With the Dally M awards to be held this week, we look back on the career of the first ever recipient of the Dally M Player of the Year Award in 1980, former Rabbitohs five-eighth Robert ‘Rocky’ Laurie.
Having begun his career with cross-town rivals in the Roosters, it was none other than legendary coach Jack Gibson who brought the wily half to Souths, where he played in 64 games, scoring 16 tries and kicking a single goal from 1978 until 1980.
“I went to Sydney in 1975 to join the Roosters, and that was the first year they brought the import rule in, so I got cut there with Jack Gibson as coach so I spent 12 months with the Paddington Colts,” Laurie said.
“I then got graded with the Roosters the next year under Jack (Gibson) and then the next year under Arthur Beetson, but he asked if I wanted to have a look around for a new club. Gibson got the head coaching role at Souths the next year so I moved over with him, where I had three great years.”
With the glitz and glamour being a current staple at the awards, Laurie noted the virtual unknown that the awards were back in his playing days, with the much more favoured trophy for the best player being the Rothmans Medal.
Laurie pinpointed that taking out the award was the height of his career in Red and Green.
“There’s not a risk in the world that my most favourite moment at Souths was getting the Dally M.”
“We played St George Dragons at Kogarah Jubilee on the Saturday afternoon for our first match of the year, I got Man of the Match from Rugby League Week, got interviewed and received a squash racquet and a watch.
“Ray Warren pulled me aside and said ‘By the way Rocky, you’re leading the Dally M’s, you’ve got three points’. At the point in time no one knew what the Dally M’s were, so I ended up shrugging my shoulders and walked away, and now look where we are now.
“Right before I went down I was a six to four favour of winning the Rothman’s Medal, I hardly got a vote, so I was a bit nervous a week later with the Dally M’s, but apparently I won by a single vote.
“I think everyone remembers who got the first one. They might not remember who got the 22nd one or the 23rd, but I can’t believe the difference nowadays, it’s like you’re a movie star. I went down to present the media in the 2010 awards, and I couldn’t believe it; there were red carpets and cameras at the door, I thought I was in the wrong joint!
“I got three statues and some cash. I got a gold statue for Player of the Year, I got a bronze one for Best Five-Eighth, and I got an anodised one for the Best Club Player, and I’ve still got them all displayed in my house for everyone to see.”
While the famous Rocky Balboa movies were all the rage in cinemas at the time, it was another famous Italian boxer that Laurie got his famous nickname from, after being caught in a scuffle at school.
“Rocky Gattelari was one of the best Australian boxers at the time, and when I was around seven or eight years old one of my schoolteachers saw I was doing a bit of pushing and shoving and he said ‘Robert, you’re acting like Rocky Gattelari’ and it just stuck from there. It’s not a bad nickname either.”
Hailing from the timber town of Wauchope just outside of Port Macquarie, Laurie grew up with eight siblings, and isn’t the only one to have played first grade rugby league though, with younger brothers Mark and Richie playing with Parramatta and Cronulla respectively.
Robert cheekily noted his wealth of experience as a backyard footy player was a key factor in his siblings’ development.
“There’s seven boys and two girls in the Laurie family. The girls came between the first four boys so there’s a bit of a gap, I was the middle one. We played in the backyard all the time. I’d like to think I taught them a few lessons, I don’t think they’d like to think I did though.
“Mark had a great stint with the Parramatta Eels in the mid 80’s and early 90’s when they were on fire. He was there for around 10 years and won three comps and a couple of mid-week titles.
“My other brother Richie who trialled with the Cronulla Sharks, I think he played one first grade game but he had a bad neck and didn’t end up lasting long, but having three of us play at top grade level is a great effort in itself.
“Coming from a town that had 3000 people at the time, Tom Mooney was playing at Manly and Pete Ninness was at the Balmain Tigers so for a little town like Wauchope to have four or five blokes playing in Sydney was a huge effort.”
Laurie has since retired, and despite a few setbacks, he can look back on a glittering career with plenty of memories and accolades.
“I was in Sydney for eight years and I didn’t think I would last eight seconds, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was a great experience and some lovely things happened to me and I was very lucky to do well and it’s even great now to see people recognise you, it’s bloody lovely.
“I played for NSW, I captained Country Origin a couple of times, I finally won a comp for Wauchope in the mid 80’s, and I had a great run.”
The 2017 Dally M Awards will take place on Wednesday night 27 September.