50 Stories - The Beginning

Year 49 for the Cronulla Sharks was a spectacular one, with the 50th anniversary season in 2017 promising to be equally as special.

The Sharks lifted that proverbial monkey well and truly of their backs last year with their Grand Final victory over the Storm, in what was the perfect prelude to the 50 year celebrations.  

Undoubtedly the biggest story in the Sharks 50 years, the 14-12 triumph over Melbourne saw cheers, tears and enormous pride, bringing great joy and relief to countless fans, past players, coaches and officials, the many Sharks faithful who had longed for the premiership success.

But where did it all begin, how did the Cronulla club come to be back in the day, back in a time when rugby league in Sydney’s southern-most suburbs was enjoying modest beginnings.

Historical tales told from a time long ago indicate Rugby League in the Sutherland Shire was played as early as 1911, just three years after Dally Messenger had almost singlehandedly launched the game as a breakaway from rugby union.

However, while plenty of tackles, passes, kicks came to be and with numerous tries scored in the interim, it was 1967, the year the Sharks entered the premier NSW Rugby League competition, that all that had gone before had combined to see the birth of the Sharks and the sport catapulted into the thoughts and minds of Shire residents.  

Games were conducted at various venues throughout the district during the first half of the 20th century, from Frogs Hollow at Cronulla, to Miranda, to Sutherland, with ‘representative’ teams of the day playing in chocolate and gold.  

Many Cronulla and Sutherland area teams competed in St George District administered junior league competitions, with some from the early days needing to navigate the waters now linked by the Captain Cook and Tom Ugly’s bridges, by ferry or boat.

The Shire started getting somewhat more serious about rugby league as the century wore on, with Cronulla entering teams in the NSWRL second tier and junior rep competitions in 1964, teams which gave a clear indication the talent was available and the passion for the game was building.

Again these Cronulla teams of the time, referred to as ‘Sutherland-Cronulla’ rather than the other way around as it would later become known, donned chocolate and gold jerseys.

A red letter day arrived in 1964, when Cronulla-Caringbah, the strongest and most influential junior league club in the area, brought first grade rugby league to the area in the State Cup competition. Cronulla, Penrith and Wentworthville were added to the Cup from the Second Division.

Although outclassed by the Newtown Jets on that particular occasion, the seeds had been planted and from there it was onwards and upwards.

By 1966 Cronulla would go ‘all in’ in their bid to join the NSW big league, signing Dragons legend Ken Kearney as their coach and St George Premiership winner Monty Porter as the captain.

Add to that Cronulla acquired Jack Danzey from Balmain, Brian Cox from Parramatta and John ‘Bomber’ Hynes from Souths, with all prepared to play the season in second division but at the same time excited by the prospect of being a member of the first Sharks team in the top echelon.

A first rate submission, put together by then secretary Kevin McSweyn, was looked upon favourably by the hierarchy of the time, with Cronulla chosen ahead of Wentworthville and given the green light to join the Penrith Panthers in the NSWRL First Grade competition in 1967.

The decision wasn’t without controversy, with perennial second division powerhouses Wentworthville deemed too close to Parramatta, with Penrith and Cronulla being the future of rugby league expansion in the Sydney area.

Some would say thankfully, the Sharks as they would become known, upon promotion were granted permission to change their strip to blue, black and white, bringing them into line with Cronulla and other Bate Bay surf clubs and the blue and white of Sutherland Council.

The early days were tough, rugby league in the Shire somewhat primitive, played at Sutherland Oval, just a metre-high fence separating the Sharks and their opponents from the graveyard adjacent, with makeshift change rooms and spectator facilities.

McSweyn, Bob Abbot, Bernie Beck, Dave Poulter, Peter Burns, Alan Milne and Arthur Wynn, in naming just a few, were some of the men to have an enormous influence off the field and to be amongst those responsible for making the dream become a reality.  

As Wynn, the Sharks second secretary, would be quoted as saying, published in the book ‘Çolour Me Black, White and Blue’; “You did it because you loved it and because you felt you were part of something big.”

Which is exactly how it turned out to be. On April 2, 1967, all the hard work behind the scenes had come to fruition, the Sharks running out as a First Grade rugby league team, a day in which the Sharks claimed a memorable 11-5 win over Eastern Suburbs.

The official crowd figure was 6,137, during the celebrations which followed the 2016 Grand Final win probably 10-times that number have since claimed they were there on the day.

Those who were there on April 2 will certainly remember it fondly, those who have come along since will be forever thankful for those who were a part of it and the men and women who helped make it happen.