From 1987 to 1993, the Wangaratta Rovers and Wodonga shared six of the seven Ovens and Murray premierships. It was an intense, bitter rivalry between the two power teams of the competition.
The 1993 decider had been clouded by a wild melee as the players walked down the race at half-time. It threatened to get out of control,but Hawk coach Laurie Burt pleaded with his players to remain focused. They kicked 7 goals to 2 in the third quarter to stitch up the game.
The two teams took up the cudgels again the following year and, from early on the prediction was that they would cross paths in the Grand Final. Ultimately they did, but along the way it was to throw up a sequence of record-breaking highlights for one club – and despair for the other.
This is the story of the ‘Year of the Invincibles’………….
The Hawks bade goodbye to 5 premiership players, but newcomers Anthony Foubister Craig Fruend and Peter Crone were ready-made stars. There were some youngsters coming through, like the talented Hayden Sharp. Anthony Pasquali was now fully recovered from a foot injury which had inhibited him for half a season and classy left-footer Julian Murray had returned from overseas.
The enigmatic Foubister provided a hint of things to come by producing a tantalising debut performance against Wangaratta. He kicked 6.4 and pulled down several skyscrapers in the first-round drubbing of Wangaratta, to have the fans in raptures.
The Hawks were rarely tested in the early rounds and the closest a team came to them was when Myrtleford ran them to within 20 points at McNamara Reserve.
But the football public was already anxiously awaiting the Round 9 square-off between the 1993 Grand Finalists. They met in miserable conditions at Martin Park.
Wodonga stuck with the hot favourites all day and trailed by just a point at 3/ 4 time. The Rovers steadied in the last term to win by 10 points, but Wodonga coach Ernest Whitehead was encouraged by the performance.
“They are a good team”, he said. ”But I think we now know we can beat them“. Laurie Burt, on the other hand, was elated and pointed out that it was a sign of great character for his boys to come back.
The two teams would not cross paths until the finals. But the next obstacle the Rovers faced was Corowa-Rutherglen in a top-of-the-table clash.
The ‘Roos met the full force of a Hawk onslaught and were crushed 17.22 (124) to 4.12 (36),as the home team celebrated skipper Mick Caruso’s 150th game. The return bout with Wangaratta was another wipe-out. The Hawks ran away to score a 117-point win over the cellar-dwellers.
Julian Murray, in his 50th game,was among the better players, in a list as long as half-a-dozen of Rob Walker’s long, raking drop punts, which all registered goals.
When you see a team operating with the fluidity and system that the Rovers were producing, you sensed that they could almost pass the ball blind-folded and still find a team-mate.
It was no surprise when seven players –Rob Walker, the three Wilsons, John O’Donohue, Anthony Pasquali and Bruce Yelland – wore the Black and Gold O & M Guernsey, under the coaching of their team-mate Peter Tossol.
Proof of the depth available to the Club was shown against Albury, when, with 5 of their best out of the side on inter-league duty, they thrashed the resurgent Tigers by 73 points.
The Hawks continued to steamroll all opposition in the second half of the season. In the 18 home-and-away games they booted 20 or more goals on 12 occasions and in Round 17 obliterated luckless Lavington to the tune of 37.19 (241) to 4.12 (36)- a club record for the highest-ever score and a record winning margin.
Their percentage – 227.83% – was 74% in excess of the next highest and it seemed that only a miracle would prevent them taking out the ’94 flag.
Particularly after they thrashed Wodonga by 76 points in the second semi-final, with the ‘Master’ Rob Walker again leading the way. They had now extended their winning trot to 34 and there seemed no hint of it being halted.
Former Amateur star Col McClounan, transferred to Wangaratta as a policeman, signed in mid-season and slotted straight into the senior side. His performances,though, had been patchy and there was discussion as to whether he would hold his place in the Grand Final side.
The only other conjecture surrounded club favourite Matthew Allen, who had nursed a knee injury through the season and had lost his place for the second semi-final.
Effervescent ‘Ant’ Foubister, who was developing into somewhat of a cult figure,sustained a mystery knee injury whilst skiing during the off-week and was ruled out. Allen won a reprieve,but another premiership star,Howard Yelland, was an onlooker.
So ‘Burt’s Boys’ entered the Grand Final in their home town, as the shortest-priced favourites in the history of the competition.
They were chock-full of confidence, but realised that if they were slightly off their game, the ‘Dogs were a good enough side to take advantage of them.
Wodonga were never in the hunt, in front of 6,000 spectators at the Norm Minns Oval. Despite windy conditions that detracted from the game as a spectacle, the Hawks were clinical in carrying out their plan.
They hit the ball hard, tackled ferociously and were not fazed, as the going got tough on and off the ball.
They bounced back well from the stoushes that flared, with Wodonga losing three players at the start of the third quarter, thanks to the yellow card.
It appeared that the ‘Dogs were hell-bent on taking Anthony Pasquali out of the game and there were 3 separate reports laid by the umpires for incidents involving the Hawk star.
The Rovers booted 5 goals to nil in the opening term to set things up and went on to triumph by 59 points – 14.14 (98) to 5.9 (39). Icing on the cake for the Rovers was that the Netballers took out their second successive flag by defeating North Albury.
Six players had participated in all four flags of the modern era for the Hawks and 15 of the premiership team were to become 100-Game players. There seemed no reason why there wouldn’t be a few more pennants hanging from the flagpoles at the Findlay Oval.
The hunger was still there among the playing group and they had maintained a high standard of skill and discipline.
Wodonga’s obsession with wresting supremacy from their foes was such that they flew to Perth at the end of the year to woo a brilliant forward, Damian Condon,from East Fremantle. They got straight to the point. “There’s one bloke who stands between us and the flag – Robbie Walker- and he plays with Wang…….”
“I know, I know”, said Condon.” He plays with Wangaratta Rovers and he’s a gun”. Condon, whose father Brian had been a premiership player for the Hawks, had done his teacher training with Walker and knew all about him.
The ‘Dogs, with Condon on board, reached the Grand Final again, in 1995, but the Hawks,nipping at their heels,were eliminated in an earlier final.
Such is the alacrity of change ,that the Rovers’ era of supremacy had soon passed. They are still planning for that elusive Premiership number 16.