FOREWORD from BIG ARTIE - The Autobiography
By Ron Coote
Arthur Beetson was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ footballer. He was big and fast and strong, with sensational reflexes – the quickest you could possibly imagine for a bloke of his size – and the sort of hand-eye co-ordination that enabled him to excel at any game he turned his attention to, whether it be tennis or snooker, racquetball or squash. He was the best rugby league forward of his kind that I ever saw – and I consider it a great privilege that I played many matches with him, for Easts and Australia.
Playing against him was tough. In the late ‘60s, when every Balmain-Souths game was hell for leather from the moment the ref whistled the kick-off, he was the Tigers’ gun forward and the bloke we had to stop. That was never easy and I’m not sure if he’s ever forgiven me for the way I managed it in one match – the Major Semi-Final of 1969 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. As their best player, Arthur was an obvious target for ta South’s forward pack which read: Coote, McCarthy, Stevens, Sattler, Walters, O’Neill. From the start, Arthur was in the thick of it that afternoon, and he quickly copped a couple of cautions from referee Keith Page. We knew that he was on thin ice after he had tackled me as I ran the ball up, I lifted my head as I rose to my feet and half-pie headbutted him. Arthur promptly belted me and just as quickly referee Page sent him on the long march from the field. On the following Monday night, Arthur was suspended for two matches, which ended his season, and meant he didn’t get to play in Balmain’s upset win over us in the Grand Final two week later.
For sure, there was some gamesmanship on my part in what happened that day, but it was just the way football was …. If you could get away with it you would. Arthur understood that, as we all did, and the incident never interfered with our friendship.
Neither did the controversy surrounding the captaincy at Eastern Suburbs in 1974 – an issue hit the newspaper headlines at the time. I had been promised – and given – the Easts captaincy when I left Souths to join Easts in 1972 (a season after Arthur arrived at the club). Under the coaching of Don Furner (1972) and Tony Paskins (1973), I was the skipper, although a bod groin injury affected my involvement in the ’73 season. When the new coach jack Gibson took the captaincy away from me and gave it to Arthur in 1974, I accepted the decision – but wasn’t real happy. Arthur, of course, turned out to be a great and inspirational leader as a champion team brought East its first premierships (1974 and 1975) for almost 30 years. The pair of us played together as friends and teammates until 1978, by which time Arthur was captain-coach of the club.
At an Easts reunion recently one of the older blokes said to me, ‘Gee, he’s a good bloke that Arthur Beetson’. Artie always was, and is, that – even though he can be a bit gruff on aspects of the modern game in the post-Super League ear. In those golden Easts years of the ‘70s he was a mate to everyone at the club and a leader who enjoyed offering whatever help he could.
I am delighted Arthur has taken time out to reflect on his life inside and outside of football in this book, because it has been a truly remarkable sporting life. The story he tells is an important once for rugby league. The fact is, the game has changed and we may never see the like of Arthur Beetson again.
As it should, this story of his life, Big Artie, addresses the issue of Arthur the famed ‘tooth man’. My experience was that you needed to be a bit wary of sitting next to Arthur at a dinner, because there was always the feeling that while he was eating his….. he’d be looking at yours. He burned a lot of energy in the way he played his football, but, oh yeah, he was a big eater. I remember when we were in Brisbane with the 1968 World Cup team, and a few of us went down to Pat Kelly’s pub at Miami. Arthur got a bit peckish and knocked off a snack of eight hamburgers. We had a month in Brisbane during that campaign and coach Harry Bath did his utmost to keep Beetson’s appetite and food intake in check. Each morning he’d sit Arthur next to him at breakfast and the brekkie was two Weet-bix and a piece of dry toast. Problem was …. Arthur would slip away later to the hamburger joint down the road.
The funny thing about Arthur and Harry is that, for all the blow-ups that had about the Beetson ‘diet’ and his physical shape, they were very similar blokes and, from what I know, similar players – skilful and tough. Arthur is also so much like Harry in the way he loves to talk about the game and in his knowledge of it. Like Harry, he is a bloke of strong opinions, and a great student if rugby league. Arthur is a top example of a player benefiting from his coaches; Harry and jack Gibson, especially, were big influences. In my view, so too was Don Furner, who worked Arthur hard after he came to Easts from Balmain and settled him down. Don knew that talent was there, and he set out to add the necessary application.
To an extent, Arthur was misunderstood as a footballer, although noone ever doubted the fabulous natural abilities, he had. The early newspaper k=nicknames of ‘Meat Pie Artie’ and ‘Half-a-Game Artie’ created an impression that obscured a larger truth – that Arthur was a hard and dedicated trainer who would bust his arse in aspects of training that were inevitably tough for a man so big, such as the repeat 220-yard runs of the Gibson era. Jack’s one and three-quarter mile run against the clock was a nightmare for Arthur, but he would give it his all. Injuries such as the broken ankle he suffered in Hull in 1968 affected his capacity to train at times, but when he was ‘right’ he would word as had as anyone. His strength was remarkable. When Easts first made us of the breakthrough Nautilus weight-training methods in the ‘70s, Arthur was a sight to behold. He was the only bloke in the club who could lift all the plates when he was doing leg-presses.
As a footballer, he was a tremendous package – 17 stone-plus and with all that speed and skill. ‘Speed’ is not a misprint. Arthur was a lot faster than anyone thought – for 25 metres or so he could fair dinkum fly, a lethal attribute for a man of that size. I will always remember the way he’d take the ball up hard, plant his arse and look for some support. If no one was coming, or if he thought the tackler was a big half-hearted, he’d spin and go again, catching defenders unaware with his speed. He scored plenty of tries that way.
Beetson and I are still together these days. I’m director at the Sydney Roosters and Artie is a vital component in the club’s success, identifying and securing young talent. He does a superb job. His knowledge of the game and his eye for a footballer are such that at least one other leading club scout rings Arthur for an opinion before he signs a player. If the game allowed a budget that would give Artie his head in recruitment, the Roosters would have the best team in the business for years to come. The body of wisdom he has gather in almost 40 year in the game at the top level is a priceless commodity in the job he does.
A great and unselfish player, Arthur Beetson. A great bloke. And a unique Australian sporting champion. Those who saw him play were lucky; those who played with him, luckier still. Arthur’s story is one to be savoured by anyone who has ever followed the game. He has been one of the commanding personalities of our game from the moment he first stepped out in the black and gold of Balmain back in 1966. His wonderful thing that he’s still there right in the thick of rugby league, sharing his knowledge and putting back in.
I can conjure up an image of him now, towering above the ruck, with the ball in both hands … and free … and the support runners hustling to get there, ready to keep the play going. In late 2003, he became, officially, an ‘Immortal’ of the game. No one who saw him play, or knows Artie Beetson’s story, could possibly argue with that.
Reproduced with permission from the co-author, Ian Heads