DESPITE growing up in Australian football heartland, Rick O'Connell has been the face of rugby league on the Border for over a decade. O'Connell was president during three Albury Thunder premierships and is still at the helm of the Group Nine club. It didn't stop him from playing the "non-contact" code at different stages of his career though. O'Connell, 61, caught up with The Border Mail's BRETT KOHLHAGEN this week to talk about his time in both sports.
BRETT KOHLHAGEN: Even though you have been Albury Thunder's president since 2006, rugby league hasn't always been in your blood has it?
RICK O'CONNELL: I grew up on a farm west of Jerilderie. I thought the world was flat for the first 13 years of my life. You could only play Aussie rules at primary school. We had Ross Hillary and his twin brothers and Colin Bryce and his twin brothers so we had a good side. I don't think the school team lost a game that year.
BK: Then things changed when you moved away to boarding school?
RO: I went to Yanco Ag High School where it was all rugby league. After that I went to university in Newcastle and did a PE course.
BK: How did you find your way back to the Border?
RO: I got a job teaching at Billabong High School in Culcairn. They asked if I could do junior science and I said I could do that so I packed my bags and off I went.
BK: So that's where your involvement with Albury Roos started?
RO: I got to Billabong in September and by then word must have got around so three or four blokes from Albury Roos met me for a chat at the Morven Pub. We filled up there and I said thanks for that but I'm going to play for Wagga Magpies because one of my school friends was at the club. Anyway, my mate shifted to the Central Coast and I thought I'd play in Albury because it was closer.
BK: You played league and Aussie rules the following season didn't you?
RO: It was Aussie rules for Culcairn's seconds on Saturdays and league for Albury Roos on Sundays. I used to tackle a few blokes and kick the ball higher than I did long so a few of the boys started calling me Tommy Raudonikis but I was a far cry from being Tommy I can assure you of that. Culcairn's twos made the grand final so it was a good year.
BK: How did you go backing up each weekend?
RO: I remember playing at Mitta on a Saturday and no-one touched the ball with their hands because it was a quagmire and so cold and then the next day I found myself playing Tumbarumba. I thought there has got to be better things in life than playing the Mountain Men twice in a weekend.
BK: Did you play both codes the following year?
RO: I did for a bit but gave it away at Culcairn because we were looking like being pretty strong at Albury Roos and I thought I should take it a bit more seriously.
BK: You played for Roos from 1982 to 1988. Plenty of good times?
RO: There were excellent days. We won the premiership in 1983 when we beat Tumbarumba in Wagga. I coached for a few years as well. They were a great bunch of blokes.
BK: A few larrikins?
RO: The bus trips were always interesting. It was in the days when the Rambo movie was out and, as you could imagine, there would always be a bit of spillage on the way home from places like Tumbarumba and Batlow. Lloyd Bellchambers used to slide under the bench seats, sneak up behind you, run his comb across your throat and yell out 'Rambo'. He would then disappear back under the seats again.
BK: You're a modest type but you represented Group 13 and Riverina didn't you?
RO: I got picked in the Group 13 rep side to play Group 9. It was a Centenary Year of Country Rugby League that year and they picked the Riverina side from that. I made Riverina as a reserve because they had a bloke called Cliff Lyons playing at five-eighth. I tell everyone he stole my NRL career. The only difference was he had talent and I had bugger all.
BK: Injuries got you in the end?
RO: I had my share especially from 1984 onwards. I did a few ankles, had a couple of broken jaws towards the end and then after being cleaned up in a bit of a dust up at Holbrook one day I thought that was enough. I think I was 29 or 30.
BK: Did you stay on the sidelines for long?
RO: I was playing a heap of touch footy and one of the guys, Peter Elias, said he might go for a kick with Rand. They were training at Noreuil Park so I went down for a kick. I liked the idea of playing a non-contact sport.
BK: Enjoy it?
RO: I would have been wasting my time if I'd gone to the Ovens and Murray as the Coreen league was more my standard. When I said it was non-contact I should have done better research because there were certainly some characters out there. Ian Kreutzberger was one of them.
BK: I can imagine you would have had a few dust-ups particularly with notorious sledger Simon Plunkett in your side?
RO: I remember one day I heard something, looked around and saw Simon lying on his back with 'Psycho' Carroll standing next to him. I thought: 'Great, I'm closest so I'll have to go over and remonstrate'. Anyway, I ran over, got within about 5m and just took a big dive in front of him. 'Psycho' just looked at me and laughed.
BK: It took you a while to adjust to the Coreen and District league didn't it?
RO: Back in those days it was the tight Aussie rules shorts, but that wasn't for me. I found a pair of league shorts which were blue and yellow and I stuck with them. We played in these old woolen jumpers as well which was an eye-opener.
BK: Your first game is a good memory isn't it?
RO: I think we were playing Corowa-Rutherglen and lost by 30-odd points or something like that so I went into the dressing sheds after the game a bit disappointed. The next thing these blokes started coming into the changerooms with cartons and slabs of beer saying how good it was because Rand had lost to them by 230 points in their previous four games. They were celebrating like it was a win. I remember sitting there with a can in my hand and just thinking: 'How good is this, this is my footy club'.
BK: For a league man, you stayed at Rand for a long time
RO: I think it was six years. I played for two years and then had a couple of years as coach before Simon came on board and we made two grand finals. He had a heap of connections which helped.
