Considered rugby league’s ultimate hard man, Noel “Ned” Kelly reckoned he never went looking for trouble on the field.
Unfortunately trouble had a nasty habit of finding him – and often.
All because he followed one simple rule.
“When you are a hooker … you are a sitting duck (in scrums) and someone can pop you,” Kelly told The Rugby League Project podcast in 2018.
“I had this rule, if anyone let one go I would say ‘you’ll pay for that mate’ and they’d get one back sooner or later.
“You do that a couple of times you risk being called a king hit artist but the bloke never hits you again.
“In the end they would say ‘don’t bash the bloke or he will bash you back – and he’s good at it’.”
Indeed the tough as nails Kelly got really good in a stellar career that featured 28 Tests, 111 games for his beloved Western Suburbs and remarkably 17 send-offs in the NSWRL alone.
For Kelly – who passed away at 84 on Sunday – it was all about gaining respect, not notoriety.
Back in his 1960s hey day men were men in rugby league – and Kelly’s rivals were frequently nervous.
Legendary rugby league caller Frank Hyde once said Kelly “moves with the elegance of a cow on a bicycle”.
But to his foes he could be a raging bull as English bruiser Frank Foster found out the hard way on one of Kelly’s three Kangaroo tours.
“On those tours the Poms would put a madman in there to bash you. Some of them were loonies,” Kelly said.
“I remember being told ‘they’ve put Frank in there to look after you’ (before a game).
“About 15 minutes into the game he has come in with a late tackle, and I thought ‘oh hello, it’s my friend Frank, he’s gonna get me’.
“He then made the mistake of picking up the ball and running in my direction. I hit him with my arm – I can still feel it.
“It was like hitting a good one wood. Frank didn’t participate much after that.
“If you do that a few times you get a bit of respect (but) people tend to jump away from you when get on the bus.”
Kelly first turned heads in 1959 playing for Ipswich against Brisbane and Toowoomba in the Bulimba Cup.
By the end of the year Kelly was on a Kangaroos tour.
But he came crashing back to earth upon his return, forced to move from Ipswich to the Ayr competition in far north Queensland’s cane fields.
Signed for 800 pounds to captain-coach in the Ayr league, Kelly realised just what he had got himself into when he finally completed the long drive north.
“I was just coming off the Kangaroos tour but I was getting bugger all in Ipswich. Ayr gave me 800 quid, a house and a job … so I thought ‘righto’,” Kelly said.
“When I go there I was told all five clubs (in Ayr) had chipped in a bit for the 800 pounds so to repay them I had to play for a different club every week.
“I said ‘what about if they are in the grand final? I was told ‘you don’t have to play the grand final’.”
Kelly lasted a season before Sydney offers lobbed. Still he was initially reluctant to go.
“There were plenty of Queenslanders who came to NSW and went home with a broken heart and their tail between their legs,” Kelly said.
“I said to my wife ‘do you think I am good enough?’
“She said ‘well, we will soon find out’.”
History shows Kelly earned a formidable reputation at Wests that featured three NSWRL grand finals.
The first front-rower to complete three Kangaroos tours, Kelly was named in rugby league’s Team of the Century at hooker.
And the captain and hooker of Western Suburbs Magpies Team of the Century.
He also earned another title – league’s ultimate hard man.
But Kelly reckoned he was a “sook” compared to some modern day forwards.
“I look at blokes like (Manly’s) Spud (Mark) Carroll and (Newcastle’s) Paul Harragon, those two ran into each other like mad bulls, you could hear the bang a mile away,” he said.
“I couldn’t do that, it would hurt too much.
“If that is what you call tough then I am a sook.”
While Kelly believed it was hard to compare with the modern game, he thought Melbourne rake Cameron Smith would have been a standout if he wound back the clock.
“These modern players have been training since they were 10 while we were working jobs at the same time to get ahead,” he said.
“I used to work three jobs (at Wests). I was a bouncer at the Narrabeen pub, I was a butcher at Manly, and I drove the ghost train on the Manly pier (amusement park).
“And back then no one wanted to play hooker. You had to be durable who could fight – you had to be able to whack a bit and be a bit callous about it.
“(But) Cameron Smith would still be a great player in the olden days – he just wouldn’t be quite as good looking.”