Rugby school greats in Noosa

Ready to test their golfing ability at Noosa Springs, from left: Tony Melrose, Wally Lewis, Ian Miller, Phil Tuck, Gary Ella, Dominic Vaughan, Michael Egan, Merrick Ilett, Tony Ryan, Glen Ella and Michael O’Connor.

By Peter Owen

Friendships forged on the rugby fields of England and Europe nearly a half century ago were cemented in Noosa last week when members of one of Australia’s greatest sporting teams got together for their annual reunion.

The celebrated Australian Schoolboys team of 1977-78 is universally regarded as the finest junior team to ever leave our shores, and many experts believe they were the best rugby union team to ever represent Australia.

They get together every year – it used to be every five years, but the wives and girlfriends enjoyed the occasions so much they insisted the reunions be held annually – and this year the venue was Noosa.

The 1977-78 Schoolboys toured Japan and Europe, winning all 16 matches they played and reviving interest in a code that was virtually insolvent, and a country that had become the laughing stock of the rugby world.

It wasn’t just that they beat everyone, it was the way they played that made these boys so special, their mode of attack based around running and passing with uncanny precision, refusing to kick and pursuing tries from every play.

At the end of the tour they’d scored 110 tries – an average of nearly seven a match – and had conceded only six.

From that team 10 Wallabies later emerged – the magical Ella brothers, Mark, Glen and Gary, Michael O’Connor, Tony Melrose, Michael Hawker, Chris Roche, Tony D’Arcy, Shane Nightingale and Dominic Vaughan.

And it included a kid called Wally Lewis who, though he struggled to make the first XV on that tour, went on to dominate rugby league for the next two decades, leading the Broncos, Queensland and Australia with such talent and influence that many believe he is the greatest to have ever played the game.

A dozen of the ’77-’78 Schoolies gathered at Noosa Springs to renew a golf challenge that has become a key part of the reunion, the event organised by dual international Michael O’Connor who has made the Sunshine Coast his home for the past 25 years.

“It’s great fun,” said Tony Melrose, the captain of that all-conquering team.

“We genuinely look forward to every reunion, though over time the stories get more far-fetched, the runs longer and faster, and the tackles more ferocious.”

The conversation inevitably touched on the Wallabies’ sorry showing in the World Cup and the role of coach Eddie Jones, who was a schoolmate of some of these heroes – a good player himself, but not quite good enough to claim a spot in that touring team of 1977-78.

And, though several of the group readily concede to being nothing more than social golfers, their pride – and natural sporting acumen, of course – took over and all made impressive drives down the tricky first hole.

After a round, where State of Origin rivalry was as apparent as at any rugby league clash at Suncorp Stadium or Sydney’s Accor Stadium, the players gathered for a few beers in the clubhouse, then looked forward to reliving the play later at the Noosa Surf Club.

The next day competition continued at Noosa Bowls Club and, in the evening, they gathered at a Sunshine Beach restaurant where the entire party – players and their partners – toasted the success of this reunion and discussed the location of the next.