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The Sydney Morning Herald

WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT ALFIE?

Author: Roy Masters
Date: 25/09/1992
Words: 1987
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 75
"Where Alph the sacred river ran ... "

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his famous poem about Xanadu, he was in an opiuminduced trance. But was he predicting the rise of Allan Langer?

Is Alph a 19th century spelling of "Alf", nickname of Australia's most explosive halfback? After all, Langer is poetry in motion.

Furthermore, the Broncos captain is a sacred current to the hero-starved Queenslanders.

Put such questions to Langer, and he says: "I don't know, mate. I just like me footie."

The 26-year-old is the most talented football player in Australia today.

He is the biggest obstacle to St George winning the grand final.

He is the most popular sportsman in Queensland.

As an indication of his popularity, before Langer began doing commercials for Tip Top bread, the bakery was selling 10,000 loaves a week in Brisbane. Within a month of the commercials going to air, Tip Top were selling 60,000 loaves a week. Current weekly sales top 90,000.

The advertisement features Langer's mother, Rita.

Queenslanders continually say: "Doesn't that woman look like Alf, hey?"

When told this is because the woman is his mother, they say: "But she looks so much like him," as if television were an act, not part of the real world.

The advertisement's success comes because Langer behaves on television the same as he does in person.

In a State of wide verandahs, open faces and broad-brimmed hats, Queenslanders warm to the unvarnished person.

Ask Langer how his nickname "Alf" originated, and he says: "Alien Life Form".

"When I made the State of Origin team in 1987 I was the only bloke from Ipswich. They reckon we have two heads."

But now the Ipswich-born Walters brothers have become Australian players, hasn't the home town lost its reputation?

Isn't Logan now the city of two-headed people?

"No," Langer says, "they've got three heads."

He married an Ipswich girl, Janine, and they have a daughter, Courtney.

"We went to the same primary school and high school," he recalls.

"We never got on. She fell for me when I got a job as a truckie's offsider for Waltons.

"The muscles bulging out from the blue singlet were too much for her."

That was back in the mid-1980s, just before Langer transferred to Ipswich Council's kerb and channel gang.

Nowadays, this product of Harry, a carriage builder on the railways, and Rita, a cleaner at a pre-school and latter-day TV star, earns between $250,000 and $300,000 in endorsements and sponsorships and half that again playing for the Broncos.

He does commercials for property developers, Australian House and Land, Tip Top, Sony and Power's Brewery, and is part-owner of the Plains Video, a large video store.

And Brisbane's marketing manager, Shane "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards, says: "He still hasn't reached his peak in market terms.

"He is recognised nationally, and that's what the large corporations want.

"He's becoming more selective in what he does, but even though he can command $5,000 for a public speaking engagement, he will do it for nothing."

This is the key to one side of Langer's character - he hates public speaking.

He believes he is the oratorical equivalent of a charged-down kick. He feels he doesn't give value when speaking and, therefore, doesn't deserve a fee.

"I hate speeches," he says. "I just like playing footie."

Langer may unlock two of the greatest sociological-psychological mysteries of the 20th century.

One is that hungry players make the best players.

The second is that highly organised, prepared players perform the best.

On the first point, Langer is still playing with the same commitment, energy and enthusiasm as in 1987, when his Ipswich Jets coach, Tommy Raudonikis, demanded the Queensland selectors choose him for the State of Origin team.

On the second, Langer says: "I hate playing the game before the weekend - I mentally drain myself.

"I like to relax and think about the game on the morning of the match, or maybe the day before - that's if the races aren't on."

Langer has consigned to the coach's cupboard the image of the halfback as a robot who reports for work with a briefcase full of computer printouts and a copy of The Financial Review.

The five-eighth is a reversal of the Cartesian philosophy of "I think, therefore I am".

"I learnt from Wally Lewis," Langer says.

"He's one of the best readers of the game. In the semi-final against Illawarra, while one of our blokes was playing the ball, I saw a gap between their front-rower and the next man.

"I ran for it and stepped inside. Riolo, the Steeler fullback, was on the line, and I knew I could get the ball down.

"The other try I scored, I just followed Kerrod Walters. Maddo (Terry Matterson) tapped it on to me.

"I've been following Kerrod a bit more lately. There was a time when I got lazy and didn't tail him."

Suggest to Alf that he has clearly been thinking about the fact he must move forward when Walters does, and he says the idea has not occupied his cerebellum for long.

Kerrod was formerly called "Speedbump" because he slowed down his runners with jittery, stuttery steps.

Alf says: "He's picking his mark better now, and that's why I chase him. He's also taking pressure off me as first receiver."

Suggest to Langer that he spends the first 20 minutes of most games watching, rather than running, and he agrees.

"I like to see where the fullback stands," he says, "and which forward is slow."

