In the late 80s, rugby league — and Australia, was a very different place.
The sport of rugby league was far from the multimillion dollar behemoth it is today.
Still known as the NSWRL and dripping with tobacco advertising, the game realised that it needed a revamp to attract a new audience in the face of the growing threat from the south, the expanding VFL.
Enter one of the most iconic musical acts of the 20th century, Tina Turner.
The American superstar known as the Queen of Rock’n’roll becoming the figurehead for the — at that stage more than any other — slightly downtrodden, Australian-based working-class game.
On the face of it, a more incongruous pairing did not exist.
“She was that international icon,” then-NSWRL general manager John Quayle told ABC Brisbane.
“It was a wonderful time for all of us. To think that we were a part of it during the time that was wonderful for rugby league. It was a special time for all of us.”
Rugby league had been part of the fabric of life in New South Wales and Queensland for nearly a century, but as sports promotion became more and more important in an ever-crowded entertainment marketplace, governing bodies knew they needed something special to stand out from the crowd.
And Turner was most definitely special.
Advertising executive Jim Walpole approached the NSWRL with the idea of using Turner to film an advert using her hit song, What You Get Is What You See.
What followed was a groundbreaking, admittedly risque piece of television that would help propel rugby league to a different level.
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Shirtless rugby league players mix training montages with looking backwards, sultrily over their shoulders as Turner struts down a darkened corridor, singing her 1985 hit.
Incredibly, thanks to the magic of film, Turner never even set foot in Australia to film it, as Fulham’s Craven Cottage provided another incongruous backdrop to one of rugby league’s most important moments.
“We only had one day in London to film the commercial,” Quayle remembers.
“I flew with football jumpers, football, goalposts, pads. We used two wonderful footballers, Gavin Miller and Cliff Lyons [who were playing in England at the time].
“We filmed in the old Fulham dressing room, freezing cold, and I’ll never forget that scene when I introduced Tina to Gavin and Cliffy.”
Eastern Suburbs and Cronulla-Sutherland veteran Miller and Manly Warringah legend Lyons — in England playing for Hull Kingston Rovers and Leeds respectively — were both sworn to secrecy, and for good reason.
“There was a lot of opposition to it [the promotion] because we were using at the time, and it was stated, a black American grandmother to promote the game of rugby league and that was very controversial,” Quayle said.
The opposition disappeared when the final product was revealed.
“It was controversial until such time that people heard it. And when they heard it and people saw that commercial they acknowledged across the nation that it was one of the greatest sporting advertisements ever.”
Simply The Best
Of course, Turner’s association with rugby league was never destined to be fleeting.
Her next involvement arguably surpassed even that first iconic campaign, totally justifying the $2 million price tag.
Turner’s Australian manager Roger Davis got back in touch with the NSWRL with a proposition.
“Roger rang Jim Walpole and said, ‘look, Tina’s got a song that’s not recorded yet but it’s gunna be on her album at the end of the year’ and he said ‘I think it’s been written for sport and I think you should come listen to it.’
“Jim and I got on a plane to Los Angeles and listened to Simply The Best and were fortunate that we were able to buy the song for the entire southern hemisphere for the next five years before it was even recorded.
“We were very fortunate to do it we had the support of our major sponsor [Winfield] and it was just at a time where it all just came together and to have that particular theme which is still acknowledged with the game today is really incredible.”
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That time Turner was on location in Australia, where she instantly entrenched herself into rugby league culture.
“When she came to Australia and did the commercials … on the Gold Coast on the beach … it was just as if she was a part of our rugby league scene,” Quayle said.
Quayle recounted that although Turner knew “nothing” about the sport when she first became associated with it, she eventually “warmed to it”.
“She loved the players. She understood after a little while how fit they were, how good looking they were,” he said.
“She’d say about Alfie Langer, ‘look at the size of him, he’s so little’, and I used to say, ‘yes he’s one of the toughest players we have’.”
Quayle said Turner loved every minute of being a part of rugby league.
From roaring with laughter when asked to drop medicine balls harder onto the player’s stomachs to performing on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in high heels, without a harness in 1995.
“If you look at that theme [where] Tina is on the Harbour Bridge, [there was] no harnesses and [she wore] high-heeled shoes and she’s dancing to Simply The Best,” Quayle said.
“It’s one of the most wonderful scenes that were unique to Australian sport and certainly unique to rugby league.”
The return of an icon
Turner became intrinsically associated with rugby league — even performing at the 1993 Grand Final and celebrating with the victorious Brisbane Broncos afterwards.
She recorded a collaboration with Australian great Jimmy Barnes — who released his own tribute to the American great on Twitter.
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Due to scheduling constraints, that video was actually filmed in Amsterdam — highlighting how flexible both parties were willing to be to continue the association.
“It was easy to do [filming with Turner],” Quayle said.
“There was never any drama about it. She was so supportive.”
Simply The Best was reused ahead of the 2020 NRL season, so iconic had it become with rugby league.
Turner, at the time, said she was “thrilled the NRL is still excited about Simply The Best”.
“Thirty years on, to see the song being celebrated and the campaign relaunched is very humbling,” Turner said.
“The  grand final was my first rugby league game and I’ve never forgotten it.”
To honour the pop legend’s passing at the age of 83 on Wednesday, the NRL will play Simply The Best ahead of matches this weekend.
“I think we honour [Turner] knowing Simply the Best is still acknowledged 25-ish years later as an anthem, as an anthem for the game,” Quayle said.
“It’s not been used in major advertising since because it is acknowledged that way.
“I think people when they look at those scenes of how she interacted and worked with rugby league players at that particular time and what it created is legacy itself.
“I think that says so much about not only the game but certainly Tina.”