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The Sydney Morning Herald


Author: Peter Fitzsimons
Date: 22/03/1994
Words: 1854
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 25
Another day, another dollar. And after finishing another hard day's work making carriages for Queensland Railways in their Ipswich workshop, Harry Langer would always return home to the weatherboard on Ferrett Street to much the same sound hurtling over the top of the house - the sound of his four sons playing football against each other out the back.

They grow backyards pretty big up Ipswich way, and the Langer backyard was a big'un even by that city's standards. Plenty big enough for the boys to play full-on football and have a fight at the same time, and they rarely missed the opportunity.

Usually, it was the same division: Allan, the youngest and smallest, would always be drawn to play with oldest son Cliff, against the middle two, Neville and Kevin.

Funny that Allan seemed to all but hold his own in these games even as a four-year-old, but then he'd always seemed a pretty tough kid even when judged against the toughness of his brothers.

"It was pretty full-on," Allan says, "but at least it kept us off the streets. We usually had either pretend Test matches or Brisbane club matches and we'd keep playing till it got dark. Then mum would only let us go to bed after we'd washed the grass stains off."

Such football was to be a good grounding in the game for the man who would go on to be Broncos captain and Australian halfback, but there was an awful lot of football to be played and hard work to be done before he'd reach that exalted status.

Sometimes, if ever the brothers would tire of beating each other, they would combine forces and play backyard football against the only other family in the area with enough brothers to give them a good game - the Walters family.

There were five Walters boys - Brett, Steve, Andrew, and the twins, Kevin and Kerrod - and they played in a similar way to the Langers, which is to say full-on tackle.

"Yes mate, it was hard football, very hard," Langer says.

"I certainly didn't take it easy on them."

So who would win these backyard inter-family Test matches?

"I better say the Langers, mate, because my brothers and me really did give them a bit of a touch-up. Mostly we'd have to stop because Steve would always run away crying."

If Langer learned a lot of his basic skills from such games, maybe too he learnt something about on-field leadership.

"He was always the boss," recalls his mother, Rita, "and I can remember him always yelling at his brothers all the time."

"Always trying to get us to play the game his way," adds brother Neville, "and always belting me first because I was the next littlest to him in size."As well as backyard football, there was also school football and club football, and soon after that rep football.

A bloke couldn't live by football alone though, at least not at 15, and his first job out of school was as a truckie's offsider with the Ipswich general store, Waltons, at the salary of $120 a week.

"I used to have to carry furniture and that, dryers, washing machines, and all that sort of stuff. Just moving it from one place to another," he says.

"I used to find it pretty hard sometimes."

True enough, says Trevor Wright, the truckie who it was Langer's job to help. Still living in Ipswich, and still driving the truck, Wright recalls Langer was willing to try to lift anything, no matter how big, and most often did.

"Mostly, you'd just see this washing machine moving along as if was walking by itself," Wright says. "And you could see this mop of blond hair showing up just over the rim. He was a pretty good offsider and mostly always laughing, joking around, you know?"

There was one drawback though.

"He couldn't stop thinking about football. Always had his boots and his football gear in the cab and if ever we were passing his footie ground in the afternoon he'd just jump out. I'd yell out 'hang on, you can't go yet, it's not 5 o'clock |' and he'd yell back over his shoulder something like 'I'll work through lunch tomorrow |' and that would be it."

During his time at Waltons, Langer began his relationship with the woman who would become his wife, Janine.

"We went to the same primary school and high school," Langer says, "and she never liked me at either. Then one day at Waltons, she just saw me lifting a fridge or something, I don't know, and maybe it was my muscles, but that was that and I took her out and we've been together since."

Langer joined the council as a worker on the road gang for $200 a week. "It would get that hot in the summer out on the roads," he recounts, "that you could hardly breathe it was so hot and gee, I used to get burnt.

"Always out on the road, always building the bloody roads, mixing the concrete, making the kerbs, all that sort of stuff. It wasn't easy trying to lift jack-hammers, and crowbars and all that.

"For my footie, I never did weights but gee I lifted a lot of that sort of stuff."

The hard physical labour wasn't the only hassle. As the youngest bloke on the road crew, it was also Langer's job to boil the billy.

