Former Test referee Don Lancashire – In the middle of mayhem

Article from Men of League Foundation Magazine – Issue 61 – December 2015

Former Test referee Don Lancashire remembers some bizarre, and controversial moments, from his career during a colourful era for rugby league. By Steve Ricketts.

As a Test rugby league referee and a first class cricket umpire, Don Lancashire’s career ‘in the middle’ is one of Australian sport’s amazing true stories.

Lancashire, a former first grade rugby union fullback with St George, controlled some of the most controversial league matches in history and was at the centre of a crowd riot in Brisbane.

He had the whistle when John Sattler’s jaw was broken in the 1970 Sydney grand final and when Jim Morgan was head butted into Test football folklore the same year.

Don Lancashire was born in 1932 at a private hospital in Bay Street, Brighton-Le-Sands in the heart of St George Dragons rugby league territory. As a kid he would “scale the trams”, the term for hitching a free ride, to the local baths.

He played union for St George but quit the game when he was dropped for a teammate who hadn’t even bothered to turn up for training.

A regular at St George Dragons rugby league matches at Kogarah Jubilee Oval, Don exasperated his father with his critique of referees.

“Dad said I would get him a fight one day, with my constant spruiking of the rules,” Lancashire recalls. “He made an appointment for me to see [local refereeing official] Bill Devine about taking up the whistle.

“[Test referee] Darcy Lawler was one of the blokes who put me through the course.”

It was an injury to the controversial Lawler which gave Lancashire his first chance in the top grade in 1959.

“I was preparing to referee a reserve grade match at Leichhardt Oval when an official told me to get into my civvies and get to the Sydney Cricket Ground,” Lancashire said.

“Lawler had rolled his ankle before a match between St George and Souths. It meant I had blokes like Norm Provan and Ken Kearney to deal with. Darcy told me not to let Kearney get on top of me.

“There was a bit of a scuffle between ‘Bluey’ Wilson (Saints) and Richie Powell (Souths) and the penalty went to Souths. Kearney went away mumbling but I couldn’t understand a word he said because he didn’t have his teeth in.”

Lancashire moved to Queensland in 1960 and controlled grand finals in 1963, ’64, ’67 and ’69.

Like every other referee of the time, Lancashire had his share of running battles with Brisbane Wests’ Test halfback Barry Muir but there was mutual respect.

In 1968, Muir’s first grade career came to an end after he spat at referee Dale Coogan in a match at Lang Park. Lancashire says the appointments board had made a mistake giving the match to an inexperienced referee.

“I knew what Barry was like, playing at Lang Park where he was more or a less a law unto himself,” Lancashire said. “They threw Coogan in there with only a couple of first grade games to his credit.”

Lancashire returned to Sydney in 1970 and that year controlled the Australia – Great Britain Test series, the last time the Lions won the Ashes Trophy.

Australia won the first Test in Brisbane but lost the battle, with their dressing room resembling a hospital ward at the end of the 80 minutes.

Worst ‘hit’ was Australian prop Jim Morgan who made the mistake of starting a head butting duel with British prop Cliff Watson.

“You look at Cliff Watson and he is so tough; you’d think if he had an argument with a steam roller, the roller would come off second best,” Lancashire said.

“I’ll never forget Morgan’s nose. It was flattened across his face.

“After the big stoush in that first Test I told both captains that was it. No more nonsense or they were gone. I had no more trouble after that.”

In that year’s Sydney grand final South Sydney skipper John Sattler was the victim of a cheap shot from Manly forward John Bucknell which left Sattler with his jaw broken in three places after just three minutes of play. Sattler completed the match, his courageous effort helping to inspire the Rabbitohs to a 23-12 win.

“The touch judges let me down, no end,” Lancashire says. “It was on the blindside and no-one came in and said anything.”

The toughest match Lancashire refereed was a 1975 World Series clash between England and Wales at Lang Park.

“That was a bloodbath,” he said. “They hated each other. If I sent anyone off [who deserved it], there would have been no players left.”

