‘I’d hate to see the ugly ones!’: Tina Turner’s love affair with rugby league

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On a freezing morning in January 1989, Tina Turner stepped into a London studio, resplendent in fur coat and hat, ready to shoot a rugby league commercial.

Australian Rugby League general manager John Quayle — who had secretly flown to England with jumpers, footballs, and goalposts — had promised her she’d be shooting the campaign with the best-looking man in the game: Cronulla winger Andrew Ettingshausen, who was playing for Leeds at the time.

When Quayle arrived in London, he had a message from Gavin Miller, Ettingshausen’s Cronulla teammate who had arranged him for the shoot.

“We have a problem here,” Miller told Quayle. “Andrew’s game was snowed out at the weekend and they’ve transferred it to Wednesday and Leeds won’t release him.”

Quayle’s heart sank.

“But don’t worry, John,” Miller said. “I’ve fixed it. I’ve got you not one but two footballers.”

Cliff Lyons and Gavin Miller weren’t winning too many rugby league pin-up competitions.Credit: Craig Golding

“Who might that be?” Quayle asked nervously.

“Me and Cliffy Lyons.”

When Turner arrived at the studio, she pulled Quayle aside.

“If these are good-looking ones, I’d hate to see the ugly ones!” she laughed, before hugging Miller and Lyons, who was so nervous to be in the presence of the rock goddess he could barely speak.

And so rugby league’s unlikely love affair with one of the world’s greatest recording artists of all time began. In time, she became the voice, the face and enormous spiky hair of the game. For many fans, she still is.

As Quayle recalled on Thursday: “I’d gone from the game’s best-looking footballers to two of the least. But they were wonderful. And so was she. She never changed from that moment, through all the commercials she did for us. She wasn’t programmed. She was invested in our game.”

Quayle led the tributes to Turner following her death in Kusnacht near Zurich, Switzerland, following a long illness. She was 83.

Her association with rugby league attracted a new audience to the game in the late 1980s and early 1990s as part of the ARL’s push to entice more women to watch.

In 1989, Tina Turner knew how to make rugby league sexy.

The league had engaged Jim Walpole, the advertising genius at Hertz Walpole, who had approached various artists to record Turner’s 1986 song What You Get Is What You See, but it just didn’t sound right coming from the mouths of others.

Then fate played its part in securing Turner.

Quayle’s assistant was Nikki Braithwaite, who was married to Daryl Braithwaite, the lead singer of rock band Sherbet, who had been managed by Roger Davies, the Australian agent who also represented Turner.

“Myself and Paul McKay from Hertz Walpole met with Roger and he wasn’t interested,” he recalled. “He said, ‘No, it’s just not right for Tina’. A couple of days later he called and said, ‘You’ve got one day and it’s in London in early January. If you’re prepared to do that, we’ll see how it goes’.”

There was blowback from the rugby league establishment. Quayle and chairman Ken Arthurson had kept Turner’s involvement secret, including from their own board, fearing the idea would be abandoned because of costs.

The night before the commercial was launched, Quayle took a call from commentator Rex Mossop.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve got an American grandmother to be the face of rugby league,” Mossop said.

If the campaign backfired, there is little doubt Quayle would’ve been sacked. But, despite those fears, the commercial was an outrageous success: in one season, the game’s female fan base grew 70 per cent.

A new deal was struck the following season for Turner to come to Australia to shoot another campaign, this time singing The Best, and all concerned were taken aback by Turner’s humility and lack of demands.

“No minders, no security,” Quayle said. “Her only demands were not to start too early and have a plate of fresh mango each morning. She had so much fun shooting those commercials, either on the beach or in the gym. She laughed the whole time. The players loved her.”

In one famous scene, Turner had to pound a medicine ball into the stomach of St George winger Ricky Walford.

“I’ll hurt him!” she cried.

“Harder! Harder!” the producers shouted.

“I’m sorry, Ricky! I’m sorry!”

NSWRL boss Ken Arthurson and Tina Turner at the press conference unveiling Simply the Best as the game’s anthem. Credit: Steven Siewert

The Best was the game’s anthem for the next seven years, and at little cost for the ARL because Winfield paid for most of it. Quayle says the league invested as little as $200,000 over the seven-year term.

Turner performed the song with Jimmy Barnes in 1992 and 1993 and then at the Sydney Football Stadium on grand final day in 1993 before handing the Winfield Cup to Broncos captain Allan Langer later that afternoon.

Three days before shooting her last commercial, the idea was raised at dinner about her performing atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Quayle figured she’d say no.

“That sounds like fun,” said Turner, who shot the commercial in high-heels with no harness with a cameraman and one of the bridge operators.

NRL officials rebirthed the campaign for the 2020 season, although it was shelved when the COVID-19 pandemic grounded the game.

“I am thrilled the NRL is still excited about Simply The Best and will use it again after 30 years,” Turner told the Herald at the time. “Thirty years on, to see the song being celebrated and the campaign relaunched is very humbling. The grand final was my first rugby league game and I’ve never forgotten it. I wish the NRL all the best with the campaign.”

Quayle and Walpole kept in touch with Turner through Davies, and were invited to her 50th birthday celebrations in London.

“This is a sad day,” Quayle said. “But rugby league will never forget Tina Turner.”

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