A couple of years ago I was at a Men of League function with my mate Alby Talarico. We were sitting up the front at a table somewhere near the stage when everyone started to shift toward the entrance way of the room.
There he was alongside his great friend Col Murphy – the legendary little halfback himself – Tommy Raudonikis.
The people were pulled to him.
God knows how many hands his shook that day or at the thousands of lunches and dinners he’d been to previously.
Now Alby knew what Tommy meant to me.
He knew he had to get me to that lunch.
As I sat there waiting for my chance to leap into action and grab Tommy’s attention, something funny happened.
Tommy and Col kept getting closer to us.
Until finally, there they were, sitting right next to me at our table.
Alby gave me a wink, I polished off my first beer and we were away.
I don’t think I shut up for three hours and I’m sure Tom and Col were happy to get away from me by the end of it.
Who knows when I was going to get to speak to TOMMY RAUDONIKIS again?
Evidently, that was the first and last time.
On Wednesday morning I got up and wrote an article on Peter V’landys and the new rule changes in the NRL. As I finished, I took a glance over Twitter and wish I hadn’t.
The first tweet I saw was from The Daily Telegraph’s Dean Ritchie confirming Tommy had died.
After fighting cancer for so many years, he’d finally lost the battle at age 70.
It still hurt.
Like one of your own family members had passed.
Maybe because he’d beaten it so many times in the past we took it and him for granted.
Cancer? Tommy? Piece of piss, mate.
Blokes like Tom Raudonikis don’t die.
They’re the guys that are meant to be around forever.
In 2021, with Facebook and Twitter and the rest, some may not understand how important Raudonikis was to several generations of rugby league fans.
He was an outstanding Kangaroos halfback in his own right.
An icon of the Western Suburbs Magpies and the Newtown Jets.
But to this writer, he was the little battling coach of a struggling club out at Orana Park in the 1990’s.
When he took the job to coach the Magpies in 1995 – he wasn’t just taking on any new gig. He’d spent his retirement years in Queensland coaching in the BRL.
He wasn’t coming back to Sydney to coach at Lidcombe Oval. Tommy was coming to Campbelltown to scrape the fledgling team off the scrapheap after some very lean years.
It was just as much to lift the spirits of the locals and he was going to do it the only way he knew how.
On the Top of the Props podcast, John Skandalis talks about his 1996 debut at Orana against the Penrith Panthers. A freezing cold night in the middle of winter against a big, angry group of men from the foot of the mountains.
Skandalis explained Tommy’s coaching style which was more about passion than any specific game plans.
Tommy wasn’t much into game plans.
“Get the f*** in there and bash these pricks!”
His pre-match walk out of the sheds and down the western sideline to the crappy old coaches box behind the southern goalposts became the thing of legend. A half-lit ciggy hanging from his bottom lip, his disheveled hair flapping from beneath a cap, assistant coach Jason Alchin trying to keep up with him as he marched down the field.
“Carrnnn Tommy!” someone from the crowd would shout.
“Put a jersey on and get out there, Tom!” another would cheer.
He instilled pride in his players… in the jersey.
The Magpies started winning and in turn, Tommy gave the town its pride.
You will never meet a tougher Australian than Tommy Raudonikis.
A fearless man.
He may never have been the tallest but he had the heart of a lion and the guts of an army.
Rest in piece, Tommy Raudonikis.