Born in Ballarat on September 11, 1925 to parents whom he never saw and never heard from, Keith Victor Holman had the most distant upbringing from Rugby League that one could humanly have.
Living in poverty as a child, being looked after by a man known only as Holman, who most likely was a relative, but not even Keith knew at the time, Holman grew up during Australia’s darkest days – the post WWI era known as the Depression. For a long time, even Keith’s name was unclear, but after the great generosity he received from this man ‘Holman’ he had his surname changed by deed poll, adopting the name as his surname. It was many years later Keith learnt that Holman was his actual surname anyway.
When the depression struck in the 1930’s, ‘Holman’ took Keith to Sydney, where he resided in a tin shed at Yarra Bay initially, by the people who he considered as his parents throughout his childhood, Mr and Mrs Schofield.
Mrs Schofield sent Keith to De La Salle Brothers School in Surry Hills, where he would go on to become friends with future test team-mate Burnie Purcell.
While at school he was first shown the game of Rugby League and instantly fell in love with it. He was very quick on his feet and very hard for the bigger, cumbersome forwards to catch him. He was quickly put in the pivotal role of halfback and was very quickly representing his school alongside Purcell, under the tutelage of Souths player Jack “Duck” Walsh.
Once his schooling was completed, Holman signed up with the RAAF while still living at Woolloomooloo with the Schofield’s. He was soon posted in Ipswich (Queensland) for training. Holman quickly found a new team to play for in CYM, in Brisbane. He was a chef for the RAAF with the 82 wing.
Keith later revealed he went up to his Chief Officer and said “Excuse me Sir; I’d like to be able to play football Sir, on a Saturday with CYM in Ipswich First Grade.” The CO replied, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do son. You can play on the Saturday, but you’ve got to double-up again on the Sunday and play for the RAAF against the Army and Navy.” Keith was ecstatic, as he later revealed, it meant that he got every weekend off to play footy.
In November 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered in World War II, Holman was sent to Balikpapan in Borneo, with the RAAF, transporting ex-prisoners of war and other Australian Armed forces personnel back to Australia. It was during his time there that he almost lost his life in a bizarre incident.
It was after he’d finished cleaning up in the makeshift Kitchen, two natives where repairing a mechanism used to light the stoves, colloquially known as a ‘choofer’. Petrol was poured down a pipe from tanks outside into a furnace inside. Then a match was sent down the pipe to light the fire inside. On this particular day, the natives were cleaning it, but were unaware it had a leak, and petrol was on the floor inside the kitchen. As Keith was leaving the room, a match was dropped down and the whole room exploded in flames. He received burns to his hands, chest and legs, but fortunately not to his face.
While serving, he was selected at halfback for the RAAF against ‘Rest of Ipswich’ in a curtain raiser game before the England v Ipswich tour game in 1946. He kicked three field goals in the game.
Once his duties with the RAAF had ended, he returned to Sydney and attended a trial for Souths. They told him to come back and try out for a ball boy, because he was so short (5’6” or 168cm) they thought he was a lot younger than he actually was.
The legendary Cec Blinkhorn saw Holman’s trials and lined him up with Manly, who were stringing together players for the debut season. In 1947 Holman played in Manly’s lower grades. They graded him as a reserve for their third grade side before he was posted to Dubbo later in the year.
It was while he was playing in Dubbo in 1948 that current Wests centre at the time Eric Bennett, spotted Holman and insisted he trial with Wests. Bennett brought Holman back to Sydney and they resided with former Wests player Jack Drew in his Enfield home. Bennett, Drew and another ex-player, Tom McGuinness, all worked together to help coach Holman extra skills for a halfback in attack and defence.
Holman played third and reserve grade for Wests in 1948. In 1949, Holman was graded in first grade, but struggled to get much game time, as he was battling with NSW halfback Neville Hogan for a spot in Wests top side.
