‘AGE IS NO BARRIER TO ‘SMOKY’……….’

I spot him fossicking for weeds, hidden among the veggie patch at the rear of his Wangandary Road residence……..He’s taking advantage of a break in the miserable weather that’s recently befallen us……..

There’s not much of Greg ‘Smoky’ Hogan……In his footy prime he stood just five foot five and a half……”I’ve shrunk a bit since then,” he quips.

His favourite haunt these days is just up the road…….He thinks nothing of lugging his clubs around the 18 holes of undulating, picturesque Jubilee Golf course thrice weekly……

It’s testament to the fitness – and competitiveness – of this spritely 90 year-old….………

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‘Smoky’ was raised at Yerong Creek, a tiny Riverina farming community, wedged in between Lockhart, Wagga and The Rock……..

It’s said that the ‘Barassi Line’, drawn just to the north, was the imaginary strip of demarcation between Rugby League territory, and the Aussie Rules heartland.

Not that there’d be any doubt where the loyalties of the sizeable Hogan clan would lie……Their dad Tom was a ‘Rules’ fanatic and had played in a couple of flags with nearby Osborne, in 1923 and ‘24.

But when it came to continuing their Secondary education Greg and his brother Maurie were shipped off to St.Gregory’s College in Campbelltown…… a rugby stronghold, if ever there was one.

“We had to adapt to this strange game ,” he says. “I was in the same class as Jimmy Sandral (the triple Morris Medallist) and he became one of the school’s stars in the three years we were there……”

But when Tom and Tess loaded up the family truck, packed to the hilt with their belongings, and headed for a new life down south – on a dairy farm at Moyhu – the boys were tickled pink……..

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‘Smoky’s’ quietly spoken; a man of few words……but he’s effusive when he recalls his early days in the Ovens & King…..

“It was a Major League when I started with Moyhu in 1949……Your dad was coaching the Rovers….Old Len Ablett was in charge of a really strong Myrtleford team……every side had its array of stars……”

“A few years later you had blokes like Greg Tate, Billy Dalziel, Mick Flecknoe, Bill Pinder and Bill Comensoli – all brilliant players – coaching….”

“The O & K used to pick a rep team which would meet a combined Rovers/ Wangaratta side, and we usually gave ‘em a good run for their money……”

Greg returned to the Riverina in 1953 and ‘54, working as a shearer and satisfying an ambition to play with Osborne – his dad’s old club.

By the time he settled back into O & K footy in the mid-fifties he’d become a star in his own right….He shared the 1956 Baker Medal with Ray Warford (Tarrawingee) and Timmy Lowe (Beechworth), and took out the Chronicle’s Harman Medal.

His first flag came in 1959: “We hadn’t won one for 12 years and were darned lucky to get over the line against Chiltern…..We were well ahead, but they began to peg the margin back, then threatened to run over the top of us….”

“I remember our centre half forward Brian Martin putting his fist up to punch the ball in the dying stages…..It ricocheted over the back of the pack; ‘Jackie’ Corker ran onto it and kicked a goal….”

“They took the ball back to the centre and the same thing happened again……We’ve kicked two goals in two minutes to win the game….We’d thought we were buggered….”

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The following year (1960) the Hoppers were under the leadership of a colourful, enigmatic figure – Ron ‘Modest’ Murray – whose habit of ‘breaking out’ for more than the occasional night on the drink almost proved disastrous.

“ ‘Modest’ pranged his car the week before the Grand Final……He was driving up Perry Street and swerved when he thought a car was heading straight at him with its headlights on high beam……It turned out, of course, to be a reflection of his own lights on the shop windows in Vincent Road,” Greg recalls.

“He wasn’t too popular when word got out…..The Selectors talked about leaving him out of the side at one stage……Luckily they didn’t, because he turned it on and proved to be one of the key factors in us defeating Beechworth in a thriller….”

Maurie ‘Bumper’ Farrell, a great player in ‘Smoky’s era, won seven B & F’s at Moyhu, but he’s not too sure he would have had the same influence in O & M footy….

“He was only a 6 foot ruckman, you know…..He was strong, a good palmer, and jumped in hard at centre bounces….He was at his best when he was resting in the back pocket….would mark everything…….”

‘Bumper’ was certainly a dominant figure in that great Moyhu premiership team of 1962…..They went through the season undefeated and it’s regarded as one of the finest O & K teams of all time.

“Things panned out beautifully that year,” Greg says.

“ Tony Nolan, a terrific player, fell into our lap, and a fellah called Lex Lane turned out to be a cracking centre half back.”

“He was from Morwell and just happened to be building a shearing shed at Moyhu at that time. He used to call in to the pub for a beer after work……They talked him into having a run …..What a player he was….”

“But it topped off the side when our coach Ray Burns twisted my 17 year-old brother Neville’s arm and talked him into delaying his entry into O & M footy.

Neville showed his exquisite skills in that Grand Final win over Tarrawingee; his final game with the Hoppers before he embarked on to a distinguished playing and coaching career with the Wang Rovers.

Greg also starred in the 33-point victory, as did his brother-in-law, back flanker Ian ‘Tiger’ McDonald……

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After Greg and Bev married they settled in Hansonville and continued to expand a thriving Freight business…….

