‘Teak-tough’: Rugby league bids farewell to big Bill Noonan, first Kiwi in an Australian grand final

A former chairman of the New Zealand Rugby League says the late Bill Noonan – the first Kiwi to start in an Australian Grand Final – lived up to his “Teak-Tough” nickname.

Noonan, who played for Canterbury Bankstown in the grand final defeat to the Sydney Roosters in 1974, has died in Sydney, aged 74, after living with dementia for some years.

Canterbury-Bankstown's Kiwi prop Bill Noonan tries to get a cancellation against Balmain in 1971. Noonan has died in Sydney, aged 74.

Fairfax Media Archives / Getty Images

Canterbury-Bankstown’s Kiwi prop Bill Noonan tries to get a cancellation against Balmain in 1971. Noonan has died in Sydney, aged 74.

While Noonan only played three Tests for the Kiwis, many referees in the rugby league rated him among the very best New Zealand exporters in the front row after his 196 matches in Sydney’s top career.

Ray Haffenden, NZRL chairman from 2007 to 2009 and a former Kiwis manager, played for Christchurch’s Linwood club with Noonan before the big man’s departure to Australia in 1970.

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“The nickname for Bill in Australia was ‘Teak Tough’, which was quite appropriate,” Haffenden said.

“He was very tough and uncompromising.”

Phil Young (L) and Bill Noonan used the weights for a Canterbury Bankstown team training session in 1973.

Grant Peterson / Fairfax Media / via Getty Images

Phil Young (L) and Bill Noonan used the weights for a Canterbury Bankstown team training session in 1973.

Noonan helped pave the way for kiwis to cross Tasman to play their subjects in Sydney’s first-class competition, then and now the best rugby league club competition in the world.

The NZRL took a hard line against players who joined the Australian club and banned their departure until former Kiwi and Canterbury hooker Gary Blackler challenged the edict in the latter half of the 1960s.

Under increasing pressure, the NZRL eased the ban in 1969 and set a range of player fees from $ 1,000 for club players to $ 6,000 for Kiwis internationals.

That allowed Canterbury Bankstown ‘Berries’ to throw itself over Noonan, who had toured Australia with the Kiwis as a 20-year-old in 1967, where he got a test cap. He played twice against the Kangaroos in 1969, scoring a second-row attempt in the Kiwis’ 18-14 series-square second Test victory at Carlaw Park.

New Zealand rugby league journalist and historian John Coffey wrote The press in 2000 that Canterbury Bankstown’s legendary secretary Peter ‘Bullfrog’ Moore “had come to Christchurch looking for Kiwi’s scrum-half Graeme Cooksley. But he went home with Noonan’s signature in his pocket – the deal made at the old Railway Cafe in Manchester Street – and was rewarded with nine years of outstanding service from the Linwood front rower ”.

Haffenden understood that Moore – who made his first signing for Canterbury – was warned about Noonan’s potential by Kiwis coach Lory Blanchard, a former Linwood frontrower.

Bill Noonan, trained at Canterbury's Belmore Oval in 1974, the year he made history as New Zealand's first major finalist in Sydney.

Fairfax Media Archives / via Getty Images

Bill Noonan, trained at Canterbury’s Belmore Oval in 1974, the year he made history as New Zealand’s first major finalist in Sydney.

Noonan was an early talent, making his Linwood debut in first class as a teenager and representing Canterbury and the South Island as an 18-year-old in 1965.

When he played his early football as a whore, he switched to props in 1967 and was selected for that year’s Kiwis tour of Australia, where he returned to play a key role in Linwood’s Canterbury winning team in 1968.

Haffenden said Noonan was built for the front row of the rugby league. “His father, Pat, was a Linwood faithful, he was a railroad worker and a strong man, and Bill was built that way. He had a body like a Greek god.”

Noonan originally worked in retail on a counter in Farmer’s department store, but he was as tough as any tradition, his game was a mix of pace, physique and fitness.

“When I played with Bill, you had to be careful about going into a tackle, because if you went low and Bill got high, both you and your opponent would get hurt,” Haffenden recalled. “He hit people so hard.”

Noonan – still 22 when he made his Sydney switch – never played for the Kiwis again after traveling to Sydney, something Haffenden feels was a mistake. “He should have had many more tests than he did, he just would have gotten better.”

His highlight in Canterbury’s Bankstown career came in 1974, when he became the first New Zealander to run into the Sydney Cricket Ground for a grand final in New South Wales. The Kiwi’s opposite number in the Eastern Suburb’s second row was Australian Rugby League Immortal Arthur Beetson, with another all-time great, Ron Coote, locked up. Kiwis test stopper Henry Tatana came off the Bulldogs bench, but the Easts won 19-4 before 57,214 fans, with Beetson getting one of the Roosters’ three attempts.

Noonan had 161 games for Canterbury, who once served as the side’s skipper, until 1978, before being lured to the Newtown Jets, backed by Sydney’s flamboyant advertising manager, John Singleton.

In a Rugby League week interview in 2009, Noonan said he first told ‘Singo’: “Save your breath John, I’m not going to play for Newtown”.

“He told me he would pay me $ 15,000 and I signed the next day. The money was not the only reason – John was a real go-getter and brought some quality players and a new professionalism to the club.”

Noonan was in hot water in his first season with Newtown in 1979, when he got “completely pumped into a big fight” against his former Bulldogs teammates. “I was sent off for a high shot – I do not remember who I hit, but I did not miss him,” he said. Rugby League week. “I was marched and the judiciary gave me four weeks. I was not happy.”

At the end of the 1980 season, Noonan, then 33, took time off for a 16-year senior career, missing out on the Jets’ major final defeat in 1981 to Parramatta Eels.

After hanging up his boots, Noonan returned to Christchurch for a short time, but later returned to Sydney with his wife.

While at home, he teamed up with former Linwood teammates in a touch team, but had a hard time resisting the impulse to tackle. “Finally, Bill said to us, ‘boys, I’ll have to give this up, because I want to hurt someone,'” Haffenden said.

Noonan’s fight against dementia became public in 2016, when his former Canterbury club and the Men of League Foundation held a luncheon that raised over $ 100,000 to his trust fund, managed by the fund.

The Bulldogs started the trust fund with $ 25,000 as a tribute to their former warrior.

Noonan made headlines in Sydney in 2018 when he disappeared from a Randwick dementia ward.

His subsequent discovery led to a stream of support from the Sydney rugby league community, a target for the brand the pioneering Kiwi made across Tasman.

Noonan’s passing was noted on the Bulldogs fan groups’ social media, with Bulldogs Kennel notes: “Noonan will be remembered as a hard-hitting striker and true gentleman of the game who always gave his all and our condolences go out to his friends and family during this difficult time.”

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