‘HAWKS HONOUR CENTURION SAM…..’

Daryl Smith wore the Wangaratta Rovers guernsey with distinction in 195 games, between 1972 and 1982.

On one of his infrequent return visits to see a game at his old club, the triple premiership captain-coach waxed lyrical about a diminutive on-baller who knocked up getting kicks and boring in under the packs.

“I’m rapt in the little bloke who’s wearing my old number,” Smithy said. “He’s a beauty.”

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since, but Sam Carpenter still creates that impression on anyone who sees him in action for the first time.

He’s become somewhat of a cult figure since first pulling on the Brown and Gold in 2013.

And no wonder…… he’s gritty, spirited, courageous – and plays the game as if there’s no tomorrow.

If anyone feels inclined to impress on a young Thirds hopeful how to handle adversity, ‘Croc’ would provide a classic example. His is an uplifting footy story…….

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Sam was just an inquisitive four-year old, playing in his parents’ Tyabb butcher shop, when he caught his left arm in a mincer. His forearm was ground away, almost to the elbow.

He can’t remember much of the accident, or the emergency helicopter flight, which rushed him to the Royal Children’s Hospital, where his recovery began.

“I learnt to live without it,” he says of the double-handed capabilities that he was now deprived of. “Because I was so young I have never known anything different.”

“I’ve never felt there was anything I couldn’t do, or should do differently. After all, the game’s principally about winning the ball.”

“I pride myself on the hard-ball stuff, especially tackling and putting my head over the Sherrin,” he said.

“I was always convinced that I could be a good footballer if I worked hard at it, and always felt I could keep progressing.”

Sam’s Dad Leigh concedes that the loss of his son’s forearm could have been a huge burden on the family, except that the youngster embraced the challenge. “ I can remember people admiring his determination and love of the game, but doubting that these qualities would compensate for his disability,” he once said.

“They used to say when he was very young: ‘He’ll struggle when tackling is introduced.’…….When he didn’t, they’d say: ‘When the game becomes more physical he’ll struggle.’……..But he didn’t.”

Sam won a heap of best and fairest awards in junior ranks with Crib Point and was picked up by the Dandenong Stingrays U.18’s, where he again starred. He won the Best and Fairest in his top-age year.

From there he graduated to Frankston’s VFL side. Contrary to expectations he played four senior games in his first season and became a regular in his second.

The idea was floated that he may be a chance to graduate to AFL ranks, but he was pragmatic enough to realise that cracking the big-time was an improbability……….

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His grandfather Sonny, a colourful greyhound trainer and bookie, began holidaying in Corowa nearly 60 years ago. That tradition had continued on for the family. Sam got to know quite a few of the locals, and decided to move up there in 2008.

He became an overnight success with Corowa-Rutherglen and, after enjoying a brilliant season under the coaching of Peter Tossol, took out the ‘Roos B & F in 2009.

He represented the O & M, and was a warm favourite for the Morris Medal, but a bolter, Yarrawonga’s Michael Stevens took it out. Sam finished two votes adrift, sharing second place with fellow on-ballers Chris Hyde ( Albury) and Matt Kelly (Wangaratta).

Romance had also blossomed with a young Corowa girl, Renee Ronnfeldt. When Queensland club Aspley conducted a raid on O & M and Goulburn Valley players at the end of that season, he was a prime target. The prospect of spending a season playing football in the Sunshine State appealed to him.

And Renee liked the idea of having a break from Corowa. So, along with future Rovers team-mates Tyson Hartwig and Jamie Sheahan, he was lured to the QAFL.

Aspley struggled big-time early in the season, but after sacking their coach and enduring their share of in-club turmoil, they bounced back to finish the year in reasonable shape.

Sam’s own form was quite good, and he finished a close runner-up to ‘Shagger’ Sheahan in the B & F. But he was happy enough to put the Queensland experience behind him.

He moved back home to the Peninsula, and joined his cousin, who was coaching Bonbeach. He spent the following season with MPNFL club Chelsea, where the Carpenter name is held in high esteem.

His father Leigh, and uncle Dale are both members of Chelsea’s Team of the Century, and Sam joined them as a fellow Best and Fairest winner in 2012.

When he and Renee decided to re-locate to her home town in 2013 Sam surprised the football world by throwing in his lot with the Rovers. Barry Sullivan had been on his hammer for a couple of years and his old coach Peter Tossol convinced him of the virtues of the Hawks……..