He admits that footy training had to be put on the back-burner sometimes, due to the long hours that he and Maurie ( operating as ‘Hogan Bros Livestock Transport’) were logging up:

“In those days, for instance, it’d take us 16 hours to cart lambs to Sydney….You’d have to be continually stopping to stand the lambs up……”

“We were returning from Sydney one night and found floodwater over the road at Holbrook….So we cut across to Wagga, left the trucks there and got our cousin to drive us home and enable us to play footy against one another the next day…… ( Greg was at Greta and Maurie, at this stage, was Tarrawingee’s star full forward)……We went back on the Sunday to pick up the trucks….”

Greg’s brother Neville can recall him falling asleep half-way through a meal, still gripping his knife and fork, after one of those marathon trips.

But footy was his outlet…… four years at Greta yielded another two flags – in 1965 and ‘66 – under the coaching of his old Moyhu contemporary, ‘Bumper’ Farrell…….He reluctantly hung up the boots at the age of 36.

It’s an imposing footy C.V: 210-odd games with Moyhu, 72 with Greta, and 39 at Osborne; five O & K premierships and a Clyde Baker Medal……

Were there any regrets about not having a crack at Ovens and Murray football ?

“Not really….Wang and the Rovers both approached me, but I would have had to make a stronger commitment to training….and that wasn’t possible with the hours we were putting in on the trucks….”

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Greg and Maurie continued to carry livestock until the closure of the Newmarket Saleyards in 1984 put paid to their four-times weekly trips to Melbourne.

Greg continued trucking, and took up a contract with Pioneer Concrete for 14 years, before retiring in 1998.

His love-affair with golf began a few years earlier, when he and Chris Norris, a Greta school-teacher used to come in to Jubilee for an occasional round….

And when he and Bev moved in to Wangandary Road in the early nineties he became fair dinkum:

“I’d go up nearly every night, about 5pm and play nine holes, hitting two balls…..You improve a fair bit when you’re doing that…….”

He’s managed a hole-in-one at Jubilee, and has ‘Shot his Age’ eight times:

“I hit a purple patch once, when I got my handicap down to 12……”Don’t print that, though…….People will think I’m blowing my bags……..I’m usually around the 14-15 mark…..”

“They’re a good mob at Jubilee, and I still really enjoy playing……Everyone chips in and helps around the Club…..”

“One of my jobs for roughly the last 25 years has been emptying the rubbish bins and generally tidying up around the course………….”

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The six Hogan kids have continued the family’s deep sporting involvement……..

Gary, who’s currently President of the Greta Football/ Netball Club, played well over 370 club games for the Blues and finished when he was 44…..Phil, who plays music in two rock Bands, also chalked up 30-odd games with the Reserves……

Besides all enjoying lengthy tennis careers, Wendy, Robyn and Joanne played significant roles in the 13 A-Grade Netball premierships that Greta won between 1985 and ’99.

Robyn won 5 Ovens & King Netball B & F’s ( 2 A-Grade and 3 B-Grade). She and Jo-Ann also featured in an A-Grade Netball Grand Final for Wangaratta.

Greg and Paul share the honour of being the O & K’s only father-son Baker Medallists……

After 51 games – and a premiership – with the Rovers, Paul returned to Greta, where he took out the League’s prestigious ‘gong’ in 1995, collected three Club B & F’s and was a member of three flags…..

His career, which totalled 436 Club games with the Blues, also earned him induction to the O & K Hall of Fame….an honour he shares with Wendy and Robyn, who were inducted in 2015 for their services to Netball…..

Of the 13 Hogan grandkids – a number of whom are now progressing through the sporting ranks – Jayden Bear has achieved the most prominence…..He has 58 senior games to his credit with the Wangaratta Rovers, including a couple of solid performances in this year’s O & M finals…..…..

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Super-veteran ‘Smoky’ says he likes to remain active, and Golf provides him with the opportunity to get out and about……”Besides, I really love the game,” ……………

‘A SALUTE TO ‘J.A’ ……THE SPORTING SHOWMAN……..’

John Brady was one of the sporting heroes of my growing-up days……..A local who’d cracked the big-time ………..’J.A’ passed away last Tuesday, aged 90……… ‘We caught up with him several years ago, and penned this story…….

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John Alfred Brady was in his early teens when he first began to emerge as a prodigious sporting talent………

His dad Jack was a prominent livestock agent; the family resided in Moore Street, and John and his mates from the Wangaratta Technical School spent most of their down-time belting a cricket ball and kicking a footy.

He played a few games of Junior League football, he recalls, before heading down to Kilmore’s prestigious Assumption College…….His only contact with home would be during school holidays, when St.Patrick’s utilised his skills as a fast-medium bowler, and slotted him into their WDCA side.

You don’t crash through a strong batting line-up to take 7/20 at the age of 17, then follow it up with 4/4 in a semi-final, without people sitting up and taking notice.

Unfortunately, it was the last that Wangaratta was to see of Brady, the sportsman, for several years…………..

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Old Jack envisaged a future for the young bloke in the livestock industry and, after he’d graduated from Assumption, arranged a job for him, with New Zealand Loan, in Shepparton.

He was showing promise as a forward with Shepp, and had just qualified for his auctioneer’s licence, when a vacancy sprung up in Benalla………A clearance was lodged and the remainder of the season was spent with the Demons.

Things moved so rapidly – and his talent had become so obvious – that, by April 1952, he was playing League football………The colourful career of a North Melbourne champion was under way………..

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Within a couple of years he had amassed a reputation as one of the finest key-position players in the game……..Alternating between centre half forward and back, he won North’s Best & Fairest, the Sid Barker Trophy, in 1954, and earned the first of his Victorian guernseys.

