The Parramatta Eels at the Legends of League Tournament.
The Parramatta Eels at the Legends of League Tournament.

Sledges as legends relive days of old

HE was the oldest player in the tournament at 57 but Manly Sea Eagles great Cliffy Lyons took it upon himself to line up Terry Campese (23 years his junior) of the Barbarians.

The 1987 Clive Churchill Medallist threw himself at the former Raider and now Queanbeyan Blues captain coach and... well, he came off second best. Badly. But he staggered back to the defensive line and set the tone for the day.

This wasn't going to be a swag of yesterday's heroes going through the motions. A golden oldies fixture, like those in the bush where different coloured tags determine how hard you can be hit.

Yes, there were recently retired stars like local Umina product and dual premiership-winner Chris Heighington taking on fellas that hung the boots up even before the Super League war began, but no one was holding back.

Ominous when infamous Broncos hitman Tonie Carroll and a lean-looking Willie Mason were also in the bowels of Central Coast Stadium.

By the time Steve 'Beaver' Menzies crossed in the tournament opener for what sideline commentator Andrew Voss joked was his 1000th try, the crowd was heaving.

Willie Mason looked fit despite retiring at the end of 2016. Picture: Tim Hunter.
Willie Mason looked fit despite retiring at the end of 2016. Picture: Tim Hunter.

Most had already been next door at Central Coast Leagues for several hours prior to that, and when Nathan Hindmarsh dropped the pill cold in the next game at 1.30pm the Fox League larrikin was on the receiving end of a boisterous Bronx cheer.

"Hindy, you're a flog," yelled one patron in the western grandstand to a standing ovation from his mates.

But the Eels great then jinked off the right, broke clean through the Broncos' line and sprinted 25 metres to shut up the growing legion of hecklers.

The temperature in Gosford and the footy were both heating up by this stage.

PJ Marsh had pulled off a running backflip just as he did last year after scoring, and Scott Prince was making a case for Wayne Bennett (or Anthony Seibold) to throw him an SOS.

Meanwhile, larger than life figures Gorden 'The Raging Bull' Tallis and Wendell Sailor had to play support cast to their team's major drawcard.

"There is no bigger name than Scott Minto in this Broncos line up," Voss beamed over the speakers.

"Wayne Bennett must be so proud watching his love child right now.

"It's ridiculous he wasn't made an Immortal earlier this year."

And the spectacle rolled on through the afternoon.

Nine-a-side, nine-minute halves, on a field 80 metres in length with the touchlines moved in 10 metres.

Scott Prince shows he’s still got the skills. Picture: Tim Hunter.
Scott Prince shows he’s still got the skills. Picture: Tim Hunter.

And that was brutal enough for this hardy bunch of has-beens. It would've felt like a torture session the equivalent of the Eels NRL squad's preseason sand dune runs.

Then the first team fell. And 99 per cent of the crowd wasn't disappointed to see it was Manly.

Better, for the many blue and red clad supporters that made it down the motorway, it was the Knights who knocked them out in a replay of the '97 grand final.

Sure, the eighth immortal wasn't playing, nor Geoff Toovey, but the likes of Robbie O'Davis and Darren Albert haven't lost a beat.

Not even John Hopoate bringing back the digit dive for an unsuspecting Novocastrian ballrunner could dampen the euphoria of knocking the Silvertails out of the group stages.

After the game, Mark Hughes thanked all and sundry for their support of the event, which raises funds for the Mark Hughes Foundation.

Then Mason - who by all reports had been training the house down in preparation - found himself on the wing, threw out his big right mitt and swatted away defenders at will before storming 30 metres down the sideline to score.

He was even standing behind the in-goal area while he was taking a breather, yelling at his 2004 premiership-winning teammates Matt Utai, Brent 'Shifty' Sherwin and Reni Maitua to hold their line in defence. This was the Dogs of War.

The reigning champs were on a mission.