Lancashire had returned to Brisbane at the end of the 1970 league season and late that summer umpired a Queensland v England cricket match at The Gabba. His other first class cricket appointment was a Sheffield Shield match between Queensland and Western Australia.

“WA had a fast bowler, Dennis Baker, who had been having a rough trot,” Lancashire said. “He bowled one down the leg side, and (Qld batsman) Jeff Langley poked at it, and for my money he missed it.

“The only one who didn’t appeal was (wicket keeper) Rod Marsh. That was a good indication to me Langley didn’t touch it. But didn’t Baker blow up! I had to put it in a report and he got suspended for a game.

“I was in the offices of the West Australian Rugby League one day seven or eight years later and in walks Baker. He was selling Elastoplast. You wouldn’t believe it”.

Such was Lancashire’s profile on his return to Brisbane, he landed a TV commentary role with Channel 0 (now TEN), and also wrote for The Australian newspaper.

A printer by trade, Lancashire believes his sometimes blunt appraisal of refereeing performances got him offside with his contemporaries and that, along with other run-ins with the Brisbane referees’ officialdom, forced him to travel to the Darling Downs for matches.

One day at Oakey he refereed the under-16s, and then had to run the line for reserve grade when a touch judge didn’t arrive.

“I came off at half-time in reserve grade and was famished,” Lancashire said. “The only person I knew on the sidelines was Oakey coach Peter Connell (a Queensland rep) and I asked him for a couple of bob for a pie. I think every bastard at the ground saw the money changing hands.”

Lancashire was one of controversial State of Origin referee Barry Gomersall’s mentors in the 1980s and had a lot of time for 1970s interstate referee Bernie Pramberg.

“When I was writing for The Australian I said Bernie Pramberg might as well take a bed to Lang Park because that’s where he was going to be every week (for the match of the day).”

Lancashire was put in an awkward position in 1964 after he sent off Wynnum forward, Ron Wittenberg (brother of Test prop, Jeff Wittenberg) in a Brisbane club match.

The Brisbane referees were in dispute with the game’s administrators over judiciary findings and had voted not to attend judiciary hearings in protest.

After the Wynnum match, Lancashire was approached by BRL official, Jack McMahon, who implored him to ‘do the right thing’ and appear.

“It’s the old story. You can’t work for two bosses and he was paying the wages. I appeared so the referees suspended me.

“I had been appointed to the midweek interstate match at the Exhibition Grounds, so I appealed the decision, with the hearing held just before the game. BRL chairman Arthur Sparkes said to bring my gear, everything would be all right.

“My appeal was upheld, but I was in no fit state to referee an interstate game. What a mess I made of it too. I didn’t ref to my usual standards and Barry Muir dictated the game from the scrum.”

And what about the riot?

It happened in 1960 at Oxenham Park, Nundah, then the home ground of Norths Devils.

Norths were playing Wests, with Lancashire making a huge call near the end, which handed Wests the game.

The score was 7-7 when Lancashire penalised a Norths’ player for making a tackle from an off-side position. Wests’ Darryl Stevens missed with his first shot at goal, but Lancashire gave him a second go because Wests’ players were walking backwards and forwards under the posts trying to distract him.

Stevens made no mistake this time, and that was the signal for around 1000 fans to jump the fence, with Lancashire half carried from the field as players and officials sought to protect him from the horde.

Back in the dressing rooms he needed police protection as fans milled around hurling abuse.

“I still had NSW number plates on my car,” Lancashire said. “The cops told me to get in the car and go.”

The following week Lancashire was awarded the match of the day between Valleys and Wynnum, and finished with broken ribs.

“Nev ‘Tricky’ Casey from Valleys – you never knew where he was running – ran into me, driving my badge into my ribs,” Lancashire said.

“I saw out the game, and the next week they gave me another game back at Nundah, between Norths and Redcliffe. I thought, ‘there’s no way I’m going to pull out of this’.

“I strapped myself up, and put my jumper on before I left home. I got through the game all right. Redcliffe hadn’t won a game until then, but they won that one. I had more trouble getting off the field.

“The joys of refereeing.”

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