There were eight Kiwis involved in Sunday's NRL grand final. It wasn't always that way. In the first part of a two-part series on Kiwis making it big in Aussie league, Chris Rattue traces the embryonic years of the transtasman league migration and talks to some of the pioneers who headed west with big dreams ... once the NZRL let them do so.
The trickle that turned into a torrent might be said to have gathered significant pace with Cronulla's recruitment of Dane Sorensen, a rugged prop who gave no quarter and still doesn't when recounting the wild old days.
A tough nut, as tough as they have ever come, a self-described loner, Sorensen was a goalkicking prop who had made his senior club debut at 17 and his Kiwis test entrance at 19 in 1975.
When a composite Sydney side played in Auckland in 1976, a Cronulla player named Martin Raftery was bowled over, maybe literally, by Sorensen and on returning home recommended that the Sharks strike.
The phone call having been made to the family home in Glendowie, the deal was done.
Raftery, the International Rugby Board's chief medical officer these days, declined to reminisce for the Herald on this iconic moment that encouraged Sydney clubs further towards the nuggets of gold to be found in Carlaw Park's mud.
Sorensen, of Tongan and Danish descent and from a famous Auckland rugby league family, certainly remembers the finer details. His mum took the call. The deal was for $8000 a year, and it was made with club secretary Arthur Winn. Dane's younger brother Kurt, a brilliant running forward - and by far the more amiable and sociable of the brothers, according to Dane - would soon follow.
"It was destiny for my brother and I to play rugby league in Sydney - we would have gone there for nothing," says the 57-year-old Sorensen from Sydney, where he works as a builder.
The Sorensens' departure for Sydney didn't necessarily precipitate the charge across the Tasman, but it did mark a significant spot. Dane Sorensen's was no fleeting career - through injury and even a financial crisis at the Sharks, he amassed a club record 216 first-grade games in the days when men were men, skulduggery was mandatory, and playing rugby league meant playing for 80 minutes per game and often with bits of the body hanging off.
After arriving in Sydney, surfboard in hand, one of his first jobs was to get a job. He decided on a building apprenticeship, doing the mandatory 40 hours a week, at least. Sunday games were followed by all-night parties, and the team trained every second day. He wants to write a book about it all and it could be a cracker. Sorensen presents a trip down a memory lane lined with lovable rogues who would scare the hell out of modern-day media officers.
"The stuff we used to do after dark - we'd be in jail for. Everybody knows about it ... if players did it now they wouldn't survive," he says. "What happened after dark was one of the most important things that kept me playing football - the women, the drugs, the alcohol, the everything. It was just unbelievable. I had led a sheltered life until then - imagine the worst and go 10 per cent better than that."
Like a number of old footballers, he isn't enamoured with the modern game.
"The coaches talk bull**** to confuse people so they can justify their $600,000-a-year jobs. The players are athletes in a game designed for TV, which has ruined rugby league," he says. "I tell it like it is and a lot of people don't like that but I don't care. That's the way I've got on in life and always will.
"Every time we went out there was a chance of a broken jaw or being knocked out or some horrific injury. We played the whole game - not putting your hand up for a sub. It was the best time for the game, from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, when men were men. The game was tough and we had camaraderie. Now the players are just interested in money."
His knees are due for an overhaul but he intends working "till the day I die". Kurt, once among the game's most feared ball runners who was working as a bricklayer on the Gold Coast, has just taken a job in a Western Australian mine.
"Now and then you guys ring up from home and it's nice to be remembered. I've been trying to get a book done ... about my brother and I playing the Sydney football, which sort of led to all the Maori and Pacific Island players coming to Australia," Dane Sorensen says. "I'll tell ya, in years to come, they will completely outnumber the European players in the competition, which I never envisaged would happen. It's comparable to the American negroes in the NFL."
The 70s Pioneers
* Oscar Danielson,
* Bill Noonan,
* Bernie Lowther,
* Henry Tatana,
* Eddie Heatley,
North Sydney Bears
* Dane Sorensen,
* Kurt Sorensen,
Tomorrow: How scouts get their prospects across the line; and we talk to Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who refused to take the advice that he wasn't good enough.By Chris Rattue Email Chris