The great Laurie Nash was asked, early in 1955, for his summation of the best players in the game……..he named Brady as one of them……

“He is one of the most natural footballers I have ever seen……His near-perfect build, wonderful pace, and mature football brain, puts him in the champion-class…..And his club is definitely playing him in the right position…..He could certainly do well at centre half forward , but in defence he saves North Melbourne time after time,” Nash said.

Initially, John’s ritual was to catch a train down from Benalla to Melbourne, in time for training on Thursday night, then return home on Sunday……It was taxing stuff…….

He began work in Wangaratta in the mid fifties, with Brady & Sinclair, a livestock firm operated by his dad and Gordon Sinclair, under the Dalgety logo.

This led to his brief, but eventful sojourn as a Country Week cricketer……….

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Wangaratta had recently won promotion to the Provincial Group and had a side loaded with fast bowlers – Max Bussell, Brian ‘Woofer’ Martin and Jackie Beeby among them……..Brady, who had become a prolific wicket-taker with new WDCA club, Magpies, complemented the group.

Wang clinched one title, and were runners-up in another, during John’s three visits to Country Week……His 11 wickets at 12.27 proved crucial in the Association’s only ( to date ) Provincial pennant win, in 1957.

His good mate Max Bussell spoke fondly of that Golden Era:

“The teams were disciplined and dedicated, and benefited from the outstanding leadership of Mac Holten…..There were characters, too, such as that terrible twosome – ‘J.A (Brady) and ‘Shadda’ (Stan Trebilcock)…..They were inspiring performers on the field, but just as remarkable off it…..”

“They were in fine form at the Queen’s Bridge Hotel one night, when they had a large crowd in stitches…..J.A, the auctioneer, and Shadda, the penciller, auctioned everything – and everybody – in sight…It was a true Tivoli performance…..”

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The fifties nurtured many swashbuckling, flamboyant VFL stars – rascals who were prone to play it hard on either side of the fence……Brady was one of them.

But he almost walked away from the melting-pot of League football prematurely…….In late 1956 Wangaratta dropped a bombshell when they appointed him to succeed the legendary Mac Holten as playing-coach.

The Pies no doubt anticipated that they would face a battle to prise away North Melbourne’s most valuable asset…….And so it proved……

North blocked his clearance: “They told me there was no way I’d be leaving, and handed me the captaincy,” he said recently. “And they suggested it’d be a good idea, by the way, if I moved back to Melbourne….”

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He had already proved a fine team player, and now showed outstanding qualities as a leader….A fine mark and excellent kick, he was capable of bursts of brilliance which would enthuse the crowd and inspire team-mates.

‘J.A’ again represented the ‘Big V’ in 1957 and ‘59 and led the downtrodden Kangaroos to two finals appearances in 1958.

North didn’t stand in his way when he told them, at the end of 1959, that he was heading to Ararat, to take up a healthy contract as playing-coach.

He had played 118 games, captained the side for three years, and was runner-up Best & Fairest in his swan-song season.

He was appointed for three seasons, but lasted only one, at Ararat: “One of the kids had bronchial asthma and the ‘doc’ advised us that the climate didn’t suit her…..The coaching job at Shepparton United bobbed up and they signed me on for three seasons,” he said.

“I told the United officials after my first year….”If we get a good full forward, I reckon we can win the flag…..I talked my old mate from North, Jock Spencer, into shifting up……We got him a job at the Abbatoirs; his family loved Shepp and he proved a star for United….”

“We won the 1962 flag in a canter…..Ironically, Jock only signed for one year, but his family loved it so much they stayed permanently, and two of his boys also turned out to be stars for United….”

Bernie Sleeth was a youngster, living on the family farm, and just cutting his teeth in Goulburn Valley football, when he experienced Brady’s coaching.

“He had an aura about him – a star quality – and he could still turn a game on its head…..He looked after the young blokes too, but by the end of 1963 United had fallen away a bit and it was decided they needed a change.”

“ JA virtually hung up the boots, but Dookie talked him into playing a few games the next season…..I think that was the last time he touched a footy for about three years,” Bernie says.

Until September 1967……..

Shepparton United had finished fourth….En-route to the Grand Final they lost four players through suspension, as well as their gun centre half back and their only ruckman, both to broken legs.

Their Reserves had finished close to the bottom…..The selectors were desperate, as they cast around for replacements for the eagerly-awaited decider, against bitter rivals, Shepparton.

‘J.A’ received a phone call. His old club was in a predicament. Seeing that he was still a registered player, would he be interested in helping out ? ……….Of course, he said.

Former Rovers star Eric Cornelius, who played with United at the time, remembers Brady’s inclusion being kept secret until training on Thursday night…….Bernie Sleeth was asked to test him out in a few marking duels.

“He was immovable once he got the front position……… even at his advanced age I knew he’d acquit himself well, “ Bernie says.

Much to the derision of the media and rival supporters, Brady duly took his place in a forward pocket.

He acted as a protector to young United spearhead Des Campbell, besides helping himself to four goals, in a vintage performance….

United had the game well in hand, about 10 minutes from the final siren, as ‘J.A’, ever the showman, made his exit…….

He slowly wandered around the boundary, waving to the crowd and soaking up their cheers and jeers….

The old champ had finally farewelled the sporting arena………

“FROM WANG TO NAGOYA…….THE BASKETBALL ODYSSEY OF SHAWN DENNIS …..…”

Shawn Dennis’s opponent in one of his first Ovens and Murray games was a wispy-haired winger from Myrtleford……..

It was mid-way through the 1983 season and Dennis came off the ground convinced that if this was the sort of player he was going to have to contend with in senior footy, he’d be up against it.

