‘THE NEW PONSFORD…….’

Alec Fraser had just begun to exhibit flashes of his precocious cricket talent in the mid-1920’s when the good judges handed him a moniker – ‘The Next Ponsford’……..

Bill Ponsford, the thick-set Victorian, was every kid’s idol in the pre-Bradman era. An opening batsman and run-scoring machine, his deeds have been forever immortalised by the naming of a Grandstand in his honour at the MCG – the scene of many of his triumphs.

Alec’s performances fell well short of the legend to whom he was compared, but nevertheless, he was to carve out a brilliant sporting career in his adopted home town………….

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Born and raised in Albury, his parents were Highland Dancing enthusiasts. Alec was just four when his father passed away, leaving his mum to single-handedly raise the four Fraser siblings.

There was never any chance of the lad, nicknamed ‘Tony’, pursuing the noble art of Highland Dancing……….he was enraptured by football and cricket, at which he showed exceptional promise.

Wangaratta Football Club first made contact with him when he was playing with Albury Rovers, in the Albury & District Football League.

After starring in premierships in 1926 and ‘27 alongside future triple-Brownlow Medallist Haydn Bunton ( who was two and a half years younger), Alec moved down the highway to join the ‘Pies, who teed up a job for him at the Co-Store in May 1928.

Wangaratta’s fortunes had plummeted since their glorious, unbeaten Premiership of 1925. A mass exodus of players – added to a financial crisis – forced them into a solid re-build. The first signs of a revival were shown when Fraser, and two other newcomers, Jim ‘Coco’ Boyd and Stan Bennett bolstered the side.

Against the odds, they held onto fourth spot – and a finals berth – despite going down by 29 points to St.Patrick’s in the final round. The arch rivals re-engaged the following week, in the First Semi-Final, and the ‘Pies held onto a smidgeon of hope of causing an upset.

Alas, disaster struck. St.Pat’s booted 30.12 to 9.8, with the dynamic, unstoppable, future Richmond captain Maurie Hunter snaring 19 goals. It remains the highest score, and biggest Semi-Final winning margin in O & M history………..

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19 year-old Fraser had certainly lived up to expectations at his new Club, and was selected in the Ovens and Murray team which played a VFL rep side at the Showgrounds in mid-season.

With five minutes remaining in a classic contest, O & M led by a point, but the VFL steadied, to win 16.15 to 15.14 . Skipper Harry Hunter, ‘Coco’ Boyd ( 5 goals) and old Albury Rovers team-mates Bunton and Fraser were their stars.

Whilst Bunton was lured to VFL football amidst a much-publicised recruiting frenzy which resulted in Fitzroy procuring his services in 1931, Fraser’s elevation came about in low-key fashion.

He received letters of invitation from Hawthorn, St.Kilda, Fitzroy and Footscray and, despite anguishing about making the move, agreed to turn out with the Saints.

They arranged employment at Leviathon Men’s Store in the City, but from the moment he arrived Alec was decidedly uncomfortable. He made a promising debut against Collingwood, and followed up with strong performances in losses to Footscray and Carlton, then headed home.

Wangaratta had, in his absence, begun a two-year hiatus in the Ovens & King League. The champion mid-fielder was warmly welcomed when he returned, mid-season. He figured in their successive O & K flags, and took out the B & F in 1932.

When the Pies resumed their place in the O & M in 1933 he was installed as vice-captain to the eventual Morris Medallist Fred Carey, and played his part in a nail-biting, pendulum-swinging Grand Final.

With the aid of a strong breeze, Border United led by 18 points at quarter-time, but the Pies proceeded to kick seven straight in the second, to hold sway, 7.2 to 4.4 at the long-break.

United again took over, adding 5.4 to three points, to take a 16-point lead into the final term, which developed into a pulsating affair. With the seconds ticking away, Wang doggedly preserved a seven-point lead, then United fought back with a late goal. They continued to attack strongly, but the siren blared, to signal a famous one-point Magpie victory.

An adaptable player with a good turn of pace, Fraser was initially tried as a winger, but gravitated to the midfield, where he was to stay for the next 14 years. His fitness, which he worked on assiduously, was maintained by competing in occasional district Athletic Carnivals.

He proved a loyal side-kick to the great Fred Carey, and the pair guided Wangaratta to another flag in 1936. Surprisingly, the Pies slumped, and won just two games the following year, to collect the wooden-spoon.

This heralded the arrival of a new coach, Norm Le Brun. Wang rebounded strongly to convincingly outpoint Yarrawonga in the 1938 decider. “It was the greater all-round strength and teamwork of players like Ernie Ward (6 goals), Norm Le Brun and Alec Fraser that took them to the flag….” the Border Morning Mail reported.

The nomadic Le Brun departed after one more season, and 11 applicants signified their interest in the plum Wangaratta coaching post.

