Twenty-two years ago rugby league legend Ron Coote visited Milton Hospital on the NSW South Coast. He was there to see his daughter, who had just welcomed an offspring into the world. Nothing unusual so far …
During his visit, the six-time premiership winner was asked by a hospital staff member to pop in and say g’day to someone he might know. We’ll let Ron take up the story …
“How MEN OF LEAGUE started is a bit of a point of contention,” the former Rabbitoh and Rooster kindly shared with Inside Sport's Dead In Goal podcast. (Interview starts 39 minutes in).
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“My view is that I was at Milton Hospital. There was a fellah in there, a bloke who was a former player with St George, Doug McRitchie. The nurse or sister who was there, she got me to come in and say hello to him. I thought how sad it was that, here’s this great former rugby league player in hospital on a Saturday afternoon and no one’s here to see him. I thought, ‘We need to do something about it.’ My idea was to put out a paper and let people know who was doing well and who wasn’t doing so well. That’s how it all started, for mine.
“You start something … I’m an enthusiastic person. I get behind whatever I decide to do. I really wanted to make this work and I worked hard to make it work for all those years.”
Since its official formation back in 2002, Men of League has grown into one of the most vital organisations in rugby league. According to its proud website, the foundation now boasts a robust membership and a national network of committees that are the engine room of the Foundation. Its volunteer network is supported by a professional, dedicated Sydney head office team, state teams providing advice and service from Brisbane and Sydney locations, as well as a national board.
“Men of League started 16 years ago to help the men, women and children of the rugby league community who have fallen on hard times,” says Ron Coote. “We’ve been very successful in what we’ve done; we’ve been able to help many, many people including children, ex-players and women as well. I can tell you many stories of ladies over the years who have needed some assistance; wives of former players, for example.”
Coote, the Honorary President of the Men of League Foundation, agreed to a chat with Inside Sport’s Dead in Goal podcast. We quizzed him on what he’s been up to lately. In summary: living his best life.
“I had McDonald’s stores for 30 years,” says Ron. “My kids have them now; I’m not involved in them anymore at all. We’ve had McDonald’s stores down the coast here at South Nowra, Bomaderry, the new Nowra Central one, as well as Ulladulla. So that keeps them pretty busy, not so much me; I don’t get involved too much. If they ask for any help, I’ll certainly be there, but they’re going good on their own.
“They don’t need me – I’m a gardener down here now. I grow vegetables. I have beautiful – well, I think they’re beautiful – surrounding gardens which I look after. So I have that to do.”
Bit of a career summary: stats are sketchy, but we interviewed respected author Alan Whiticker a month or two back, so we’ll rely on his Encyclopaedia of Rugby League Players numbers out of loyalty. Coote played 148 games for Souths between 1964-71 and 109 for Easts between ‘72-78. There were also 15 games for NSW pre-Origin, and 13 appearances for the Kangaroos. His dad, Jack, who sits one name above him in Whiticker’s volumes, had a lot to do with young Ron’s rugby league introduction.
“My dad would come home of an afternoon after being at the local for a couple and he’d talk about his own time in rugby league,” Ron shares. “He played for the Roosters in the ‘30s and had a good career there. He also played in the bush. He’d tell all these stories about what happened and how it all went. It gave me insights into it and made me enthusiastic when I got to playing with the local club, which was Kenso United Dragons – Kensington Oval was just down the street from where I lived.
“When I was 18 I was playing with Souths. I played in the second grade grand final in 1963, when St George beat Wests in the grand final in the mud. Yep, I played in the game earlier. It was a bloody quagmire.
“With my first grade debut, I was a bit nervous about it all, obviously. You’ve seen these blokes and they’re great players. We played St George in the early sounds of my first season. They had a phenomenal team of Raper, Gasnier, Langlands, Norm Provan. And here we were playing them; we did alright against them, too. Not in ‘64, but in 1965 we made it through to the grand final; they beat us 12-8.
“I loved rugby league. My thirst for it was helped when, early in my career, I made the South Sydney Jersey Flegg team which went to New Zealand. We played three games over there. This was back in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. The tour took us through to Mount Cook and places like that. We had a really good look around. It was just such a great experience as a 16-year-old kid; to go over to New Zealand when not even your family had been. In those days the family hadn’t been out of where we lived in Kingsford!
“We lived in a good spot – not far from Souths Juniors, who paid for the trip. It was sensational. My mate Bob McCarthy, who has been a lifelong friend, he was in that Flegg team, too. We would say to each other: ‘Rugby league’s alright when it can do this for ya.’”