Six years later he watched the bloke who towelled him up that day – Gary Ablett – produce one of the greatest-ever AFL finals performances, as he booted nine goals in Geelong’s narrow Grand Final loss to Hawthorn……….

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Dennis, himself, possessed prodigious sporting talent……After just 6 Thirds games the 16 year-old was elevated into the Wangaratta Rovers senior side.

He combined football with his first love, basketball, where he had been best-on court in a Pacers’ WDBA flag…..In the summer months cricket took his fancy; he was a slippery, fiery bowler with local club United.

Shawn’s family had moved to Wangaratta from Swan Hill and operated a mixed-store at the junction of Rowan and Swan Streets……He found work at K-Mart after completing his VCE…..But sport was his ‘go’.

He‘d been persuaded to have a few games with North Melbourne Under 19’s, under the guidance of Denis Pagan in 1984, but homesickness – and his love of basketball – saw him return home and play out the footy season with the Rovers.

In his 10th senior game he was one of the key figures in the Hawks’ one-point First Semi-Final win over Myrtleford – a nail-biting encounter which had ebbed and flowed throughout the day……..

A fortnight later, in his last appearance with the Hawks, he shared in their 1984 Reserves premiership.

Football often wins out when a young basketballer is obliged to choose between the two sports……But with Shawn It was a ‘no-brainer’…..

He hung up his boots and only played one more game of footy beyond the age of 18.

He became totally immersed in the round-ball game and, two years after winning the Wangaratta Basketball Association M.V.P award, was playing with NBL club Newcastle Falcons………having been spotted by observant Falcons talent-scouts whilst playing for Albury in the SEABL……..

In the 35 years or so years that have elapsed since he was introduced to the game at its highest level, Shawn Dennis has become the ultimate journeyman, traversing the length and breadth of Australia – and beyond – in pursuit of his dream.

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But back to the start……

As a feisty guard, he played 197 games with Newcastle Falcons between 1987 and 1996, and a further 26 with the Hobart Devils, with whom he spent the 1990 season…..

In his last three playing seasons with the Falcons he also took on a role as an assistant-coach.

It was a huge responsibility when he assumed the coaching position at the age of 30, suddenly being in charge of players with whom you’d shared the court only two years earlier.

But that was the situation that Shawn found himself in when he succeeded Tom Wisman as Head Coach in 1997……To add to his predicament, the Falcons were in diabolical financial trouble.

He was almost a ‘one-man band’……doing his own video edits, taking players for individual sessions , besides team practice……If there was nobody available to fill the water bottles, he’d do that as well……

“Like all keen young coaches I thought I was ready, but the cold, hard facts were that I wasn’t,” he recalled.

Inevitably, the Newcastle Falcons closed their doors in 1999 and he moved to the Wollongong Hawks as an assistant-coach ……In what seemed to be a common basketball theme in those precarious times, financial constraints meant that he was squeezed out……So he returned to Newcastle, coaching a couple of local clubs and lending support to promising juniors.

In 2003 he moved to New Zealand and coached the Hawke’s Bay Hawks for seven seasons, winning one title, and being voted the NZBL Coach of the Year.

Then followed two seasons as an assistant at the West Sydney Razorbacks, and another in New Zealand, coaching their national woman’s team, The Tall Ferns.

But it was time to head back to Australia, he reckoned, so he took on the job as assistant-coach to an old mate, Rob Beveridge, with the Perth Wildcats……His three seasons with a highly-successful and superbly-run club further enhanced his credentials.

Shawn knew he was more than ready to take on his greatest challenge in 2013 – as Head Coach of Townsville Crocodiles.

He was well aware that he’d be rebuilding the club from the ground up, as the Crocs had been saved from extinction earlier that year.

He said, upon accepting the appointment: “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and I’ll lose my job, but I don’t care…….I know that if we do what I want, we’ll be successful…….”

And that’s the way it was panning out……By 2016 he’d developed a young team, bursting with potential. Despite an undercurrent of financial troubles which had beset the club since his arrival, they showed immense promise on the back of stars Mitch Norton, Nick Kay and brilliant American import Brian Conklin.

It was generally acknowledged that Dennis was the mastermind behind the resurrection of the Croc’s fortunes, and he was voted the NBL’s Coach of the Year………

A month after he’d been re-appointed as Head Coach, the doors finally closed on the Crocs, in April 2016.

“We were devastated, because we felt we were building a really talented team” he said……..”After that I had nothing…….there were no jobs available…..”

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So he hit the phones and made contact with a few of his old basketball mates …..It led to him landing a job as an assistant at Japanese club Tochigo Brex, under his former Newcastle Falcons coach Tom Wisman.

After Tochigo took out the championship he was appointed Head Coach of Otsu-based Shiga Lakestars in 2017.

Otsu (population 343,000) is half an hour from the city of Kyoto, and Shawn says that, along with trying to acquaint himself with coaching a new group, amidst a different culture, he was confronted with the language barrier.

“Otsu is off the beaten path, and I’d go for a month without seeing another foreigner……So the language barrier was a real problem at times……And it was difficult during games, because you had to say things on the run….”.

“Going from English to Japanese can be really difficult to interpret, and when you have to get a message across quickly, sometimes important details get missed…..And that’s a situation where you have to come up with simple phrases…..dumb things down a bit……”

And he also had to re-think his image as a coach……

“I was quite animated and passionate on the sidelines in Australia……But in Japan you can’t be like that…….They confuse that passion for anger, so they think you’re getting cranky….They don’t realise that you’re actually in full control….”

