• Description

Keith Cole, tough as nails Front Rower for the Illawarra Steelers and South Sydney who also had stints in England and France.

Where did you grow up?

Here, Thirroul, lived in Austinmer to start with, moved to Sydney for 12 months, Queensland for 12 months and then back here, been here ever since. 

How was your childhood?

I had a football, push bike and a surfboard, that’s all we needed mate.  I have two younger sisters, my Dad was born and bred here in Coledale, so he sort of never left.  My Mum was from Broken Hill originally but came down here as a young child with her father working in the mines. 

We played footy in the winter and surfed in the summer, it was an active childhood.

What was your first football experience?

My first football experience was playing Soccer and my coach said: "Coley, I don’t think you’re cut out for soccer."  He said you should go and have a look at the footy.  I wasn’t supposed to play, I had broken my leg in three places as a young child.  It happened when I fell over in the backyard in Queensland and I just fell awkwardly and it broke my femur.  I’ve had a lot of broken legs and all in different places.  My Dad said, well if you want to play we should get your leg looked at, we got it X rayed and they said it was sweet. 

As a child what was your most memorable experience of Rugby League?

I played with the Thirroul Butchers from the Under 10’s through until I debuted here in A Grade as an 18 year old.  In 1983 I played for Thirroul on a Saturday and on the Sunday I played for the Steelers in Third Grade back in the day. 

Did you collect Footy Cards as a kid?

Never, I was a lolly kid, not a chewing gum kid. 

Who were your football heroes as a kid?

I loved Arthur Beetson and I still love him today.  I never played against him but I met him after games as a kid.  I met him at Thirroul train station one day back in the late 70’s, the Australian team was on the train and stopping at all of the stations.  It was a promotion, there were blokes like Greg Oliphant, Bob O’Reilly there as well.  Artie coached against me at Easts when I was at Souths and I got to meet him and I was still in awe of him then. 

I loved guys like John Donnelly, guys from left field, the characters of the game.  They may not necessarily have played for Australia but they were pretty hard and did whatever they wanted on the field.  I loved Kevin Hastings as a halfback, the most under rated player, he just couldn’t get that spot. 

Kerry Boustead, I loved him as a winger, he was so strong and powerful for such a small guy.   

Tell us about your junior football?

I played City NSW Under 18’s. I turned up as a third year apprentice in a V8 Torana, the other guys all knew each other from school footy, guys like Greg Alexander and Paul Langmack, I don't know how I looked to them.  I played for the City side because of the Steelers, before 1982 Illawarra came under the Country team.  I was the first ever Thirroul City Rep.  Craig Dimond went up the year before me. 

We played up at Newcastle against Country.  My Dad’s best mate from when he was in the Air Force was the Deputy Lord Mayor at the time in Newcastle.  The old man couldn’t get any tickets and he rang Don Geddes and he said don’t worry I will get you tickets, so my family came and watched it and we won.  The Country side had players like Mark Wheeler, Bruce Sinclair playing for them.

I made the NSW Under 18’s side as well that year, it was made up of mostly the City guys.  Paul Shaw was in the side, he was a gun and Kevin Moore also played.  The Queensland side had Steve Walters, another guy Gary McGowsky who came down to Wests in Illawarra and he actually played over in France and he comes to our French reunions.  It was a great experience, Tony Mundine came and did a couple of sessions with us as well.  The lead up was great, it was good for me because I got that saturation.  I was driving up everyday for training.  I remember my Dads boss saying I am going to give you some money to get you up to training because now petrol is 25c a litre, it is really expensive.  To meet all those guys and play with players like David Burns and play against guys like Andrew Ettingshausen, Greg Alexander and Paul Langmack was great.  They were guns, it was the Greg Alexander show, he was like a puppeteer, he went on to grade and did the same thing, mesmerizing.   

Do you remember your Third Grade debut?

It was in 1983 and I came up against Ron Hilditch and Chris Phelan.  I saw black every time Hilditch tackled me.  He was the hardest hitter ever, he wasn’t a big guy and he didn’t charge, he just had that knack.  He had been on the 1982 Kangaroo Tour and he was injured in the 1983 season and in those days you didn’t just come back into First Grade, you came back in Third Grade and work your way back.  I am making my debut and he is making his comeback. 

