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'She made rugby league fashionable': Stars pay tribute to Turner

Wayne Pearce, Paul Sironen and Greg Alexander reflect on Tina Turner's contribution to the game

“Hey Wayne, just let your hair down.”

Wayne Pearce had captained Balmain in grand finals and led NSW to State of Origin glory, but he was nervous about having to dance with American rock superstar Tina Turner for the game’s Simply The Best advertising campaign.

Test, Origin and club team-mate Paul Sironen felt the same way when he was among Tigers players filming a scene with Turner in the home dressing room at Leichhardt Oval.

"She was very friendly and accommodating ... but she was a megastar at that point,” said Pearce, who was one of the main players used in the campaign, along with Andrew Ettingshuasen and Allan Langer.

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Remembering Tina Turner's iconic 1993 performance

“We did the video shoot for Simply the Best where I had to dance with her at a nightclub. I remember not being very relaxed when we started dancing and she said in her American accent, ‘hey Wayne, just let your hair down’ and loosen up.

“I felt like saying back I haven't got as much hair as you, Tina, so it's a little bit hard to do that.

“It's incredibly sad to hear she's passed away. She was a perfect fit for rugby league at that time and it really did help market the game to another level. A much bigger level."

The brainchild of NSWRL general manager John Quayle, Turner became the face of the game for seven seasons as rugby league evolved from the violence of the previous era to a glamour sport.

Quayle’s assistant Micki Braithwaite knew Turner’s Australian manager Roger Davies and through him the NSWRL was able to convince Turner to film What You Get Is What You See for the game’s 1989 campaign.

The following year Turner recorded Simply The Best with some of the game’s biggest stars.

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“It was a golden period for the game,” Sironen said. “We came out of some nasty years in the 1980s and the best thing John Quayle did was get hold of Tina Turner for a rugby league promotion for the New South Wales Rugby League.

“You didn’t think it could get any better after What You Get Is What You See but they backed it up with Simply The Best.

Every time that song comes on you stop and remember those days.

"She made rugby league fashionable and it encouraged a lot of female fans to the game because we had a really tough period with suspensions and other things. It was a masterstroke.”

Tina Turner filmed with Balmain players
Tina Turner filmed with Balmain players ©NRL Photos

Many of the players were nervous about filming with Turner but she quickly disarmed them and the advertisements are considered the greatest campaign in Australian sport.

“I was a little bit nervous really, but Tina put everyone at ease,” Sironen said. “She was very down to earth and engaging. We were in our mid-20s and she was in her 40s but she had a presence about her.

“We got to film on set with her and that was really good. We did some shots around the locker room, so we were really fortunate.”

Former Panthers playmaker Greg Alexander, who helped the club to their first grand final appearance in 1990 and premiership win in 1991, also featured in the campaign.

Tina Turner joined premiers Brisbane for this iconic snap after the 1993 decider.
Tina Turner joined premiers Brisbane for this iconic snap after the 1993 decider.

“We wouldn’t have realised it as players, we just thought this is pretty good, but later on when you look back, it is the best marketing campaign in Australian sporting history, not just rugby league,” Alexander said.

It ruined everything that came after that. We had some good ones, but nothing quite measured up.

“It was like a re-branding of the game, and it had a massive impact. It made a lot of people who might not have been league fans just go wow, this looks good, this is special.”

The NRL paid tribute to Turner’s influence with a remake of Simply The Best in 2020 and Ettingshausen told the original campaign had helped transform the game.

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Still making history, still a game for everyone, still simply the best

"There was a bit of a worry and concern that parents weren't going to put their kids into rugby league because of the violence out on the field," Ettingshausen said.

"The game had to change and it wasn't just the Tina Turner campaign.

"A lot of the things like head highs, a lot of rules and regulations were brought in to modify some of the action that was going on out on the field to keep it a game that everybody could follow and feel very comfortable with.

"It all happened at that same time. There's no doubt the Tina Turner campaign was an integral part of all of that as well.

“It was that changing time and there was no doubt it was also a huge positive for the game. It's shaped it to where it is today."

John Quayle (far left) and Ken Arthurson (second from left) on stage with Tina Turner at the 1993 grand final.
John Quayle (far left) and Ken Arthurson (second from left) on stage with Tina Turner at the 1993 grand final.

Turner said on the eve of the launch of the 2020 advertisement that she still had vivid memories of filming the campaign and her performance at the 1993 grand final. 

 “To this day I have very fond memories of the campaign and the grand final performance. I can still remember climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at dawn to film the commercial,’’ Turner said. 

 “The grand final was my first rugby league game and I’ve never forgotten it."

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