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He was a small man with a huge heart and left an indelible mark on the games of rugby league and rugby union. Arthur Summons was also one half of the famous “Gladiators” image. “I didn’t really do anything to make it happen. Just tripped over in the mud, had a photo taken and became famous.” By Sarah Price.

A tribute to Arthur Summons

Arthur Summons (front row, right) with the Wallabies at Twickenham in 1958.
Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

When I was studying at university, Arthur Summons gave me a job working behind the bar at the Wagga Wagga Leagues Club. The club was thriving then, and Arthur was highly regarded, a local hero of sorts. He’d played 19 international Tests for Australia in both rugby union and rugby league, won with the Wallabies in England, captained the Kangaroos to win, and beaten the All Blacks at Christchurch. I didn’t know much about rugby, but I knew Arthur to be dynamic, funny and fair.

A few decades later, I was no longer pulling beers. I was living as a single parent in Sydney, eking out a living as a freelance writer and high school teacher. One of my students had gone off the rails with very good reason and no clear way back. I worried for him, often. All teachers have those students: the kid who, despite their charisma and obvious talents, seems intent on self-destruction. The kid who keeps you awake at night wondering about the trajectory of their life. Will they be dead or imprisoned by the time they are 21? He was 13, a ward of the state. Bumped from foster home to foster home and increasingly engaging in reckless behaviours. During one weekend he was hospitalised; another, listed as a missing person. At school he was behind in his learning, disengaged, adrift. He was okay at footy though. At least that is what I’d heard.

I rang Arthur, unsure if he would even remember me. Whether he did or not, he gave me his time. He listened to me detail the student’s sad story. By that stage, the boy had reluctantly moved from foster care to group homes. From one home, he travelled 90 minutes each way to school. He was always early, often hungry, underdressed in winter. I told Arthur the kid could play rugby, decently at school level, and asked if he had any suggestions. A few phone calls later, he rang me back and raised the idea of a scholarship. Let’s get him into a boarding school, he said. He’ll have somewhere to live and people to care for him.

Soon after, the student was offered a scholarship place at a private Sydney school. It was a lifeline.

We kept in touch: the boy, Arthur and me.

Every so often Arthur would call me and ask how he was doing. He is okay, I’d tell him. Or, he’s been suspended. He is repeating a year. He’s hanging in there. These things are never linear, as we might hope they’d be. When the student was in trouble at school, Arthur called him, too. He offered advice. Asked about his teachers and friends, gave him tickets to the NRL grand final.

In 2016, I arranged to meet Arthur while he was in Sydney for a rugby league reunion. I picked him up from his son’s house and drove him to the Sydney Cricket Ground. He paused after we got out of the car, and directed me to the high side of the footpath, insisting he walk nearest to the road. His old knees were buggered, he said, and our journey towards a group of fans waiting outside the gates of the SCG was slow. As we approached, the young men stepped forward. “Can we trouble you for an autograph, Mr Summons?” they asked. “You are a legend. An absolute gentleman.” Arthur took their marker and in tight, running script signed his name on notepads and jerseys. It was a well-practised signature, beautiful, though perhaps not as smooth as it once might have been.

We wandered then through the gates, past security guards, bronze statues and the walk of honour. Buxus hedges and ficus trees lined the pathways. In red brick and green tin, the old pavilions curved around a small section of the field. Inside, where the darkened bars and hallways are retained, the “originals” once sat in narrow dressing rooms.

Relying on the wooden handrail, Arthur took the stairs one at a time. “I am usually in a paper’s sport section,” he said. “But you can write my profile.” He loved The Saturday Paper, he told me. His mate at the retirement village in Wagga, “also a Labor man”, gave it to him every week.

From the members’ Long Bar, the ceiling-high windows overlooked the lush field where the Sydney Swans were finishing a training session. The same field, where in 1963, the “Gladiators” photo had been taken of Arthur and Norm Provan. They’d played the New South Wales Rugby Football League grand final in a bog.

