower, Kevin Ryan.

As such, he gets letters. Some people praise him for his performances. Others want to see him dead.

"Satts and I regularly find letters for us at the club from people who want to stab us or say we're going to get shot, or something like that.

"They never worry me, although Satts used to get phone calls at home, which is pretty rotten when his wife is there. He had to change his number in the finish.

"Of course, none of the characters who ever rung him up gave their names, and none of them would ever say anything like that to my face."

John O’Neill was born-in Gunnedah 26 years ago. He lived in the town, and did an apprenticeship as a carpenter.

I never think of myself as a dirty player. I know I'm not

John O'Neill on his playing style

In 1964, after watching him play in the second row for Country Seconds and for NSW Colts against France, South Sydney bought him for 1000 pounds.

What a cut-rate transfer fee it turned out to be. O’Neill's partner in the second row in that Colts’ game, incidentally, was a young man called Bobby McCarthy.

"I had started playing first grade with Gunnedah when I was 17," John said.

"I used to weigh about 13 stone then, and they played me in the second row. Matter of fact, in those days I used to get along pretty fast."

With South Sydney, John alternated between the second row and prop positions, vying for a regular first-grade place with Jim Morgan, Richie Powell and John Sattler in the front row.

"There were some pretty tough forwards going around when I first came to Sydney," O’Neill said.

"They seemed to be a bit harder than they are now - blokes like Kevin Ryan, Brian Hambly, Noel Kelly, George Piper, Dick Thornett, Bobby Boland and Ronny Lynch.

"There were some good packs around then - St George and Balmain both had very good packs.

John O'Neill playing for the Rabbitohs.
John O'Neill playing for the Rabbitohs. ©Rugby League Week

"Being a young bloke, I think I probably copped more than I handed out, but that's the business. I suppose as you get older, you sort of even up a bit ... I don't know.

"I never think of myself as a dirty player. I know I'm not.

"I play it hard because that's what South Sydney expect of me, that's what every club expects of their front-row forwards."

I didn't squeal when Hartley kicked me. Watson didn't squeal when I whacked his head.

John O'Neill

I asked John to recall some of the hardest games he has ever played in.

"Well, I'd say two of them were that grand final against St George in 1965, and the World Cup final against England at Leeds last year," he said.

And what does a tough front-row forward like doing in his spare time?

"I like playing with my little girls, Michelle and Julie," John said.

John's daughters' sporting interests centre around physical culture classes. I asked him does he ever attend.

"Well, no, I don't go that far ... but I love giving my girls a cuddle and all that," he said, with a grin.