How did you progress through the Grades?

Under 23’s came in the 1985 season and that was a very good competition, they should never have got rid of it.  I played most the of the season in Under 23’s and near the end of the year I came into Reserve Grade.  We had a Play Off for a Semi Final against Cronulla and they beat us. 

The next year we had a great Under 23’s and we made it to the Semi Finals and were beaten by Penrith in the Minor Semi Final, they went on to play Souths in the Grand Final.

Do you remember your First Grade debut?

It was the 1987 Panasonic Cup match against Parramatta.  We still trained with the Under 23’s and Reserve Grade, we trained Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning.  You would get flogged on Tuesday, little bit of a flogging on Thursday with some ball work and then ball work on Saturday and then you play on Sunday. 

Who were your coaches coming up through the Grades?

Arthur Fenton was the Third Grade coach, he was there from 1982 to83.  Then we had a guy named Jeff Peard and another guy Harry Bryant who was Reserve Grade and then Brian Smith.

Brian was the best coach I ever had, easily, hands down.  I’ll stand here and argue with anyone, a lot of people just don’t like him.  I don’t know what it is mate.  He was starting stuff in the 80’s that they are using now, he was talking about these percentage plays and no one understood it, now, that is what they all do.  He said to me, you have 15m that side and 15m that side, just stay in there.  You only have to stay 30 metres from the centre of the paddock, that is what they do now, Front Rowers, hookers play middle and that is what he was doing back then. 

When I went to France I needed a reference and I said ring Brian Smith.  He came back and said Christ you should be playing football for Australia with the reference he gave you.  The Steelers should have been in the 1992 Grand Final, they narrowly lost to St George 4 points to 2, they had three tries disallowed that game. 

How was your experience at the Steelers?

1983 to 1989, Third Grade, to Reserve Grade to First Grade, it’s a long time.  Under 23’s people don’t count that, but they are the best years of your life but people don’t count that.  I played with my cousin Darryl Crosland, he was a year older than me and he was a Thirroul boy as well, both of us were front rowers so we played a lot of footy together.  Peter Spring was another good mate.  Craig Keen was another good mate who came into grade and we ended up moving in with each other.  It is just lifelong friends.  People go “Did you make any money playing rugby league?”  You know what, I am a millionaire in friends and experiences, you can’t beat that shit.  People talk about the premierships, it’s incidental to me mate.  I am in contact with my mates in England, mates in France.  There was a lot of guys who came here from the bush to play and they just stayed. 


What was your biggest stand out match at the Steelers?

I reckon my biggest stand out was against Manly, I got Man of the Match.  Steve Larder still complains about that because he scored two tries that match and I got Man of the Match and Players Player.  He still blows up, he did actually get more points in the Rugby League Week magazine.  He got nine and I got eight points from memory.  Manly was a team of internationals and we were beating them with ten minutes to go and Paul Shaw came on off the bench and tore us apart, put Noel Cleal in a couple of holes.  They had a gun side, Kevin Ward in the front row, Rambo Ronnie Gibbs, Dale Shearer, Des Hasler, strong all over the park. 

The games I used to love playing were against South Sydney, it wouldn’t matter whether you won or lost, your body would get a hiding.  You could give as good as you got. 

What made you move to Souths in 1991?

No one else wanted me mate.  . nah.  I came back from France and finished the season in the local comp, I came back before the June 30 deadline to join a club.  I rang around to a couple of clubs and I was actually supposed to go to Newcastle, Alan McMahon was the coach and that would of meant picking up and moving again then I got a call from  Souths and it was in the days of the draft and I said yep I will go up there and play with the Rabbitohs.  Boylie (David Boyle) was up there.  I always loved Souths, they were my first team, my first ever footy jumper as a kid was a Souths one. 

How did you get to France in 1989?

