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Tommy: New book's legendary tales of a unique life in league

Rugby league lost a legend in April when Tommy Raudonikis died but his legend will live on forever.

A new book by rugby league authors Ian Collis and Alan Whiticker highlights why there have been few more tenacious players in the game than "Tom Terrific".

An inspirational captain who often took on players twice his size, his whole-hearted attitude on the playing field in the 1970s and early '80s is part of rugby league folklore and earned him a berth in the NRL Hall of Fame.

He played 201 games for his beloved Western Suburbs Magpies, as well as winning the Rothman's Medal for Best and Fairest Player of the 1972 season, before finishing his playing career with stints at Newtown and Brisbane Brothers.

Raudonikis went on to play 29 Tests, including nine World Cup appearances, but his efforts for the NSW Blues and at club level were equally inspirational.

Extremely competitive, both on and off the field, Raudonikis regularly delivered the goods when called upon to produce that "something extra".

In 1995, Raudonikis returned to Sydney as coach of the Magpies after a long career in Brisbane. In only his second year, Tommy led Wests back into the playoffs in the 20-team ARL competition.

75. Tom Raudonikis - Hall of Fame

The following year he coached the NSW Blues to State of Origin success.

Controversial, both on and off the field, there was only one Tommy Raudonikis.

TOMMY, The Extraordinary Career of Tom Raudonikis by Ian Collis & Alan Whiticker is available from all good book retailers or online at www.newhollandpublishers.com.

One of the unforgettable partnerships that Raudonikis forged during his career was with Wests coach Roy Masters in the late 1970s.

In this chapter from the book, Collis and Whiticker detail the "Fibros era" of the Magpies which ultimately ended in finals heartache.

Roy Masters at Wests 

Some coaches are made for certain clubs – Jack Gibson for Easts, Harry Bath for St George, Bob Fulton for Manly – but this is no more evident than Roy Masters’ time at Wests.

The acerbic, well-read schoolteacher had coached the inaugural Australian Schoolboys on their unbeaten tour of England in 1972, and had unsuccessfully battled club politics at Penrith before joining Wests as a lower grade in 1976.

Taking over from Keith Holman as first-grade coach in 1978, Masters declined payment for the first-grade job because Wests Leagues was facing insolvency and the yearly football club grant had dried to a trickle.

‘People say that Roy was a motivator and not a tactical coach, but that is very wrong,’ Tommy told Rugby League Week in 2009.

‘He was both, but he was the best motivator I played under. Call it brain-washing, call it what you want, but I didn’t need any motivation anyway.

‘[Roy] was one of us. He was like a father to us all.’

Wests coach Roy Masters celebrates a win.
Wests coach Roy Masters celebrates a win. ©Sydney Morning Herald

Masters had a hardworking group of capable club players to draw upon – John Donnelly, Les Boyd, Graeme O’Grady, Shayne Day, Steve Blythe, Don Moseley, Wayne Smith, John Dorahy – ably led by his little on-field general Tommy Raudonikis.

Masters’ best chance to save the club from financial disaster, he told breathless pressman hanging onto his every word, was for Wests to play a brand of football that would bring the fans back to Lidcombe Oval.

Adopting an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of play, the unfashionable Magpies grafted their way to the top of the premiership table in 1978.

Masters used pop psychology on his players; portraying the Magpies as ‘fibros’ doing it tough in the suburbs while the well-paid ‘silvertails’ at Manly lived by the beach in glass mansions.

Roy was one of us. He was like a father to us all.

Tom Raudonikis

He exposed them to literature (it was Masters who railed at his players with the ‘clouds of dust, buckets of blood’ metaphor that became the team’s rallying cry) and introduced ‘face slapping’ for extra motivation before their matches.

The approach worked ... for a while.

Masters found willing disciples in captain ‘Tom Terrific’, the legendary ‘Dallas’ Donnelly and the fiery NSW Country product Les Boyd.

‘I used to hate the opposition like they’d done something to my family,’ Raudonikis once said.

‘I used to hate the other halfback like he’d done something to my sister.’

The first inkling that something had changed was in early 1978 when Manly and Wests were invited to play an exhibition match in Melbourne as part of a ‘festival of football’ promotion by the Fitzroy VFL club.

Only 1200 fans watched the rugby league match, which exploded in violence soon after the kick-off.

The match did little to endear the game to Aussie Rules-mad Melbourne, but it set the stage for a controversial season back in Sydney.

At rep level, Australia hosted a three-test series against the Kiwis in 1978 in the lead-up to the end of year Kangaroo tour. Tommy dominated the early rep season but had to hold off halfback challenges of Steve Morris (NSW Country) and Greg Oliphant (Queensland) to reclaim his Test crown in the third Test of the series.

Raudonikis established a winning halves combination with new Australian Testcaptain Bob Fulton in that match – the perfect combination of brilliance and brute force in a young team.

Tom Raudonikis rips into his old club while playing for Newtown in 1980.
Tom Raudonikis rips into his old club while playing for Newtown in 1980. ©New Holland Publishers

Against all odds, Wests finished atop of the 1978 premiership in what was an incredibly open rugby league season following the demise of Easts, Saints and Souths.

All five finalists could have won the grand final that year, but Manly, Parramatta and even Cronulla were given a better chance of taking the premiership than the minor premier Magpies.

John Donnelly and Les Boyd had both been cited by the NSWRL during the season – Boyd successfully appealed his suspension by taking his case to the Supreme Court – but Wests were labelled ‘thugs’ in certain sections of the media.

Wests played the game ‘hard and tough’, Masters told the press, and could point to the fact that not one player had been sent off during the season.

But the Magpies had played on emotion for much of the season and were running out of steam coming into the finals.

As minor premiers Wests had a bye in the first week of the finals, but then fell to Cronulla in the major semi-final, 14-10.

Facing a battle-hardened Manly in the preliminary final (the Sea Eagles had to beat Parramatta in a midweek replay to progress to the final), the Magpies were beaten on their merits, 14-7.

Manly went on to beat Cronulla in a grand final replay that year – having played five games in 17 days – while Wests lost both semi-finals, shattering Tommy’s dream of leading the club into a grand final.