Legend Q&A: Gary Belcher

Gary Belcher won first-grade premierships in both the Brisbane Rugby League and NSW Rugby League competitions.

He played more than 100 games for Southern Suburbs Magpies and nearly 150 for the Canberra Raiders.

The man with all the right moves at fullback, and an impeccably-groomed moustache, oozed confidence no matter what forum he played in – club, state or country.

Legend Q&A: Gary Belcher

How and where did you make your first-grade debut?

I was a Souths junior and spent my first year in reserve grade as an 18-year-old. I played about 15 minutes off the bench in first grade in 1981, when Bob McCarthy was the coach. That was also a very successful year for us winning the BRL premiership. I played in three grand finals with the Magpies but not that one. My last was in 1985. In 1982 and 1984 we got beaten and I had a bit of a shocker in '82 because I was a little overwhelmed by it all. Wayne Bennett took over in 1984 and that year we were beaten by Wynnum-Manly, absolutely smashed in a record score (42-8). We played them in 1985 and we beat them (10-8) so that was a pretty good feeling. Souths had a really good run around that time, making the grand final five out of six years. So by the time I went to Canberra (in 1986) I was 23 and played 100 first-grade games. I wasn't the young, raw kid making a move down south. It was great to have that experience behind me.

Was there a big shift in intensity between BRL and NSWRL competitions?

I remember the first few weeks thinking, 'This is no different'. All up there was a miniscule difference between the Brisbane premiership and Sydney premiership I felt at least. The big shock was when we played Canterbury in my first year with the Raiders with their big swarming, and then smash-you style of defence. Then I thought 'This is different – quite aggressive defensively'. But overall in my opinion, not much difference in the mid-80s between the two comps in Brisbane and Sydney. Maybe across the board there were a few better players in each club but it certainly wasn't a massive change.

In 1989 you scored 17 tries in 19 games– the most of your eight seasons with the Raiders. Was there a reason for that?

I can't really put my finger on why that year was particularly successful for me. I just think we were building towards something pretty special with the Raiders in that year. Things started to really come together and that's kind of what you need to happen to win a premiership. We had these great up-and-coming kids in Laurie (Daley) and Clydey (Bradley Clyde) plus Ricky Stuart came on the scene the year before. It all seemed to be moving towards something big. I was 27 that year and one of the most senior and experienced players. I was probably at the peak of my career at that time and relatively injury-free.

Gary Belcher (middle row, third from left) with the 1988 Australian team.
Gary Belcher (middle row, third from left) with the 1988 Australian team.

All's well that ends well but that 1989 season didn't start on a high note, did it?

I went to England at the end of 1988 to play for Castleford and we made the final of the Yorkshire County Cup but then I got injured and only managed to play 11 games. I came back to Canberra and missed the first five rounds of 1989 which wasn't ideal and I think Mal Meninga also missed the opening rounds that season with another of his broken arms. I remember when we both got back into the team about round four or five we never seemed to look back. We were both in pretty good nick that year… Canberra got on a run late in the season and we won our last nine in a row, including the grand final.

Gary Belcher celebrates Canberra's 1989 premiership.
Gary Belcher celebrates Canberra's 1989 premiership.

Of course 1989 was Canberra's maiden title when you beat Balmain in an epic. Did the 1990 win mean just as much?

The 1989 grand final I've watched many, many times. But the 1990 win I don't remember as well. We had a bit of pressure on us that year but we probably handled it a lot better as we already had won a premiership. My worst memory is 1991 where we sort of limped into the grand final against a very good Penrith side. To lose a grand final it still hurts. Fortunately I'd won a few so that helped but you never get over it – unless you win one later on or have already won one. If you only ever play in losing grand finals it's a very bitter pill to swallow.

From that star-studded Canberra side, who did you feel most privileged to play with?

Mal most definitely. I had 12 years with Mal playing with the Magpies in Brisbane for four years and then eight with him in Canberra. That's a massive part of my career being in teams with him – Queensland Origin and Test sides as well. It wasn't just one-way traffic. I wasn't just feeding off him, we helped each other's games a lot. We were really close mates. We moved down to Canberra together, our wives were friends. While I was a couple of years younger than him, we had a great relationship. It was Mal who broke it to me when I made my first Origin side (1986) and we played in lots of grand finals together and won a few too. He was the most influential player in my time on the field.