Craig James ‘Tugger’ Coleman was the epitome of the cheeky, irrepressible halfback during a lengthy playing career spanning 1980-96.
Born on 31 January 1963 at St. Margaret’s hospital, Sydney, he grew up in the Redfern and Waterloo suburbs and played his junior football with Waterloo Waratahs, beginning at age five.
He went to Redfern Primary and Cleveland Street High School then worked as a labourer with the parks and gardens division of the Sydney Council.
A clever playmaker who loved to engage in banter with opponents, he played a massive 341 games in first grade: Souths 209 (1982-92), Widnes 3 (1986-87), Hull 24 (1988-89), Leeds 17 (1989-90), Salford 28 (1992-93), Gold Coast Seagulls 44 (1994-95), Wests Magpies 16 (1996).
He wanted to play for Gold Coast in 1993, but the ARL wouldn’t allow him, because the 1 February deadline for registering the contract had lapsed. He threatened court action, and played the year in the Souths Juniors for the Coogee Wombats A grade.
When he was a small boy he used to jump the fence at Redfern Oval to watch Souths play. Coleman had a habit of tugging on men’s coats to get their attention, and someone told him to stop tugging his coat, hence the nickname.
Tugger was captain of the 1981 Premiership-winning Under 23 team defeating Parramatta 18-5 in the grand final. Mario Fenech was also in the team which lost only two games all year, and Brian Smith was the coach at age 28.
"It was a huge thrill to win the Grand Final, especially at the SCG, where I used to go as a kid to watch the likes of Sattler, McCarthy and Coote," Coleman said.
He made his first grade debut as a replacement on Sunday 30 May 1982 in the 26-20 Round 14 win over Canterbury at Redfern Oval.
Tugger got his first start on Sunday 25 July 1982 in the Round 21 16-15 win over reigning premiers Parramatta at Redfern Oval. With eight minutes left, Parramatta led 15-7 and seemed to have the game well in hand.
However they appeared to relax, and tries to Mark Ross and Stan Browne made the score 15-15. Browne’s try was next to the posts with a minute to go Tony Melrose missed the easy conversion.
From the kick-off Nathan Gibbs made a long run down the left side of the field, and they worked play infield for Ken Wright to kick a field goal seconds before full-time. Parramatta kicked off and referee Martin Weekes blew full-time.
Craig had no fear in sledging opponents – he could afford to, with the likes of Mario Fenech, Les Davidson, David Boyle, Dean Rampling and Ian Roberts looking after him in the forwards.
He would tell Davo, "I’ll do your thinking, and you just do my fighting". One day in 1989 they were playing Balmain, and as Paul Sironen was running the ball, Tugger would yell out "here comes the girl".
Asked what it was like playing with Mario, Coleman said "he was the nicest bloke off the field but as soon as he put that black tape around his head, he turned himself into a monster."
"He became the meanest man in the world and wanted to win at all costs.
"It’s no secret he hated Benny Elias.
"He’d look at the schedule and count the days until we played Balmain."
Craig was sent off just once – against Parramatta in August 1986 in front of a full house at Parramatta stadium.
"We had two guys sin-binned (Fenech and Ian Roberts), and I lost my cool," Coleman said.
"I called the referee (Phil Cooley) a cheating you-know-what.
"I didn’t think he would leave us with ten men, but he did.
"Somehow we held on for a 12-12 draw and I copped a $2,000 fine for my trouble".
He enjoyed his four stints in the UK, and also at Wests under coach Tom Raudonikis, his hero. But his heart was always with Souths, and he returned to the club as coach of the Under 21s Presidents Cup in 1997, before taking over from Steve Martin towards the end of 1998.
"We had a good year in 1999, but deep down we all knew we were going to get thrown out by the NRL at the end of the season, so there was a lot of tension all year," Coleman said.
"Then I had the reins again when we were re-instated in 2002, but we really had just a spare parts team, and won only five games.
"They sacked me during the pre-season of 2003 when I fielded a second string team for a trial and we were thrashed.
"I was bitter for a long time, but when Russell Crowe took over in 2007 he made me feel welcome again."
These days Tugger works with the Randwick City Council.