BK: You couldn't help yourself though as you soon found your way back to Greenfield Park?
RO: I spent some time helping out where I could with my kids sport. Then in 2004 rugby league was looking a bit shaky so I got involved with Alex Blair who was right behind it and a great guy. We jumped on board with Lavington Panthers and were starting from a long way back. It was hard to attract players. There is a reserve grade photo at Greenfield Park with five guys in it which is always a good reminder.
BK: Did you have your doubts about the future?
RO: I didn't want to doubt because I was fired up and keen and loved the sport but they were tough years. I was on the committee in 2004 and 2005 and then I took over as president in 2006 when Greg Smith left and Guy Fahey became secretary.
BK: When did the wheel start to turn?
RO: We just stuck at it. We won a reserve grade grand final as the Panthers. Then we got a Group 9 grand final down here which turned out to be a very eventful day. Just when we were sitting back about to have a beer and watch first grade, things started to happen on the hill.
BK: Was the spectator brawl your biggest headache as president?
RO: One of them. There is always something going on but we have had a great group of people over the years as volunteers. You make decisions and some work while others don't quite as well.
BK: You must look back on Albury Thunder's hat-trick of premierships with great pride?
RO: It was terrific. We had started to build with our reserve grade winning three in a row so we knew we had some good local talent.
BK: How did the club unearth Josh Cale as coach?
RO: I played football with Josh's uncle in Newcastle and he was a groomsman at my wedding so I told him to tell me when Josh would be looking to move from Sydney. He forgot but I remember reading a paper and Josh wasn't picked so I got in touch. I think I beat another club by about a week.
BK: How big was the signing for the club?
RO: Huge. He came down and we didn't look back really. We were lucky in a way with some boys from Forbes moving to town and they attracted Lou Goodwin and Mitch Davis. We had Willie Heta's brother playing for us so he got Willie to play and Benny Ryan was friends with Ben Jeffery. Then you throw in your local talent and all of a sudden you are away. Ian O'Connell, who is no relation despite what a lot of people thought, was a stand-out in my day.
BK: I remember you being a nervous wreck in the crowd when Thunder defeated Gundagai 36-26 to win the first of those grand finals in 2012
RO: I was so nervous until the siren went. I didn't enjoy it at all. It was really windy and Ben Jeffery kicked five goals from the sideline. I think he probably should have won man of the match that day even though Willie had a great game too.
BK: Who is the best you've seen at Greenfield Park?
RO: It's always hard to compare them because we have had some really quality players. Benny Jeffery was a freak that first year, Willie could do things and then Lou Goodwin would lift us when we had our backs to the wall. I've never seen anyone train like him. He just took people with him.
BK: How big has Mike Eden been for Thunder?
RO: He's been fantastic for rugby league in Albury. If he rings someone in the NRL or NSW Rugby League they will answer the phone. If I ring someone they will ring you back later. Mike speaks his mind, is a smart man and has worked hard in trying to build a relationship with Melbourne Storm.
BK: You played against Eden as a youngster didn't you?
RO: When I was at Yanco Ag we played Manly Boys High School and toweled them up in a quarter final. I still remind Mike of that. He remembers all these bush boys having beards. At least he played in the game, I sat on the bench.
BK: I know you can never afford to sit on your hands as an administrator in sport, but you must be proud of how far Albury Thunder has come?
RO: For sure. We've attracted NRL and representative matches here, our scoreboard and ground is terrific and League Tag has been introduced and is a big part of the club. The All Abilities games have been another really good addition. Barry Overs was behind the Albury Thunder name which I think was a great idea too.
BK: You have a reputation for getting injured a lot don't you?
RO: I'd say I'm clumsy. My father had some nice nicknames for me on the farm which you couldn't print. My kids (Andrew, Matt and Samantha) used to yell out to Kerrie (wife) whenever they saw me with a tool in my hands. I'd like to say I've improved with age.
BK: Tell us about the incident near Tumbarumba on a Murray High School excursion?
RO: We had a camp and were doing some mountain biking. I braked at the wrong time and flew through the air and smashed my collarbone. It was about three hours from when I smashed it until I got to the hospital. I was glad to finally get the green stick. That was the end of my mountain biking career.
BK: What about the time you were preparing for a dinner party before an Albury Roos match?
RO: I was at home at the sink cleaning some fish with a knife and it slipped and went into my finger. I held my finger but when I released the pressure it was like a whale spitting water into the air. Blood went into the air and I hit the deck. I called a mate Wayne Sutton and he came around and took me to hospital which he hated at the best of times. I told the nurse I had to play footy soon so she went extra slow and I ended up being 10 minutes late for the game. From memory we won though. That night Wayne couldn't eat and neither could I. It was probably the worst dinner party of all time.
BK: You did find a broken jaw to be a blessing in disguise on one occasion while school teaching though didn't you?
RO: I had broken my jaw and back then they wired it together for 30 days. I was bored at home so I went back to school a bit earlier than I should have. That was probably the best the kids ever behaved in my classes because they couldn't understand me.
BK: How did the liquid diet go?
RO: I was that hungry I tried fish and chips in a blender with vinegar to make it a bit watery. It didn't work well, it will never make a cookbook I can tell you that.
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