Holman appeared in a handful of games in 1949, but the few glimpses that the media and the fans got of him, was enough to convince them that he would be a star in the game’s future. After a starring role in Wests 44-15 annihilation of Easts, which earned him Man of the Match honours, he was already being tipped as a candidate for representative duties later that year. Three weeks later he backed up that performance with another starring role in Wests 23-0 shut-out of Canterbury. It was in this match that his combination with Frank Stanmore started to show.
Deft passing both sides, coupled with the ability to throw long, hard passes, later dubbed “bullet passes” as well as amazing agility, speed and determination in defence meant he was popping up all over the field all the time, making him very hard to ignore.
At the end of 1949, Neville Hogan announced he had accepted a role as captain-coach for Young for 1950. Holman became the number 1 halfback at Wests. Holman moved out of Jack Drew’s home and resided with then Wests secretary Lou Moses and his wife in their Croydon home.
Despite Wests slow start to the 1950 season, Holman had made such a massive impression that he was making strong claims for rep honours while still young and playing in a poorly performing team. Playing in the centres for Wests alongside Holman that year was Jack Walsh, his coach from when he attended De La Salle Brothers.
He was surprisingly omitted from both the Sydney firsts and seconds teams to play against Country, but when Keith Froome wasn’t selected as NSW halfback for the upcoming interstate series against Queensland, Holman had a battle with Col Geelan for the vacant job. The selectors however couldn’t ignore Holman’s ability and they selected him.
After a successful interstate series with NSW, and helping lead Wests to a form reversal, winning 4 of 5 games, Holman was named as halfback in the ‘Probables’ team for their match against the “Possibles” to determine positions in the test side. Holman put in yet another stellar performance. Mrs Moses gave him the good news that he had been selected to play for Australia while he was at home one day.
Holman impressed in his first outing, even though he was targeted heavily by English halfback Tommy Bradshaw all game. Australia lost the game 6-4. The selectors chose to stand by the young halfback.
It was a masterstroke, as Holman lead Australia to a dominant 15-3 victory. So good was Holman that he picked up a number of 'Man of the Match' awards from various judges. It even lead the brilliant 1920’s test halfback and then selector Duncan Thompson to say of Holman, “I’ve seen few halfbacks pass with such rhythm and speed.”
It was Thompson’s advice to Holman at half time in the second test that swung the game Australia’s way. The “Downs Fox” told Holman to run with the ball more and take the line on, as the England defenders were getting tired and starting to hang back when he got the ball.
It was that advice that saw Holman score a try and set up another for a great victory.
Keith’s heroics continued in the third test when he helped guide Australia to win the deciding test and win the Ashes for the first time since 1920. Making his test debut in that amazing third test was Holman’s team mate from De La Salle Brothers, Burnie Purcell.
Holman, along with a number of the test players agreed after the game that they would refuse the bonus payments due to them for winning the game and the series, instead, they wanted to receive trophies.
Holman told the Sydney Morning Herald after the series win, “I would rather have the trophy. I would soon spend the money, but a trophy would give me something to look back on and remind me of the games.” The NSWRL honoured the players wishes.
Holman returned to club football, turning in several 'Man of the Match' performances, which saw Wests win their last 6 straight games to sneak into 4th spot and into the finals. They beat Balmain 28-10 to make it to the Grand Final against the star studded Souths line-up, containing Keith’s long-time friend Purcell.
Souths turned out to be too strong on the day, winning 21-15. Holman was awarded the Sunday Herald ‘Player of The Year’ collecting a trophy and 150 pounds.
In 1951, Holman was named vice-captain of Wests and his form continued from the previous year. He was no longer a hopeful selection, he had become the first picked. He played all 3 tests against a touring French team, regarded as one of the greatest teams to ever tour to Australia.
He again lead Wests to the finals, but they bowed out in the first week after a heavy 37-9 loss to Manly. Holman was voted the NSW Player of the Year in 1951, a testament to his performances at all levels of the game. It would not be the last time he won the coveted prize in his distinguished career.
1952 saw Holman and Wests start the season in very strong form. Wests won their first 9 straight games. Holman’s selection in the Test side to play New Zealand saw Wests lose consecutive games.
But it was the second test against the Kiwi’s which had fans concerned.