"I used to have to get it ready by exactly 9.30 and if it wasn't ready by 9.30, the blokes weren't happy, I can tell you they weren't happy. And I hated it, specially when it was sometimes wet weather 'cos you couldn't get the bastard lit, the wood wouldn't light and they'd still want their billy boiled at 9.30 on the dot ..."

But then, in mid-1987, something happened which would take him away from all that.

Even though he was playing in only an Ipswich club side, he was picked in the State of Origin side. Picked to play halfback inside "The King" Wally Lewis, under coach Wayne Bennett, and against the cockroaches of the south.

Preceding his selection, there had been a heated debate in the Queensland league community as to whether or not Langer was good enough to take over from the injured Mark Murray.

The names of those against him were formidable. "Wally didn't want me, Wayne didn't want me, a lot of the other players didn't want me," Langer says

But at least there was still one guy in his corner whose opinion counted for a lot: his coach at Ipswich, the one and only Tommy Raudonikis.

"The one guy who really stood up for me and said I should be picked in the side was Tommy. He told 'em all to go and get stuffed in Rugby League Week and said that I was good enough. I really owe Tommy for that."

Not that his troubles were over. When he turned up at Brisbane's Roma Street Travelodge to find he was rooming with Bobby Lindner, one of the Queensland forwards most vocal against his selection, there were no apologies

Then, in one of the early team meetings, there was open discussion between Bennett and Lewis as to how best to go about covering for Langer's presumed defensive deficiencies.

"They were trying to see where they could hide me in the defensive line, in the second line or out wide, and I just had to sit there," he says.

There was no Raudonikis on hand this time to speak for him and it would have been inappropriate for Langer to make an outburst, but help was at hand.

Having listened to the discussion for as long as he could, Paul Vautin stood up and interjected:

"Hey, he's a Queenslander | He won't let us down. He'll play were he normally plays."

Which Langer did and acquitted himself well. The next year, as the incumbent Origin halfback, he returned to Brisbane full-time to play with the new-born Broncos and ... his big-time rugby league career was truly launched.

The years passed, the way they do in those 1950s movies when the pages on the calendar turn over when a sudden gust of wind hits, and before Langer knew it, it was March 1994.

He was doing well. He was captain of the Broncos, Australian halfback, most popular person in Queensland, and rich. Between the money paid to him by the Broncos and the money he earned in many endorsements, he was able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for Janine and their two daughters.

And now, as always, there was another journalist who'd to talk to him. This one from Sydney, one of hundreds who had made the trek.

The journo was talking about something he'd seen on the box the other night where Langer had jinked left, then right, then ... right again going through a gap the defence had not had time to even see, let alone try to close, and he was in under the posts for another try.

In response to the obvious question, like HOW DOES HE DO THAT?, Langer waxes a kind of matter-of-fact disinterest. "I don't know. It's off the bat. It just happens," he says.

"You don't go out and score tries, according to some plan, it just comes like that and you feel where you should go next."

Part of Bennett's grand plan is to have someone as capable as Langer out on the field calling all the shots, and the coach himself has no hesitation in naming Langer as "an absolutely fantastic captain, the best man I could hope to have out there, to keep the players' minds on the job, to get them 'up'".

Not much of which happens in the dressing-room before the game. Langer's account of what he usually says in the dressing-room is off-hand: "I'll say a few things, that's all - you know, like, we've got a show a lot of commitment today and everyone's got to go out there and show 100 per cent and it will make everyone's job a lot easier."

It is out on the field when things occasionally go astray, that Langer's captaincy comes to the fore. Though again, it is in his own fashion. When put on the spot as to what he says to the players when standing behind the goal posts after a runaway try has been scored against them in the first two minutes, Langer is at something of a loss.

"I don't say much really ... what do you say when something like that has happened? The players all know what's on, I don't need to tell 'em."

When it's a question of what he does, he is on much surer ground.

"I'll try and get the forwards geed up again right away ... make two or three tackles in a row on their big blokes or something ... you know, something like that usually gets 'em right back into it."

Does he ever think, in quiet moments, what might have been his fate if his skill at football hadn't entirely transformed his life?

Yes he does, damn right he does. Thinks about it a hell of a lot in fact.

And what does he think he'd be doing?

"Mate, I think I'd probably still be on the council boiling that bloody billy," he says.

"I'm just glad I had football on my side. I got a few lucky breaks and it's moved me along. One day I want to put a lot back into it."

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