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Q & A with John McMartin

slip

slip

Courtesy of Rugby League Week and Electric Eel

John McMartin
Bloodied eyes, cheap shots, scrum warfare...it was all par for the course in this brutal era.
By Tony Adams
It wasn't much fun being a hooker in your day, was it?
No, scrums were tough and there were no rules when you packed down. I reckon I played against South Sydney 45 times in my career, and after 44 of those games, my face needed stitching. I still have the scars to prove it. Blokes would gouge you, kick you, headbutt you, punch you...they would do whatever it took. As a kid coming from the Parra juniors, it was a little daunting, but you adapt. And I was lucky to have some great players alongside me at Parra in Brian Hambly, Ron Lynch and Bob O'Reilly. They looked after me as best they could in there.

How bad did it get in there?
There were two blokes - (names removed for legal reasons) of Souths and Easts, who gouged me so badly that I thought I would lose my eyesight. The first time, I had blood in my eye for three weeks and the doctors told me I was very lucky not to suffer permanent damage to my sight. When you had both your arms around your props, you were helpless and rival players knew it. But back then, it was dangerous in open play, too. There were late hits, elbows, broken jaws and the like. There was this one guy from Wests who used to snot you when your back was turned and would bolt. He got me once and ran away, but I chased him and whacked him back. Sure enough, he left me alone after that!
Parra had some lean times when you were there in the late 60s and the first half of the 70s...was it disheartening?
We were the battlers from the west. I had 10 seasons there and we picked up a couple of wooden spoons, and could have got a couple more (laughs). The club was young and building and we were happy. It was a good second job and there was a lot of mateship.
So why did you decide to leave at the end of 1975?
I played for NSW that year and my contract said I would get a $2000 pay rise if that happened. But Parra said they couldn't pay it. I was only on $11,000 for the season and played 22 games that year. I told the coach Terry Fearnley that I thought they could afford it and that I deserved it...he said 'You are on good enough money already'. So they were in breach of contract. Johnny Raper, who was coaching Cronulla at the time, called me up and asked me down there. I didn't really want to go but it became a matter of principle.
And your deal with the Sharks became a historic one?
They had a local carpet dealer who was a big supporter of the club and he kicked in $10,000 of my contract money. So I became the first rugby league player whose contract was funded by private enterprise. The Sharks were a good club and looked after me well for four years I was there. 'Chook' was a great guy and the blokes who came after him, Ted Glossop and Norm Provan, were very good coaches.
You made the 1978 grand final with the Sharks - was that a highlight?
It should have been - but it's actually one of the great sore points of my life, even now. I was all excited and was walking into the Sydney Cricket Ground on grand final day. Then a journo came up to me and said to me, 'You blokes can't win'. I said to him, 'What are you talking about?' And he said that (referee) Greg Hartley would not let us win. The reason he was telling me this was he was so confident we would lose, he wanted me to hook him up with some Cronulla people so he could get some money on Manly.
How did the game pan out?
Manly were favourites but we matched them all the way. It was a really tight struggle but some crucial calls went against us. Late in the game, the scores were locked at 11-all and their halfback put the ball into the second row from a scrum - something you couldn't do in those days. We all screamed for a penalty and a goal then would have won us the game. But Hartley waved play on and told us, 'I am not having the grand final decided by a penalty goal'. It finished a draw and we played the replay three days later.
But you missed the game...
Yes, I did my knee and there was no way I could play. We had five other blokes who pulled out too...we were decimated and Manly beat us 16-0. It's a pity because I thought we were the best team all year and deserved to win it - and the poor Sharks are still waiting for that first title. It was a double blow for me because a lot of the pressmen told me I was on the Kangaroo tour that was chosen after the game, but the knee meant I had no chance. I bumped into Hartley the next year and he wanted to have a beer with me. He wasn't a bad bloke but I snapped at him, 'I'm not going to drink with you after what you did to us'.
And you retired at the end of the next season?
I wanted to go out while I was still in first grade and was getting past my best in 1979. But then (Easts hooker) Arthur Mountier chopped his finger off in a work accident and was out for an extended time. John Quayle, who worked for Easts at the time, called me and asked me to have one last year. I thought about it but came up with a solution. I knew (Queensland and Test hooker) John Lang and told Easts he was their man. I put them in touch with him and he came down from Brisbane and had one season with them in 1980 and got them to the grand final.
You gave him a little help along the way, though...
In his first game in Sydney, he struggled to win the ball - it was tough coming in cold from Brisbane and beating the crafty old hookers who were down here. So every week after that for a few months, we would talk on the phone and I would tell him all the idiosyncrasies, of the hookers he was about to come up against, and the referees. We talked for hours and I like to think it helped him a little.
You've stayed involved in footy for a long time, haven't you?
I worked in the trots for a long time and was a trainer-driver with some success. I drove at Harold Park and Menangle and had a few winners. But apart from that I have been helping in student rugby league for 31 years with the Northwest Polecats. I coached Australian Universities at one stage and I'm still chairman of the NSW Students Rugby League. We have a World Cup coming up at the end of the year in England so it's exciting times. In 2000, out of the blue, I got a letter from the Prime Minister saying they were giving me an Australian Sports Medal for services to rugby league. That was a great honour for me. 
BringbackBRL

BringbackBRL

Great interview. 
TS_Quint

TS_Quint

Ahh, the good old days. :rolls: 
TS_Quint

TS_Quint

Thanks again slip. 
crow

crow

He never mentioned Denis Fitzgerald who was in the team with him? Interesting. 
slip

slip

$11,000 in 1975 was good money? Wouldn't a home in Sydney's western suburbs back then be $20,000-$35,000? 
TS_Quint

TS_Quint

Good money for a footballer I guess. 
slip

slip

And all footballers had a job during the week. So they would of had 2 incomes. 
eelboy

eelboy

John McMartin presented me with A Most Improved trophy in 1972..I was a 7 yo hooker for hte Junior eels and he was my idol..I remember the day vividly....he was a great ball winner and was really fast from dummy half. His twin Mal played for the Panthers and then the Tigers on the wing. 
slip

slip

Cool. He was before my time though. 
eelboy

eelboy

Thanks for posting the interview...I am unashamedly an eels tragic and love the stuff from my childhood (circa 70's) 
slip

slip

That's OK and I will be posting more in the future. There is a Graeme Atkins Q&A that I posted recently. 
eelboy

eelboy

Yep SLip, read that one too...all good. I played with his little brother Dave when I was a teenager...Dave was a hitman and a half. 

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