“ I think my experience with Shiga Lakestars helped to mould me into a better coach….. I had to educate myself more, and find ways to better teach the guys what we were trying to do….”

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Shawn moved on to Nagoya (population 2.3 million) in 2021, where he’s now into his second season as Head Coach of Japanese Basketball League First Division club, the Diamond Dolphins.

Earlier this year he was seconded into the Australian camp, as an assistant to the stand-in coach Rob Beveridge, for the Boomers’ FIBA World Cup qualifiers against Japan and Chinese Taipei.

For the 56 year-old it was an opportunity to re-unite with his old coaching mate Beveridge…….

And to possibly reflect on an amazing journey which has taken him from the Barr Reserve in Wangaratta to the spacious Dolphins’ Arena in Nagoya………

“Basketball has taken me around the globe and I’ve made lifelong friends,” he says……..“But the biggest highlight is that I wake up every morning, looking forward to doing a job that I love…… I wouldn’t change it for the world……..Teaching people to play the game I love is very satisfying……”

(Shawn Dennis was the subject of one of On Reflection’s early posts, going on nine years ago. We felt it was high time for an update on his outstanding sporting career.)

P.S: With help from Oliver Kay.

“84 YEARS ON………IS HISTORY ABOUT TO REPEAT ITSELF ?……………..

One of the most riveting O & M Finals series of recent times reaches its climax on Sunday, when Wangaratta and Yarrawonga clash in the Grand Final, at the Lavington Sports Oval.

Three of the finals have been rip-roaring affairs which were decided by less than a kick; the other two featured dramatic fight-backs, which were still in doubt deep into the final term.

The Pigeons appeared to have the Prelim stitched up in the opening quarter when, inspired by the brilliance of small man Nick Fothergill, they kicked five goals into the breeze at Bunton Park. The Hawks, who snapped the opening two scores of the game – both behinds – were thereafter consigned to a role of ‘spectators’ – bewildered and bedazzled by their opponents’ swift ball movement.

Additionally, three of their key play-makers, Sam Murray, Dylan Stone and Alex Marklew had, in the game’s early stages, been rendered ineffective. Stone was out of the game with a serious knee injury; Murray and Marklew were both limping heavily and reduced to cameo roles up forward for the purposes of rotations.

Just how the pendulum swung is difficult to ascertain, but the Rovers did certainly start to assert more control through the midfield. By three quarter-time there was only a goal in it and Hawk fans began to ponder if a second successive miracle could be manifested.

Alas, the Pigeons began to find space and after locating the big sticks once, then again, they were back in charge and were able to put a pulsating contest to rest…………..

So, for just the second time in O & M history, Wangaratta and Yarrawonga are poised to line up against each other in a Grand Final……….What an encounter it promises to be…….

But it could hardly be a more mouth-watering prospect than the one that awaited the footy public 84 years ago…….

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Yarra rose from the bottom of the ladder to reach the Grand Final in 1937 – their first appearance in a decider since entering the competition in 1929. Much of their inspiration came from the bullocking play of star centre half back – and eventual Morris Medallist – George Hayes.

Albury, however, were too good, and comprehensively defeated them by 42 points…..Hayes, skipper Morrie Richmond and ruckman Don Morrison were their stars…….. but they were fuelled with optimism about their prospects in 1938…….

Wangaratta, after winning their third flag in 1936, slumped to the bottom of the ladder in ‘37, winning just two games. It was a humiliating tumble, and prompted a revitalisation within their ranks.

Their search for a coach led them to a footy nomad, Norman Le Brun, whose CV had included stints with South Melbourne, Sandhurst, Essendon, Coburg, Collingwood, Carlton and South Warrnambool.

Standing only 171cm, the stocky 76kg rover grew up in the back streets of Richmond, where young bucks would sooner have a fight than a feed. He had supplemented the meagre match payments he received with occasional work as a brick-layer.

He was fearless and hard-hitting on the field and, despite his bulk, could run all day. A bachelor with a carefree personality which endeared him to everyone, he was ‘adopted’ by the people of Wangaratta upon his arrival.

The club’s recruiting officers had also been busy…….Milawa brothers Maurice and Joe Valli were enticed to the Black and White, as were Leo Crowe (Richmond Reserves), Alan and Jim La Rose (Golden Square) and Arthur Hayes (Ballarat).

One of their key players – and Le Brun’s deputy, was a strong key position player, Ernie Ward, who had been lured to the town from Bendigo League club Eaglehawk in 1935.

A gregarious personality, Ward had made a huge impact on the club, starring in their 1936 flag win and continuing his brilliant form the following year.

However, he was knocked out in a marking duel at the Albury Sportsground, suffering a fractured skull and broken jaw, which cost him the last four games of the season – and possibly the Morris Medal….

He finished runner-up, one vote behind George Hayes.

Despite the severity of his injury, Ward fully recovered and returned to his high-marking best in 1938. Le Brun had the luxury of being able to swing him to either end of the ground with equal effect.

Alec Fraser, the classy mid-fielder, had become part of the furniture at the Showgrounds Oval since joining the Club a decade earlier……..Apart from a brief stint with St.Kilda, the ‘gentleman footballer’ was rarely beaten, and was still the epitome of reliability……..

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No doubt one of ‘the stars of the show’ in the talented Yarrawonga sides of the late thirties was Leo Hicks, a 175cm, 71kg key forward…….. A member of a famous Pigeon family, Hicks had made the Senior list at Fitzroy in 1938, but chose to return home, to further enhance his reputation as a prolific sharp-shooter.

