For the last few years Eric and Beryl Cornelius have been living an idyllic existence. Driving an old van around Australia… stopping and propping at scattered bush outposts…meeting hundreds of diverse characters, all with a story to tell.
In idle moments, Eric’s mind would occasionally drift back to those days of old, when he was gliding across the City Oval turf. He would dodge and weave and pull down the odd fingertip mark, drawing polite acknowledgement from the appreciative fans.
Fifty years on we’re flicking through an old yellowing scrapbook and reconstructing the past,or to be more precise, that year of ’64………..
The seeds of success, Eric reckons, were sown a season or so earlier, when many of the big names of the successful Rose era either hung up their boots or headed for fresher pastures.
Ken Boyd, who had officially taken over the coaching position in 1963, was left with many holes to fill, but placed his faith in a crop of locals. Almost half of the Reserves premiership team of ’62 became important senior players. Some were mere lads; others had been on the fringes and grasped their opportunity.
A classy left-footer, Neville Hogan, was recruited from Moyhu (via the South Wanderers) and enigmatic half -forward, Bob Hempel also found his way to the Hawks, who won six of their last eight games in 1963. With 11 wins they just missed a finals berth.
Over the off-season, the players hatched an ambitious plan to travel overseas – to New Zealand- for a trip-away. It would mean a year of hard work, but the bonding they created within the group was priceless. They had already raised a considerable sum from hay-carting during the summer. “It’s toughened the boys up. Now I’m arranging for them to chop wood. There’s plenty of it around here”, Boyd said at the time.
Boyd developed a terrific affinity with his young group and had become a charismatic figure around town. “He had time for everyone and with his breezy personality he won people over”, Eric recalls. “My dad, for example, was a pretty reserved bloke, but Boydy used to get him going. Dad loved him”.
Boyd had a shrewd football brain and knew, after a year at the helm, that he had a side with the potential to win a premiership. To top the list off, though, he needed a rover and his close friendship with Frank Hogan, a former South Melbourne team-mate helped to solve that problem.
Hogan joined the Rovers via West Adelaide (he had represented South Australia) and Tatura and certainly lived up to his significant reputation.
A 75-point win over reigning premiers Benalla in the opening round of 1964 set the Hawks on a winning streak. They ruthlessly brushed aside all opposition in the early rounds.
Meanwhile, Eric was confronted by his own challenges. He was working as a bank clerk in Melbourne and Wangaratta disputed his eligibility after he had starred in an early game against the ‘Pies. The League had a rule in vogue at the time that you were barred from playing if you lived more than 25 miles away from your home club.
The Rovers contended that he was living with his parents and was merely travelling to Melbourne to work during the week. It was a tricky one, but the tribunal ruled in Eric’s favour. It didn’t help the already frosty relations between the two arch rivals.
A fiery encounter with Corowa produced the first real threat to the Rovers’ dominance in Round 11.The Spiders made the running and led by 2 points at half-time. There were turbulent scenes during the long break, as Corowa supporters reacted angrily to a collision between the rival coaches – Boyd and Frank Tuck- early in the game.
Tuck incurred a fractured jaw and Boyd was jeered for the rest of the game. But he seemed unaffected and it was his strong leadership in the last quarter that enabled to Hawks to come from behind and win by 9 points.
On the following Tuesday, Melbourne’s evening newspaper, ‘The Herald’, produced a back-page headline: “Ken Boyd Is Named”,which further inflamed feelings. (Boyd was to successfully sue for defamation in a landmark case two years later).
The Rovers’ form seemed to taper off. Was it a classic mid-season slump? Had the adverse publicity towards the club subtly affected the players?
They pipped Wangaratta by 10 points, just got home from Albury by 4, and Wodonga by 2 goals. Regardless, after a 69-point win at Rutherglen, they were 15-0 and seemed to have regained composure.
But in a horror three-week stretch they dropped games to Yarrawonga, North Albury and Myrtleford. The loss to the Saints was a shocker (by 39 points) and it was official – the Hawks were in crisis.
Fortunately, they had a week-off, to lick their wounds, before facing a confident Wangaratta in the second semi-final at Rutherglen.
Again, they were badly out of touch in a match which had its share of nasty encounters. Wang controlled proceedings after half-time to win comfortably enough, by 14 points,with centre half back Bernie Killeen dominating for the ‘Pies.
The Hawks were on the slippery-dip and, as expected, made wholesale changes for the Preliminary Final. Frank Sargent, Norm Hamill, Mick Brenia and Noel Richens, who all had elongated stints in the Reserves during the season,were promoted.
It was a desperate measure and, after Myrtleford had booted the first four goals of the game, it appeared that the Rovers’ premiership dreams had all but evaporated.
Then, as if a spell was broken, the Hawks sprung into action, running away from the Saints by 42 points, with a 9 goal to 3 last half blitz.
So the stage was set for the big one. Most experts had swung their support behind the Magpies, but there was quiet confidence emenating from across the laneway.
The usual hype dominated pre-match discussion and there was an expectant buzz around the large crowd that had converged on the Albury Sportsground to watch the first-ever Grand Final clash between the bitter enemies.
Boyd had spent the week rallying his troops and was a bundle of energy as he surprisingly lined up alongside the troublesome Killeen,at centre half forward.
“Well, what’s it gunna be, Bernie ? Fight or football ?”, he was heard to mutter to the key defender. Before a couple of strains of the national anthem had been played, and before he had time to answer, Killeen was flat on his back.
But the Magpies made the running early and in a low-scoring encounter, took a five-point lead into the half-time break.Then the Hawks caught fire. Big Ray Thompson, who had swapped with Boyd at centre half forward sparked them into action. They kicked 6.2 and kept Wang scoreless in the third term.
From that point on it was only a matter of playing out time. Rovers big guns Thompson, Norm Bussell, Boyd and Laurie Flanigan continued to dominate. Despite Kevin Mack kicking three late goals for the ‘Pies, they were unable to penetrate a mean Hawk defence and fell short by 23 points.
It is always remembered as one of the Rovers’ most famous premiership victories and was celebrated accordingly. The players were met at the railway station by adoring supporters, after a raucous train trip home and then continued on at a local hotel.
And, after a month of activity, they headed off on their trip-away – the first country club to venture outside Australia. “Somewhere in all that, I managed to have my 21st birthday party.” Eric recalled.”It was a time and a half”.
1964 PREMIERSHIP LINE –UP
Backs: Len Greskie, Mick Kelly, Ray Thompson.
Half-Backs: Frank Sargent, Norm Bussell, Bob Atkinson.
Centres: Eric Cornelius, Neville Hogan, Brian Hallahan.
Half-Forwards: Bob Hempel, Ken Boyd, Laurie Flanigan.
Forwards: John Welch, Mick Brenia, Norm Hamill.
Rucks: Barry Sullivan, Noel Richens, Frank Hogan.
19th: Brian O’Brien. 20th: Les Gregory.
Postscript: On June 14 2014 most of the 1964 Premiership players will return for a combined Reunion with the 1974, 1984 (Reserves), 1994 Football and 1993,1994 Netball Premiership teams.