By Peter Bugden
JOHN Sattler is no angel – having earned the reputation of being one of the toughest men to play rugby league doesn’t quite fit the picture.
But he is a regular Mass-goer in Surfers Paradise parish, and the holiday crowds belting out carols at Christmas celebrations there this week can expect to see him among them.
Instead of the usual “Glory, Glory …” of his beloved South Sydney Rabbitohs’ anthem though, it will be the season’s “Gloria in excelsis Deo” exercising his lungs this time.
And Sattler, a rugby league legend who captained Souths to four grand final wins in the sport’s number-one competition, may be singing with extra gusto this Christmas – for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, Souths broke their 43-year premiership drought with a win over Canterbury Bulldogs in the 2014 grand final; and, secondly, Sattler’s recently released biography Glory, Glory – My Life is a best-seller, having sold more than 10,000 copies.
He’s pleasantly surprised by the latter and over the moon about the former.
Sattler was at ANZ Stadium in October to cheer Souths to their 21st premiership win, sitting alongside one of his best mates and another of the Rabbitohs’ heroes Bob McCarthy.
They were combatants together in Souths’ all-conquering forward pack that helped steer the club to four grand final wins from 1967-71.
“The (2014) grand final was a great day. I was with Bob and a couple of the boys and Ronnie Coote (another one of Souths’ legendary forwards),” Sattler said.
“We’ve been very close mates since we played there.
“They’ve been good mates and good friends, and great blokes to have on your side.”
That fact was never so true on the day Sattler found himself at the centre of a drama that has become one of the game’s famed moments – the day he played almost the entire 1970 grand final with a broken jaw.
“I was never the sort of bloke that would come off anyway if I had an injury,” Sattler said.
The 72-year-old remembers the excruciating pain of playing with a jaw smashed in three places and how determined he was, as captain, to stay on to lead his side to a memorable 23-12 win over Manly-Warringah at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
“I always thought that if you could still walk you still stay there,” he said.
“A lot of people have made a lot more out of it than I did.
“It was a nasty old accident, … and some blokes can carry injuries like that and other blokes just want to come straight off.
“And I don’t say anything about them if they want to come off. Probably they’ve got more common sense than I had.
“I’ve always been a bit lucky that way; if I get a bit of an injury, I’ve been able to cart it along alright and it doesn’t affect me too much.
“I don’t know what it is; it’s just in your make-up I suppose.”
Sattler may have wished he could have claimed the win without having to have endured the pain of a broken jaw, but he still remembers how it lifted his teammates on the day.
“I think it just spurred our players on a little bit. It spurred our teammates on to lift,” he said.
“Bob McCarthy and John O’Neill – every time I’d call for a ball, Lurch (John O’Neill), he’d charge in front of me and push me out of the way.
“I finished up getting (really, really annoyed) with him, saying ‘Get out of the road. Let me take a ball’.
“But I just think with the mateship that came forward from the Souths blokes … I always knew that was there with all of us but on that particular day they really stood up and put their hands up.”
Mateship has always been key for Sattler.
He would never have even played rugby league if it were not for his mates.
The Marist Brothers at his Maitland college had tried to entice him to play the game but he resisted.
“I hated the game. So on sports day, as I said in the book, I’d be on the bus and go nine miles to home and get my horses and muck about with them,” he said.
Despite constantly being in trouble for sneaking home like that, young John continued to refuse to play rugby league – the game that would become his passion.
It was a friend who would lead him into a decision that would change his life.
“My next-door neighbour was a young bloke who played rugby league – Allan Williams – and his parents had the general store right next-door to where we lived,” Sattler said.
“And we were good mates, and he was going to training when the season started, this day, and he said ‘Why don’t you come down?’ so I did.
“I went down with Allan to a couple of nights of training, and then the season started and a bloke called Des Cullen, who was the coach, he picked me in the centres.
“So I played there (for Kurri Kurri) in the centres in under-16s, and one year of under-18s and then I went into lock.”
It wasn’t long before he began to stand out, especially for his solid defence.
“In 1962, I was picked as a lock forward to play against a top Great Britain team that came out here,” Sattler said.
“I was lucky enough to have a good game in that, and we beat them.
“And the Souths (scouts) were at that particular game and that’s how I got my trip to Sydney.”
The country boy made the big move to Sydney in 1963 as a 20-year-old.
That began a glorious run of 10 years at the top of his sport that included six years as Rabbitohs captain, four premierships, a Kangaroo tour of Great Britain and France, and six Test matches for Australia – five as captain.
As he came to the end of his career in Sydney, Sattler received a surprise offer that would add another twist to his life.
“Ron McAuliffe, who was then a senator and was the boss of the Queensland Rugby League, completely out of the blue, phoned me and said, ‘We’d like to talk to you about coming up here (to Brisbane)’,” Sattler said.
“I was at the end of my career, which I told him. And he said, ‘No, no, no, we’d still like you to come’.
“So I played another three years (two at Western Suburbs and one at Northern Suburbs in Brisbane), whereas if I’d stayed in Sydney I would have played probably one and it would’ve been over.”
Sattler intended to retire at the end of his two years with Wests, but Norths Devils supremo Bob Bax enticed him to have one more season with them and he was glad he did.
“I had a year there with some really good fellas – Tommy Bishop, the little Pommy; and Darryl Brohman, a big young fellow; Glen Harrison,” Sattler said.
“We got beaten in the final that year, so I had an enjoyable end to it.”
In his book, Sattler reflects that often the paths that life takes you on may not be what you desire but they work out in the end anyway.
And can Sattler see God’s hand in some of the twists that he may not have chosen or expected?
“Well I think He’s involved in all of those things. Yes, I do,” he said
“You can’t do it on your own.”
Towards the end of his football career and when he moved into running hotels and was busy with other commitments, Sattler said there were many times when he wasn’t making it to Mass.
“And I missed it; I did miss it,” he said.
Meeting a parishioner on the Gold Coast, where he lives, and chatting with them about their faith, helped him return to regular Mass attendance.
“So I go every week now, and I enjoy it,” he said.