Debut: Vs Keighley (H) 15th September 1985
Honours: Yorkshire Cup (Winner: 1988-89), NRL Premiership (Winner: 1987, 1996), Dally M Player of the Year (1990, 1994), Clive Churchill Medallist (1987)
Unpredictable, magisterial, will-o-the-wisp, nuggety and Wild West moustachioed; Cliff Lyons was destined to be a star from the minute he arrived at Headingley. Narrandera’s finest possessed all the qualities beloved in a Leeds stand off, not least because he was box office, and in two short spells, cemented himself as one the fondestly remembered overseas players to don the shirt.
When he first arrived in 1985-86, looking something like a cross between a sheriff and a country rock star, the imperious reign of John Holmes in the position of most influence was beginning to come to an end and Lyons seemed the perfect bridge to the next era. The contrast in status between his two spells could not have been more marked.
He arrived as an unheralded North Sydney player having initially moved to Cronulla and first come to notice here playing against the 1984 Lions tourists for the Riverina district, at centre. There were those back home, who while recognising his unquestionable talent with the ball and ability to put his team mates into gaps, worried that his size would count against him but they reckoned without his innate toughness. He served notice of his qualities on debut for Leeds, running in a hat trick as Keighley were put to the sword 60-12 at Headingley in the second round of the Yorkshire Cup , his drop goal the following week seeing off St Helens as the Loiners maintained a six match undefeated start to the campaign.
Dovetailing with compatriot centre Tony Currie, he switched between the half back roles and was at his absolute finest in the big matches, scoring tries against the New Zealand tourists in narrow defeat and was superb in four consecutive games against Widnes in March ‘86, the last the Challenge Cup quarter final replay here, won 5-0; his drop goal crucial.
The semi final, at Elland Road against Hull K.R. was also drawn, he again landing a one-pointer , and dispensation was sought for him to extend his stay for the Thursday following replay which was lost. In all, his 29 appearances yielded 16 tries and four drop goals.
On his return, he joined Manly and the start of a sensational rise, taking the Sea Eagles to Grand Final success in 1987 with a try and winning the Clive Churchill medal for man of the match as Canberra were defeated. Before that he had added lustre to the new Sheffield Eagles side when coming over around Christmas 1986 in a marriage of convenience for both parties. His stint enabled him to work off a four match ban back home but he responded with six quality games for Gary Hetherington’s men.
Always vying with Terry Lamb for the pivot role, he made the first of six State of Origin appearances the following year returning over here to play against Wigan at Central Park in the reconstituted World Club Challenge. Becoming one of Manly coach Bob Fulton’s most important cogs, going on to play over 300 matches in the maroon and white in a 13 year career, his return to Leeds for the 1988-9 campaign was much awaited and started in sensational style with the Yorkshire Cup triumph in his seventh game back in blue and amber.
He was at his imperious best at Elland Road, taking the attention of the Castleford pack with relish and engineering the second half points spree with a series of controlling kicks and astute passes among the breakneck pace, to win the White Rose Trophy. In a total of 24 matches, he posted another eight tries, his final appearance coming in Challenge Cup quarter final defeat at home to Widnes in front of over 26,000 fans.
Back home, his influence blossomed as his vintage matured, winning the ‘Dally M’ Medal for player of the year in 1990 and again four years later aged 33. The first occasion was rewarded by long overdue selection for the Kangaroos, coming on tour and breaking British hearts after a call up for the second and third Tests. GB had won the opener at Wembley but Lyons was magnificent on debut in pulling the match out of the fire at Old Trafford, setting up and scoring a try and then taking the series at Elland Road with a magnificent pass for Mal Meninga to go over.
In all, he played six Tests including a tour to Papua in 1991. He was a Premiership winner again in 1986 and although he retired following the initial merger of the Sea Eagles with his old club Norths, was called back in an injury and form emergency in 1999, becoming the oldest player in the NRL aged 37 years and 313 days and, when he eventually left Brookvale, their appearance record holder.
His partnership by then with Steve Menzies, who took his longevity mantle, was legend, Lyons’ crabbing runs most often picking up his ranging centre. Playing into his 40s captain/coaching Central Coast side Umina, he was an indigenous role model, taking great pride in captaining the Australian Aborigines. Having won consecutive Premierships coaching Narraweena in A-Grade competition, he joined the Manly coaching staff under former half back partner Geoff Toovey to look after the reserve grade and help develop the next generation of talent in time for the 2012 World Club Challenge at Headingley.