“That photo has gone on and on,” Arthur said. The photographer, John O’Gready, was dressed in a suit, vest and tie. He’d tucked his pants into his long socks, and as he ran up and down the sideline taking photos, mud splattered up his legs. O’Gready died before he could be honoured by the image, which was later sculptured in a three-dimensional cast to become the Provan Summons Trophy for the NRL. “I didn’t really do anything to make it happen,” Arthur told me. “Just tripped over in the mud, had a photo taken and became famous.”

Some of the greats of the era joined us that day. Johnny “Chook” Raper, Billy Smith, Brian Graham, Eddie Lumsden, Kevin Ryan – we called him “Cement”, Arthur told me.

The group stood in a loose circle – beers and walking sticks in hand – and the stories began. Back in the ’60s, before playing, you’d be given a nip of sherry to improve your breathing. Take a knock to the head, get bound up in Elastoplast and keep going. Never got massaged. Imagine if they’d pulled us off like they do these days? No one would be playing! Only trained two nights a week, then straight to the pub for a few beers. Went on tour for seven months … five weeks on the RMS Strathmore to England. Trained on the boat … lost rugby balls to the ocean. No money in it back then – just £5 a game on tour. Arthur saved it all, he said. He brought home £50.

“Fear does a lot for you,” Arthur told me. “You don’t hang around with big blokes chasing you. I can’t explain it; I had ability. I did train hard though. Being smaller, I worked at my fitness. Size was a problem for me, always: I was stiff-arming their knees and not their head. I am not a violent person by any means – I just played a violent game.”

    

Arthur was born in Paddington, NSW, in 1935. His rugby skills attracted attention early, during his years at Homebush High School in Sydney before he moved to play for Gordon Rugby Club on the city’s north shore. At 21, he was called up to play union for NSW against Queensland, and then the Springboks; at 22, his skills saw him selected ahead of former Wallabies captain Dick Tooth for the tour of Britain, Ireland and France.

His inclusion in the side may have been a surprise for many, but Arthur quickly proved himself, and clicked with teammate Des Connor, who would go on to play for the All Blacks. That first tour was not a success, with Australia losing all five Tests. Arthur played in four of them, scoring a try in the loss to Ireland that was the only one of his Test career.

At fly-half, Arthur played 10 Tests for the Wallabies – distinguishing himself with his energy, tact and generosity on the field – before switching codes in the late ’50s to play for the Western Suburbs Magpies.

League threw up tests of will for Arthur – three grand finals in a row, the latter two as captain of the Magpies, for three losses to the St George Dragons. The last of these, in 1963, was a brutal match, played on the sodden pitch of the SCG. A record crowd of nearly 70,000 people watched on as heavy rain churned the ground into butter. In the end, the Dragons took the crown – 8-3 – over the Magpies.

It’s the moment after that final siren that was immortalised by John O’Gready. The two opponents, slick with mud, have their arms around one another; 193-centimetre-tall Norm Provan towering over Arthur.

In years since, it’s been suggested the two men were actually tussling over a referee’s call – in the way the shades of grey in our great stories often emerge over time – but it’s persisted as an image of mateship and humility in a moment of adversity.

The two men were close, teammates at times, and both exceptional athletes. Arthur rallied, as he always did, captain-coaching Australia to victory against Great Britain and France, the first Australian Test side to win the Ashes.

The next year, Arthur went to Wagga, to manage the Leagues Club. He played for the local Magpies, and captained the team, through to the end of the ’60s. This time around, he seized three premierships.

 

I took notes that morning I spent with Arthur, as writers are wont to do. When I heard of his death last month, I dug them out for the first time in a while. Arthur told me he felt more blessed than any other sportsperson he knew – from where he came from, to where he ended up, with the great honour of being on the trophy.

“That’s what the kids of today are playing for,” he said. He had asked after my two sons. Told me his own children were wonderfully caring young people and that he adored them. When you bring kids into the world, you have a responsibility to give them an open view of life, to allow them to be their own people, he said.

He believed the role of a parent is to safeguard their children and to love them unconditionally. He believed it was important to see the positive in life, to have a good laugh when you can, because what other way is there to live?

At the end of last year, I called Arthur for the final time. He was unwell and couldn’t answer the phone. I left a message. The boy has graduated from year 12 and received an early offer to attend university, I said. I told him that I knew he would want to know.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2020 as "A league gentleman".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.