He kicked no less than four goals in 12 successive matches during the season, which included twin ‘bags’ of 10, on the way to a century. Leo and his brother Sam held down the key forward posts with devastating effect during the season.

George Hayes continued his Medal-winning form at centre half back. A solid six-footer, he exuded a fearsome presence and helped his fellow defenders stand tall, whilst personally racking up plenty of possessions.

Yarra had a less than ideal start to their 1938 campaign, winning just one of their opening four matches. But they soon steadied the ship, and finished the home and away rounds with a 10-5 record.

They took out the minor premiership, on percentage from Wangaratta and Rutherglen, with Albury three games behind, in fourth spot………

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Rutherglen’s inaccurate kicking kept Albury in the First Semi-Final. They led 10.17 to 12.4 at three quarter-time, but the Tigers finished with 2 goals to one in the final term, to win by three points.

The dynamic Doug Strang was the player who made the difference. He booted 9 goals in a single-handed effort.

The Second Semi between Wangaratta and Yarrawonga was a classic. The Pigeons held a slender four-point advantage at half-time……Wang were two points in front at lemon-time…..

But it boiled down to accuracy in the end, as the Pies added 4.1 to 3.5 in the final term to gain automatic entry to the Grand Final – winning 12.13 to 11.15.

There was more bad news for the Pigeons, though……… Champion defender and club heart-beat George Hayes had sustained a leg injury, which would put paid to his season……..

Yarra bounced back superbly in the Preliminary Final, and were all over Albury for three quarters. They led 12.13 to 3.10 at one stage, and their attention had already begun to turn to the following week.

But Albury, again inspired by Doug Strang, who kicked another 7 goals, stormed home to kick 9.3 to 3.5 in the final quarter……The winning margin was reduced to just 23 points…….

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A bumper crowd, which paid 264 pounds at the gate, flocked to Barkly Park, Rutherglen for the re-match of the closely-matched rivals.

The head-to-head contests during the season stood at 2-apiece and the experts couldn’t seperate them. The absence of the lion-hearted Hayes would be sorely felt, and many wondered if the week’s rest might have freshened the Pies for what promised to be a no-holds-barred contest……

The teams lined up as such:

YARRAWONGA

B: D.Marshall, S.Ellis, D.Naughtin

HB: J.Flynn, J.Weeks, F.Johnston.

C: E.Message, H.Marshall, B.Ridley

HF: K.Duncan, S.Hicks, J.Norris

F: H.Gillett, L.Hicks, J.Reilly.

Foll: B.Brown, K.Ryan, M.Richmond (c)

19th: L.Cooper,

Coach: Lloyd Jones

WANGARATTA

From: N.Le Brun (cc), A. Clark, J.La Rose, A.Fraser, A.La Rose, B.Le Leivre, H.Ewing,

M.Valli, E.Ward, R.Bray, L.Crowe, T.Maguire, A.Rosengrave, T.Dykes, G.Lewis,

J.Valli, W.Wyllie, J.Williams, 19th: S. Auld.

Little separated the two combinations for three quarters…….Yarra led 1.5 to 1.2 at quarter-time……… Wang slightly gained the initiative to lead by two goals at the long break: 5.6 to 3.6….

The Pigeons spoiled an enterprising third quarter with a poor return on the score-board. They added only 2.7 despite appearing to have the majority of the play. At three quarter-time their deficit was nine points.

But the Pies found the way to goal in the last. Ernie Ward was unstoppable at full forward. He finished with six goals, whilst the nuggety Le Brun chimed in with three, as the hard-working Yarra defence, led by Dave Naughtin, Jim Flynn and Doug Marshall battled to stem he tide.

The final margin of 27 points indicated a comfortable winning margin, but the game still remained in the balance until mid-way through the quarter……..When it was up for grabs, it was Wangaratta who took their chances and went on with the job:

WANGARATTA: 1.2, 5.6, 7.10, 12.15 (87)

YARRAWONGA: 1.5, 3.6, 5.13, 7.16 (58)

Best: WANGARATTA: N.Le Brun, A.Fraser, E.Ward, H.Ewing, M.Valli, T..Maguire, B.Le Leivre, J & A. La Rose.

YARRAWONGA: D.Naughtin, J.Flynn, D.Marshall, A.Ridley, S.Ellis, M.Richmond, S.Hicks.

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Yarrawonga have contested 16 Grand Finals……They eventually broke through for their first flag when former Fitzroy coach Billy Stephen led them to victory against Wangaratta Rovers in 1959.

They’ll be chasing their sixth title, the most recent of which came in 2013.

Wangaratta have made 27 appearances at the ‘big dance’, ‘greeting the judge’ in 15 of them…..

There’s an eerie similarity about the lead-up to these two Grand Finals, 84 years apart………..They finished 1 and 2…….. Shared the spoils during the home- and-away………Wangaratta won the Second Semi by less than a kick……..Yarra staved off a huge comeback in the Prelim……..

Most shrewd judges fancy the Pies, but as we are continually warned, anything can happen in Grand Finals………….

” ‘THE TANK’ – A HUMAN WRECKING-BALL……..”

Richie Castles, former Milkie, footballer, cricketer, pigeon racer, trotting trainer and true character, finds serenity these days, on the seat of his Ride-On Mower………

The knees that supported his roly-poly frame throughout a brilliant footy career are ‘stuffed’, he says…..So that puts paid to too much physical activity……Nevertheless, he thrives on the chore of keeping the seven and a half acre property, where he and wife Margaret reside, in fine fettle…..

