Three Rabbitohs, The North Of England And The 1990 Kangaroos

By Steve Mavin

Three big blokes approach the customs counter in Manchester, England attempting to gain entry into the United Kingdom. It’s 1990 and the oversized humans are myself and the two Darrens – Brown and McCarthy, three South Sydney Rabbitohs players who have travelled half way around the world to play rugby league in the ‘Old Dart’.

We have landed in the north of England in the Australian ‘off season’ to play at Moss Lane for 2nd division club Trafford Borough (formerly Blackpool Borough) but without work visas we are attempting to enter the country under somewhat false pretences.

The suspicious Pommy customs officer looked us up and down then decided to inspect our luggage. It’s not long until three pairs of football boots have been revealed.

Customs officer – “What are these boots for?” Me – “Um just in case we want to have a kick of the footy in the park” Customs officer “Come on mate you’re here to play rugby league.” Me “No we’re not.” Customs officer “I’m going to refuse you blokes entry into the country because it’s obvious what you are doing, you are here to work without permission!”

A couple of hours later a compromise was made and we were granted entry to the UK with tourist visas on the strict conditions that we don’t work or stay in the country longer than three months. Outside we were picked up by an anxious team official and our stint playing league in the north of England had begun.

It was a long flight, very long but we managed to amuse ourselves by having a few drinks and a laugh. One of our fellow passengers had this pair of dark blue jeans on that just looked a bit weird so we took to saying ‘nices jeans’ on the quiet. This call became one of our fun phrases to repeat on the trip. Even our mates Sean Garlick and Ross Aslanis who would eventually join us on the trip adopted the saying but more on them later.

Trafford Borough v Hunslet highlights

The team official who had greeted us was nicknamed ‘face in the window’, another call we often repeated at the time which sounds somewhat silly now but we were twenty one year old young blokes that enjoyed a gee up.

Left to right – Steve Mavin, Darren McCarthy, Ross Aslanis, Sean Garlick & Darren Brown at Wembley Stadium 1990

Our trio had just completed a dreadful wooden spoon season at Souths in which we only managed to win just 2 games. The only good memory from that failed campaign was that we defeated the Evil Empire also known as the Roosters 26-12 in round 3 at the Sydney Football Stadium.

Our manager Greg Willett had organised this trip but the details were a bit vague until we were told by the Trafford team official that we would be given 200 pounds a week, a car and free accomodation. ‘Deal’ we said because were just happy to be given the opportunity to explore a place none of us had ever been to before.

Our excitement was short lived when we discovered that we would be sharing one room in a cottage named Green Gables which we re-named ‘Flea Gables’. That night we hit the town, had a fabulous time out on the drink then decided that the next day we would tell team officials that “we can’t stay here” and need a place of our own with separate rooms.

Our home in Hale.

After some deliberation our request was granted and we moved into our new home, a two storey terrace house in upmarket Hale, a place I described in a letter home at the time as “a fairly quiet and posh area about ten miles out of Manchester City.”

I spoke to Darren McCarthy aka ‘Seven Heads’ and he remembered our time playing for Trafford Borough as like going from first grade to A Grade. The standard of play in the English reserve grade was a lot easier that what we had become accustomed to back home. Between the three of us Aussie imports plenty of line breaks were made and tries scored for our new team.

Mavo, Browny & ‘Seven Heads’

Our first training sessions with the team were a real eye opener with simple training methods like leap frog being used as fitness.

When asked about his memories of us my English teammate and halfback Andy Green recalled –

“From my recollection 3 guys who integrated in to the squad brilliantly with skill, power, pace and experience of playing in the NRL. It certainly gave me and everyone a boost and you all fitted in really well.”

“Quite quickly we could see the professionalism in training and the different mentality especially on the cold winter days.”

“All of you were good fun and liked having the craic so there was good balance and you all never come across too serious. Not sure if we took to much money when playing card games on the coach trips.”

3 Rabbitohs visit Wigan.

“Who could forget the Steve Mavin swan dive, brilliant.”

“I don’t know if you have messaged Mick Peers but he’s not so good these days.”

(Mike Peers a well respected former first grade player himself in England & our coach would sadly pass away soon after Andy sent me this message.)

RIP Mike Peers

In those days each game we played was filmed with commentary added by a club fan and this gives the videos that extra bit of interest because at times the Pommy guy calling would come out with the occasional funny statement; “Stevie Herbet has gone from being a lazy bastard to a brilliant tackler!”.

The whole trip was such a memorable and rewarding experience with new encounters everywhere we looked. The crowds were amazing, so vocal and would change sides at half time.