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Things worked out well. He found plenty of work in his chosen trade as a Painter. The couple bought a house in Corowa and relished the laid-back bush lifestyle.

The Hawks’ gun recruit got off to a sluggish start in his debut season when he copped a hamstring injury before half-time in the opening game. It took a while to heal, costing him seven games, but he flew home to finish third in the B & F.

The following season was even more impressive. He played a few matches under duress after aggravating a posterior cruciate ligament in an early game, and elected to miss a week in order to have a cortisone injection.

That did the trick. He came back in superlative touch, and was a key figure in the Hawks’ push for finals. They were blitzed by Corowa-Rutherglen in the second term of the Elimination Final, and battled valiantly to peg the ‘Roos back for the next two quarters.

Still trailing by 11 points at lemon-time, Carpenter, Tyson Hartwig, James Smith and Shane Gaston were central figures in a dramatic come-back. The Rovers had nine shots to nil in the final quarter, but were unable to put their tired opponents away until the dying stages of the game.

It was Carpenter who iced a classic encounter when he swooped on the most telling of his 35 touches, lined up the big sticks and, on the angle, from 40 metres out, curled it through for an inspirational major……….

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The Rovers lowered their colours to Lavington the following week. But scuttlebutt was already circulating that a vital part of their engine-room had been approached to return to Corowa-Rutherglen.

Sam had finished runner-up to Shane Gaston in the B & F and was named in the O & M’s Team of the Year. The Hawks’ plans for 2015 would be severely dented by his absence.

They slumped to ninth spot and, as they cast around for a replacement for retiring non-playing leader Paul Maher at season’s end, the little fellah again became paramount to their thoughts.

He’d enjoyed another stellar season at the John Ford Oval, taking out the ‘Roos B & F and finishing fifth in the Morris Medal. He was still flying and was held in high regard by all in the Rovers camp.

In a move from left-field, the Hawks hit upon the Carpenter-Andrew Hill combination to lead them into the 2016 season.

For ‘Croc’, it was a dream come true. “Coaching was always a long-term ambition of mine. My Dad coached over 300 games down in the Mornington Peninsula, and I was rapt to get my opportunity at such a proud, successful Club as the Rovers,” he said.

But he could hardly have envisaged such a horror coaching initiation. A Brendan Fevola-inspired Yarrawonga touched up the Hawks by 98 points………To the surprise of most critics, though, they bounced back to be 4-2 after overcoming hot favourites Wangaratta in a bruising local derby, then sneaking over the line against Corowa-Rutherglen.

Unfortunately, Sam sustained a hamstring injury against his old side. By the time he’d returned the young Hawks were bereft of confidence. Their early wins had papered over some obvious deficiencies, but most judges assessed their six wins as a creditable year.

There’s no doubt that the co-coach wielded tremendous influence when he was on the park. Restricted to just 14 games, he finished runner-up to Sean O’Keeffe in the B & F.

The following two seasons were hard-yakka for all connected with the Rovers – particularly the co-coaches. Mid-way through 2018 Sam made the decision to stand aside at season’s end.

“I’ll be able to focus on my own game a little more in the twilight of my career. I’ll be staying on here, and I’m sure we’ll be able to turn things around quickly,” he said.

His friendship with Daryn Cresswell played a part in luring the former Sydney Swans star to the Findlay Oval in a coaching coup.

And the revitalisation that he predicted arrived soon enough. The Rovers became one of the League’s glamour teams in 2019, missing the finals on percentage, but showing promise of things to come.

Carpenter, the renowned mid-field general, was transformed into a small defender-cum-winger and relished the new role. It was no surprise when he outpolled pre-count favourite Nathan Cooper, to take out his first Bob Rose Medal………

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He’s a quietly-spoken, down-to-earth bloke with simple tastes and a well-honed sense of mischief. His two kids, Sonny and Remi, are the apple of his eye, and his definition of bliss, I’m sure, is to be floating down the Murray River in a tinny, stubby in hand, dangling a line………

Even though he’s nudging 34, there’ll be plenty of time for that in the future. But in the meantime, he’s a key component of a Rovers side which is challenging for a finals berth in 2021.

When I reminded him of his upcoming milestone ‘Croc’ pleaded with me to ‘keep it dark’. The Hawks, however, place great significance on their ‘100-Game Club’ and will wholeheartedly celebrate the Club’s latest Centurion…………..

An updated version of the 2014 Reflections Story: ‘A Salute to the Elusive Number 4’

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