Mark Shulman (1951–2022)

 The St George DRLFC is saddened to learn of the passing of Mark ‘Bantam’ Shulman, halfback of the 1977 premiership-winning team and one of the most popular players to ever wear the Red V.

‘Mark epitomised courage and determination,’ said St George Illawarra and St George District chairman Craig Young, a teammate of Shulman’s in 1977 and 1978. ‘It’s remarkable to think how he prospered in first-grade rugby league, given the nature of the game at that time. A bloke as small as Bantam wasn’t supposed to survive back then, let alone be a key part of premiership winning side.

‘He was quick, tough, amazingly durable and very smart with a footy. We all had so much respect for him.

‘It’s a sad day. Everyone at the St George District and St George Illawarra Dragons send their sincere condolences to Mark’s family and friends.’

Mark Shulman was five days short of his 20th birthday when he made his first-grade debut for the Dragons against defending premiers South Sydney in the opening round of the 1971 season. Standing 5ft 3in (160cm) in his football boots, and weighing 10 stone (63.5kg), the Ramsgate United junior had showered and changed into his ‘civvies’ after captaining Saints third-grade side earlier in the day, but then coach Jack Gibson told him he needed him on the substitutes’ bench for firsts. This was something Gibson liked to do, to encourage the lower-graders to believe they were part of the ‘big picture’.

Then Billy Smith shattered his arm just before halftime. ‘‘This is it, son,’ Gibson said quietly to Shulman during the interval. ‘Out you go and show them what you are made of.’

By all accounts, the little halfback performed grandly. On 2SM, commentator Frank Hyde could not believe how tiny he was. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Alan Clarkson thought he looked ‘more like an overweight jockey than a footballer’. Souths led 8–7 at half time and then piled on three tries, but Saints hit back with three of their own, including one to Shulman, to make the final score 26–20.

Gibson said that Shulman was the second fastest player at the club, behind winger Stan Gorton. His courage was unquestioned. But with a champion such as Smith ahead of him, opportunities were rare. A broken leg in 1973 also impeded his progress. He played only 15 first-grade games from 1971 to 1975, but finally got his chance when Smith, who was nearly 34, was forced out of a game against Newtown in 1976. Shulman filled in and scored one try, started the move that led to another, and put the kick up that resulted in a third in a 16–8 win. ‘If Smith had played, we would have won,’ said Jets coach Clarrie Jeffreys. When Smith came back he had to play five-eighth, and then he was hurt again and was out for five weeks. In this time, Shulman established himself as the Dragons first-choice No. 7.

His great season was 1977, the year the St George team known as ‘Bath’s Babes’ won the premiership. They were coached by a club legend, Harry Bath, and the players’ average age was just 23. Shulman, Ted Goodwin and captain Steve Edge, born in 1951, were the veterans. Such was his excellent form, Shulman might have been unlucky not to be picked as Australia’s halfback for the final of the World Series tournament played in Australia that year, when the selectors opted for Parramatta’s John Kolc as the emergency replacement for the injured Tom Raudonikis. Shulman had outplayed Kolc 12 days earlier in an epic match at Kogarah Jubilee.

Saints met the Eels again in the major semi-final, and Shulman was heavily involved in the game’s pivotal moment. Edge called for ‘Billy’s ball’, a move named after Billy Smith, a central figure whenever it was implemented in the glory days. From a tap kick about 30 metres out, Craig Young got the ball, turned his back on the defence and had teammates running at him from all directions. The expectation was that one of the forwards would charge on to a pass, but instead Shulman got the ball and burst through. When he came to Parramatta fullback Mark Levy, the flying Goodwin was at his shoulder and the Dragons fullback raced away, to touch down under the posts. Saints won 10–5.

Saints were leading 9–2 in the grand final with about 20 minutes to go when Shulman was kneed in the back after he was tackled, with the referee’s view impeded. He had to leave the field soon after and the Eels came back to force a replay. In the lead-up to the rematch, the biggest news story was the state of Shulman’s ailing back, which reflected his importance to the Dragons. He didn’t make it, but Saints were still much too powerful, winning 22–0.

Throughout the first half, Shulman ran and stretched gingerly around the SCG No. 2, keeping his ailing back warm in case he was needed. If he stopped, he knew, his back would seize up completely. Bath and he had agreed that he’d only come on if stand-in halfback Rod McGregor was having trouble feeding the scrums, but that worst-case scenario never transpired and on the hour, as Goodwin potted a field goal to extend Saints’ lead to 10–0, Shulman emerged from the shadow of the Members Pavilion and slowly walked to the sideline where Bath, the team’s reserves and some officials were seated. It was a special and emotional moment, and the applause grew to a crescendo as Red V fans in all corners of the famous arena realised what was happening. Shulman, sat on the turf in front of his coach, who warmly patted him on the shoulder. The respect between the two was palpable. In this moment, Shulman’s status as a worthy and much loved successor to the great St George halfbacks of the past, such as Alby McAndrew, Bobby Bugden and Billy Smith, was confirmed.

Sadly, he suffered a neck injury in a 45–14 thrashing of Balmain midway through the following season — his spinal cord was dangerously bruised — and he was forced to retire. It was not the first neck or back problem he had endured during his career. ‘We are sad to lose such a great little player as Mark,’ said club secretary John Fleming. ‘But if he was not prepared to take the specialists’ advice, he would have been silly.’ In all, Shulman played 168 games for the club, 58 of them in first-grade. He later served the club as a lower-grade coach, taking the reserves to the preliminary final in three straight years, 1981 to 1983, and as a board member, before his work took him to Queensland.

Mark Shulman died on 12 February 2022. He was 70.