During the first half, New Zealand winger Cyril Eastlake made a break down the sideline. Holman attempted a diving tackle but missed and his head caught Eastlakes boot as he ran past the attempted tackle.
Holman was knocked out briefly, before regaining his feet, somewhat groggily. At halftime he collapsed in the sheds before regaining consciousness again. He decided to continue playing, but his grogginess severely hampered his usual brilliant self, and the Kiwi’s ran away with the game, winning 49-25.
The selectors were very harsh of the team and cut several players from the third test line-up, including Holman. Keith regained the confidence of the selectors after starring in 4 straight wins for Wests which saw him named in the Kangaroo squad to tour England and France. Keith was presented with a gold watch, travel case and rug from Bebarfalds Ltd.
While en-route to England, Wests defeated Souths in the Grand Final. It would be the only Grand Final Wests would win during Holman’s playing career. His only true regret as a player.
The 1952 Kangaroo tour is sadly remembered for the atrocious refereeing by the French officials against the Australian team, mostly directed at Holman for trivial scrum infringements.
The issue had been going on since the first tour game in France and by the time the Third test rolled around, the Kangaroo’s were sick of it. In that Test, Holman was dubiously penalised for feeding a scrum incorrectly. Then referee Rebas sent off Holman for allegedly swearing at him. Holman strongly denied the allegation and Australian captain Clive Churchill interjected, but the referee was insistent. Angered by the decision, Churchill motioned for his team to walk off in protest, before team manager Norm “Latchem” Robinson came onto the field with an interpreter to try and discuss the matter with the referee; however Rebas just walked away from them.
Holman remained on the ground and once play resumed, he tried to dive over for a try. While he was on the ground, French player Louis Mazon leapt on Holman with both knees after the tackle had been made. Rebas cautioned Mazon and ordered a scrum, before going on to ignore further French infringements and penalising the Australians for trivial issues. France won the game 13-5, and the series.
In 1953, Holman was hampered by injuries and Wests had lost a lot of players from the previous season. They were a very young and inexperienced side who struggled to compete, and they finished the year with the wooden spoon the year after they won the Premiership.
Holman was named Wests Captain-Coach for 1954, but injuries interrupted his season, however he still managed to gain selection for NSW. It was while playing for NSW against the touring England side that he became the victim in a brutal incident which saw the referee walk off the field, having lost control of the game, and the match was abandoned due to fighting.
Holman was alleged to have tripped England half Ray Price. Soon after from a scrum, Holman picked up the ball and ran into the ruck. He was tackled and held by two English forwards and then a third player ran in and punched Holman heavily in the face. The sideline official ran onto the field and reported the incident. Referee Aub Oxford, cautioned Price. Price spoke back to the referee, unhappy with the caution, and Oxford sent him off.
Price walked off the field and kept talking to Oxford who was defiantly pointing sternly to the dressing sheds. When play resumed, the English players were tackling, high, with cocked fists and punching the NSW players. It quickly turned into a massive all-in brawl and no matter what Oxford tried to do he couldn’t bring the fighting under control, so he walked off the field, leaving the players fighting on the pitch.
Holman played a pivotal and starring role in the Australian teams’ retention of the Ashes, albeit playing with an injured hip in the third test which saw him limping for the entirety of the game, he was still able to play well enough to be considered one of Australia’s best on field.
Just a few weeks after the brutal NSW v England affair, Wests played in a fiery match against Easts which saw two players from both Easts and Wests sent off. Holman finished the game bleeding from the mouth and had a graze on his left cheekbone. Wests failed to reach the finals that year.
Holman was named in Australia’s inaugural World Cup squad and set sail for England for the tournament. He was then selected to play for the Anzac’s side to play Great Britain in an exhibition game at Bradford. Australia finished third out of the four competing teams in the World Cup. They then toured with the New Zealand team to Los Angeles where they played an exhibition game, which Australia won. Holman was declared Man of the match and awarded the Dick Hyland trophy.