I went over to the UK and things didn’t work out.  I was in England for eight weeks and played 14 games, it was their first year in the comp.  So I was playing First Grade and if they were short I’d play Reserve Grade as well.  Reserve Grade was on a Wednesday, so I was playing Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday and so on.  Just getting flogged, it was just too much.  It pissed down rain every single day.  I was supposed to be a Brickies Labourer and didn’t get any work because it was always raining. 

A guy came up to me after the game at the pub and said look, you had a good game, blah blah, you ever thought about going to France.  I said yes, I was going to go to France in 1985.  He then asked “How are things going here?”  I said well look, could be better, and he said meet me tomorrow at a pub.  When I met him the next day he said he had called Brian Smith and you can have this club, this club or this club.  I asked is that one right on the beach?  He said yes, and I said I will go there.  I called my missus and said I am going to pick you up in half and hour, we are flying out to France in three hours.  I went and picked her up, packed and flew from Manchester to France. 

It was a good club, but it just wasn’t working out for me.  I am still in contact with the coach and a few of the players through Facebook. 

How about your experiences in France?

France was a different kettle of fish.  I got there, met everyone and just went out and got on the fizz.  Played the first game that weekend against Chateau, which is Tas Baiteri’s side, and he has gone, how did you get over here?  He used to organize all of the Aussie players.  We went through and only were beaten once and won the comp.   

I came back to Australia and I was going to go back to France, then I signed with Souths.  If I hadn’t of signed with Souths I would have gone back for four or five years and stayed there. 

Where we lived was a town much like Wollongong, it was a port, right on the beach, we lived in resorts.  The people were great, they looked after us immensely.  We won the comp and they know how to party over there.  That is where I got the taste for Zambucca, well it is Ouzo over there.  That is their drink, that is free, on the tables so you tend you drink it a lot of it. 

How was your experience of playing with Souths in 1991?

I loved playing at Redfern Oval for the Steelers, the locals would taunt us while warming up in the park, saying we are going to kill you brother, they were pissed.  The young blokes used to shit themselves. 

We had Boylie, still mates with him today, Sean Garlick, Mark Carroll, Darren Maroon, Peter Johnston, all of the guys were good.  Tugger, Ross Harrington, Wayne Chisholm, you just keep going.  Good bunch of blokes, the lot of them. 

We were on a hiding to nothing that year, we won some good games.  We beat Canterbury, Balmain and Canberra which we were never supposed to win, but then we lost the games we were supposed to win.  That’s just the way it was.  The culture was sort of the same as the Steelers, everyone was good mates and loved their footy.  It was a little more spread out where at Illawarra, 90% of the guys were local boys.  It was a good culture, we trained hard, played hard, drank hard.  That is just what you did in those days. 

I broke my thumb, that was the only injury I had in my eight year career.  That sort of stuffed me up for a few weeks.  I had a two year option but I couldn’t live up there in Sydney, I came back here and bought a house.  I fell asleep at the wheel coming home from training and thought, I can’t keep doing this.  I was working the docks in Sydney and worked a long shift and I was coming home, that was the second time and I thought I am going to end up killing myself.

That is when I just stayed in the local league and retired down here. 

What are your highlights of playing Rugby League?

It is the relationships you form from Rugby League, for example, through Rugby League I have now met you and this sort of thing.  You have also interviewed Rod Henniker and Michael Bolt and those sort of blokes. 

The memories, your trips away, your antics you got into when you were a young fella, you will get together with the boys and it will come up.  We have these Steelers reunions every year.  We have them at WIN Stadium before a game and they will put it on and we have a French reunion, we have a Thirroul Butchers old boys every year and we go up to the Gold Coast Masters every year.  People ask me how come you played for so many clubs, and I said it is all about the reunions. 

The last Souths one, all the First Graders were there, it was a great night

Who was your most respected player?

During my time, your top line front rowers were probably Steve Roach, Peter Tunks, Peter Kelly, those guys, they were the main rivals back in the 80’s.  Then in the 90’s those guys were still around but there was a changing of the guard, there was Mark Carroll even I played with Spud.  Paul Harragon and Martin Bella was always there playing for Queensland.  I respect plenty and fear none.  You went out and give it your all, whoever you played against, whether they had a reputation or they didn’t.  If they didn’t have a reputation they were trying to make one.

