Ian Heads, the ‘gentleman journalist’ of rugby league, dies aged 81

Ian Heads, the ‘gentleman journalist’ of rugby league, dies aged 81

In the early months of John Quayle’s tenure as general manager of the NSWRL, it wasn’t uncommon for him to take calls from reporters at 6am.

Sydney’s newspaper wars in the 1980s, which included daily battles between afternoon mastheads like The Sun and The Mirror, meant the chase started when it was still dark.

As is still the case, no other sport engaged Sydney readers and warranted screaming headlines like rugby league, so Quayle’s bedside phone would regularly wake him before his alarm clock.

Among the first to call was The Mirror’s Peter Frilingos, considered the best news chaser in the business.

“Have you spoken to him yet?” Frilingos would grumble, according to Quayle.

“Who?” Quayle would reply.

“You know who.”

Frilingos was referring to Ian Heads, the “gentleman journo” from The Daily and Sunday Telegraph who caught stories with honey, not vinegar, and everyone loved him for it.

Heads died on Monday morning after a long illness. He was 81.

A giant of rugby league and journalism, he didn’t just report on the game but honoured its history with the words he chose and, mostly, how he held himself. In a sport and profession known for its aggression and ruthlessness, he was an exception.

“He was always direct — but always a gentleman,” Quayle said.

Ian Heads in 2src23, when he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

Ian Heads in 2023, when he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.Credit: NRL Photos

Heads was great friends with fellow legends of the craft like Alan Clarkson, Bill Mordey and, later, Frilingos, all of whom shared a collegiate respect, especially when covering overseas tours. The Herald’s Tom Goodman, Heads would tell others, was his mentor.

He worked both sides of the street, starting with News Limited in the 1960s then later for Fairfax publications the Sydney Morning Herald and Sun-Herald. He edited Rugby League Week when it was the game’s biblical authority and authored more than 50 books.

Lifelong friendships were forged with the likes of Jack Gibson, Arthur Beetson, Mick Cronin, Ken Arthurson and Quayle, who led tributes on Monday.

“After an early meeting in 1983, he took me by the arm and said, ‘If you need anything confidentially, if you need to ask a question, I’ll always be available,’” he said. “His knowledge taught me the values of the game and what it had been through.”

Heads and former Kangaroos coach Frank Stanton.

Heads and former Kangaroos coach Frank Stanton.Credit: Fairfax Media

Heads was honoured with an OAM in 2010 for service to the media as a sports journalist and was inducted into the NRL Hall of Fame last July at the same time as South Sydney patriarch George Piggins.

“Ian is quite simply a doyen of rugby league journalism,” ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landy

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