2014 Flashback: Where are they now? Johnny Berne
If you ever get the chance to meet the Queen, you’d like to think you’d be looking your best for the occasion. That certainly wasn’t the case for former Waratah Johnny Berne when he had his brush with royalty on a Wallaby tour back in 1975, the week after being unceremoniously dealt with by a couple of angry Scottish forwards.
“We went to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace,” recalls Berne. “Prince Charles was there and Princess Anne and there I was on crutches with two broken ribs and with a bloody and broken nose. The Queen said to me ‘What happened to you?’ and I said ‘Ma’am, some Scottish boys cleaned me up. We had a bit of a laugh about it!”
Now the proud owner of a successful cleaning supplies business, Berne – born in County Antrim in Northern Ireland – looks back fondly at his sporting pathway after arriving on these shores in 1961 at the age of seven.
His rugby career was sandwiched between two stints of rugby league where he featured for the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Sharks. But his achievements in a three year period at a very young age give an indication of his talent in the 15 man game.
“I’d always played league at school and my first game of rugby was at Randwick when I was 19,” he says. “I was lucky enough to get straight into first grade playing at five-eighth originally and then I moved to the centres when Ken Wright arrived.”
His performances at Coogee Oval alongside the likes of Russell Fairfax – “He was like dynamite, he could hoof the ball 60-70 metres, he was fearless and he could jump too. He was a pretty outstanding player.” – earned him a call-up to New South Wales colours in 1974 and 1975 where he competed in the annual state derbies against Queensland and in one memorable game against the All Blacks. “They beat us 20-0 but it was a good game!” laughs Berne.
Back then he was a greenhorn clerk for TNT, so when he was selected for the Wallabies European Tour over Christmas/New Year of ’74/’75, he was thrilled but unsure as to how he could possibly justify the 12 weeks away from the office. Up stepped an unusual guardian angel.
“The managing director, a big Kiwi who loved his rugby, called me in and said ‘Johnny, congratulations on making the Wallabies, you’ve got three months off on special leave and here’s a $3,000 cheque to take with you. Enjoy it.’” says Berne. “I made sure I brought him back a footy jumper!”
Having moved up through the ranks at TNT across a 20 year period, he moved into the chemical supplies business with a friend back in 1992, before two years later setting up his own company, Jackaroo Cleaning Supplies, which he runs with his son Mick. “I like it,” says Berne. “We look after restaurants and pubs and clubs so you get to meet a variety of people.”
Mick and elder brother Shaun both carved out professional rugby careers overseas with the likes of Bath and Leinster, where they played under Michael Cheika. However, it is Shaun’s contribution to New South Wales folklore – converting a 50 metre penalty after the siren to defeat the mighty Crusaders in 2003 – that will stir the memories of the Waratahs faithful and still brings a smile to his Dad. “Gee, it was a good kick!”
Johnny and wife Anne still get to most of the Waratahs home games and like what they see from the current crop. “I think the way they’re playing this year is fantastic. Israel Folau is a great player, I’m excited about Alofa Alofa, he’s terrific and the team is playing a really good style of football, which is great to see.”
Original version published in the NSW Waratahs v Melbourne Rebels match program on March 21st, 2014