I remember once I was in a Reserve Grade game and I was on my back and this guy spat in my face, I couldn’t get up quickly enough to get him and he was gone anyway.  I was blowing up at the referee, I can’t tell you the referees name, you can’t print that, and the touch judge.  Anyway the kick off after half time, the guy catches the ball, he’s gone sideways and saw me and thought he was going to run straight over me.  I took one step back and swung and dished him up one straight across the nose, the ball went in the air, he is on his back out cold and you just hear the referee go “Play On!”.  That’s what Rugby League is about, he knew who it was who spat on me and couldn’t do anything at the time. 

Which was the best team you played against?

Manly was one of the best sides ever, Canberra in the late 80’s with Sam Backo.  He played for Australia and he was tough as nails.  Canterbury, Balmain they were very good.  Then again you came up against your North Sydney’s who weren’t that good, mate everyone was tough, you got bashed, there are no easy games at all.  I can’t remember thinking I had an easy game. 

When did you know it was time to give the game away?

When I didn’t take up my option with Souths I said I was going to play until I was 30.  My son was born and I still wanted to be able to move around, time to retire.  I won a premiership with Thirroul, I was out, gone, good way to retire.  They hadn’t won a premiership since 1973 and that was 1995.  Captain Coach was Mark Taylor who played for the Steelers as well.  We were undefeated that season and we were behind in the Grand Final at halftime 16 points to 6, we hadn’t been down at halftime.  We ended up winning the game 23 to 22. 

What followed after football?

I have a son who is 22 and my daughter is 21. 

I became the Steelers juniors strength and conditioning coach from 1995 through to 2002.  We had a lot of great juniors come through in that period, Matt Cooper, Jason Ryles, Trent Barrett, Shaun Timmins, Luke Bailey, Ben Hornby.  I still keep in contact with a lot of those guys. 

I went into to the mines in 2004 and been there ever since, in Port Kembla. 

How has the game changed since your playing days?

It is very regimented.  It is tough, physical and so quick, it is just not the game I grew up with, I probably wouldn’t even play First Grade, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t.  Everyone is 6 foot 1 as a minimum, and runs like the wind.  There are no tall thin guys or short backs.  The modern players are athletes versus when I was playing, we were rugby league players. 

One of the blights on the game is when they lay down for a penalty, I hate it.  They get clipped on the chin, just touched and they stay down for a penalty.  I think the referee should be allowed to penalize the bloke for acting.  In the 70’s and 80’s, if you got hit, you  could be near knocked out, you made sure you got to your feet, played the ball and showed there was nothing wrong with you, shook it off and got back into it and chased that c$%^ until you got him back. 

What the wingers do with scoring those tries is insane. 

Another thing I see, they drop so much ball and these balls are meant to be easier to hold.  The mistakes in the play the ball, no one knows how to play the ball. 

Scrums are a disgrace; you may as well have a bunny scratch.  They are never going to go back to real scrums because if somebody hurts their neck they will say they caused that to happen. 

We used to practice scrummaging, the Michael Bolts, the Sean O’Connors, the Sean Garlicks, those hookers really had a trade. 

I was always the blind side front rower, I had a job and that’s how I had to do it, if someone was trying to hook you, you trod on them.  Their hands, their face, their legs, you didn’t let go of your hooker, you didn’t let anything happen to him. 

The time it takes for a scrum to be packed is terrible, they run out with a bottle of water, they might have only been on for a couple of minutes, pretend they are cleaning a cut to the head, just get on with it mate. 

I have seen when guys have been injured and they would say, don’t worry just pack a three man scrum. 

Did you keep a scrap book?

I never kept one mate, my mother kept one.  I’ve had a look through it from time to time and you see some good old things.  As long as they are talking about you, good or bad, it doesn’t matter.  I never got suspended, ever.  I was sent off three times, cited twice and never suspended.  “So you were just a clean player?” – Not at all! J

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Lagoon Seafood Restaurant, local one in Wollongong.  Top food, great service.  I love seafood and it is a top notch restaurant.