TAREE'S Kevin Hardy remembers rugby league immortal Johnny Raper as a 'fitness fanatic' who was a 'tough man and a fantastic footballer.'
Raper died last week aged 82 after battling dementia for the past five years.
Hardy played with Western Suburbs Newcastle in 1972, when Raper was the captain-coach. A five-eighth or halfback, Hardy went to Wests from Taree United, the 1971 Group Three premier. He was the incumbent North Coast representative five-eighth. Raper had a leading role in Hardy's negotiations with Wests and that was one of the main reasons he signed.
"I was a bit overawed, thinking that I was going to be coached by Johnny Raper,'' Hardy, now 74, admitted.
"And when I went down there I was a mile behind everyone else as far as fitness was concerned.
"Johnny sort of took me under his wing at training and encouraged me to do a bit extra to catch up.''
Raper was 32 then and nearing the end of his storied career. Even so, Hardy said he still marvelled at some of the things that Raper was capable of on the field.
"And he was just so tough,'' Hardy said.
"I remember one game he was getting stretchered off the field. But he jumped off the stretcher before they got to the sideline - he wasn't going off; because if you went off in those days, you weren't allowed back on.''
He said Raper's coaching style was based on defence with an emphasis on fitness.
"We did have a few moves - one was called Strawberry Pie and I used it a lot when I started coaching with United. We scored a lot of tries from it,'' he said.
Wests had a star-studded lineup, but were beaten in the last minute of the final that season.
During his prime with St George in the 1960s Raper was renowned for his exploits off the field almost as he was for his performances on it. Hardy agreed he was good company.
"We played a lot of games on Saturday and that night we'd often head to South Newcastle Leagues Club for a drink. Johnny was always with us, but he was never rowdy and never went looking for trouble and never big noted himself,'' Hardy assured.
Later that year Raper and a number of other Wests Newcastle team-mates were guests at Hardy's wedding in Taree. Hardy had an impressive debut season with the Rosellas and the club was keen for him to stay on, however, he opted to return home in 1973 when he was appointed Taree United's captain-coach. He steered United to successive premierships in 1973/74 and a third title in 1977.
Hardy, who was awarded an OAM in 2020 for services to rugby league, stayed in touch with Raper, especially when he served as Country selector.
"If I had to go to Sydney I'd give him a call and we'd often meet up, especially for games at Kogarah (St George's home ground),'' he said.
"As a player I learnt a lot from John and I put that in to practice when I started coaching. And it was an honour to be coached by him.''
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