Arthur Beetson – "Big Artie" – was a larger-than-life character built on the scale that his nickname suggests.
He was one of the most formidable, skilful and charismatic forwards the game of rugby league has produced. Beetson, who has died of a heart attack, occupied a special place in the history of Australian sport. He was the first aboriginal or indigenous sportsman to captain the country in any discipline. He also brought credibility to the birth 30 years ago of State of Origin, the peerless level of competition that has been the foundation of Australian rugby league supremacy ever since.
Beetson was born in the small Queensland country town of Roma. As a boy, he was so skinny he was known as "Bones." He was still a slim and fleet-footed centre when he went to the big city in 1964, signing for Redcliffe in the very strong Brisbane competition. By the time he moved to Sydney two years later to play for Balmain he was on the way to becoming the player he will be remembered as – a physically imposing second-row or prop forward, with a deceptive burst of pace and sublime handling skills. That was the start of 15 seasons playing for Balmain, Eastern Suburbs and Parramatta; he played in six Grand Finals and was part of three Premiership-winning clubs. There was a brief interlude in Britain in 1968-69, playing for Hull Kingston Rovers. His stay was cut short after 12 games when he broke his leg and dislocated his ankle. Despite that, he maintained warm bonds of friendship with the club. That was a Beetson characteristic: friendships and loyalties were for life.
In 1981 he went back to his first professional club, Redcliffe, but in his last season in Sydney he was a central figure in one of the most successful initiatives in the game's history. For years, the annual games between New South Wales and Queensland had been losing their appeal. With players representing the state where they played rather than where they were born, NSW were too strong, partly because of the Queensland players they could call upon: Beetson played 16 times against the state of his birth.
In 1980, the State of Origin concept was introduced, which involved Queenslanders "coming home" to play against their Sydney club-mates. Sceptics said that "State against state; mate against mate" would not work, because team-mates would not be committed. Queensland's master-stroke was bringing Beetson out of Parramatta's reserve-grade team as captain. During the match, in Brisbane, he made perhaps the most memorable tackle in the game's history – even though he insisted everyone remembered it wrongly.
The myth is that Beetson waded into a fracas and thumped his Parramatta team-mate and good friend, Mick Cronin, instantly lending Origin the fierce competitive edge it retains to this day. But according to both parties, it never happened. In his autobiography Big Artie the alleged perpetrator denied throwing that punch. He did admit, however, to a high tackle on his mate.
"The Crow was standing in a tackle – as he could do so effectively – and Wally Lewis was having all sorts of trouble putting him down," he wrote. "I thought to myself 'Stuff this'. I charged in and bowled Mick over. I think I got Wally, too." Misremembered or not, the incident was etched into sporting folklore and Origin never looked back.
He never played for Queensland again, winding down with a single season with Redcliffe and then playing social rugby into his forties for Moreton Bay Hotel, the pub he ran in the suburb. He did, however, coach the Maroons, leading them to victory in the Origin series of 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1989. Nobody would call him the most technical of coaches, but his mere presence was enough to give a Queensland team a lift. He also coached Redcliffe, Eastern Suburbs and Cronulla, as well as, for two Tests against New Zealand in 1983, Australia. Like the captaincy, that was a landmark for aboriginals in sport, as well as for Beetson, who had grown up amid crude racism.
As a player, he would have played in more than his 29 internationals – eight as captain – but for bad luck with injuries. Fitness and his weight were always issues for him throughout his career and he played along with the caricature of him training with a schooner of beer in one hand and a meat pie in the other. Indigenous Rugby League owes much of its progress to his advocacy. That was one of the reasons for the award of the Order of Australia Medal and he was also one of the seven "Immortals", rated the greatest to have played the game since the War.
He maintained his links with Britain: a couple of weeks before his death, which came as he was exercising on his bike, he had been in England leading a supporters' tour, meeting old friends, full of life. On Humberside, in Queensland and in Sydney, the memory of him standing up in a tackle and slipping out the ball will endure; there is to be a statue of him doing just that outside Lang Park in Brisbane.
Arthur Henry Beetson, rugby league player and coach: born Roma, Queensland 21 January 1945; married twice (four sons); died Point Paradise, Gold Coast 1 December 2011.