Fraser was appointed, for the princely sum of two pounds 10 shillings per week. There were many obstacles ahead, with the season being played against the backdrop of World War 2, but the League heeded the Prime Minister’s call to ‘carry on regardless’.

It was hardly an ideal scenario for a rookie coach to be thrust into. The Pies found the going hard in this condensed 10-game season, and bowed out of the finals when knocked over by Yarrawonga in the First Semi.

It was an anticlimactic conclusion to the O & M football career of a 203-game Wangaratta champion……..

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One of the first people to make Fraser’s acquaintance upon his arrival in Wangaratta had been a rough-hewn ‘cockie’, Clem Fisher.

The pair were to become as ‘thick as thieves’ as footy team-mates in 1928, but more to the point, also went on to establish themselves as undoubtedly Wangaratta’s greatest-ever opening batting combination.

They were poles apart as personalities.

Fisher could bluntly be termed a ruthless, ‘win at all costs’ cricketer who had no qualms about bending the rules of the game if it meant victory could be achieved.

Fraser was his direct antithesis. Universally admired as a true gentleman, he was a quietly-spoken, well-respected, humble soul.

And whilst Fisher would assert his dominance at the crease early, and was inclined to bludgeon the bowling, Fraser was a stylist, with excellent timing – a caresser of the ball.

Alec had already provided a glimpse of his class by becoming the first Century-maker on the newly-laid Showgrounds wicket in November 1928. It was the first of 15 centuries and 37 half-centuries he scored in WDCA cricket, many of them carved out on this strip of turf he was to call his own. He went on to compile 7131 runs in Club matches.

He collected his first WDCA batting average in 1932/33 and the last in 1954/55, when he averaged 69.7, at the ripe old age of 46.

He and Clem ‘clicked’ as a pair when they first came together at Country Week in 1929, and thereafter rarely failed to give Wangaratta the start they needed.

Their stand of 243 against Yallourn-Traralgon in 1934 took Wang to a total of 2/319 ( Fraser 158*). Three days later, Alec retired on 119, in a score of 8/393. The Fraser/Fisher unbeaten partnership of 250 against Wimmera in 1937 remains a WDCA Country Week record.

His five ‘tons’ and nine half-centuries at Melbourne were a contributing factor to the three CW titles that Wangaratta clinched during their Golden Era of the thirties.

With the drums of War beating loudly, sport was put on the back-burner, but Alec’s application to join the Army was denied because of his flat feet.

Instead, he, his wife Bess, and their two young daughters Noeleen and Desma moved to Melbourne in 1942, where they took over a Greengrocer’s shop in Whitehorse Road, Balwyn. Alec played with the local Sub-District side, winning the batting average in two of the six years in which he played .

On their return to Wangaratta, he operated a Mixed Business on the corner of Baker and Rowan Streets and again threw himself headlong into local sport.

He accepted the captaincy of the newly-formed St.Patrick’s Club. Some observers rated a century he made ( 104 out of 173 ) in the 1949/50 Semi-Final as his finest WDCA knock. St.Pat’s had finished on top of the ladder, and rated their chances of winning the Grand Final, but had to share the flag with Wangaratta when bad weather ( and the encroaching football season ) brought a halt to proceedings.

Alec played his last WDCA season in 1955/56, with new club Magpies, an offshoot of the Wangaratta Football Club. As its Secretary and elder statesman, there were glimpses, in a handful of games, of the Master of the crease that he had proved to be for over two decades………..

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The shy, teen-ager who arrived in Wangaratta as an unproven commodity in 1928, departed the playing field as a WDCA Life Member and Hall of Fame inductee ; a Wangaratta Football Club Life Member and Team of the Century centreman.

Alec Fraser passed away in 1983, aged 74……..

‘THE SAD DEMISE OF TROOPER LE BRUN…….’

The 124-year history of the Ovens and Murray Football League has seen only five clubs rise from the ignominy of inheriting the wood-spoon to winning the premiership the following year.

Lake Moodemere Rovers (1904-’05), Rutherglen (1906-’07), Wangaratta (1937-’38), Corowa (1967-’68) and Albury (1984-85) share that ‘Lazarus-type’ honour.

But Wangaratta went one better. In winning the flag in 1936, plummeting to the bottom in 1937 and miraculously resurrecting their fortunes to win again in 1938, they performed a feat which will, in all likelihood, never be repeated……….

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The Pies had shadowed Rutherglen for most of 1936. The Redlegs, the minor premiers and reigning title-holders, pipped them by 12 points in a tight second semi-final, but Wang bounced back after an ordinary first-half, to win the Grand Final by 20 points.

It was their second flag in four years and another triumph for the great Fred Carey, who was in the twilight of a stellar career.

Things went downhill quickly after that. As the nation slowly recovered from the aftermath of the Great Depression, footballers tended to drift off to wherever they could find regular employment .

