Written by Stuart McLennan
Barry Walker was a player regularly described as hardworking, reliable and underrated. Nevertheless, his 117 first-grade game career for Penrith, spanning 1988-1996, took a couple of dramatic turns.
After entering grade as a centre, Walker made the shift to the forwards, eventually ending up in the front row.
“I was moved to the second row by Tim Sheens and Len Stacker after having a knee reconstruction during the 1987 season,” Walker explained to Everything Rugby League.
“I came back for the start of pre-season training in 1988 and Ron Wiley asked me if I wanted to remain in the back row or go back to the centres. I decided to stay in the forwards.
“I was never the most gifted player so I did have to work harder on my fitness and skillsets. I was pretty lucky during my career that I never played many reserve-grade games after I made my first-grade debut. I would like to think that I was a good consistent player throughout my playing career.”
Walker was fortunate to be playing during a golden period for the western Sydney club. After entering the New South Wales premiership in 1967 it would be 23 years before the Panthers experienced a grand final. It’s a time that the big forward looks back to with positive memories.
“As a group of players, we were great mates and very tight. Most of us were together from about 1986 with the exception of Royce (Simmons) who had been there a lot earlier. Gus (Gould) added a few important players namely Peter Kelly and Chris Mortimer who both taught us how to finish games off.
“In 88 and 89 we made the semi-finals with Ron Wiley and we were starting to get some important experience as the majority of our team was in their early 20s. Then Phil Gould started coaching us in 1990 and put some finishing touches to our squad and we made our first-ever grand final.
“It was massive for the people of Penrith as they certainly love their footy out west. I think by going straight through to the grand final in 1990 we let our hair down and celebrated a bit too much after making our first Grand Final.”
“After losing to Canberra I don’t think I can describe the feeling unless you have been through it but if I had to I would say i was numb for a fair while after that game.
“When we got back to the club that night the people of Penrith made us feel proud of what we had achieved and we had a massive night commiserating.”
The disappointment lasted just 12 months for the Penrith boys after they achieved a fairytale win in 1991.
“The 1991 season we hit the ground running and we were all determined to go one better than the previous year. We were minor premiers by a fair few points and we went straight through to the grand final.
“This time we knew what it felt like to lose. Gus did not leave any stone unturned and we made a pact not to celebrate until after the game. We trained our bums off during the semis leading up to the game but it was all worthwhile because it is something they can never take away from you and not a lot of players get to experience a grand final in their career.
“To be a part of the history here at the Panthers and of the first team to make and then win a GF is a proud feeling and the party we had after winning certainly went on for a couple of weeks. The bond with my fellow teammates will last forever.”
While Walker continued to shine for Penrith following the historic premiership win, there were some dark and divided times to come during the Super League war. It led to him making a court appearance.
“At Penrith about a dozen of us signed with the Australian Rugby League (ARL) as Penrith were going to remain with the ARL. We were called into a team meeting after we got home from training one evening in pre-season.
“I thought something was not right because we have never been called back to the club that late for a meeting and at the time Super League was all over the news.
“We all arrived at our training headquarters and Royce (Simmons) our coach and Mark Levy our CEO were briefing us on what had transpired with the club. The Panthers had signed a contract with Super League and they were coming to talk to all of us. We could not leave the room or ring our managers.
“We were called in one by one to talk to the Super League delegation who would offer a contract and also in my case to pay back the ARL loyalty contract I signed. I decided to be a one-club man and signed a contract which was the last one I ever signed.
“The ARL took us to court which was not a great feeling but the twelve of us did not want to leave, we all had offers to go to an ARL club but we decided to stick with the Panthers.”
The hard-running forward nominates Les Davidson and Glenn Lazarus as the toughest and most skilful forwards he played against.
“You would never remain standing in a tackle when Davo was around as you would end up with some sort of rib injury. I was fortunate to be able to play a rep game with Davo in the city team in 1991.
“Glenn, he had a massive motor for a big guy and was as good in defence as he was in attack and was one of the most skilful front-rowers I have seen play the game to date.
“My favourite player to play alongside was Colin Van Der Voort. He was not the biggest of players but played well above his weight. ‘Vandy’ always had an influence in a game whether it was in attack or defence with his massive work rate. He would have played for Australia if not for some very nasty injuries he endured.”
Not surprisingly for a man that played at the foot of the mountains in western Sydney, Walker wasn’t a fan of the glamour club from the northern beaches.
“Any player who wore a Manly jersey was enough motivation to run over them or try that bit harder when you played them.
“I did try and run over their smallest player on the field, Geoff Toovey and I ended up on my backside. Watching Tooves over the years he was one of the best defenders playing the game, especially for his size.”
When asked about his fondest memories Barry points to the ‘rugby league family’ friendships he forged through being involved with the sport.
“The mates and bonds I have made playing this great game. Not just players but everyone associated with the club, coaches right down to the gear stewards, sponsors and also the most important people, the fans. And of course, being involved in the 90 and 91 grand finals.”