Most notably though, it was in 1954 that Keith Holman ‘earned’ his now famous nickname ‘yappy’. At an interview in 2000, he revealed how the name came about:
“I was captain of Western Suburbs and naturally being the captain, when a decision was made by the referee I'd say "excuse me sir, what was that for? excuse me sir, what was that for?". The bloke that gave me the nickname "Yappy" happened to be Darcy Lawler (prominent Rugby League referee of the 50’s). I don't think I can say what he told me, he said "for Christ's sake Yappy shut your #%$*&@ mouth" and that's how it stuck.”
In 1955, Holman was controversially omitted from the NSW side to play the touring French side, along with Clive Churchill; however both were recalled for the test series, which was narrowly lost by the Kangaroo’s.
Wests again struggled in 1955, finishing the year at the bottom of the ladder. Upon Keith’s recommendation, his school coach and former team mate, Jack Walsh was made coach of Wests in 1956, so that Keith could focus on playing football.
Despite his club’s poor season, Holman still managed to win the New South Wales Player of the Year Award in 1956.
Wests managed to sneak into the finals in 1957. It was not all thanks to Holman though, who was hampered by leg and knee injuries throughout the year, however his fitness always seemed to come good when the representative season rolled around.
Holman played a supporting role beside Greg Hawick, who was sublime in NSW’s 49-11 demolition of Queensland. Their dominant showing earned them automatic selection for the Australian side to play in the World Cup that year on home soil. In the first game, Holman was sandwiched in a heavy tackle and twisted his knee. He spent most of the game limping, but managed to finish the match. He was unable to pass future fitness tests and didn’t play again in the cup.
Wests managed to sneak into the finals that year, thanks to victory in a play-off for fourth against Newtown. Their premiership aspirations were dashed when a red hot Souths side walloped them 45-7 a week later.
Keith’s colourful career added another extraordinary chapter, when he was banned from being a ‘second man’ for his good friend, boxer George Barnes, in his British Empire championship title defence.
1958 saw Wests reach the finals, but they were again eliminated in the first week of the finals. At the end of the season Walsh stood down as coach and Wests appointed former Test player, coach and club legend Vic Hey as head coach. It was his appointment which saw the start of the epic and frequent grand final battles between St.George and Wests of the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Holman played in all 3 tests against Great Britain on home soil that year. After a stellar performance in the opening game, where Holman was again one of the best on field, Australia won 25-8. But the form could not be replicated again in the series, Australia losing a closes second test before the Lions trampled them 40-17 in the decider. It would be Holman’s last test.
Despite being a member of the Test side which lost the Ashes, Holman still managed to win his third NSW Player of the year title.
The New Zealand team toured Australia in 1959 and with Holman’s career seemingly near it’s end, the Test selectors opted for a new halfback, selecting the 21 year old Queenslander Barry Muir as his successor. Holman’s test career was over after a whopping 35 tests.
In 1959 Wests won 13 of their 18 games, finishing a distant second to St.George, who finished the year undefeated. Wests lost both their finals games and failed to reach the Grand Final.
In 1960, Wests struggled for most of the year and as Holman had started to struggle over the last few years with recurring injuries, he had begun to consider retirement. But a strong run over the last 6 weeks, where Wests won 5 games, made him reconsider. Wests made it into the finals but again failed to reach the Grand Final.
The 1961 Wests side was quite dominant, losing just 3 of their 18 games. They made it to the Grand Final but were no match for a rampant St.George side, who won 22-0. Holman pulled a muscle in his leg in the first half, but continued playing. A stray swinging arm by Reg Gasnier narrowly missed Holman’s head. The full time siren sounded, ending the stellar 13 year career of Keith Holman.
After the game, Keith spoke with Gasnier, saying “I wish to Christ you’d have hit me!” Gasnier replied “Why?” Keith replied “I would have rather been carried off than walked off after that game!”
Despite the convincing defeat, the fans gathered at the ground on that day and gave an emotional and thorough ovation to Holman as he left the field for the last time as a player.
