Bob Comensoli was more than handy with his dooks.
I was barely a teen-ager, the night he retained his Riverina middle-weight title in March 1961. Fans in the packed Richardson Stand at the Wangaratta Showgrounds threw their support behind the local boy, as he went to work against Holbrook’s Basil Gason on a floodlit, makeshift centre ring.
He was too strong, too tough for the plucky Gason, just as he had been two years earlier, when he carried a broken hand through most of the fight, to take the points in an exciting eight-rounder.
Bob began boxing, principally to keep fit for football. “Donny Harmer took me aside and started sparring with me when I was just cementing my spot in the Magpies’ side,” he recalls.
“At first there was just the pair of us, then fellahs like Brian Archman, Ted Anderson, Bert Simpson, Peter Fogarty and Rossy Colosimo came on board. We used to train in the old visitors’ rooms – on the score-board side of the Showgrounds.”
There’s little doubt that he could have gone places, had he kept on with his boxing. He was unbeaten, had ‘heavy hands’, as they say, and had captured the attention of fight fans in his three years in pro ranks.
“Who knows,” Bob says. “But I didn’t want it interrupting my footy, so that was my last fight……”
Of course, he’s a member of a famous local clan. All nine kids ( four boys and five girls) made an impact on sport, be it footy, cricket, netball or Wood-chopping. Their competitive spirit was something to die for………
His eldest brother, Bill, was approaching the end of a stellar career with Wangaratta before continuing on in the O & K. Bob was still making his way through the ranks with Junior Magpies. He confesses, though, that it wasn’t a ‘lay-down-misere’ that he’d follow in Bill’s footsteps.
“I had some good mates at the Rovers. There was no particular reason for me ending up at Wang. I just made up my mind to go over at the last minute.”
They tried him on a back flank. In a good Magpie side, he played a handful of games in his first season. He and ‘Doggie’ Rowland, later destined for St.Kilda, were the youngsters to be narrowly squeezed out of the Premiership side in 1957.
Their naming as emergencies for the Grand Final was an indication that they earmarked as ‘players of the future’.
Bob later settled into a role as ruck-rover, sharing duties with the colorful Kevin Mack. Over the next seven years he was to became ‘Mr.Dependable’ in a side which was a regular finals campaigner.
He wasn’t over-endowed with pace, but endurance was an asset. That, and a preparedness to work hard and be a thorn in the side of the opposition.
The toughness that characterised his boxing also carried over into his footy. “I didn’t mind it in close, and I managed to perfect the old Bobby Rose ‘short jab to the solar-plexus’. That proved effective at times,” he jokes.
Wodonga, runners-up the previous season, had been a dominant force in 1961. But they fell apart in the finals. Wangaratta, to the contrary, ‘ran hot’, winning their first two finals by 41 and 52 points.
Bob Comensoli was just one of a number who tore Benalla apart in a one-sided Grand Final. The Pies were 6 goals up at quarter-time, and carried on, to take it out by 63 points. It was a crackerjack side, which managed to hit its peak come finals time.
Bob finished second in Wang’s B & F in 1964, and was playing possibly his best football. The next step in his sporting journey, he felt, was to satisfy an urge to coach.
Three clubs approached him, but he decided on Moyhu, mainly because his sister Glad, and brother-in-law Gordon Townsend – the local baker – were closely involved with the Hoppers.
“Glad was playing Netball, and was keen for Val, my wife, to have a game. Val enjoyed it; I think she won three flags while we were out there. It was a really good fit for us.”
He arrived at a time when Moyhu were starting a re-build after a highly-successful six-year run, which had included three flags and two other Grand Final appearances.
“The first thing I realised is that, sometimes, you can’t coach the way you’d like to ; you have to adapt your coaching according to the ability of the players. I certainly learnt a lot in those first couple of years,” he says.
And his form didn’t suffer. He won the O & K’s Baker Medal in 1965 and ‘67 and proved an inspirational leader, mostly playing on-ball, but plugging gaps in his middle-of-the-road side when so required.
Wang snuck him back to qualify for the finals at the conclusion of the ‘67 O & K season, and talked Bob into staying on in 1968.
But he again answered the call from a persistent Moyhu, and took over the coaching reins for another couple of years.
“I really enjoyed the challenge of coaching, particularly when the side was looking to you to provide a lift on the field. One of the things that tickled me was coaching against Bill and Jay (brothers),” Bob says.
“But my body was starting to let me down. I agreed to play on when Richie Shanley took over as coach, because he’d been a big help when I was in charge.”
The end as a player, came late in 1971, when he blew out his knee at Whorouly. He was going on 34.
Twenty-two years later, Bob began his third stint as coach of Moyhu, in a non-playing capacity.
The Hoppers’ side now included a few of his sons and nephews and was a well-balanced outfit.
They reached successive Prelim Finals, and in the first of these, I witnessed first hand, the raw emotion of a distraught coach.
North Wangaratta had proved a little too strong in the latter stages, to win by 20 points. In the rooms afterwards, the shattered Comensoli bluntly pointed out that some of the players had let themselves -and the club – down.
“Some of you,” he said,”are in the twilight of your careers, some are just starting out. You mightn’t get an opportunity to play in another Grand Final……. In a week or so, you’ll wish you’d suffered a bit more pain, to find the extra effort……….”
But there’s something about coaching. It becomes addictive.
After three years with Moyhu, Bob thought his coaching days were over…….until a desperate King Valley sought his services.
They’d won the wooden spoon in 1995, but had an impressive clump of local talent, and were hopeful of improvement.
“It didn’t start off too well,” Bob says. “ We decided to take a bus from Wang, to training each Tuesday and Thursday night. The first night we got there, only three locals turned up. I thought, what have we got ourselves in for here.”
But the Valley improved, and within three years, finished the home-and-home games on top of the ladder. “I thought we were the best side in it in 1998, but didn’t have a lot of luck in the finals, and bombed out in straight sets.”
Bob had four years at King Valley. “Terrific people, it was thoroughly enjoyable.”
So his coaching career, which had encompassed 12 years, and saw him inducted to the Ovens & King’s Hall of Fame, drew to a close. He now focused on his other sporting passion – training greyhounds .
He says he’s been walking dogs since the age of eight, when he used to help his dad, who was always keen on the ‘dishlickers’.
“I still love it. You have to take ‘em out at about 4am these days, to avoid those people who are walking their pet poodles and the like…..”
He’s convinced that the bad rap the greyhound industry has copped over the past two years or so, will soon blow over.
“There were a few bad eggs in the game. And they’re eradicating them.”
He’s trained hundreds of winners, on tracks as far away as Warrnambool, Traralgon, Geelong and Ballarat. He rates Deep Sweep and Tinkerman Prince as the best of them. Both won approximately 25 races.
2017 has been the ‘year from hell’ for Bob Commo. On the day he retired in March, after a near lifetime in the petroleum industry, he suffered a mini-stroke.
Three weeks later he was diagnosed with lymphoma cancer.
It’s been a battle, he says, but he’s in remission now, and believes things are on the up.