Colin Whelan was a rugby league photographer for 34 years. He’s also an author, traveller and brilliant story-teller. Steve Mavin, co-host of the Rabbitohs Radio Podcast, so enjoyed listening to Col’s yarns on the show that he wrote up a yarn so good it needs three parts. This is the first one. It begins with Whelan hitch-hiking across Australia, ends with a favour from “Break Even” Bill Mordey. Enjoy the ride.
During my career playing for the Rabbitohs in the late 80s and early 90s, Col Whelan was always on the sideline taking pictures.
Although I’d say hello we never really got to know each other, and it’s only since he joined our Facebook group Rabbitohs Radio Podcast Listeners that we began to regularly communicate.
Col has also graciously shared many old Souths images from his lifetime behind the lens, and we’ve been lapping up the interesting commentary it generates.
The Rabbitohs Radio Podcast team – Grant Chappell, Darren Brown and myself – interviewed Col in our studio in June. As soon as our chat began we knew it was going to be a great one.
And while it’s very hard to do justice to telling the stories of a master story-teller, I’m going to have a crack.
Colin Whelan was born in Sydney in 1951 but grew up without rugby league in Adelaide and then in Perth. In 1963 the Whelan family moved back to Sydney, lived in Kensington and Col enrolled at Sydney Boys High where in 1964 he discovered rugby and rugby league.
Col started hitching from an early age after being inspired by Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road. Aged 13, to honour a bet with a mate, Col stuck out his thumb to see if he could hitch rides from Sydney to Perth and back. He completed the feat in eleven days. He had his mother’s blessing.
The adventure instilled a love of travelling in Col and an appreciation for “the intimacy of the road”.
Les from La Perouse was Col’s first mate at school. Les had only one stipulation about their friendship: “You have to barrack for Souths”. So Col did and they remain good mates to this day.
The night before the famous 1965 grand final between the Dragons and Rabbitohs – the one that saw a record crowd of 78,056 cram into the SCG – Col and Les left school, walked across Moore Park in their uniforms, and slept behind the Brewongle Stand. In the morning the boys emerged undetected and watched the game. So the crowd figure should be 78,058!
Experiences like this, Whelan said, meant he was “bitten by the red and green monster, and there was no antidote.”
In 1969 Col became the first (and still only) Prefect to be expelled from Sydney Boys High because of his refusal to stop protesting against the war in Vietnam.
Col had begun drinking in pubs after school and became a regular at Jim Buckley’s Newcastle Hotel on George St, The Rocks. At this establishment he met several brilliant authors who would shape his life.
At the Newcastle Col met Donald Horne who’d written The Lucky Country in 1964, Germaine Greer whose breakout book The Female Eunuch came out in 1972, and Frank Hardy (below) whose Power Without Glory is one of the most infamous books in Australian history.
Col was taken under Frank’s wing and learned the etiquette of pubs; about drinking and of shouting. He learned about telling yarns. He learned the difference between telling stories and sharing them. He learned to listen.
Col went to work at the Commodore Tavern in North Sydney which he described as “a working-class pub that was very rough”.
One day George the publican asked Col to check what was blocking the toilet. Col discovered a Beretta pistol was hidden in the pull-chain cistern. George told Col to leave it there. A few days later it was gone, no-one the wiser about its owner.
The highlight of Col’s working week was when the beer truck arrived each Thursday with Paul Sait and Ron Coote delivering the amber fluid.
“I’d see two of my heroes and they were just normal blokes, real down-to-earth guys,” Whelan said. “I was working once a week with my idols, the guys I’d watch play on the weekend.”
Col went to Macquarie University from 1970-72 and played rugby union. When he left he hitchhiked (of course) from Burma (now Thailand) to Copenhagen in Sweden, a trip which took him across Afghanistan and other places now off limits.
He hitchhiked to North Africa and the Middle East. He followed the Grateful Dead’s tour of Europe and developed a love of opium and hashish. He spent five months working on an opium farm in Turkey and six months on a hashish plantation in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley.
He was briefly held by the Syrian secret police for photographing where he shouldn’t have been. He headed to Jordan and Israel. He worked with Bedouins. He lived on a kibbutz in the Negev desert.
In 1976 Col returned home to Sydney with an Israeli woman, Naomi, who became his wife and the mother of their twins, a boy Jesse and daughter Natalie who were born in 1988 through IVF.
And he wondered what to do.
“I came home and thought what do I want to do?” Whelan said. “I had an interest in football and photography so I started teaching myself how to take photos.
“I started snapping pics at rugby games but at first I was terrible. So I would just give my photos away to players. There was no money in it.”
One day a phone call came from Gary Pearse that would change Col’s life. Pearse, a former Wallabies backrower, worked in marketing for Winfield, needed a photographer for the company’s new Winfield Cup sponsorship. After seeing Col’s action shots, a job offer came from John Quayle at the NSWRL followed by an opportunity at Big League Magazine thanks to “Break Even” Bill Mordey.
And a super sports snapper was born.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in which we talk to Col about his adventures as an NRL photographer, and Part 3 in which we talk about his cracking book about bush pubs. You can follow Col Whelan on Facebook at Nothing But The Pub or email him to say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Friday 26th June 2020 an image was posted in our newly created Facebook group ‘Rabbitohs Radio Podcast Listeners’ by legendary photographer Col Whelan.
Beneath the photo Col asked the question “Any idea who these blokes are”?
The next day we had our answer thanks to Chris Isouard. In the picture stood three Rabbitohs legends Albert Clift, George Treweek & Eddie Root.
“Albert mentioned this day in a couple of his interviews over the years” said Chris. “Treweek and Root visited him in the early 80s and presented him with some of their playing memorabilia. Like many, Albert was a hero of mine and inspired me as a kid to collect everything Souths”.
Albert Clift was a former player for South Sydney, former official and director, was the Club’s first mascot back in 1968, held an amazing collection of Rabbitohs memorabilia including the famed timekeeper’s bell from the first game in 1908 & is a Life Member of the Football Club.
Eddie Root (first grade player #139) 109 games & 34 tries was a starting forward in the Rabbitohs golden era of 7 premiership wins between 1925-32. Root had a brilliant career & is rightly regarded as one of the greatest ever Rabbitohs.
The 1931 Rabbitohs
The 1931 South Sydney Rabbitohs defeated the Eastern Suburbs Roosters 12-7 in the NSWRL grand final. Eddie Root was the hooker & George Treweek played second row.
George Treweek (first grade player #153) 119 games & 40 tries was a starting forward in the Rabbitohs golden era of 7 premiership wins between 1925-32. He is a legendary attacking player who was rated as the finest second row forward the game has produced.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs broke their 3 game losing streak on Saturday afternoon 13th June 2020 at Bankwest Stadium, Sydney with a 32-12 victory over the Gold Coast Titans.
This victory song has traditionally been sung by the team for decades dating back to the Bunnies glory days. We can’t give you the exact date it began to be used but perhaps there’s a Bunnies historian reading this now that could enlighten us. Mavo & Browny love singing the tune because it brings back memories of wins with their mates.
The songs lyrics are-
“Now that we’re all around the bar And the captains declared it a quorum We’re drinking our way through the night And we’re having the time of our lives Throw the empties away start again, start again For the boys of South of South Sydney are together And we’ll drink til the dawn breaks again May the sessions of South Sydney last forever Up the Rabbitohs!”
On this weeks show we talk to our newest Rabbitoh, first grade player number 1157 Keaon Koloamatangi & welcome back Cody Walker & James ‘Jimmy The Jet’ Roberts. We also look forward to the debut of another rising star in our forward ranks Patrick ‘Pati’ Mago.