After every game both teams and referees would meet in a room at the ground for what is called ‘Hot Pot’. A big pot of stew was cooked up to be shared by everyone over a few beers. At first it felt a bit strange to be chatting to the opposition that we’d often just been hammering but it soon became the norm and was a nice show of sportsmanship to put what happened on the field behind us.

Trafford Borough v Fartown highlights

Our new home quickly became a bachelor pad with much fun had by all, we were eventually joined by Garlo, Ros Aslanis and as the 1990 Kangaroos were in town for the Ashes, big Peter Tunks would pop in every now and then as well. My girlfriend at the time and now wife Samantha would join us later on too, her home cooking was a welcome addition plus we were madly in love so I was wrapped that she made the trip.

Ellery Hanley & Mal Meninga

Our Rabbitoh teammate Mark ‘Spudd’ Carroll was on the Kangaroo tour so we spent quite a bit of time mingling with the star studded team during their three test series that began with a British Lions win but would end in two famous comeback victories by the Aussies that would dash the hopes of a UK team that had hoped to end a twenty year series winning drought.

A highlight of the trip was travelling to Wembley to attend that first test and even though the Aussies lost it was a magic experience to soak up the atmosphere at that iconic venue.

I have great memories of chatting with Mal Meninga or coach Bob Fulton at various team functions, it really was great timing for us to be there at the same time as this legendary Kangaroo team.

1990 Kangaroo Tour highlights.

Garlo spent some time at the team hotel and remembered the day that Steve ‘Blocker’ Roach and a few of the boys were playing cricket in the hallway with a pool ball.

“I couldn’t believe it, the pool ball had smashed the glass behind where the boys were batting so then the missed pool balls were just falling straight out onto the street below!”

Garlo was great company for us and would tag along on a couple of our road trips. I was the only one who could drive a manual so became our driver and ‘tour guide’. I would often ad lib commentary as we went along.

One much anticipated drive was up to the ‘Illuminations’ at Blackpool and another was an attempt to drive to Wales which we abandoned soon after crossing the border because it was too far so we turned around and headed back.

The Illuminations, Blackpool

Another memory I’ll never forget was when I was waiting at the airport for Samantha to arrive on the plane from Sydney. I was standing there talking to Kangaroo tourist Martin Bella who was waiting for his missus to arrive. A beautiful young lady walks toward us and Marty says to me “Wow look at this glamour” to which I replied “That’s my girl!” It was Samantha and she did look amazing as always that day.

The two Darrens.

Ross Aslanis is Darren McCarthys close friend who had come to England for a holiday and to watch him play but Rosco became our great mate as well and he has only fond memories of his time with us.

One day we attended a coaching clinic at a local school so Ross and Garlo came for the ride. The teacher announced to the kids “We have Darren Brown, Sean Garlick, Darren McCarthy, Steve Mavin and Ross Aslanis.” The kids were none the wiser that Ross was the odd man out and not actually a top grade league player.

Ross would come watch our games too; “I remember after that game against Workington their captain fronting me wanting to know what Trafford Borough were paying and if you 3 would be keen on transferring over to play for them? He must have thought I was Sam Ayoub!”

Trafford Borough v Workington Town highlights

1990 in Manchester was a time of fluffy hair, puffy tracksuits and tucking pants into socks. The music scene was buzzing, we heard songs there that didn’t become hits back home until sometime later.

The nightlife was incredible too, Manchester and the surrounding areas were surprisingly great, the weather when we arrived was quite mild when I was expecting some sort of frigid northern wasteland.

I was fascinated by the beautiful green countryside that I naively never thought existed there and I also enjoyed the ancient architecture we admired in places like Chester.

A visit to Liverpool and the famous Cavern where The Beatles played was another brilliant, memorable excursion.

Sam at Trafalgar Square, London.

Before heading home we did some more sightseeing that will live long in my memory. London was sensational, Buckingham Palace, The Tower of London, London Bridge, Lords and Big Ben were among the places that are a must to see. We caught the train to Scotland and saw the famous Edinburgh Castle.

The Grace Gates, Lords.

We headed across the English Channel on the ferry to check out Amsterdam then onto Paris where the view from the Eiffel Tower has to be seen to be believed. This taste of European travel made us realise just how many countries are so close by and we have always wanted to return to visit other nations like Spain, Greece and Italy.

My one and only trip to play in England was one I’ll never forget. Hopefully one day Sam and I can go back to explore the rest of Europe and maybe drop into to Moss Lane for a look too.

Sam wearing the Trafford Borough jersey.