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News > General > The Fifty Year Anniversary of High's Rugby 'Three-peat' of 1971-1973

The Fifty Year Anniversary of High's Rugby 'Three-peat' of 1971-1973

In honour of the fifty year anniversary of High's glorious triumph of winning the GPS Rugby Premiership in three consecutive years, Geoff Stein, Captain of the 1973 team, put together this recap
1 Jan 2023

In honour of the fifty year anniversary of High’s glorious triumph of winning the GPS Rugby Premiership in three consecutive years, Geoff Stein (1973)—Captain of the 1973 team, a player on all three winning teams, and previous SBHS PDHPE Department Head—put together a comprehensive personal recollection of these three years of High Rugby glory. What follows is an excerpt from his labour of love.

How difficult is it to win multiple (three or more) consecutive GPS Rugby titles? According to AAGPS records, since 1892 only three schools had achieved this feat prior to 1971. St Josephs headed the list, with four occasions, followed by Grammar and Kings. At the end of the 1973 Rugby season, Sydney Boys High School would join these ranks. (Scots have since joined the list.) Prior to this, High had only won the GPS Rugby Premiership twice before (in 1946 and 1963). What was it about High Rugby in the early 1970s that made them a force to be reckoned with? Was the GPS competition in a slump? Not at all. During this period, GPS beat CAS in two of the three annual fixtures (1971, 1973). Sydney High at the time boasted an impressive roster of talent—thirty-four GPS Representatives (1st, 2nd and 3rd), nine NSW Schoolboy Representatives, and two players—Neil McGill and Edwin Zemancheff—selected for the 1973 Australian Schoolboys tour to the UK. Who were the players who played First Grade for Sydney High from 1971-1973? It might come as a surprise to know that there were only thirty-nine players across the three teams, as a number of boys played in multiple years.

Why was High Rugby so successful between 1971-1973?

Often success is not the result of one specific factor but rather a combination of small, sometimes seemingly insignificant, occurrences. These were some of the factors that I believe played a role in our success:

1. The ‘Doc’ Bentivoglio years: The nucleus of the 1971 team formed in the 1968 14A’s and 1969 15A’s coached by Old Boy Dr Bentivoglio, a Macquarie Street doctor who possessed a humorous irreverence towards our GPS brethren. He also coached the 1970 14’s, which contained four members of the 1972 and 1973 teams…Doc instilled in us a sense of high expectations—that we could not only compete with other GPS schools, but that we could also be successful.

2. The Wednesday CHS competition: The strong opposition we faced in the mid-week Phillip Zone CHS matches gave us a physical fitness advantage over our GPS rivals. In 1971 and 1973, Randwick Boys High were runners-up in the Waratah Shield competition; in 1972, Matraville won the Waratah Shield; in 1973, we had a pre-season 6-all draw against North Sydney Boys High and NSBH would win the Waratah Shield later that year. These tough mid-week fixtures would give us a physical edge on Saturdays. There were never any ‘blowout’ results. The scores were often low and close…The ability to come from behind to win I put down to, in part, the strong opposition we encountered in our mid-week competition matches. An interesting fact is that had we lost the match against Shore in 1971, four teams would have shared the GPS title that year. That’s how close the competition was… Another point that has been overlooked at times was the incredible depth High had in the Second XV during that time. In 1971, the Second XV were runners-up in the GPS competition; in 1972, they were CHS Phillip Zone champions; and in 1973 CHS Phillip Zone premiers. Many players had the ability to play First Grade but never got the opportunity. Those who were called upon, stood up and played with the skill that enabled the team to function as it always had…

3. The ‘rugby league’ element: The School’s drawing area was primarily the Southern and Eastern suburbs of Sydney. As a result, many players had played rugby league in their primary school days, with some continuing to play for the School on Saturdays and their local rugby league club on Sundays. I believe this had two interesting effects on how we played. The first one was that everyone knew how to tackle, and our defence was solid…The second impact was running the ball in attack, the preferred attacking option rather than the more traditional tactic of ‘kick and chase’…Often when the ball was kicked to High it was returned as a lethal counterattack…

