“200-UP FOR ‘GATTO’ THE EVERGREEN………”

Someone quipped that Shane Gaston resembles a giant Praying Mantis as he stalks the centre bounce……….all arms and legs; full of focus and concentration……..

I’m an unabashed ‘Gatto’ fan…….He’s been matching wits with the cream of the O & M’s tall timber for nigh on 15 years ………..There’s nothing fancy about him, but he’s combative, wears his heart on his sleeve……..and there’s no doubting his loyalty to the Brown and Gold.

Amidst predictions of his pending demise he has soldiered on…….You only had to witness his strong display against the 211cm Myrtleford co-coach Dawson Simpson in this season’s opening round, and his contribution to the dramatic last-quarter victory over Yarrawonga, to conclude that there’s still plenty of footy left in the rising 34 year-old.

You crave having clubmen like ‘Gatto’ emerging through your ranks. He’s whole-hearted, out-going, and never short of an opinion……….In his younger days, the critics used to whinge that he was more words than action……….now he’s feted as a well-respected elder statesman

He plays his 200th game this week-end – the only ruckman in the Wangaratta Rovers’ 72-year history to do so – and admits he’s pretty chuffed about the achievement……………

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There were no bells and whistles upon his arrival at the Findlay Oval. His sister Michelle was playing A-Grade Netball with the Hawks, so he decided to roll up for Thirds training.

“Even though I was bottom-age under-16 all my mates were there….. I asked the coach, Paul Maher, if it’d be alright to train,” he recalls.

He made the List but didn’t play a game. The next season he couldn’t get down there quickly enough, to line up alongside a fleet of sky-scraping team-mates, like Ben Reid, Brad Bell, Brent Newton and Kyle Simpson.

They led by 10 points going into the final quarter of the Thirds Grand Final, but were over-run by Wodonga in the dying stages.

An injury-crisis plagued the Hawks the following season and the 17 year-old was plucked from the Thirds and blooded for two senior games.

He alternated between the Reserves and Seniors in 2007, taking another step in his gradual development. With the Two’s enjoying an excellent season he qualified for their finals series and shouldered the ruck duties, as Bob Murray’s boys scored an emphatic win over Albury in the Grand Final.

He maintains a strong link with several players connected with that side…….Darcy Booth and Luke Peters share the Reserves coaching job; Tommy Scullie, Brenton Cooper and Michael Porter are their assistants……Tyson Hartwig, whose best afield display in the premiership win was a portent to a brilliant future, has long been lauded as one of the O & M’s premier defenders…….

“They’ve been great friends, and it’s terrific to still have ‘em around the joint,” he says……..

“Like them, when I was a kid, I looked up and saw the great names of the Club on the lockers and on the walls…..I was determined that my name would be up there with them one day……..”

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Having come under notice as a rising ruck talent, he decided to test himself at a higher level. He headed over to the SANFL in 2010, at the urging of an old Rovers team-mate, Anthony Carlile, who was playing at South Adelaide.

“It didn’t work out…..I hurt a hip, missed all the pre-season, and couldn’t get a kick. I played about 10 Reserves games, but just wasn’t enjoying my footy over there…..” he says.

The moment the Rovers got wind that he was a touch homesick, club legends Mark Booth and Andrew Scott drove over, picked up his belongings and returned, all in the space of 24 hours……….He was back playing with the Hawks that week-end.

He copped a decent old whack with the injury stick over the next couple of years. Stress fractures, a nagging groin problem, and a mystery back ailment cost him many games……..He watched a lot of training, and was limited to gym work or routine handball exercises.

Through it all, he retained his buoyant personality.

“I played about half a dozen games with the crook back in 2012……It was amidst all the excitement of Barry Hall arriving…..We were really flying and I wanted to be part of it.”

“I took serious painkillers to enable me to get on the ground…..I was going to the physio and chiro every week…….Finally, the fellah doing the MRI said: ‘Where do you reckon your back’s sore ?…….’ “

“ When I pointed it out, he said: ‘I can see why,…..’You’ve got a big crack near the pelvis.’ ”

“Consequently, I didn’t make it back for the Finals…….”

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Following the departure of his ruck cohort Karl Norman, ‘Gatto’ ascended to the role of number one ruckman……..The ‘Frenchman’, as he was dubbed by the 2AY commentary team, took out the Club Best & Fairest in 2014, playing the best footy of his career. He helped guide the Hawks to their last finals victory (over Corowa-Rutherglen).