After a brief respite from the game, Holman did what very few athletes in the world had ever considered, let alone done and turned his hand to officiating. In 1962 he became a referee, but it wasn’t until 1965 that he made his first grade referee debut. He spent half the year officiating lower grade games. He controlled just 3 first grade games in 1966 and 6 games in 1967. In 1968 he became a regular first grade referee.
In 1970, Holman officiated 3 ‘match of the round’ games. He went on to control the third grade finals series that year as well.
1971 was when his career as a referee hit its peak. He refereed the City v Country game, the second Interstate match between NSW and QLD as well as the 1971 Grand Final, which Keith recalls, was the highlight of his career as a referee.
However there was a low point to his career as a referee in 1971, and it came during his only game as referee in an interstate game, at Lang Park. In a fiercely fought battle, Holman sent off 4 players, 3 of them Queenslanders, for stiff-arms, punching and kicking. The last player to be sent off, Russell Hughes (Queensland) happened within the last 10 minutes of the game and was met by a barrage of beers cans and bottles being thrown onto the field by seething fans, described in the media as a near-riot.
In 1972 he again controlled the City v Country clash along with his first Test matches, the first and second tests between Australia and New Zealand, making him the first man to play and referee at international level, a record that still has not been equalled.
He was again the referee for the City v Country game in 1973 and then refereed in every round of 1974 before hanging up the whistle.
From 1964 to 1967 Holman also toured Papua New Guinea as part of the National Sports Foundation, lecturing and coaching about Rugby League. In 1974 he was made a life member of the Papua New Guinea Rugby League.
Keith’s endurance on the field, as a player and referee, was down to his strong discipline in fitness, health and training. He became good friends with athletes George Barnes (boxer), Alan Davidson (cricket), Marlene Mathews (track and field) and Gloria Cooke (also track and field). He regularly trained alongside them. Keith believed that being physically fit lead to being mentally fit and vice versa.
His retirement from the game was again short lived, as he took up a post as coach of Port Kembla for seasons 1975-76. He then took on the head coach position of the 1977 Wests side. His return to coaching at Wests was initially very fruitful, winning the pre-season AMCO Cup competition.
However, the joy was short lived as Wests won just 7 of their 22 games in 1977. Holman stepped down at the end of the year signalling an end to his career, and his third retirement in 16 years. Holman was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to Rugby League in 1977.
Keith took on a position as chairman of the NSW Coaching Panel from 1981 til 1986, after having previously been a board member back in 1962.
In 1991, Holman was inducted into the ‘Sport Australia Hall of Fame.’
Keith though was never one to sit back and reminisce. His passion for the game, that had given him so much, when he came into the world with absolutely nothing, drove him to continue giving back to the game. He worked tirelessly with juniors in the Western Suburbs. His work was recognised in the greatest way possible when he became the first player to have a football team named after him (Holman JRLFC, based at Enfield)
In February, 2000, he gave an interview to the members of the Western Suburbs Magpies Supporters Club, a very humbled Holman reflected about the awards and achievements in his life:
“I feel that to achieve these things, for people to think that well of you, to give you those rewards, I couldn't believe it. I had the arse out of my pants as a kid, now I've got a lovely home and a lovely wife. I couldn't wish for anything more.”
Keith Holman was then inducted into the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2003.
A panel of experts selected Holman as halfback in an Australian ‘Team of the 50’s’ in 2007.
In 2008, Holman was named as one Australian Rugby League’s top 100 players in the Centenary celebrations. He was also named as halfback for the Western Suburbs team of the century and as halfback in the Wests Tigers (a team of the best players from Balmain, Western Suburbs and Wests Tigers since 1908) team of the century. He was also one of the 6 inaugural players to be inducted into the Western Suburbs Hall of Fame.
Keith Holman’s life and being was best summed up by Keith himself when asked what it was about the Magpies that kept him involved with the club for over half a century:
“I was an orphan and people gave me a chance, and I want to give the kids a chance. I think that's the beautiful part of it. Mr and Mrs Schofield gave me a home, I've got a wonderful family, I've got two daughters and a son, I've got seven grandchildren and everything I do I want them to be proud of me.”