4. The experience factor and the ‘Honours’ students In 1970:  many of the 15A players from a year earlier bypassed the 16’s age teams and made the jump to the Open grades…Each side also benefitted from the experience of ‘Honours’ students—those who repeated 6th Form to get a better HSC result…Their talent, size and experience would be invaluable to the success of the teams especially when it was coupled with the experience gained by players selected to play First Grade when in 5th Form…

5. ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’: Except for Bryan Hooper, who scored 35 points (1971), Jim Demetriou, who scored 7 tries (1972), and Edwin Zemancheff, who scored 7 tries (1973), there were no individual ‘stars’ on any of the teams...Over the three years we had very talented footballers who all played for their teammates and the coach, or at least that’s the way it felt…What I do remember is the complementary nature of the players in the team. It enabled all players to play to their strengths allowing the talents of others to shine…

6. The Coaches Successful teams have good leadership: Coaches Jack Callaghan (1971) and Norm Blacklock (1972 & 1973) provided the type of leadership required to bring out the best in their teams…Coaching was secondary to their teaching jobs, but they… developed a happy, harmonious atmosphere within the teams. Although replacements during the GPS season were rare, both coaches weren’t afraid to make the tough calls (Jack Callaghan, before the last game against Shore in 1971, and Norm Blacklock in 1972 before the game against St Josephs)… This seems to bring me full circle, starting and finishing with the coaches, and the importance of having high expectations.

However, those years involved more than just the players and the coaches. As time has passed, I have come to realise that the parents/ supporters, teachers/headmasters (good old Murray, God bless him), school and classmates were all an important part of the success we enjoyed…I consider myself to have been very fortunate, as someone who just happened to be part of a special group of people, in an extraordinary school, at a unique time in its long and illustrious history.

1971, 1972 or 1973—Which was the best Rugby side?

The answer to this is very subjective, and will depend on who you ask. On one hand you have the ‘heart’ saying one thing, then the ‘head’ saying something else, and this is before the ‘historians’ put in their two-cents worth. Achieving something for the very first time has huge sentimental value. So, the ‘heart’ says the best side was 1971. The nucleus of the ’71 side shared many memorable moments, over four years, on and off the field. They were in uncharted waters—just playing footy—not knowing what was possible, not caring about past results. They blazed a trail for others to follow, and…answered the challenge thrown down by the 1963 side of winning the GPS undefeated. 1971 was arguably the School’s strongest Rugby year ever, as we came ‘within a whisker’ of winning the GPS Rugby double, First and Second Grade. The ‘historians’ would say 1972. This team had the pressure of being defending premiers with everyone gunning for them. Every GPS team had the day they played High circled on their calendar. And how did High respond? They made history, beating Joeys at Joeys—a feat only repeated once more in 1988. The game was an emotional roller coaster, and High was magnificent. Down 6–0 at the half, storming home at the end to win 12–9. Unbelievable. Watching old video footage of the post-match celebrations shows the enormity of the win and what it meant to the School. It was one of Norm Blacklock’s proudest moments.

The ‘head’ says that statistics will show you that 1973 is the clear winner. They had the added pressure of expectations. Three GPS Premierships in a row...You are no longer the ‘dark horse’, and the opposition sends people out to watch your training sessions at McKay. And how did they respond? GPS champions and CHS premiers. No previous team could match that statistic. Twenty-one matches for nineteen wins, one loss and a pre-season draw. It was a team with no weaknesses. As the old saying goes, ‘they weren’t a team of champions, they were a champion team’. Make up your own mind. Just be aware that once you think you have decided, in typical style, 1972 will come up, give you a little nudge and whisper in your ear: ‘Joeys at Joeys’. Without any doubt, the best team in 1971, 1972, and 1973 was…Sydney High. But it’s only an opinion and feel free to disagree.

Geoff Stein’s document in its entirety includes a treasure trove of old photos, copies of newspaper clippings and celebratory telegrams. It can be seen in full via the following link:

Videos of some interviews with former players as well as a few games from the era can be found at the High Rugby ’70s Youtube page:

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