“If you give the ball to Rocky, something could happen.”
South Sydney coach Bill Anderson would deliver this instruction to halfback David Sinclair during a remarkable 1980 season in which Robert “Rocky” Laurie became the first player to receive a Dally M Medal after leading the Rabbitohs on an unbeaten nine-match streak to secure a top-five berth.
Put simply, Sinclair and his teammates gave Laurie the ball and the play-making five-eighth created magic.
“That was my brief from Bill Anderson,” Sinclair said. “You knew if you passed the ball to him or were running off him that something might happen.
“We had a good combination, we weren’t big talkers on the field but I tracked him a lot and I gave the ball to him as much as I could. I thought if I gave him an early ball he might create something so I just fed him as much as I could.”
On the 40-year anniversary of Laurie becoming the first player presented with a Dally M Medal at Sydney's Wentworth Hotel in 1980, former Souths teammates have paid tribute to the gifted Wauchope product.
Sinclair, Nathan Gibbs, Ken Stewart and Gary Wright still marvel at Laurie’s brilliance and his influence on the team’s fortunes as they climbed from 11th place in the 12-team competition after round 12 to fifth in 10 weeks.
The Rabbitohs hadn’t been in the finals since 1974 and they didn’t finish in the top five again until 1985 after the Roosters lured Laurie to Bondi the year after his breakout 1980 season under Anderson.
“We weren’t a strong side in that era,” former Souths captain Nathan Gibbs said. “Easts, the Bulldogs, Western Suburbs and St George were the big four.
“With 10 games left, there was a mathematical equation that we had to win nine to make the finals but we won eight and had a draw. That got us in fifth spot and a place in the finals.
“That helped Rocky win the Dally M and he deserved it. He really contributed to helping a side that shouldn’t have made the top five reach the finals in a sensational finish to the season.”
Centre Gary Wright said: “Our team that year wasn’t all that strong and in my view Rocky was the most outstanding player in the team so if our team was winning and Rocky was the best player he was going to get [Dally M] points, and he deserved it. He was an excellent player to play with.”
Hooker Ken Stewart said Laurie would have been a star in any era.
“Winning the Dally M was a great achievement for Rocky,” Stewart said. “He would be right up there with the best players. He had all the attributes of a really good footballer. He was a very solid defender and a smart attacking player who played to the best of his ability every week.”
Honours all round
Being the first player to be presented with a Dally M medal wasn’t the only accolade Laurie earned in 1980.
He was awarded a rare score of 10 in the Rugby League Week player ratings after starring in the 26-12 opening-round defeat of 1979 premiers St George, and received a Volvo and numerous television sets for his performances during the mid-week knock-out competition.
“In my opinion Rocky won about eight games for us almost single-handedly that season,” Souths historian and life member Brad Ryder said.
“The opening game against St George was incredible. Rocky just took over the game. In the semi-final against St George at the SCG Rocky scored from halfway. He just came to the defence, dummied and ran 50 metres to score in the corner near the Sheridan Stand.
“He was not fast but he was a deceptive player. He had this characteristic dummy, he would turn his back to the defence with the ball in both hands and he would just swivel around and somehow the gap was just there.”
Gibbs was often a beneficiary of Laurie’s ball-playing skills and scored eight tries in 19 appearances for Souths in 1980.
“He had a great ability to find a hole and put the ball there for you,” Gibbs said. “I was in the [Dally M] team with him and I won the second-rower of the year totally on the back of his ball playing.
“He was also a great defender. He was a really solid defensive player, he wouldn’t miss a tackle.”
Sinclair added: “Our plays were centred around Rocky and we had a pattern where we liked to give Nathan a fair chance because he was a robust second-rower and could find a hole.”
After starting the season with back-to-back wins against the Dragons and Balmain, the Rabbitohs celebrated just one other victory, against Penrith, in the opening 12 rounds and were sitting 11th.
Laurie had played halfback and lock in the first nine matches before shifting to the more familiar five-eighth role in round 10 against Canterbury, who would later defeat the Roosters in the grand final.
Souths lost 18-17 to the Dragons in round 11 and Sinclair said that performance gave them confidence that they could match it with the top teams.
“At the halfway point of the season we probably weren’t looking that good but we put a great run together and a lot of that was Rocky’s doing. We sparked off him a fair bit,” Sinclair said.
“We always thought we had nothing to lose when we were going through that period so we just tried as much as we could to be positive with the ball. Our defence got better and then our attack stream-lined off Rocky.”
For the next nine weeks Souths were unbeaten and climbed to fifth spot with eight wins and a draw before a final-round loss to Canterbury and a 16-5 defeat by the Dragons in the minor semi-final.
Stewart believed it had taken the team time to get used to playing with Laurie.
“We were a fairly young side in 1980 and Rocky was the leader we needed,” Stewart said. “He just said things how he saw them and he was good for our club and the football team.
“I found him to be a terrific person and I think he got everything he deserved that year. He really led us around the paddock and played well himself.”
The success earned the Rabbitohs a regular place in the match of the round on television each Saturday, and Laurie thrived in the spotlight.
“Rocky was inspirational," Wright said. "He was the sort of bloke who wanted the ball all the time. He wasn’t afraid to do things on the field, which was also great. He was a good talker on the field and good to play next to.”
Souths Players Association liaison Steve McDermott said: “If you talk about any of the great players today, outside Cameron Smith, he was as good as any of them. That year was just incredible. It was a great year for Rocky and a great year for Souths.”