THIS week marks 50 years since Nowra’s own Tony Branson was selected for the Australian Rugby League Kangaroo tour of Great Britain and France.
In a feat that simply couldn't happen today, Branson was selected in 1967 as a 20-year-old to represent his country while still playing locally for the Nowra Warriors.
“It was a real honour to be selected for Australia. I was lucky I got a good run. We had a good Nowra team and from that I made the group sides with a lot of good players,” he said.
“It was a big thrill. One of the things you dream about. It is a dream come true
“It’s hard to believe. I’m still pinching myself.”
He asked where those 50 years had gone.
“It’s hard to believe it is 50 years,” he said.
The previous year he had made the Country Seconds side but in 1967 he really caught the selectors’ eyes representing Country in two matches against City, including a rare Country win in the first match-up.
“That Country team was a very good side. We caused a bit of an upset there. It wasn't supposed to be. We did very well,” he said.
He was selected at five-eighth in all three matches of the 1967 interstate series for NSW against Queensland and was then named on the 1967-68 Kangaroo Tour.
There he played in five Test matches for Australia against Great Britain and France.
“You always hoped you would get to play for your country, it’s the ultimate honour and for it to actually happen was incredible,” he said.
“There was some great players in that team.”
In Nowra it was big news and his selection gained plenty of coverage.
“There were other good players before me, I just think I was the right bloke at the right time to get selected,” he said.
The Aussies include some of the immortals of the game - Reg Gasnier, John Raper, Graeme Langlands, Ron Coote, Billy Smith, John Sattler, Ken Irvine, Johnny Greaves, Les Johns, Johnny King and Noel Kelly.
It really was a who’s who.
He admitted to pinching himself to be in that company
“I just took it week to week. I was lucky enough to just to be in the situation to play with these guys.”
It was the 12th Kangaroo Tour. The Australians played 21 matches against British and French club and representative teams, and three Tests against both nations.
In the Tests the Aussies lost the first to Great Britain16-11 but won the next two 17-11 and 11-3. The French Tests were a bit tougher having a 7-all draw before losing 10-3 and 16-13.
He returned from the tour and signed with the “mighty St George Dragons”.
“They were a good club, a good lot of blokes good, supporters and a pleasure to play with,” he said.
“Six of those Kangaroo tour mates became team mates, week in week out.”
He signed on for just $6000 and received $400 per win or $200 a loss. A bit different to today’s million dollar contracts.
But this was a time when the players were not fully professional, they also had full time jobs.
“We’d work all day and then train at night,” he said.
He started his panel beating apprenticeship in Nowra with Bainbrigge and Sons and when he signed in Sydney completed his time up there.
“They were long days,” he admitted.
He said playing along side Gasnier, the man affectionately known as “Puff the Magic Dragon” was an incredible experience.
“He was among the best I played with. An incredible player.
“He had everything. He was so brilliant. Blinding speed - speed to burn and a great step.
“It was a wonderful experience to play inside him.
“It was tough. He was also targeted. It was my job to get him the ball where he wanted it.
“He would tell you where he wanted it. Once I got used to their play it was easy.”
He believes Gasnier could have made it in the modern game.
Tony also part of the ’68 World Cup squad and played another Test against New Zealand in 1971.
His time with the Dragons (1968-73) was among one of the toughest eras in the game.
High shots, swinging or stiff arms and brawls were often the norm.
“It was hard but nothing to maim you,” he said “they just hit hard. Sattler and O’Neill and blokes like that they were enormously vigorous.”
Tony played six seasons in the top grade with the Dragons including the 1971 gand final loss to South Sydney and played on for another two seasons at St George before retiring in 1973 and returned to play in Wollongong.
“A premiership was the only thing I didn’t do,” he said.
“Never won a grand final - one of those things. Souths beat us in ’71. I thought we were a chance but they were too good for us.”
He played 91 games for the Dragons, six Tests for Australia and seven games for NSW.
Choosing the best player from any era is a tough question, but he nominated Gasnier, Bobby Fulton and Ron Coote among the best he played with or against.
“They were brilliant, they were so much ahead of anyone else,” he said.
As for the toughest, Johnny Sattler, alongside Englishman Cliff Watson.
He said he enjoys watching the modern game.
“It’s quick and pretty hard these days,” he said “some of the tackles, the hits they make, strike me. They must be sore on Monday morning.
“It’s fully professional now, they train every day. They seem to have a lot more fitness than we had.
“But we had a different type of fitness. We played the full 80 minutes and there was a stage if someone went off injured you didn't have replacements.
“But the modern players are wonderful athletes.”
Today Tony is still a “Dragons’ man and always will be.”
“They’re a good club and been very successful over the years. They are still going alright just not winning the comps but are still up among them.”