Long before he bought the Summer Bay caravan park, Alf Stewart (aka actor Ray Meagher) was a handy first five-eighth who played a handful of games for Queensland. He tells Calum Henderson the story of his brush with Wallabies selection.
“I’m a total hypocrite,” Ray Meagher admits. He looks and sounds exactly like Alf Stewart, his famous character on Australian soap opera Home and Away. We are in a meeting room in the TVNZ office building in Auckland, where Meagher is doing promo for an upcoming stage production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, but when he talks it feels like we could be in Summer Bay, talking footy down at the surf club.
“I run into Kiwis living in Australia all the time,” he tells me, “and I’ll say ‘so you follow the All Blacks?’ ‘Yeah yeah of course mate.’ So then I ask ‘when the Wallabies play England, who do you support?’ And they always say England. The bastards follow everybody but the Wallabies! That doesn’t go down well.”
“Then I think hang on, what have I done? I’ve moved from Queensland to New South Wales, and I follow Queensland whenever they play New South Wales and then want everyone else to beat New South Wales,” he laughs.
Meagher’s loyalty to the maroon runs deeper than many may realise. In the 1960s, long before he was hot-headed bait shop owner Alf Stewart, he spent the best part of a decade playing first five-eighth for Brisbane club Wests, going on to represent Queensland a handful of times – most memorably against a touring French side – and even came close to being selected for the 1969 Wallabies tour to South Africa.
The story of his brush with Wallabies selection begins and ends with Des Connor, a “sensationally good” halfback who played 12 tests for Australia before marrying a Kiwi, moving to New Zealand and playing 12 more for the All Blacks. “At that time that was quite a number of tests – they might only play 3 a year.”
Connor was made coach of the ‘69 Wallabies side to tour South Africa, despite having only recently returned from New Zealand. Meagher played in a trial game before the tour, one of the few chances selectors had to watch players before picking a team. “He didn’t really know the form of anybody, and they used to take 30 on those trips, two full teams.”
The other selector was long-serving Australian rugby administrator Joe French. “This fella Joe French was from the same club as Des, Brothers Old Boys in Brisbane,” says Meagher. “The captain of my first grade team [Wests] was sitting right behind these two while this trial was going on.”
“At one stage the ball went through the hands and I backed up around – it was a simple runaround thing. I went around the bloke that I’d passed to and the outside centre stayed on his man, so there was a gap and I went through and scored a try.”
“Des Connor, who’d just come back from New Zealand, turned to Joe French and said ‘what about that bloke?’ My mate sitting behind them told me Joe French just looked at him and shook his head. It was all over, that was it. My one brush with [Wallabies selection] over in the shake of a head.”
“That was about a hundred years ago,” Meagher jokes. He still keeps a close eye on the Wallabies, but we don’t talk about their 3-0 series defeat to England in June. He also follows Queensland, particularly when they play New South Wales.
As for league, he obviously follows Queensland in State of Origin, but doesn’t have any particular club ties. “Whenever there’s a side that’s got a few rugby players that have gone to league I usually follow them,” he explains, “or if there’s a really good attacking league side that like to throw the ball around.”
At the moment he likes the Broncos, and remains hopeful they will return to form by the playoffs. “I think [Wayne] Bennett could possibly get the Broncs back into some form now that State of Origin is over. I think he’ll sort them out and as long as they’re somewhere in the 8 they’ll give a lot of teams a lot of trouble.”
Before we wrap up the interview I want to ask him one more question. If Summer Bay was a real Australian town, which footy club would its residents support? Meagher thinks for a second. “Probably the Sharks. Manly… are perceived to be a bit silvertail-ish, whereas Cronulla’s more of a working man’s sort of club. Titans maybe? Nah, probably the Sharks.”
As we stand up to leave, Meagher laughs again. “That’s good,” he says. “I’ve never thought about that before.”
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