The loss of several stars left the Magpies badly depleted and, after a hesitant start to the 1937 season, they fell away dramatically, to win just three games and slump to the bottom of the ladder.

Drastic measures were implemented. After an involvement of 10 years at the Club, Fred Carey relinquished the coaching position. The net was cast far and wide to replenish the playing ranks.

Milawa stars Maurie and Joe Valli were enticed to try their luck and Leo Crowe (Richmond 2nds), Arthur Hayes (Ballarat) and Jim La Rose (Golden Square) signed on the dotted line.

The icing on the cake was then provided when an experienced former VFL player Norman Le Brun accepted the coaching appointment……….

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Le Brun was the classic football nomad.

He grew up in the back streets of Richmond, where young bucks would sooner have a fight than a feed. Employment was scarce, but fortunately Norm’s football ability was an asset and he supplemented the meagre match payments he received from the Richmond Reserves with occasional work as a brick-layer.

Standing only 171cm, the stocky 76kg rover was spotted by South Melbourne and enticed to the Lake Oval with the promise of a regular senior spot. He booted two goals on debut, but after only two more senior games, headed for fresher pastures – to Bendigo League club, Sandhurst.

He was fearless and hard-hitting, and, despite his size, could run all day. He was a huge success in the Bendigo League, to the extent that he shared the competition’s Best and Fairest, the Michelson Medal.

News of his dominance quickly spread, and in 1931, Essendon coaxed Le Brun back to League football. However, after two seasons, and 23 senior games, he was on the move again, this time to Collingwood.

But he failed to lock down a berth in what was a crackerjack side ( just coming off its history-making fourth successive flag). He was rewarded with two senior appearances in his first season, but proved a stand-out in the Reserves.

Le Brun made his mark the following year. He played 17 games, mainly as second rover to Harry Collier and, with 23 goals, was ever-dangerous around the big sticks.

Incredibly, after performing well in a semi-final loss, and being rated by one newspaper as the ‘most improved player on Collingwood’s list’, he found himself at Princes Park in 1935, as part of a new-look Carlton line-up.

He had, ironically, been belted by big man Harold Maskell in a brutal match against the Blues the previous year. In response to the umpire’s Tribunal evidence that Le Brun had been hit with ‘closed fists on each of his ribs’, Norman responded that : “We all felt hot and bothered.I only felt a knock on my shoulder. He was trying to knock the ball out of my hands.”

His adherence to the ‘Player’s Code of Honour’ obviously impressed Carlton’s football hierarchy, but Norm went on to make just a handful of senior appearances with Carlton that season. He concluded his VFL career with a total of 50 games, comprising 3 at South Melbourne, 23 at Essendon, 19 with Collingwood and 5 with the Blues.

But still, his wanderlust continued. He had a fine season with Coburg, moved to South Warrnambool for a year and had actually applied for the coaching position at Tasmanian club, Ulverstone, before Wangaratta came knocking………

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A bachelor, with a carefree personality, which endeared him to everyone, Norman Le Brun was ‘adopted’ by the town.

He enjoyed an outstanding season in and around the packs and finished fifth in the Morris Medal, his inspiring play giving his ‘new-look’ team a huge lift.

Wangaratta finished second, equal with Yarrawonga and Rutherglen on points, at the conclusion of the home-and-away rounds, but earned a quick passport to the Grand Final. Their 4-point win over Yarrawonga in the Second-semi earned them favouritism for the flag.

They met Yarra again in the Grand Final and it was to prove another clinker of a contest. The Magpies led by 12 points at half-time, but the Pigeons booted themselves out of the contest in the third term, when they could only manage 2.7.

Wangaratta ran away in the final quarter, to win by 27 points. “It was the greater all-round strength and teamwork of players like Ernie Ward, Norm Le Brun and Alec Fraser, that took them to the flag,” the Border Morning Mail said of the game.

“Much of the credit for this premiership must be given to coach Le Brun, for welding this side together throughout the season,” chortled the Wangaratta’s Chronicle Despatch.

Le Brun was again in charge in 1939, but Wangaratta just missed out on the finals. They needed to win the final game to clinch a spot, but lost to Wodonga.

In his final year of football – 1940- Norman Le Brun coached Ganmain to a South-West League premiership………

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He was one of the thousands of Australians who signed up to serve, when World War 2 got into full swing soon after. After undertaking basic army training, passing all of the selection processes and undergoing intensive instructions, he joined the 2/10th Commando section in the jungles of New Guinea.

n November 1944, whilst pursuing retreating Japanese forces through thick jungle, Trooper Le Brun was shot and killed by an enemy sniper, concealed among the roots of a large tree.

The varied, hectic life of Norman Le Brun was over, at the age of 36……..

 

 

 

 

 

 

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