In an era when Aboriginal rights were just beginning to speak their name, Artie Beetson was a leader. A rugby league great, he was the first Indigenous man to captain his country in any sport. At a time when Charlie Perkins was emulating the US south freedom marches, Arthur Henry Beetson was accepted by his peers as a natural leader. He was born and raised in Roma and he died yesterday aged 66 on the Gold Coast after suffering a heart attack while riding a bike. (pic: Beetson top left in the Balmain 1966 side)
Neither of Beetson’s parents came from Roma. His mother Marie came from Buderim via Cherbourg Mission, the Aboriginal reserve settlement near Murgon in Queensland’s Lower Burnett. She was a member of the Stolen Generation. Marie fled Cherbourg and she met her husband Bill Beetson in Roma in the 1940s. Bill came north from Brewarrina, NSW where he was persona non grata with the law. This was a difficult time for Aboriginals in western Queensland.
Some of the smaller towns around Roma still had “yumbas” well after the war. “Yumba” was a Murri word for camp and has provided the name of several Australian towns such as Yamba, NSW and Yaamba, Qld. White people steered clear of these camps while the Aboriginals were barred from the pubs and shops. As a white women growing up in Mitchell remembers, the only place the two communities would meet would be on the footy field. In the late 1960s, the yumbas were razed to the ground and the Aboriginals relocated in town.
Roma was a bit different. It had a camp but it had been demolished as early as World War I. As a result Indigenous people were more common in town, though still fringe dwellers. The Beetsons lived in a small house on the Bungil Creek. Artie was born in January 1945 just as the world began to look beyond the tyrannies of Hitler and Japan. Artie got the rudiments of an education at the local state school and left aged 15 at Year 10 to join the post office.
He played first grade league in Roma for Cities until he was 19. Cities team mate John Vickery remembers Beetson didn’t much like training but he was a natural. “He was so strong; he would have three or four defenders on him and he would still get away.” But there were other qualities Vickery also recalls, qualities that made the man as much as the player. “He was down-to-earth and humorous – he loved his jokes but when he was on the field he stuck to his game.” Another Cities teammate John Ashburn (who died a few years ago) remembered him as a deserved accolade of a game Immortal in 2003. “Artie had terrific ball skills and could unload a pass to anyone.”
Ashburn said both of Beetson’s parents were well known around town and he was always proud to say he was from Roma. In 1962, aged 17 he played for Roma against Charleville and was “tickled pink” to be selected. On the way down he watched as a team mate got plastered and learned the drinking culture. He transferred to Redcliffe in 1964 aged 19 and said the training regime was not like today. “If it rained we played cards and drank a keg,” he said. “It rained a lot in Redcliffe.”
Between the showers, Beetson helped them win the Brisbane premiership. For once Beetson played in the forwards as the Dolphins beat Valleys 15-7 to take the 1965 premiership over the Hornibrook Bridge for the first time ever. They would not win again until 1994, 29 years later. Before their losing final in 1987, their general manager Don McLennon reminisced on the Beetson win. “Arthur played the majority of his football as a centre in his two seasons with us,” he said. “He was a huge manager and it was a masterstroke of Henry (Holloway, the captain-coach) to switch him to the forwards in the final.”
It was clear he was too good for Queensland and moved to Balmain Tigers in 1966 aged 21, getting to the grand final in his first season. As Beetson recalled, the season ended in bitter disappointment after a stunning start. “We won our first 10 games and beat the Englishmen – the only club side to do it.” The season fell apart after Balmain hooker Dick Wilson negotiated a bet for a friend on Newtown to beat his own side. Wilson was expelled after Newtown won, though Beetson claimed Wilson made no money out of it. When the reserve hooker broke a collar bone in the semi-final, it left them in trouble for the final against St George. St George had won the last 10 premierships and Balmain with young Artie – picked in all three Australian international games that year - were fancied by some to slay the dragons despite losing to them in the semi.