I remember him being a powerhouse in defence during a fine era for Benalla……Back-pocket players of the late-50’s/mid-60’s were typically dour, stingy types whose main focus was to keep resting rovers under wraps and dish out the occasional back-hander………

Richie, though, was a dasher, in the mould of Brad Hardie, or a modern-day Daniel Rioli…..

“If I thought I could get the ball I’d go after it” he says….”It wouldn’t matter if it was from here to that pigeon-cage over there…..I wouldn’t give a bugger if there was anyone in my way; I’d run over the top of ‘em to get it….”.

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His older brother Charlie was an Austral Wheelrace place-getter, and the youngster once had aspirations of following him into cycling.

But he loved footy – and Benalla – with a passion……..”As a kid I used to ride my bike from one end of the Showgrounds Oval to the other; depending on which end we were kicking.”

“One of my heroes was Jack Spriggs, who played a bit like Leigh Matthews……’Spriggsy’ would land the ball on the chest of Morris Medallist Kevin Hurley with the precision of a surgeon…….Geez he was a good player.”

“He kept an eye on the local Junior League and knew all the good kids…..He milked a few cows at Swanpool and was appointed coach out there…….tried to get me to go with him…He said to mum and dad: ‘I’ll look after him’…….He would’ve, too, but I was hell-bent on playing with Benalla…..”

Richie walked straight into the Benalla senior side in 1957, aged 17, holding down the back pocket position with the aplomb of a veteran.

His mum’s brother – triple Brownlow Medallist Dick Reynolds – was coaching Essendon and invited him down to train, and play a couple of practice games with the Bombers the following year.

“There was a car-load of us and they’ve talked me into going to Luna Park after the practice match……It was 11 o’clock before we left for home, and I’ve ended up rolling my Ford Mainline Ute on the bend at Avenal…..”

“Charlie had ridden at the North Essendon Board Track that night and, coincedentally, found me lying on the road……I thought I was done…”

His progress in recovering from a broken pelvis, and a couple of other injuries, was slow but sure…… he was walking within six weeks……..and was everlastingly grateful to Benalla’s Head Trainer Tim Shanahan.

“He was a marvel that bloke….the best around……He had such a good reputation that half the O & M players came to him for treatment…..They’d offer him a bottle of beer or something, for getting them back on the track….”

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Richie’s family owned one of the three Dairies in Benalla, and he’d left school at 15 to begin a career that lasted more than 50 years.

“It was my life…..I’d start at 1.30am, seven days a week, with a Horse and Cart…..350 houses…..and get back to the Dairy about 7am……..I was running a bloody marathon every day; no wonder I was fit…..”

“Then, on training nights, I’d ride the bike over to the Showgrounds and run a few laps, waiting ‘til the boys arrived.”

But you’d question his fitness when you saw him run onto the ground……His socks would droop down around his ankles, and he looked podgy and overweight….After all, his playing weight was 13 and a half stone, which was more than ample for his 5’8” frame to carry.

No wonder they called him ‘The Tank’……He was a human wrecking-ball when in full flight……

Billy Luck coached the Demons in the year Richie returned from injury…..then was succeeded by ex-Fitzroy winger Vin Williams in 1960.

That was, he reckons, his best year of footy.

He’d spent a month of his holidays doing another pre-season at Essendon. When he returned he was fighting fit….and did it show……The local Menswear store donated a Pelaco shirt for Benalla’s best player each game…..and he won nine of them !…..as well as comfortably winning the Club B & F….

Benalla were hanging precariously to fourth spot – two points ahead of Myrtleford – when they faced the Rovers at the Findlay Oval in Round 18.

The equation was simple….they had to defeat the Hawks, as the Saints were certainties against winless Rutherglen.

In the dying seconds of an exhilarating clash, Benalla booted a goal to reduce the margin to a single kick……As the ball was being relayed back to the centre, the siren blew, and hundreds with their ears glued to 3NE’s coverage could hear a voice in the time-keeper’s box: ‘Oh, No, No….’

The timekeeper had accidentally pressed the button for the final siren, instead of the time-on button…..The game had finished 12 seconds early.

Benalla protested and the match was re-played the following week….This time the Hawks prevailed by eight points…..

In the meantime, the customary Morris Medal vote-count had been conducted following Round 18……. Rovers coach Bob Rose polled two votes in the Demon-Hawk clash, to take out the ‘gong’ by one vote, from Castles.

There was some contention that votes should have been cast for the Re-Play instead of the abandoned game……in which case Castles, who starred in the re-play may have won the Medal.

One journo opined: ‘There are some who feel that Richie Castles has been handed a raw deal.’

Richie quickly moved on from the controversy. He reflected: “I didn’t play for individual awards. It was history, as far as I was concerned…”

He also remembers the re-play for the ‘blue’ that started 20 minutes into the first quarter:

“ ‘Rosy’ had given Terry Putt a short right to the jaw which travelled about six inches….Fortunately for Bob the umpie didn’t see it……He jumped in to soothe things down and asked ‘Rosy’ what had happened……….”I think he fainted’ was his reply…..”

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Dick Reynolds had, by now, taken on the coaching job with SANFL club West Torrens, and Richie headed over to spend a season in Adelaide.

“I lived with Dick and Auntie Jean, in this palatial two-storey mansion, just up from Adelaide Oval….provided by the wealthy Torrens President, Ossie O’Grady….tennis court…maid’s quarters upstairs…the lot.”

