Tommy Raudonikis: A devil on the field, rugby league’s patron saint off it

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Tommy Raudonikis: A devil on the field, rugby league’s patron saint off it

By Adam Pengilly

Tommy Raudonikis once picked a fight with an injured rival and yet, incredibly, he was later celebrated for his actions.

It’s the Tommy Paradox – a man whose career was made infamous by a litany of incidents of punching, biting, scrapping and clawing was to become rugby league’s patron saint, a man who embodied everything good about the greatest game of all.

Raudonikis’s NSW side was losing 13-2 when he came off the bench in a match against Queensland in 1977, three years before the birth of State of Origin. Figuring his teammates needed something – anything – to inspire them, Raudonikis launched into a Maroons player who was receiving treatment for an injury near the sideline.

He went on to score a crucial second-half try and NSW won the match 14-13. The Tommy Paradox – a devil on the field and an angel off it.

Perhaps there has never been a figure so universally loved by a game that thrives on hate. And it’s not just rugby league fans who adored Raudonikis. Well-known by supporters of other codes for his gravelly voice and legendary storytelling, Raudonikis transcended rugby league and was a hugely popular media figure post his playing career.

He died on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer, sending the rugby league community into mourning and prompting tributes from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian. He was 70.

Tom Raudonikis in action for Newtown.

Tom Raudonikis in action for Newtown.Credit:Fairfax

The halfback, born to European migrant parents, was known as one of the most competitive players to lace on a boot, with a rap sheet to match. He would unashamedly bait his opponents into fights, niggle them endlessly and then, when they were distracted, beat them with the type of skill that saw him captain Australia and NSW.

But those same devilish antics on the field made him a larger-than-life figure in the sport.

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“Just say I did get in fights every week, who cares,” Raudonikis once said in an interview. “One thing I am, I’m honest.”

So honest that he decided to out himself as “The Phantom Biter” on the front cover of the sport’s bible, Rugby League Week, after nibbling on the nose of Manly rookie John Gibbs in a 1976 match.

“Just say I did get in fights every week, who cares. One thing I am, I’m honest.”

Tommy Raudonikis

He was also in the thick of one of the most brutal brawls ever seen on a rugby league field, when his beloved Western Suburbs hosted bitter rivals Manly at Lidcombe Oval in 1977. Manly players later told of the taunts they could hear coming from the Magpies’ dressing-room before the game, a rivalry billed as the Silvertails and Fibros, rich against poor.

A 60 Minutes fly-on-the-wall look into the Magpies later revealed the face-slapping Raudonikis and his teammates used to rev themselves up under master coach Roy Masters.

But the most famous fight involving the little general was one he never took part in.

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When he coached NSW in State of Origin in 1997, almost two decades after captaining his state, Raudonikis told his players to start a fight when he bellowed out “Cattledog” from the sideline. He made the call before his forwards packed into a scrum one night, prompting eighth Immortal Andrew Johns to cop a fearful beating from opposite number Jamie Goddard.

The saying has been part of rugby league folklore ever since.

For “Tommy Terrific”, fighting came natural. He was first diagnosed with cancer in 1986, but it was detected early enough. He had numerous relapses in the three decades since before he died in a Gold Coast hospital, six days shy of his 71st birthday.

Raudonikis was born in 1950 at a migrant hostel in Bathurst, a year after his parents arrived in Australia, and started his schooling in Cowra, four hours west of Sydney.

He joined the RAAF in Wagga as an apprentice airframe fitter in 1967 so he could link with Western Suburbs in Sydney, where his rugby league career took off.

He spent more than a decade at the Magpies, winning the Rothmans Medal for the game’s best-and-fairest player in 1972 before being lured to the Newtown Jets by his great mate John Singleton. Newtown made the 1981 grand final, a year after Raudonikis’ last NSW appearance in the inaugural Origin match against Arthur Beetson’s Queensland.

Tommy Raudonikis at his Gold Coast home in 2018.

Tommy Raudonikis at his Gold Coast home in 2018.Credit:Paul Harris

It was easy to forget how good a player Raudonikis actually was. He played 31 Tests for Australia and 30 games for NSW, a career few have ever matched.

“He taught everyone how not to give up, and that’s how he led his life,” Newtown benefactor Terry Rowney said.

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“He’s a unique person that can make ordinary people do extraordinary things. I think the reason he was so inspirational was because he said, ‘do what I do and not what I say’. He taught this club how to win and how to never give up. He’s like your mum or dad, you always think he’s going to be there.”

A few years after that 1977 game, a Queensland player walked into the sheds and sat down next to Raudonikis and shared a beer after the first ever State of Origin match. He had a scar under his eye, but it wasn’t from that night. Greg Oliphant joked with Raudonikis it had never disappeared after the little NSW terrier picked a fight with him while he was being treated for that injury. A warm friendship ensued.

“There were quicker and more skilful halfbacks around than Tommy, but none smarter or tougher,” Oliphant said.

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