From face-slapping with vim to bringing ox-hearts into the dressing room for motivation. Tommy Raudonikis's stellar career was full of fun and fury.
Although Tom Raudonikis was a larrikin on and off the field, he also mixed toughness with a speed off the mark that allowed him to create scoring opportunities, a superb short kicking game and he could tackle opponents of any size with his copybook technique.
This Legend Q&A with Raudonikis was first published by Rugby League Week in 2009.
Legend Q&A: Tommy Raudonikis
Your background doesn’t suggest a future in rugby league, having a Lithuanian dad and Swiss mum…?
Mum and Dad migrated over here in 1950. Mum was pregnant with me on the boat, and I was born at the migrant camp in Bathurst.
I went to a rugby league school really and I also played soccer. I always leaned towards league.
Then I joined the Air Force as an apprentice mechanic but I never thought I’d be good enough to make Sydney grade. Then in early 1969 I played with Wagga Kangaroos and Wests came down to have a look at me. By the end of the year I was playing in Sydney.
What was it like playing under Roy Masters at Wests in the 1970s?
People say that Roy was a motivator and not a tactical coach, but that is very wrong. He was both, but he was the best motivator I played under.
Call it brain-washing, call it what you want, but I didn’t need any motivation anyway.
He was one of us. He was like a father to us all. In the 1970s, it was not like the modern era. It was just a fantastic time. Footy was tough and sex was safe.
The infamous 60 Minutes program in 1979 showed Wests players face slapping before the game. What was it like being a part of all that league folklore and the rivalry with Manly?
The face slapping warmed our faces up, and got us in the right frame of mind. As players we accepted it unconditionally.
Sometimes it got heated, like when Les Boyd and Ray Brown got carried away. They got stuck into each other actually … but they went out on the field and away we went.
They were all fired up and ready to go because against Manly it was a war. They expected a war and so did all the fans.
I know for a fact that before NSW won the last Origin game in 2009, Craig Bellamy played them the tape of the documentary, The Fibros and the Silvertails, to motivate them, so there is still a case for using our methods of years ago.
It worked for us because we had to win a lot of games to make the semi-finals, and we did. We were in the fibro area where all the factories were and the people in that area followed us with a passion. They could see what a battler person could do. They thought, 'Geez, these blokes are giving us some hope in life'.
Did you enjoy your days at Newtown?
Singo [John Singleton] offered me some good money, and even though me and Warren Ryan didn’t see eye-to-eye over various things, those three years at Newtown were three of my greatest years.
Warren Ryan got Newtown playing some great football but I taught Newtown how to win.
Before our first game against Canterbury, Warren gave us a good talking to and as we ran out he said, 'Tom, you’ve got them now so lead them'.
But when we walked out of the room I told the players, 'Guys don’t listen to a word he said. We are going to go out there and get some respect in the joint and make sure people will give us the time of day'.
Billy Noonan got sent off in the first five minutes and Mick Pittman got sent off in the 11th minute. We had 11 men and led them at half-time.
Five minutes into the second half Steve Mortimer went off on a stretcher. He didn’t move. I got him a good ‘un. They ended up beating us but when we walked off the field that day everybody respected Newtown.
And you are still friends with John Singleton to this day?
I cemented a great friendship with John at Newtown and promoted the Opera House fights for him when I had a 12-week suspension after I broke Ernie Garland’s jaw.
I packed the Opera House out and it was a great big success. But a big fight spilled over with the trainers, referee Charkey Ramon … and then they were fighting in the bleachers. It was unbelievable.
Singo was sitting there with [Miss World 1972] Belinda Green and she was saying, 'John, John – do something about it'. They brought in the riot squad and naturally there were no more fights to be had at the Opera House.
It made the front pages and the next morning my mum rang me and said, 'What have you done this time, son?'
You went on the 1973 and 1978 Kangaroo tours, among others, with the Australian side. What was it like back then?
