The renowned sportswriter Ian Heads wrote this historical tribute in September 2013.
In recent years the player who gave rugby league its chance to live and breathe has become more of a brand than a name. In the fast lane of modern life the sobriquet `Dally M’ is probably far more familiar than his given name Herbert Henry Messenger – aka Dally (later, `The Master’).
On October 1, 2013, if via some chance meeting with a passing Tardis, the modest man who once said of himself, “more is made of me than I am worth”, could gather with the players of season 2013 at the 34th Dally M Awards presentation, he would surely be amazed. For starters, the champion of the game’s foundation years would be dwarfed by those around him. In the seasons of his league life Dally Messenger, who stood 171.5cm, played his football at around 70 kilos. If today’s behemoths could have caught him, he would surely have been thrown around like a rag doll.
This week as the game acclaims its current heroes near the end of a shaky season, rugby league, in toto, should pause and remember Dally Messenger. When rugby (union’s) champion of the early years of the 20th century chose to join the `new game’ of rugby league in 1907, it was the boldest of gambles – and akin to a gift from the gods for league. He had been rugby’s finest – a fleet-footed centre of extraordinary and unorthodox talent, performer of miraculous deeds, peerless goal-kicker, relentless points-gatherer.
In 1940, when Truth newspaper profiled his career and life in a 14-part series, the paper called him “the greatest player of all time ….genius of Rugby football of either code”, continuing: ”around him as the keystone in the arch, the code of rugby league in Australia was built.” Harry Sunderland, a towering, entrepreneurial figure of the game wrote: “Without Messenger’s magical appeal….there would be no league.”
It is as stark as that: without Dally there may well have been no rugby league at all, no weekly hoop-la, no glittering event tomorrow night. The fact that it’s his name gracing awards that acclaim individual greatness is so right … so worth bringing back into the light. Hopefully his grandsons Dally and Ken will be at the dinner to represent the family, to share their memories of `Pop’ and convey their wishes to today’s champions.
The praise for Messenger from countless respected men around the game rolls like thunder down the years: “the (Victor) Trumper of football,” “as hard to catch as the Scarlet Pimpernel”, “Messenger played football as Menuhin played the violin,” “the quick perception of genius and the agility of an acrobat”. There are hundreds of such assessments in the files of history.
Most poignant of all is the beautifully crafted overview by Herbert Moran, captain of the 1908-09 Wallabies, who many years later likened Dally to Don Bradman and labelled him “one of the very great three-quarters of all time.” But it was Moran who pointed out too the post-football trials of such a stellar career, writing of Dally: “how all the world went wrong with him while his name still lingered on football and football boots. Like a great Catherine wheel, he had flared …with a dazzling white light, then faded out, a dark thing lost in the darkness.”
Realistically, Dally could never have matched in later life the glories of his playing days. After football, the going was never easy for him, especially in the late years when he was effectively forced out of a `grace and favour’ bedsit which had been his home at NSW Leagues Club – following a decision by the League to charge Dally, a pensioner, rent. He died at 76, in 1959, in Gunnedah, the town where local publican Con Barbato had provided a room for him in his latter years. Dally Messenger 111, who was 21 at the time, remembers thousands lining the route as his grandfather was conveyed to Sydney’s Botany Cemetery for burial after the funeral at St Mark’s, Darling Point.
Some years ago, Dally and I drove out to the cemetery, and after a lengthy search, found the grave of `The Master’. It is a place with a view, situated on a slope which provides a fine panorama across Botany Bay where other supreme adventurers of the Australian story, Captains Cook and Phillip had dropped anchor, and dreamed their dreams of what lay ahead.
It is a fine resting place for a great and pioneering league man ……….and that day the pair of us stood there for a time and reflected what it might have been like to have seen this `Winged Messenger’ of long ago, flying down some grassy field.
Tomorrow night, Dally Messenger – `The Master’ – will for a short time be centre-stage once more. In this 106th year of the game he helped start, near the end of a season upon which his old club Easts (The Roosters) have made such an impact, that it is entirely as it should be, and hopefully will be ………… for as long as there is rugby league.