“What do you think of Barty, Mr Harris?” Freddy asked. Then followed a polite reply on her skills before a “I don’t like those screeching girls” comment on Barty’s fellow competitors.
Ted did compliment Freddy on the way the Blues played in Perth, encouraging him to have the Blues “throw the ball around.”
Fittler made the phone call, not because “I’ve got to do Quayle a favour”, but from respect. He has
really come of age since 2007 when he was appointed coach of the Roosters and won his first few
games. “How easy is this coaching caper?” he told me at the time. A couple of months later, after a
run of desolate losses, he had a different perspective.
He has learnt leadership, as Harris did from the elders of the NSWRL when he reported on Monday
night meetings at the code’s then Phillip Street headquarters.
“I was a young kid straight out of a private school in Sydney and the encouragement and respect
men like Jersey Flegg, George Ball and Johnny Quinlan gave me is something I will never forget,”
Harris once said.
By the time Harris was Fittler’s current age (47), he had become a significant media and business leader, heading Ampol. Harris’s leadership and sensitivity is revealed in an old aerogram he once received. It was dated July 9, 1957, and was written by the great British and Wigan winger Billy Boston.
The RFL had organised the Great Britain World Cup team to play a series of exhibition matches in South Africa on the way home from the tournament in Australia. Boston, of West Indian heritage, would have been forced to live in separate quarters to the rest of the team and not be permitted to play in any of the exhibition matches against the French.
According to Robert Gates’s 2009 biography of Boston, a knee injury in the World Cup clash against Australia ended his tour and he was flown home early, saving the RFL embarrassment. Harris and the letter suggest otherwise. It begins, “I want to thank you for all you have done for me. Last night, when we said goodbye, there were lots of things I wanted to say but couldn’t …”
Boston was clearly not in the company of his team members when Harris entertained him, including a yacht trip on Sydney harbour and a visit to Channel Nine where Ted hosted a TV show with Keith
Boston returned to Australia five years later on the Lions tour. Exhibition games were again
scheduled for South Africa, yet Apartheid had become even more brutal. The UN called for sanctions against South Africa but nothing had changed for Billy. He would have to live separately and not be
permitted to play with or against whites. The RFL again allowed Billy to be isolated, leaving it to
Harris to once again show Boston kindness and respect.
Many of the NSWRL leaders whom the young Harris respected had retired, replaced by others who
should have called out the RFL for their support of Apartheid.
It’s a call Fittler – now a historic figure in the NSWRL – would have made.
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.