But it was a one-sided final with St George thrashing Balmain 23-4. 1967 was a disaster according to Beetson with Balmain missing out on the finals and Beetson missing out on a Kangaroo tour. In the off-season of 1968 Beetson moved to England to play for Hull Kingston Rovers. Beetson’s second game would be one he’d never forget. It was the derby against local rivals Hull to be played at 11am on Christmas Day. Fellow Australian Jim Hull and Artie slept in after a skinful the night before and when they arrived at the ground, two substitutes were ready to start. The pair dressed hurriedly and for the first time in his career Beetson didn’t strap his ankles.
“I made a break down the sideline and the winger tried to tackle me high,” he said. “I pushed him down and he wrapped his legs around mine just as two other Hull players came over the top.” Beetson went down like a sack of potatoes, crying in agony. Beetson was in pain for months and considered giving the game away. But back at Balmain for the new season he “worked his way” back.
Balmain won the premiership in 1969 but Beetson had to watch from the sidelines. He was sent off in the finals and suspended for two matches. People kept telling him he got them there and he won a premiership blazer but he said it was a terrible disappointment. In 1970 Beetson had his nose broken in the first test match against Britain and smashed again in the second. “It rearranged my face putting my nose over my left ear,” he said. Beetson also parted company with Balmain when they refused his request for $2500 sign-on fee, normal match payments and $150 a win. When Dennis Tutty won a court case in 1971 against the transfer system, Balmain hastily sold Beetson for $15,000 to avoid him walking out for nothing.
“I thought no one would pay that but then Easts stepped in,” he said. The change of club helped him tame an eating problem and trim his weight. He thrived under the coaching of Don Furner and Jack Gibson and was a regular in internationals winning the world championship in 1975 and premierships in 1974 and 1975. When Gibson left Easts in 1977, Beetson became captain coach but had only moderate success. He switched to Parramatta in 1979 where he finally got a chance to play for his beloved Queensland.
NSW had played Queensland many times in the 1970s but the more powerful Sydney league was too good for Brisbane league and Queensland lost 15 times in a row. In 1980, a new concept was tried called State of Origin and it allowed Queensland to choose seven players playing in Sydney to represent the state. Parramatta’s Beetson was the captain. 28,000 turned up to Lang Park to see Queensland upset the favourites to win 20-10. It was Beetson’s only game for the Maroons. Beetson returned to Redcliffe in 1981 and coached them to a grand final defeat. He was to be captain coach of the Maroons that year but had to withdraw with injury hours before the game. Without him Queensland won again and a new tradition was born.
It became a tri-series in 1982 with Beetson as Qld coach and they won 2-1. It was the same in 1983 and 84 before Beetson stood down. He coached Easts to a 1987 finals defeat to upcoming Canberra Raiders. He returned to State of Origin in 1988 coaching Lewis, Meninga, Belcher, Vautin and Miles and whitewashed the Blues coached by old mentor Jack Gibson. “The side that year was as near to perfect,” Beetson said. Gibson gained revenge with a 1989 win and Queensland sacked Artie. After a stint as commentator, he returned as Cronulla coach. He could not win a premiership for the Sharks and in 1993 he bowed out of coaching. His cloth cap image did not suit a game that was soon to go into the Super League era.
Beetson returned to his mother’s home town of Cherbourg after his playing days were over to offer support to the Indigenous population. Then principal Chris Sarra remembers his visit to ABC reporter John Taylor, "he gave so much back, particularly to young Aboriginal children,” Sarra said. “The kids were so excited, even though they didn't quite understand how legendary he was. I got a sense that we were in the presence of almost royalty on that occasion.” As Taylor concluded, the thing Beetson enjoyed most was being there at a country game, watching the football.
“Just a game of footy on a bush oval on an afternoon,” Taylor said.
“I think that was Arthur's idea of the best of times.” He would be the best player to emerge from Roma until Darren Lockyer followed in his footsteps in the 1990s.