Big men in a small world

FXT237421JOHNNY LOMAX has been making headlines in Canberra for nearly a quarter of a century.

Twenty two years before he was scapegoated by a long-running political campaign to criminalise trade unionism, he had the national capital talking.

And that story is nearly as incredible as the fact he now faces a 14-year jail sentence for winning a wage increase for painters that, according to the police charge sheet, caused their employer to suffer a “loss”.

In 1992, the Canberra Raiders were the talk of their town for all the wrong reasons.

For the first time in six years, the mighty Green Machine had failed to reach professional rugby league’s finals series. In fact, for each of the past three years they had been grand finalists, returning the premiership to delirious fans in 1989 and 1990.

At the core of their problem was the loss of key forwards Glenn Lazarus, Brent Todd and David Barnhill after they were sprung for breaching the salary cap. And, undoubtedly, the biggest of those losses was Lazarus.

Canberra’s all-star backline sparkled but the dazzle was built on a foundation laid by the man Roy and HG dubbed The Brick With Eyes. Lazarus was a prop forward who dominated exchanges where the sport is at its most confrontational.

But, in 1992, Lazarus had taken his ball and prized premiership medals off to Brisbane. And, as Canberra stumbled along, the Broncos surged to the first title in their history.

Every man and his dog could see the Raiders had a problem and coach Tim Sheens was smarter than most of them which is why he took himself off on an end-of-season trip to watch a bunch of ‘no-names’ go around in a celebration of Kiwi rugby league culture.

The Pacific Cup tournament pitted a New Zealand Maori side against teams representing Pacific Island nations, largely made up of locals who traced their ancestories back to the island groups.

After a week of entertaining footy, Sheens got out his cheque book and made offers to both props from the winning Maori side.

Quentin Pongia was a no-nonsense 21-year-old whose potential had been recognised with Kiwi Test selection earlier that year.

The other bloke, however, must have set heads shaking across the ACT.

Sheens had signed a big lad who had never won New Zealand selection and would turn 27 early in his first professional season.

Lomax had been running around with Wainuiomata in the Wellington club competition.

He was one of four brothers in a team from a working class suburb, kept safely out of sight and mind of capital city residents by a steep hill and a winding road.

Wainuiomata was isolated and suffered many of the problems that go with social disadvantage.

But it found pride in the achievements of a rugby league side that was coached and led by the secretary of the country’s Maori Affairs Department, Kara Puketapu.

It was obvious that, in his vision, the Wainuiomata Lions, were supposed to be more than a footy team.

But, it was as a football side that they put their valley on the sporting map, arriving in Auckland and pulling down the pants of the big city boys to win a national title against all expectations, except their own.

Despite his age and lack of experience, Lomax took little time to show the Canberra faithful he was the real deal.

His form in his debut Raiders season earned him Kiwi Test selection, alongside Pongia, and so well did the pair fill the Lazarus-Todd gap that the following year the Raiders were back on top of the rugby league world.

Lomax missed the 1994 grand final after being sidelined for a high shot on Queensland State of Origin legend, Billy Moore.

Nevertheless, the premiership winners named him their player of the year. It was a popular choice even if a slightly embarrassed Lomax played it down as a “sympathy vote”.

There can be little doubt that Sheens, who went on to coach the Australian international side, knew he had pulled the right rein with Lomax.

When the coach moved to North Queensland, in the wake of the Super League split, he signed Lomax for the Cowboys. In 1998, the Kiwi front-rower was named North Queensland’s player of the year.

He went on to play 112 first grade matches.

As a rugby league journalist, I remember doing a difficult interview with Lomax in a Leeds hotel room after he had been dropped from New Zealand’s starting line-up, during the 1993 tour of Britain and France.

He was disappointed, you might even say pissed off, but he was also respectful of those who had made the call and determined he would be back.

It was a measure of his resolve, and ability, that within two years he had been handed the New Zealand captaincy.

Lomax led New Zealand in three 1995 matches before injury intervened but he came back again to chalk up 16 Test appearances in an international career that stretched to 1998.

In the course of their careers, Johnny Lomax and Glenn Lazarus, squared off in many willing club and international encounters.

If it wasn’t for the salary cap problems that pushed Lazarus out of Canberra at the peak of his powers, Lomax would probably have never lived, played or worked in the city.

And, almost certainly, he would not have found himself the latest target in a relentless 14-year campaign to roll back wages, conditions and trade union rights for construction workers.

A key part of that campaign, of course, is the determination of Prime Minister Tony Abbott to have sweeping coercive powers returned to the Fair Work Building Building Commission headed by his hand-picked commissioner, Nigel Hadgkiss.

In the end, a handful of crossbench senators will decide that issue.

None will be more important than one of NSW rugby league’s most successful State of Origin players, Lazarus, who is now going around as an independent senator representing Queensland.

Small world, isn’t it?


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