But so were the Barbarians, a hodgepodge mix of some of the most exciting and toughest players to have graced a field.

The old Canberra connection of Campese and Todd Carney in the halves, with Matt Bowen and Craig Gower completing the spine.

They were destroying teams notching consecutive 30-point hauls in their group games.

The Broncos, meanwhile, had also been knocked out and the big money matches were upon us.

The first semi final was the Bah-bahs up against the Eels.

By this stage of the afternoon Vossy was starting to believe that Hindmarsh could get his fairytale.

That elusive premiership, which has made him the laughing stock of the rugby league fraternity. An easy kill for his nemesis Johnathan Thurston.

The Fox League commentator was getting so worked up about the chances of the blue and gold, he urged the fans in the house to clang their wooden spoons together to make some noise.

But before the footy could restart, the crowd was treated to a rare appearance from Tina Turner.

The Eels were knocked out in the semi-finals. Picture: Tim Hunter.
The Eels were knocked out in the semi-finals. Picture: Tim Hunter.

The pop icon belted out 'Nutbush City Limits' before 'Simply The Best' sent chills down the spine as the players came out to warm up.

OK, it was Turner impersonator Rebecca O'Connor but still, you were taken back to those glorious Winfield Cup days.

Incredibly, they played out a scoreless first half, and then the arm-wrestle ended in a draw.

Enter Matthew 'Mango' Bowen.

The former Cowboys great grubbered for himself, dived and planted the ball down millimetres inside the dead ball line. The golden try.

He'd been having a field day. With the exception of Albert, Bowen looked 10 metres faster than anyone else out there.

Kurt Gidley is still rumoured to be the fittest man in Newcastle. Picture: Tim Hunter.
Kurt Gidley is still rumoured to be the fittest man in Newcastle. Picture: Tim Hunter.

He was so good that Carney - who looked very sharp as well - said his first order of business before moving up to Byron Bay on Friday, was to sign the electric fullback for the mighty Red Devils.

In the next semi, the Knights - who also boasted Kurt Gidley and Danny Buderus - got out to an early lead against the Bulldogs in a replay of last year's Legends of League grand final.

But Canterbury came charging back. General Luke Patten and Sherwin were wreaking havoc.

In the final seconds, the Dogs held a slender advantage but Newcastle was on the attack.

An all or nothing play, Gidley threw a floating left to right cut out to his winger. TRY! Unbelievable scenes.

Then Bill 'Hollywood' Harrigan ruled it forward.

Costly pass, considering the two grand finalists split $100,000 (70-30) in prizemoney.

But all the Knights boys were gracious in defeat and made their way straight over to the fans.

Clint Newton was the last man standing and must've been taking selfies for close to 40 minutes.

So, Bah-bahs v Bulldogs in the decider.

But first Johnny Farnham (aka Mike Vee) had taken the mic for a stirring rendition of 'You're The Voice'.

The beer lines had been strong all day, so there was a good chance a whack of the crowd thought they were being treated to the real 'Whispering Jack'. Another last time.

Both sets of players had run out of gas by the grand final. It'd been a long day at a frenetic pace. Even Bowen had to plant himself on the wing for a set or two.

Heighington had just pulled off his third long-range cover tackle for the tournament (and bagged three or four meat pies). Earlier in the day he'd pulled down Luke Burt with the try-line beckoning, and claimed he could've done the same thing when the Eels flyer was in his prime.

Despite the desperation of 'Heighno' the Bulldogs were too clinical, Andrew 'Bobcat' Ryan scoring the crucial try.

Voss said the old Dogs showed more flair in attack than the NRL side last season, and it's hard to disagree.

What is for certain is that the Legends of League tournament will be back on the Coast in 2019. The crowd made sure of that.

Heighington had a parting message for the NRL.

"Look at how many people turned up just to see a bunch of old fellas run around... the Central Coast deserves more games".

Hear, hear.

News Corp Australia

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