The wounds inflicted by a vicious global war, which had torn nations apart and wreaked untold damage, were still tender in late 1945. Now it was time for communities to rediscover their sporting obsession.
The Ovens and Murray competition had been in recess since 1940. Wangaratta re-joined, along with six other teams. It was almost a case of starting from scratch, as recruiting got under way and the search for a coach began.
Eventually, in early March of 1946, the Pies announced the appointment of one of the game’s legends- Laurie Nash – as their captain-coach. His salary of 12 pounds per week was regarded as an astronomical sum in those days, but the opportunity to play with the ‘Great L.J’ excited many of the youngsters in the town.
Nash is acknowledged through the ages as one of the finest and most controversial Australian sportsmen ever produced. Born in Tasmania, he played two games of Test cricket, despite never having appeared in the Sheffield Shield competition.
His 10 wickets at an average of 12.80 per wicket and 30 runs at an average of 15 make you wonder why he wasn’t a regular Test player, but he reportedly faced opposition from the cricket establishment for his poor attitude towards authority. This led fellow cricketer Keith Miller to write that the persistent non-selection of Nash was “the greatest waste of talent in Australian cricket history”.
The reasons given for the apparent bias against Nash included his reputation for blunt speech and his abrasive personality, which included sledging.
He was probably the biggest name in sport through the thirties. Joining South Melbourne in 1933, he starred in a Premiership triumph in his first season, being credited with 13 marks and 29 kicks in a dominant performance at centre half back.
The following year, selected for Victoria for the first time, he had kicked two goals from centre half forward in the first quarter. An injury to Bob Pratt prompted him to be shifted to the goal-mouth, where he proceeded to finish with 18 for the day.
He later claimed that he would have booted 27 but for the selfishness of the rovers, who refused to pass the ball to him.
During World War II Nash rejected offers of a home posting and instead served as a trooper in New Guinea, stating that he wished to be treated no differently to any other soldier.
He returned to South Melbourne after the war and played a prominent part in the infamous “Bloodbath Grand Final” of 1945, in which the Swans went down to Carlton in a brawling, nasty clash which featured 16 reports.
He was South’s leading goalkicker and still a star, but possibly not the champion who, when asked pre-war who was the greatest player of all time, replied : “I look at him in the mirror every morning when I have a shave”.
Only a couple of weeks prior to his signing with Wangaratta, Nash had played quite well in a South practice match. But he was rising 36, suffering from arthritic knees and knew that he would struggle to get through another League season.
So when Wangaratta came with an offer that he couldn’t refuse, he brought his outrageous talents and wobbly knees up the Hume Highway.
Nash left his wife and young child behind (returning regularly to visit them) and was accorded a room at the Council Club Hotel. He didn’t deem it necessary to work and filled in time during the day playing poker with racing personalities and having the occasional beer.
He had lost a fair bit of fitness and was carrying a few extra kilos when he lined up for the first game against Benalla. He played himself in the centre and guided his team to victory.
In the first few games, he certainly didn’t set the world on fire, although he was being acclaimed for his coaching knowledge and ability to pass on the message.
But, as the season progressed, he started to ‘turn it on’. His move into the forward line proved a winner for the Pies and his 10 goals from centre half forward in the return clash with Benalla proved that the old class was still there.
The Wangaratta side was basically made up of locals and they had improved steadily as the season progressed. Players like big man Tommy Bush, Kevin French and Jack Sullivan, key forward Ernie Ward, small men Max Berry and Jimmy Hoysted and defenders Jack Ferguson and Jack Plaisted formed the crux of the side.
Doug Ferguson, a classy half forward, was still in the Army and used to travel by train from Melbourne on Saturday mornings to take his place in the line-up. He is the only surviving member of the famous 1946 side.
“It was a good, settled team and we were well-coached “, Doug recalled when I yarned with him at St.Catherine’s Hostel the other day. “Nashy topped us off nicely. He was a big, burly fellow and could kick the ball a mile.”
My dad Len, who played across the half-back line, was also a Nash fan. “With the reputation that preceded him, we didn’t know what to expect. But he was an astute footy person”, he once said.
Wangaratta finished second on the ladder to Wodonga at the completion of the home-and-away rounds and belted the Bulldogs by 65 points in a one-sided second semi. Nash and Ernie Ward kicked nine of their 15 goals.
The Pies met Albury at Rutherglen in the Grand Final, before a crowd of around 5,000. They went to an early lead, but Nash went down just before half-time with what appeared to be a serious knee injury.
“He laid it on the line to us in his half-time address”, Doug Fergy, now 93, recalled . “He pointed out that his knee was crook and that he was moving to full forward. He said ‘Just kick it up to me in the goal-square. I’ll do the rest’.
Wang trailed by seven points at three quarter-time and had both its 19th and 20th man on the field.
Nash, despite hobbling badly, kicked another two goals in a tense final term to finish with four for the game.
The Pies had hit the front in the dying stages and held on to win by five points – 14.10 (94) to 13.11 (89).
Nash’s coaching had been well-received and he was feted by the town. But he had one more duty to perform. He was good friends with Fred O’Brien, the incumbent Greta coach, who earlier in the season had talked Laurie into taking on his job. As Greta didn’t train during the week, its only non-match contact with the coach was on Sundays, when O’Brien (the match-day leader) would bring Nash out to Greta to take the boys for training.
So Nash was able to oversee their 27-point win over Myrtleford, giving him the unique honour of coaching two premiership teams in the one year.
Laurie Nash was later to take on the coaching role at his old club, South Melbourne, in 1953. He was inducted into the inaugural AFL Hall of Fame in 1996 and was admitted to the Sports Australia Hall of Fame in 2012.
He died in 1986.