When Ellerslie soared
• Tamaki and Districts Times
IN the good old days of 1970s Auckland rugby league, Ellerslie Eagles soared high thanks to outstanding coach Morrie Robertson.
Although he ruled with an iron fist and fiery tongue, Robertson had been an ultra tough, fiercely competitive Kiwi himself when forming a lethal centre combination with the legendary Tom Baxter.
What he didn’t know about the game wasn’t worth knowing and he soon made an impact when becoming Ellerslie coach in the 1960s and producing Kiwis of the class of Daryll Eastlake, Brian Campbell and Doug Ellwood.
“It’s really a simple game and it’s all about angles,” he told me when I arrived from The Christchurch Star in 1971 to live in Mt Wellington and cover the Auckland rugby league scene for Sunday News.
Triangles, mostly, if you were privileged to watch brilliant halfback Ken Stirling, loose forward Murray Eade and five-eighths Chris Jordan or Graham Smith criss-cross one another to confuse defenders with their slick ball distribution.
Stirling was a tireless, duck and dive, sidestepping scrum half, so quick off the mark he usually dropped opposing props with his flawless tackling before his forwards reached them.
Not that Ellerslie were weak in that department in the 1970 when they were able to field props like Doug Gailey, Robin Orchard, Lindsay Proctor and rhino-like hooker Murray Netzler.
Gailey never took a backward step and was one of the few rarely to receive the coach’s verbal barrage when things went wrong.
Not so Orchard, who was big, powerful and deceptively fast, but inclined to be lazy.
On one occasion at Carlaw Park he so infuriated his own club fans they ridiculed him by calling him Mary.
That was nothing compared with the kind of diatribe Robertson could deliver, much to the delight of the Railway Stand fans who hung outside the Ellerslie dressing room waiting for him to deliver his halftime outburst.
On this occasion it transformed Orchard into a raging bull as he repeatedly powered through tackles or left defenders groping by exercising a sidestep that would have done justice to Houdini fullback John Young.
Consequently when he finally hoppled off with a sprained ankle, Orchard received a standing ovation from the fans who had booed him.
He was heralded again when the underdog 1971 Kiwis outscored Australia five tries to one in a memorable 24-3 test victory that marked Stirling’s magnificent test debut and featured Orchard’s gifted younger Bay of Plenty brother, Phil, on the right wing.
The Australians had heard Robin had suffered a pre-test injury. “I hear you’ve got a broken toe,” an Australian prop is reputed to have said before they packed down for the first scrum.
“Why don’t you kick it and find out,” Orchard is said to have replied.
Whatever the validity of the story, an Australian prop was quickly KO’d on his own 22m with the hardest tackle Orchard made.
That was an Australian team that fielded such greats as Bobby Fulton, Graeme Langlands and Bob McCarthy, but were further humiliated when Auckland also beat them.
Later, that same year, the powerfully built Phil Orchard was the top try-scorer when Otahuhu’s Roy Christian led the Kiwis on the successful tour of Great Britain and France.
It was on that tour that Te Atatu’s remarkable Dennis Williams celebrated his 18th birthday by scoring a try in his first test against Great Britain.
He had done the same in his first game for Auckland when touching down four times against hapless Waikato.
Among the Ellerslie players who toured Australia with the 1972 Kiwis was another crowd-pleasing wing called Lenny Hall.
The antithesis of Phil Orchard, Hall was a tiny firecracker who hit top gear in one stride and could spin on a threepence.
Similar in style to All Blacks wing of the era Grant Batty, Hall came from a soccer background in which he was a prolific scoring centre forward despite his diminutive physique.
As a league player, he sometimes threw in so many sidesteps it seemed he bemused himself as much as he confused his opponents. Yet he scored some unique tries.
“Lenny’s the one I would hate to mark,” Stirling, the supreme tackler, once told me.
Such was Hall’s speed that he put in a long, low 40m punt on the Carlaw Park halfway mark and re-gathered it on the first bounce to score an amazing try.
Those were the days when the crowds flocked to see Ellerslie produce their own special game, under a demanding coach who regarded them as simpletons if they didn’t adhere to his simple philosophy.
But good as they were, Ponsonby invariably won the major championships, orchestrated as they were by the brilliant Roger Bailey whose long skip passes yielded so many classic tries.