“Just say I did get in fights every week, who cares,” Raudonikis once said in an interview. “One thing I am, I’m honest.”
So honest that he decided to out himself as “The Phantom Biter” on the front cover of the sport’s bible, Rugby League Week, after nibbling on the nose of Manly rookie John Gibbs in a 1976 match.
“Just say I did get in fights every week, who cares. One thing I am, I’m honest.”
He was also in the thick of one of the most brutal brawls ever seen on a rugby league field, when his beloved Western Suburbs hosted bitter rivals Manly at Lidcombe Oval in 1977. Manly players later told of the taunts they could hear coming from the Magpies’ dressing-room before the game, a rivalry billed as the Silvertails and Fibros, rich against poor.
A 60 Minutes fly-on-the-wall look into the Magpies later revealed the face-slapping Raudonikis and his teammates used to rev themselves up under master coach Roy Masters.
But the most famous fight involving the little general was one he never took part in.
When he coached NSW in State of Origin in 1997, almost two decades after captaining his state, Raudonikis told his players to start a fight when he bellowed out “Cattledog” from the sideline. He made the call before his forwards packed into a scrum one night, prompting eighth Immortal Andrew Johns to cop a fearful beating from opposite number Jamie Goddard.
The saying has been part of rugby league folklore ever since.
For “Tommy Terrific”, fighting came natural. He was first diagnosed with cancer in 1986, but it was detected early enough. He had numerous relapses in the three decades since before he died in a Gold Coast hospital, six days shy of his 71st birthday.
Raudonikis was born in 1950 at a migrant hostel in Bathurst, a year after his parents arrived in Australia, and started his schooling in Cowra, four hours west of Sydney.
He joined the RAAF in Wagga as an apprentice airframe fitter in 1967 so he could link with Western Suburbs in Sydney, where his rugby league career took off.
He spent more than a decade at the Magpies, winning the Rothmans Medal for the game’s best-and-fairest player in 1972 before being lured to the Newtown Jets by his great mate John Singleton. Newtown made the 1981 grand final, a year after Raudonikis’ last NSW appearance in the inaugural Origin match against Arthur Beetson’s Queensland.
It was easy to forget how good a player Raudonikis actually was. He played 31 Tests for Australia and 30 games for NSW, a career few have ever matched.
“He taught everyone how not to give up, and that’s how he led his life,” Newtown benefactor Terry Rowney said.
“He’s a unique person that can make ordinary people do extraordinary things. I think the reason he was so inspirational was because he said, ‘do what I do and not what I say’. He taught this club how to win and how to never give up. He’s like your mum or dad, you always think he’s going to be there.”
A few years after that 1977 game, a Queensland player walked into the sheds and sat down next to Raudonikis and shared a beer after the first ever State of Origin match. He had a scar under his eye, but it wasn’t from that night. Greg Oliphant joked with Raudonikis it had never disappeared after the little NSW terrier picked a fight with him while he was being treated for that injury. A warm friendship ensued.
“There were quicker and more skilful halfbacks around than Tommy, but none smarter or tougher,” Oliphant said.
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Adam Pengilly is a Sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.