Further suggest that a detailed analysis of a video of the opposition would provide him with this information, allowing him to attack from the start of a game, and he points out: "They don't do the same thing every game.

"Teams that play the Broncos lift themselves, so I might get a wrong impression of a bloke's ability.

"Anyway it would drain me."

It seems Alf sees a picture of play the way a photographic shutter records a shot. One click, and it's all there in his mind.

Brisbane's coach, Wayne Bennett, appears to allow full expression to his players' talents, overcoming any complaint of "my medulla oblongata is very full of data".

The Broncos' international centre, Chris Johns, says: "If Benny (Bennett)tells us too much detail about the opposition, we don't do well.

"So if he wants to exploit a weakness he might just say at training, 'Kick a high ball over to that side'.

"We've got a team full of internationals and Origin players, so why wouldn't he coach that way?"

Gaining acceptance into the community of representative players can be difficult.

It is the one issue which causes Langer's brow to crease and a mask of anger to cover his face.

"Some of the senior players didn't want me in the side," he says of his Origin debut for Queensland.

"It was only Tommy's push that got me in. That hurt. It was an awkward time."

Even when Langer was chosen, he believes he was not fully accepted, especially by Bennett, then coach of the Origin team.

"Wayne Bennett was worried about my defence," Langer recalls.

"He raised it at a team meeting - where I should stand, and so on."

This was a time when five-eighth Lewis was the Queensland captain, and tended to take a cover defending role, the task normally assigned to halfbacks.

Langer says: "Paul Vautin stood up for me.

"He said, 'Alf's a Queenslander and won't let us down'.

"I ended up defending in the line. We won the next two Origin games, and I scored the winning try in the Origin decider and won Man of the Match.

"That was the year we played a fourth Origin game in Los Angeles."

Bennett remembers Los Angeles because Alf's initiation into the representative temple was completed there.

Bennett says: "We stayed at the Ramada hotel and they held a body contest at the disco.

"All the boys geed Alf to get up on the stage.

"There were some big dudes there with rippling muscles.

"Alf had never seen a weight in his life. But he took his shirt off and flexed and did one-arm push-ups with the best of them.

"At one stage he started to pull his pants off, and the compere had to yell, 'No, no Alfie from Down Under'.

"He ended up coming third."

Third, even second, in fact anywhere out of the five, is a position Alfie loathes.

"We lost games last year we shouldn't have," he says.

"It really sunk home to us that if we'd made the five, we would have got to the grand final."

Another disappointment was his demotion from the first Test team which lost to Great Britain in 1988.

"I took the Australian jersey for granted," he says. "I thought all I had to do was turn up.

"I was very disappointed when I was dropped after the Wembley Test. Mum and Dad and my wife were coming over for the second and third Tests, and I wasn't even playing."

Ask if he deserved to be dropped, and Langer thinks for some time before answering.

"I didn't play well," he says.

"I drink, therefore I am."

Last Saturday, Alf got hopelessly drunk.

The Broncos partied at a Mexican restaurant, and the youngest member of the team, Julian "Big Julie" O'Neill, took Alf on in a drinking contest.

"Big Julie" won.

Like his Test demotion, Alf won't concede defeat.

The local paper carried a story quoting his greatest sporting moment: defeating Raudonikis in a wrestle.

Raudonikis says: "To this day, he won't admit it, but I won.

"It was Ipswich drink day, and Alf wrestled big fat Darryl Gately, our trainer.

"He beat One Tonner and then he wrestled me in the final.

"I smacked his arse - and I was 38. But he'll never admit it.

"But I also want to say that if I had his natural gifts, I'd still be playing football."

Langer fears the day his football will finish.

"I hate thinking about when it will all be over," he says.

"I love coming to training, seeing my friends. I get bored in the off-season."

The head Bronco plays like a cutting horse.

He slices in and out of the cattle, rarely running straight.

He explodes from the ruck like a rodeo rider busting from the crush.

Push Langer for a word on tomorrow's grand final and he reluctantly simulates images.

Suppose referee Greg McCallum pulls back eight passes that should have been tries?

"Smoke would be coming out of my ears by then," Alf says.

"The players would be blowing up, too.

"What stage of the game is it?

"Are we leading?

"I'd have to settle them down if we were winning."

At that stage, Langer casts me a look similar to that which Julius Caesar gave to Cassius when he said "He thinks too much, such men are dangerous", finishes the interview, and leaves for training.

He links up with Charlie, the Downs Syndrome boy who carries the water-bottles at training, and they begin passing the ball.

Footballers have a habit of bestowing demeaning nicknames on those they adore, as a reminder to their heroes to maintain the common touch.

Alf has been called "Mick Mock", in simulation of someone with a speech impediment.

He points to his grand final haircut, and says: "Tapering for speed".

With his short hair, trademark grin and sturdy legs, Alf looks like a regimental drummer boy.

Brisbane will be marching to his beat tomorrow.

 
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