At 196cm he was often conceding height ( and weight), but recognition of his standing came when he represented the O & M against the Mornington Peninsula, was vice-captain for the Hampden League clash, and finished runner-up to Sean O’Keeffe in the 2016 B & F.

“I’ve just tried to develop my own rucking style over the years,” he says. “At centre bounces, I use my body and jump into blokes……Having never been known for taking the big pack mark, I just rely on running a lot, and contesting around the ground….. .”

He relished inheriting the captaincy in 2016.

“To be accorded that honour was huge….After all, 780 players have worn the Brown and Gold, and there’ve only been 23 captains……..I had it for four years and really loved the responsibility…..”

Not that being skipper changed his routine that much – especially during the pre-match:

Many a casual visitor to the rooms has been distracted by the guttural sound of ‘Gatto’, with his head buried in the toilet bowl, bringing up that morning’s breakfast.

“It’s just something that’s become part of my ritual…….I had a ‘Dan McGrew’ one day, and played well…..My brain’s now tuned to needing it every week…….It provides a sense of calm……”

And post-game ? : “I still enjoy getting around the boys and having a few beers.

“He admits he was once a pace-setter on the social front, but now leaves it to the young blokes to ‘contend for the title’.

And, I put to him, he always seems to be up for a chat with anybody and everybody:

“Players under-estimate, sometimes, how much of a thrill it gives the supporters when we have a win……..Some of them have been following the Rovers for decades…………It’s terrific to mingle with them in the rooms, and have a yarn with them ….”

“ Mum ( Lorraine ) is my greatest fan….She loves getting in there and talking to all the boys…..She’s met all the new players this year…….She gets a lot out of it…”

In 2017 he lost his dad, Andrew, who was also a mad-keen follower.

“That was pretty tough when he died. He’d been crook for 12 months or so……. Mum and my three sisters battled a fair bit…..and I had to be there for them………I’ve got a pretty positive mind-set though………That helps, and your mates at the footy club come in handy in times like that…….”

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It happened to coincide with the Rovers going through some lean times on the field.

“Because we were struggling for wins, the coaches found it hard to lure players…….To make matters worse, I had a shoulder ‘reco’ and did an AC joint in the other shoulder……”

“I’d come off a few reasonable years……..When ‘Crezza’ arrived in 2019 he ruffled a few feathers…….He put the heat on some blokes, and certainly didn’t miss me with a few sprays…..”

“He took me aside and we had a couple of chats……I knew what was coming……. I just wasn’t performing, and got dropped……It was probably a hard call for him to make ……like, I was still co-captain……..But it sent a message to a few people……At the end of the day, he’s the coach and we definitely respected him…..”

“It gave the old ego a bit of a jolt, but you’ve just gotta suck it up and get on with it…….It was a tough year personally, because I had a lot going on outside of footy…………But I’d like to think I’ve bounced back okay …….”

It was a similar situation when he was relieved of the captaincy the following year……

“I wouldn’t say I wanted to let it go, but I also knew there needed to be change…….I had to get back to enjoying my footy again…….”

“After all, it’s not like I still couldn’t lead the side …….I just didn’t have the title…….”

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These days ‘Gatto’ and his old Junior League team-mate Matt Kelly – the champion Magpie ‘Pocket Rocket’, who passed the 200th-game milestone in 2019 – share the additional responsibility of operating one of the city’s largest businesses – Crown Building & Construction.

“ ‘Bater’ was a year above me when we played with Imperials…….We’d done our apprenticeship with ‘Boofer’ Allen, then worked together under Luke O’Keefe and Jono Rea.”

“A project came up where a lady wanted a house built, so I gave him a call to see whether he was interested…….We worked together, priced it up, got the job……and the rest is history….”

“We started ‘Crown’ about eight years ago. When we were younger we’d just work all day, switch off, then head to footy training………It’s definitely different, now that it’s grown………Work’s more hectic and stressful; you’ve always got something on your mind about a job, or whatever……..”

Crown Constructions now operate from a large warehouse in Osboldstone Road.

‘Gatto’ admits his footy priorities have changed.

“You lived and breathed it as a young bloke, and wanted to be the best. Now you just like to be able to make a contribution……..You play every game as if it’s your last……..”

His ideal form of relaxation after footy each Sunday, is to head out to his favourite haunts around the hills, to do some ‘Bush-Bashing’ on his Dirt Bike.

“It’s a great way to de-stress,” says the jovial ‘Frenchman’…….

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