On a balmy Sunday night of the October holiday weekend in 1963, Tony and Genevieve Hassab were hosting a 21st birthday party for son Paul at their Laidlaw St property in Boggabri but the birthday boy was late.
Boggabri captain-coach and half Barry Kellam fires a pass away to centre Robert Heiler before West centre Ken Thompson can effect the tackle. Others in the picture include (from left) Boggabri five-eighth Bill Robinson, prop Michael Nelson, referee Ted McAlpine, West hooker Denny Dewhurst (behind Kellam), prop Fred Mitchell, second-rower and coach Brian Fletcher, five-eighth Bill Walton and lock Harry Marcellos.
Not that anyone wasworried.
Paul Hassab was otherwise engaged, helping create history for Boggabri that afternoon.
He was a second-rower in the brilliant Boggabri side that won the club’s first Group 4 premiership by beating West Tamworth 22-10 in the grand final at Scully Park inTamworth.
“We didn’t get back to Boggabri until about 8 o’clock,” Hassab recalled.
“They started the party without us.
“It was a big celebration. Half the town turned up.
“The whole team went and it didn’t finish up until the early hours in the morning.”
That tiny Boggabri with a population then of 850 even made the grand final was a feat in itself.
The team had to come from the minor semi-final against Werris Creek and then a replayed final against Tamworth City just to reach the decider.
But they had good reason to be confident against the West Tamworth Robins (as they were then known) who had not played for three weeks since beating Tamworth City 12-11 in the major semi-final.
“After playing the minor semi at home and then two finals we were rock-hard with no injuries,” Hassab said.
“We knew we had the wood on West purely on the basis of fitness.”
A point with which West Tamworth second-rower Kevin O’Toole agreed.
“We thought we were pretty well-matched,” he said.
“But the extra week off and the hot weekend killed us.
“They were a very good side though.
“It was always hard against them.”
Barry Kellam, now living at Coffs Harbour, was in his first year as captain-coach of Boggabri at 26 after playing his early football at Tumbarumba in south-west NSW .
Don Furner, a former Kangaroo and coach of the Canberra Raiders, had coached at Tumbarumba early in his career and recommended Kellam for the Boggabri job.
“I decided to take the chance though Val (wife) wasn’t real keen at first,” Kellam said.
“Boggabri secretary Bill Hanton gave me work at the Royal Hotel.”
Kellam was happy to find a lot of young blokes at the club.
“If you get a young team you can tell them what to do.
“Old blokes know more than you.
“I told them ‘I’m the boss, what I say goes’.
“They all took it well. You can only have one captain.”
Kellam went into the grand final confident.
“I thought our backline was as good as any in the group and the forwards were the equal of any – they didn’t get on top of other sides but held their own.
“It was a good night of celebrations at Paul’s party. There were a lot of supporters there.”
Hassab remembers Kellam as a “terrific coach who led by example”.
“He was a strong, solid player and I’ve never seen a player strip a ball (which was legal then) better than Barry.
“Barry wanted everybody fit. Everybody had a job where they were physically required to work hard.
“Tom Sutherland (prop) was the anchor of the side.
“He was a big, strong bloke, a good pug who didn’t take a backward step.
“It was a tough grand final. The scrums were ferocious.
“We had a top front row in Tom, Bill Urquhart (hooker) and Michael Nelson who stood up to West.”
Remarkably, Hassab was in just his first year of rugby league after playing rugby union at Waverley College in Sydney, where he was a boarder, and at Gatton Ag College while completing a diploma inagriculture.
He came back home for a year in 1963 before being recruited by the Canterbury-Bankstown Berries (as they were then known) in 1964.
He was actually training with South Sydney at the start of the 1964 season with old schoolmate Michael Cleary (who represented Australia in both rugby codes as well as athletics) but a wrangle with Boggabri over a 600 pounds transfer fee wasn’t resolved before the Rabbitohs completed their gradings.
“Mick rang up Clive Churchill who was coach at Canterbury at the time so I trialled with them and was lucky enough to make the side.”
Hassab had two years with the Berries, playing 22 first grade games, before leaving Sydney for Grafton to focus on his career in the Department ofAgriculture.
He played and coached South Grafton and then Smithtown before returning to the north-west at Gunnedah for three seasons including a 1973 grand final win against WestTamworth.
He later returned to rugby as coach of Gunnedah’s Red Devils from 1982 until 1988.
He now has a rural supply business in Port Macquarie where he has lived for 20 years.
He looks back fondly on his time at Boggabri and went to the club’s 100th anniversary in March.
“They did a great job,” he said of the Boggabri club committee.
“I thought rugby league was dying in the country but not from what I saw there.”
Current club president Greg Haire would agree and says mining in the area has helped.
He is in charge of a thriving club with a committee of 22.
“With the mines, there’s jobs and we can keep the young blokes here,” Haire said.
Hassab says in 1963 farm work was the main occupation in the area.
“Back then the town of Boggabri had a population of about 850 and we had no more than about 35 seniors registered and about 20 juniors.
“The reserves and juniors also did well that year.
“It was a very close-knit club.”
As it is now after 100 years and still going strong.
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