If blokes did today what we did back then they’d never tour again, but we knew how far we could go. 'Igor' [Terry Randall] was a great mate of mine and then there was 'Wombat' [Graham Eadie] and 'Grub' [Tim Pickup] on the ’73 tour. We stayed at The George Hotel in Huddersfield where rugby league was first signed up.
They called us four The Surrey Hills Boys because if any trouble happened, it happened up our end of the hotel. One night Lurch [John O’Neill] played a trick on Tim Pickup and set a trap with a bucket of water on the door. When Grub walked in the bucket fell over him.
So we got the big water hose out and gave it to him and flooded the whole hallway. It flowed down into the function room where they were having a do downstairs. We trained hard, drank hard and it was a time where the management and media got on.
Didn’t you also enjoy a wrestle on tours?
In ’78 me and Bozo [Bob Fulton] got on the drink one day and came back and did a tag team on Les Boyd and Steve Rogers. We got down to our jocks and flogged them. There was never any problem.
Then you go back to the Billy Smith days when they stayed at Ilkley Moor where it was so cold they’d chopped the furniture up and burn it to keep warm. Legends just grow from that but there’ll be no more legends growing on these current Kangaroo tours, they’d be so boring.
You once quoted Shakespeare in a Brothers [Brisbane] presentation night speech. What can you tell us about that episode?
I got sacked at Brothers for the same reason that they bought me. I had a very good year and made the playoffs.
Then I went out on the drink and got in a fight, but I was only protecting one of my younger players because he got attacked. I don’t regret it at all and I’d do it again tomorrow.
The president Frank Melit got me in a room and said to the other fellas there, 'Does anybody want to say anything about Tom Raudonikis?' and not one bloke got up and said that I was a good bloke.
So on presentation night I got up and gave a speech and said it was like Julius Caser … 'Et tu Brute?', which is 'And you too, Brutus?' The ultimate betrayal. That brought the house down and Melit walked out of the room.
I got the quote off Roy Masters – and it was the first and last time I quoted Shakespeare. It ended up being a fantastic night. Melit did me a favour because Ipswich threw me a lifeline as coach and I found Alfie Langer and all the Walters kids.
You coached NSW to a series win and narrow loss in 1997-98. Are you dirty you didn’t get another crack after that?
I was quite successful, but the head blokes at Wests said if I went for it again that I wouldn’t have got it. They wanted me to concentrate fully on Western Suburbs, which I ended up doing. But we came last anyway.
I am that filthy on myself to this day for not putting in for it because I might still be coaching. That was my downfall at Western Suburbs, too. I listened to too many people and should have stuck to my guns. But I love Wests dearly. They were the first club that gave me a go.
I believe you did some damage with a shovel to a dressing shed at Campbelltown. What was behind that?
We were going dreadful and there was a shovel … how it got in there in our dressing room I don’t know. Andrew Leeds didn’t play that day and asked if I wanted it taken out.
I said, 'No. Just leave it there. I might need that'. At half-time we were going awful and when they came in I smashed up the windows in our rooms.
The TV trucks were out the back and they thought it was a bomb going off. The players went out and won the second half, but the thing I was dirty about was they should have done it in the first half.
The CEO wanted me to pay for the damage but there was no way I was doing that. At presentation night they gave me a big photo … it was me dressed as Braveheart with a blue face and a shovel. All the boys saw the funny side of it.
Speaking of heart, you will forever be associated with bringing an ox-heart into a dressing room at Ipswich as motivation. I believe you also did it before the 1990 BRL grand final while coaching Norths against Valleys?
The players all ran out with blood on their jerseys. I brought the ox heart out in the sheds and there was one hell of a stink in that game. It was fantastic.
We were a million-to-one to win it and got beaten by a point. I wasn’t the greatest coach in the world, so I had to try things. I remember a bloke in America got a bird and pulled its head off, but I never went to those lengths.