The 1978 Premiers
The 1978 Premiers

Premiership win guided by God and the Cleal brothers

SECONDS from the end of the 1978 grand final at Brelsford Park and with scores levelled 8-all, referee Adrian Wilson penalised Sawtell half Robert Walmsley for an incorrect scrum feed.

With more than 5000 supporters screaming in the background, sharpshooting Smithtown fullback Wayne Buckley calmly built his mound for the shot at goal that should have broken the deadlock.

"I thought, that's it, we've lost the game," Panthers hooker John 'Tank' Mackay remembered this week.

"But God must have been with us that day.

"Bucko didn't miss many but he stuffed that one up and the match went into extra time."

Group 2 has celebrated many landmark matches but the entire 1978 season has passed into folklore.

Under Les and Noel Cleal Sawtell finished undefeated premiers.

They also won reserve grade and collected the ultimate prize in bush football ? the Clayton Cup.

"We were no more than a competent team," Mackay said, "but Blossom (Les) and Precious (Noel) added another dimension.

"In their first year things were rough and ready and we all mucked around.

"People forget Les was only 22 and liked a good time but he grew up and we got fair dinkum for the next season."

In his first command, Cleal took Sawtell from the wooden spoon to bowing out to Wool-goolga in the semi finals.

But nobody in their wildest dreams expected the sensation 1978 would become.

Halfway through the year Coffs Harbour Advocate league writer Peter Chapman made a prophetic observation.

"Sawtell, unbeaten so far, have a good chance of winning the Clayton Cup," Chapman wrote.

"If it goes to Sawtell it will be well awarded."

With each stunning victory the news of what was happening in a small North Coast town was spreading across the rugby league world and the offers began flooding in for the giant 18-stone brothers.

"Everything they say about the Cleal boys is true," Tank Mackay chuckled. "They were so big there was a huge gap between their shorts and jumper but they were light on their feet, strong and powerful."

On the season went, with brawls, suspensions, controversy and an explosion of crowds packing into every vantage point to watch the amazing Panthers play.

The unbeaten run nearly came to an end with a narrow squeak against Kempsey and Cleal almost made a colossal blunder for the grand final, as Mackay now reveals.

"Max Jensen's shoulder was gone so I suggested to Blossom he move me to hooker and bring in another prop," Mackay said. "Instead, he gambled on four changes to the team including moving Peter Marsh to hooker. Switches like that are normal now, but then it was big news."

In the age when hookers were still important to winning the ball, Marsh lost the first four scrums.

"Les took my advice and I went into rake with Marshy going back to five-eighth," Mackay laughed. "I lost two scrums, kicked two through when we were going to be penalised and won the rest."

In the grand final's extra time both sides scored converted tries to again level at 13-all with one minute remaining.

"Noel won the game for us," Mackay said.

"With 20 seconds left he dropped the field goal and the place erupted.

"I've never felt so good again in my life."


First Grade

1 - Noel Cleal, 2 - John Crawford, 3 - Mark Greenshields, 4 - Les Cleal (c/c), 5 - Terry Steiger, 6 - Peter Marsh, 7 - Robert Walmsley, 8 - Bob Barker, 9 - John Mackay, 10 - Mick Lewis, 11 - Wayne Rhodes, 12 - Kim Harrison, 13 - Larry Hart.

Reserve Grade

1 - Shane Richards, 2 - Rod Kurnick, 3 - Geoff Walter, 4 - Max Jensen, 5 - Barry Walmsley, 6 - Doug Dean, 7 - Phillip Evans, 8 - Ray Reeves (c/c), 9 - Glen Rattray, 10 - Jon Payne, 11 - Col Adams, 12 - John Huegill, 13 - Steve Rattray.

Support Players

Mark Rattray, John Eagles, Mike Craig, Harry Davis, Norm Hardaker, Kevin Mackay, Ivan Richards, Ray Robinson, Warren Dean, Stewart Rowsell, John Bursle, Allan Pearse, Dick Cameron, Eddie Becker, Paul Worland, Gordon Quinn, Billy Ross, Colin Rattray, Dennis Crawford.

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