The thoroughbred from Murgon – Bryan Niebling
Article from Men of League Foundation Magazine – Issue 67 – June 2017
Bryan Niebling, the man who once turned his back on Wayne Bennett to stay in bush football, looks back on his career that saw him become an inaugural Bronco under Bennett and a respected Test player. By Steve Ricketts.
Bryan Niebling knocked back a lucrative offer to play under emerging super coach Wayne Bennett in Brisbane, opting instead to fulfill his dream of playing first grade for his home town Murgon.
Today, it seems, there is not the same prestige attached to playing senior football in the bush, something administrators have failed to address, as the flow of young footballers to the city has turned to a flood.
In Niebling’s teenage years, there was a surfeit of quality captain-coaches in country football in Queensland and New South Wales.
Murgon contested the South Burnett competition, with Wondai the gun team in 1978 when Les Cleal was captain-coach and his younger brother Noel was a try-scoring machine.
Niebling, known to teammates as ‘Horse’, played under-18s that year, representing his state and, along with another emerging talent Brad Tessmann (Kingaroy), was targeted by Brisbane clubs.
“Brad took up an offer from Souths (Brisbane), but I wanted to play for my town first,” Niebling said. “That was my dream growing up. I wanted to wear the Murgon jersey in A grade. I never thought about playing in Brisbane or Sydney. Wayne (Bennett) respected that and we had a handshake agreement that I would join Souths in 1980.”
Souths and Valleys fought out the 1979 Brisbane grand final, with South Burnett product Tom Duggan in the front row for Valleys, whose captain-coach was former Test halfback Ross Strudwick.
Valleys belted the Bennett coached Magpies 26-0, with Chris Close, Vic Wieland, Peter McWhirter and John McLeod scoring tries, while Mick Neil kicked six goals. Just to rub salt into the wounds, Strudwick and Wally Lewis kicked field goals.
“Tommy (Duggan) took me into the Valleys dressing rooms after the match to join in the celebrations,” Niebling recalls. “When I told the Valleys’ boys I was joining Souths, they ribbed me about signing for a losing club.
“In the end I decided to join Tommy at Valleys. It was a tough call, because a handshake agreement counts for a lot. Wayne (Bennett) wasn’t impressed.”
As things transpired, Bennett moved to Brothers in 1980, with former Test forward, Bob McCarthy the new coach at Souths.
Under McCarthy, Souths reached the grand final again in 1980, only to go down 17-15 to underdogs,Norths, while the following year the Magpies won the title, accounting for the Arthur Beetson-led Redcliffe Dolphins 13-9.
Niebling had to wait until 1987 to play in a grand final – for Redcliffe against the Strudwick-coached Brothers.
In the meantime, there were many career highlights.
In 1981 he made his Queensland debut, playing alongside captain-coach Beetson in the last top level residents-based interstate match played at Lang Park before Origin took over.
He made his State of Origin debut in 1983, and the following year played all three Tests for Australia against Great Britain.
After an injury-plagued 1985, Niebling enjoyed a stellar 1986, representing his state and country as well as winning The Courier-Mail best and fairest award for a second time, and being declared joint winner of the Rothmans Gold Medal (judged by the referees) with Souths forward Scott Tronc.
In winning the 1986 Courier-Mail award (judged by the newspaper’s league writers), Niebling finished five points clear of his nearest rival, Ipswich halfback Allan Langer.
At the end of the ’86 domestic season, Niebling toured England and France with the Don Furner-coach Kangaroos, who replicated the feat of the Frank Stanton coached ’82 side by returning undefeated.
“They are some of the happiest memories of my life,” Niebling said. “I feel sorry for players today, not being afforded the chance to make those traditional tours.
“Running out at Old Trafford in Manchester for the first Test was one of the greatest thrills of my career. The atmosphere was amazing, with 51,000 people yelling and singing.”
Niebling played all three Tests in the second row, with Mal Meninga his partner for the third Test at Wigan, with Meninga unable to dislodge Gene Miles or Brett Kenny from the centres (Michael O’Connor was a centre playing wing too).
While the football was deadly serious, there were light-hearted moments, such as the lead-up to a match against a provincial selection at Le Pontet in the France.
“The mayor was quite elderly, and he was lapping up the pre-match formalities, shaking hands with other dignitaries and players from both sides,” Niebling recalled with a smile. “[Captain] Wally Lewis instructed us to give him a firm handshake but some of the boys went overboard. By the time the mayor got to the last few players he was pulling his hand back.”
On his return to Australia, Niebling had no idea what the future held, given the then NSWRL competition was looking to expand, with Brisbane, Newcastle and Gold Coast ultimately given the green light for 1988.
Current Queensland Men of League chairman Darryl Van de Velde, who had first championed the cause of a Brisbane side in a ‘national’ competition, was coach of Redcliffe, the club Niebling had joined from Valleys in 1984.
In the 1987 grand final, Redcliffe failed to match the class and pace of minor premiers Brothers who scored five tries to one in a 26-8 victory before a crowd of just over 25,000.
By then the Brisbane Broncos’ consortium had enticed Wayne Bennett away from the Canberra Raiders. Niebling, Wally Lewis, Gene Miles, Greg Conescu, Colin Scott and Greg Dowling were all confirmed Broncos signings from the Brisbane Rugby League competition.
“Everyone warned us how hard it would be, playing every week against the Sydney clubs,” Niebling said. “We had the toughest pre-season of my career, with Brian Canavan as the fitness guru. Now he’s one of the heavies in the NRL.
“Well, we started the season on fire, but after six wins on the trot we came back to earth, and didn’t make the finals.”
Niebling spent another season with Brisbane, finishing with 20 matches for the Broncos before joining English club Hull Kingston Rovers. He spent two seasons there, helping the club climb from division two back to the top flight.
“It was winter football then, and sometimes the grounds were iced over,” Niebling said. “In second division we had to travel to places like Keighley, Oldham, Dewsbury and Whitehaven, which were particularly notorious for cold, wet weather.
“The thing I enjoyed about playing in England was the freedom to use the ball more. I always fancied myself as a halfback in a forward’s body and it was great to be able to set up play instead of just taking the ball up.”
At Hull KR he played with the likes of former British captain Clive Sullivan, dual Welsh international David Bishop and Kiwi international Dave Watson. He was coached by British league legend Roger Millward and then Scotsman George Fairbairn.
On his return to Australia, Niebling took up coaching with his old club Valleys and these days occasionally can be seen in the can bar at Emerson Park, Grange, watching the Diehards go round.
He is still working as carpet layer, the job he had when he won the Rothmans and Courier-Mail awards in 1986.
Married to Cathy, Brian has two adult children, Josh and Sophie, with the family home at Bridgeman Downs in Brisbane’s north.
And as proof of his affection for his home town Murgon, one of his Test jumpers adorns a wall in the local RSL Club.