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Australians love a winner but we love a character even more, and the passing of the little scrapper Tommy Raudonikis has left a hole in the hearts of those who admired his belligerence on the field and his bravado off it.

Raudonikis fought his long battle with cancer with the trademark tenacity that carried him through 14 years of first grade in an era where only the toughest survived.

Twenty-nine Test matches came before a lone Origin game cemented his place in the folklore of footy's fiercest rivalry.

Tommy and his great mate Arthur Beetson captained their respective states on the night Origin was born in 1980 at Lang Park and, four decades on, they remain two of the most revered and respected figures in an arena that has given us countless great names and great games.

He may have lost that first ever Origin game but Tommy set the record straight in 1997 when he coached NSW to a 2-1 series win and introduced the famous "Cattledog" call which would become his calling card for the next two decades.

Raudonikis remembers the first ever State of Origin

Ever the larrikin, Tommy used his profile and his "pooch" to promote Origin and talk up the hatred between the two states, even when the game became more sanitised and fights were just something we saw in old footage.

It was that era, the 70s and 80s, that suited Tommy to a tee. No quarter asked or given. A face slap between friends before a game. A stray boot here and an elbow there. And even the odd bite on the nose ... 

Who could forget the infamous "I'm the phantom biter" cover of Rugby League Week magazine on June 26, 1976, when the fiery Magpie Tommy confessed to biting Manly's John Gibbs "on the bugle" at Lidcombe Oval.

Such was the irreverent tone of RLW in its early years they put a Phantom mask on a photo of a grinning Tommy on the cover and a photo of Gibbs showing the gash on his nose that required 10 stitches.

"I bit his nose, I did," Raudonikis told Joel Gould in the last ever edition of RLW in 2017. "When your editor Geoff Prenter called me I thought he was just ringing to say 'g'day'. I was a bit naive in those days. I told him all this stuff about how I bit him and then I see it on the front page and me with a mask on, fangs and everything.

"The NSWRL fined me $200 [which RLW paid]. But imagine if I did it today. I'd probably never play again."

And that would have robbed us of seeing Tommy spark Newtown's remarkable surge to the 1981 grand final, where they took on the might of Jack Gibson's Eels and almost came up trumps.

The 1976 Rugby League Week cover.
The 1976 Rugby League Week cover.

Tommy scored a cheeky try from the scrumbase that day and damn near got the Jets across the line in a David and Goliath battle few thought they could win.

Newtown had collected consecutive wooden spoons in 1976, '77 and '78 and improved only marginally to 11th in 1979, before Tommy walked through the door in 1980 and sprinkled his magic dust on the likes of Phil Sigsworth, Graeme O'Grady and Steve Bowden. 

The Jets won 11 games in 1980 to finish just outside the finals and by '81 they were ready to make a statement, hanging off every word of wily coach Warren Ryan and answering every call to arms from fearless leader Raudonikis to finish second in the regular season and storm into the decider.

Tommy may have been 31 and in the twilight of his career but passion oozed out of every pore and the skills that had earned him Kangaroo tour selection in 1973 and 1978 and a Rothmans Medal in 1972 were still evident.

Raudonikis during his playing days for Western Suburbs.
Raudonikis during his playing days for Western Suburbs. ©NRL Photos

As any player who confronted Tommy on the field during his illustrious career would attest, this was not a man to be trifled with.

A man of immense pride and loyalty, his fighting spirit knew no bounds, and his loss will be deeply felt today by all those who knew him and the countless others who felt like they knew him because of his ability to draw people in with a Cattledog cry and a ripping yarn.

As famous for his voice as his victories, Tommy Raudonikis will forever command a special place in rugby league's heart.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.