“They got me a job at Industrial Springs, on Port Road, but I had to spend four weeks’ residentially qualifying before I was eligible to play,” he says.

“We had a great win over Port Adelaide in the final round, then faced Norwood in the First Semi, in front of 45,000 fans……Unfortunately, we all went bad on the same day…..stage-fright, probably…..”

“I loved the footy over there, but had a blue with the boss at work and told him to ‘stick the job up his arse’, loaded up the ute and drove all the way home…….hit the Shepp Road about 6am on Christmas Day…..”

His timing couldn’t have been better…..Benalla were about to embark on a run which would take them to successive flags…..

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They had a crackerjack combination in ‘62…..well-balanced and adaptable. Strong big men like Ike Kulbars and Terry Putt; key forwards Neil Busse and burly Ian Hughes; defenders Alf Sikora, ‘Dinger’ Langlands and Graeme Lessing and a classy centreline of Brian Bourke, ‘Curly’ Hanlon and Ronnie Hayes……

“We knocked off the Rovers mid-season in one of the first matches that Ken Boyd played for them after returning from disqualification. He was in Benalla selling insurance the following week and called in to the place where my brother Charlie worked. Conversation naturally turned to footy…..”

“He said: ‘Fair dinkum, they had one bloke who couldn’t run because his knees were all bandaged up ( that was Hughsie ) and there was another fat little bloke in the back pocket…….The fellah that couldn’t run, with the bandaged knees, kicked four goals and the fat little prick stopped ten’…. “

“Charlie said: ‘You’re talking about my little brother’….”

“We beat Corowa by a point in a thrilling Second Semi and the Grand Final was a real tight battle all day…….We trailed the Rovers by a couple of goals at half-time, 5 points at three quarter-time, and they still led by 10 points with just a few minutes to play.”

“They’d switched ‘Boydy’ into the ruck and he was giving them plenty, but they were tiring. We slowly gained the ascendency and booted three goals to hit the lead…..I can still see Johnny Hogan snapping the final goal, to seal the game….. The sound of that siren gave me my greatest thrill in football.”

The Demons’ won in more emphatic fashion in 1963, but not before they’d survived a draw against Myrtleford in the Second Semi-Final, won the replay by 6 goals, then awaited a confident Corowa in the Grand Final…

It was still anyone’s game at lemon-time, as the Spiders trailed by just 13 points……But they failed to score in the last quarter, whilst Benalla booted 8.3, to win by 64 points.

The celebrations raged, and Castles, who’d again played a major part, was in the thick of them…..

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Richie says he hasn’t touched a drop of the demon drink for more than 30 years, but more than made up for it when he was playing.

“I’d have one or two, then want to drink the keg……There we’re plenty of times I went on the milk-run still under the weather…….Just as well the horse knew when to stop……How the hell I didn’t fall off I’ll never know…….”

He says he still holds one record, of which he’s not terribly proud…..

“We’d earned a week off after winning the ‘62 Second Semi, and someone donated an ‘18-gallon keg’ which we proceeded to drink after Tuesday night training…….Much, much later, it was decided it’d be a good idea to drive to the Friendlies Oval to see who could record the fastest lap…..”

( Richie had been playing First XI cricket with UFS since he was about 14, so he was familiar with the lay-out of the ground.)

“I was in my Volkswagen and it was as wet as buggery…..we started broadsiding around there….One of the fellahs had winter treads on his Holden, and ran straight up the guts, through the turf wicket…..Johnny Burns, in his blue Customline, got bogged to the boot….”

“The bloke in the railway signal-box dobbed us in……We caused a fair bit of damage and the cops nabbed us……We had to attend the police-station the next day, to have the riot act read to us……”

“Vin Williams ( our coach ) and Charlie Chiswell ( President ) got us out of strife, but we had to pay 100 quid and roll the surface with an old concrete roller…….”

“It’s a wonder you weren’t locked up, “ his wife Margaret quips…..

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Richie had been finding it difficult to combine the milk-run with his footy commitments. He pulled the pin on his career in 1965, aged 25, after 115 terrific games with the Demons.

Instead, he concentrated on his racing Pigeons – a life-time hobby which he only gave up three years ago. He also pre-trained Trotters.

“The pick of them was Madison Square, which I leased to Corowa coach Frank Tuck. He won 8-10 races with it…….When Mum had a stroke the trotters went by the wayside…..

In the mid-eighties his brother-in-law Alan Beaton – a 1963 premiership team-mate – convinced him to coach one of the Under-14 Junior League teams – Benalla Tigers.

“I think they give me the hardest kids to handle…..We won 2 games the first year, then took out the next 2 flags.”

“Geez, some of ‘em were bastards…..but I loved it……If there was mud and slush I’d let ‘em fight in it…..We had one young bloke called ‘Harro’…..He was only about 12; smoked, rode a bike, had a girl on each arm; from a split family….skinny legs and arms….a real candidate for Pentridge, I thought…..But he was respectful to me, and always called me Mr.Cas’”

“Anyway, he disappeared off the scene….I asked his Aunty years later what he was up to….She said: ‘You wouldn’t believe it. He’s up in Queensland, married, with a couple of kids and has his own business, as a Painter and Decorator…..’ “

After retirement, Richie spent a few years on the Benalla committee, and also served as a Selector…..He still enjoys his footy and closely monitors the progress of young fellahs, as they come through the ranks……….

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P.S: When the O & M announced its ‘Team of the Century’ in 2019 Richie Castles was named in the Back Pocket…..He deems it a huge honour to have been included among a group of the finest-ever players to have graced the competition………