NRL world remembers 'Queen' Tina Turner: 'Changed rugby league'

The international superstar helped reshaped the image of rugby league.

Tina Turner lifting weights and Tina Tuner singing for the NRL ad.
Tina Turner (pictured) became synonymous with rugby league having changed the Aussie sporting landscape through her ads in the 80s and 90s. (Images: Getty Images/YouTube)

It's not many wives who'd be happy to have a photo of their husband in the arms of another woman sitting in the marital home. But Karen Lyons, wife of rugby league great Cliffy, makes an exception for one lady - the late, great Tina Turner, who has died at the age of 83 following a long illness.

"The wife's probably a bigger Tina Turner fan than me," Cliffy told Yahoo Sport Australia. "There's a couple of pics of me and Tina in the house…it was a great moment and I have great memories of it.

STATE OF ORIGIN 2023: What NSW got right and wrong for Game I

'COULD NOT BELIEVE IT': Paul Gallen rips QLD over divisive Origin move

"I was just happy just to be part of it all." What Lyons was part of is the start of arguably the greatest advertising campaigns in Australian sport history.

The story of how the Manly five-eighth came to be in the first of Turner's Winfield Cup ads – set to her hit What You Get Is What You See – in 1989 is the stuff of rugby league folklore. Lyons was playing for Leeds in England when he received a call from an Australia rugby league official desperately hunting up players to feature alongside Turner.

The American superstar had one day available for the shoot and could only do it in London. Andrew Ettingshausen, who was also playing in England and was the game's pin-up boy at the time, was lined-up for the gig but had to pass due to a European holiday.

So Gavin Miller, who was playing for Hull KR, and Lyons were called off the bench. Swapping ET for Miller would be like substituting Nicho Hynes for Corey Horsburgh in today's world, but there was no time to search for a more photogenic figure.

Lyons jokes the make-up crew had to work overtime to get Miller's well-worn face fit for the cameras, but the show went on. "I just hopped on a train from Leeds to London and we went to this studio and did it all there," the Manly legend recalled.

"Tina was a pretty big deal but you wouldn't have known it. She was quietly spoken and very friendly and easy to get on with. "I remind ET what he missed out on every time I see him. It's something I will never forget."

Lyons sensed the ad would do okay due to Turner's presence but had no idea it would explode into the juggernaut it did. "She was a big star and very talented so I thought they were onto something, but I didn’t know it would become as big as it did," he said.

"It changed rugby league at the time. It brought in a new audience, especially the females."

Manly legend Cliff Lyons lifting the NRL trophy.
Manly legend Cliff Lyons (pictured) has spoken about the honour of being a part of Tina Turner's revolutionary rugby league campaigns. (Photo by Getty Images)

Tina Turner was 'Simply the Best'

Turner returned a year later to front the Simply the Best campaign, which continued to take the game to unprecedented popularity. Former Balmain star Benny Elias, who appeared in both campaigns, said: "It was a big deal, the commercial itself was certainly what put rugby league on the map.

"She got women involved; kids involved. You just know when you hear that song (Simply the Best) your memory goes straight to NRL."

More than 30 years later, Lyons never tires of recalling the day he spent with "America's Queen of Rock n Roll".

"She had a career a bit like a footy player – up and down – but what a singer and what a wonderful lady," he said. "I was lucky to be a part of her time in rugby league."

Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.