MARK Hogan was just 17 and still eligible for under 18s when Taree United captain-coach Kevin Hardy and selector Ron 'Sailor' Bridge called him over for a chat at training just before the start of the 1973 Group Three Rugby League season.
(Hogan, with Forster-Tuncurry's Ken Emerton and Dean Basham and Wally Dylko from Wauchope will be included in the Group Three hall of fame on Friday, January 21.)
"They said they wanted me to play first grade for the opening game. I can't remember why, I think a couple of players were unavailable,'' Hogan explained.
"I wasn't going to say no.''
The strongly built Hogan usually played in the back row or in the centres, but he was given a start on the wing for the season's first match, a 'Taree Test' as the encounters were billed, between Taree United and bitter rivals, Taree Old Bar.
Use whatever cliche you want here - meteoric rise, dream debut. The bulldozing Hogan ran in three tries as United came away big winners. He wasn't going back to the junior grade.
"I scored a couple of tries in the next game and I think the one after that,'' he recalled.
Then came a shock. He was named in the Group Three representative team for the annual games against Groups Two, One and 18 played that year at Grafton. From here he made the North Coast team for the Country Championships along with a host of other United players, although the campaign lasted just one match as they were beaten by the perennially powerful Newcastle in the first round.
The season just got better and better for Hogan, as United claimed the premiership, beating Old Bar 8-3 in a bruising grand final - a game Hogan said was one of the toughest he played.
"It was hard. We'd beaten them pretty easily in the semi-final and they had a lot of injuries, but they played really well in the grand final,'' he recalled.
"Eko (Brian Eakin) made a try saving tackle on Phil Amidy and that probably won us the game.''
This was the first of three first grade premierships he was to win with the Greens. And if 1973 was good, 1974 was possibly even better, although it started precariously for the title holders.
"Brian Eakin and Max Coggan both retired,'' Hogan said.
"A couple of others left the area, so we ended up with a young side. Young blokes like Paul Wilson, Peter Schneider and Tony Clifton came into the team.''
At 18 Hogan was suddenly one of the more experienced players.
Hardy was then sidelined with a knee injury for a considerable portion of the year. However, United claimed back-to-back premierships by upsetting minor premiers Forster-Tuncurry in the grand final.
"I think we finished fourth then beat Gloucester in the mud in the minor semi then Port in the final. Peter Schneider broke his arm, so I ended up playing in the second row towards the end of the season," Hogan said.
He again represented Group Three and North Coast before gaining selection in the Country Seconds team to meet City at the SCG - the Holy Grail for bush footballers in that era.
"We were at the Poplars (now Waterfront Room) after the game and (Country Rugby League official) Warren Kimberley came down and told me I'd made it,'' Hogan said.
However, Hogan admits an 18-year-old running up against the likes of Mark Harris, George Piggins, Lionel Williamson, John O'Neill and Russell Fairfax was 'a bit daunting.'
"Harris dominated us and I remember Piggins standing on my hand when he was marking me once. But I thought I played okay,'' he said.
He marked Williamson and the experienced Newtown flanker scored a couple of tries.
'He had to go through the forwards to get them though,'' Hogan smiled.
"Williamson was then selected in the Australian team. Richie Hardy congratulated me, saying I'd played Williamson into the test side,'' Hogan added with a laugh.
The same year Hogan was named in the North Coast team to play the touring Great Britain side in Grafton. This was a fiery turnout where the visitors had to work overtime to beat the local combination.
"They thought they were in for an easy game, but we stuck it up to them,'' he recalled.
Hogan had a couple of offers to trial with city teams, but opted to stay in Taree to complete his plumbing apprenticeship. A lost opportunity perhaps, but they were different times.
"The 13 import rule was in then so it was pretty hard,'' he explained.
In 1975 Hogan had another clash against a visiting international team, scoring a try in North Coast's upset win over New Zealand. Hogan and fellow United player Peter Walkom scored all over North Coast's points.
He also played in mid-week Amco Cup games for North Coast against North Sydney and Manly, matches he recalls fondly.
In 1977 Hogan accepted an offer to play in Brisbane with Wests and spent two years there. At one stage he was mentioned as a possible Queensland representative in the pre-State of Origin days.
He headed back to Taree in 1979 to see out his playing career with United, the club going through some difficult times before winning the comp in 83 under captain-coach Jim Brown when upsetting the short-priced favourites, Wauchope in the grand final. Hogan scored a length of the field try in the 83 decider final to seal the victory. That was his final game.
At 28, Hogan decided he'd had enough.
"I'd lost a bit of drive and enthusiasm,'' he said.
"We won the premiership, so that was a pretty good way to finish I thought.''
He played with and against some fine footballers. He nominated team-mates Max Coggan, Brian Eakin, Paul Wilson, Peter Walkom, John 'Bugs' Fatherley and Harold Henry as standouts - Coggan, he said possessed 'great ball sense.' A serious knee injury robbed another United junior, Steve Schaffer, or a prosperous career according to Hogan.
"I also played with Gary Bridge and Mal Cochrane when they first came into first grade in 1980. They were only young, but you could tell they were going to be good,'' he said.
At various times he also played first grade with his two brothers, Greg and Bernard, which he described as special. Greg was a member of the 83 premiership team.
Old Bar's Phil Amidy, John 'Tucker' Adamson and Alex Willet were top rate, Hogan added, along with Forster-Tuncurry's Graham Herring and Garry McQuillan and Robert 'Rocky' Laurie from Wauchope.
His family has had a long association with rugby league in the Manning, starting with his dad, Pat, first with Taree United and now Taree City. Mark's sons, Luke and Jarrod, both played first grade with the Bulls.
However, golf is now his main sporting passion after he took up the game relatively late in life.
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