MOYHU’S PILLAR OF DEFENCE……….

It’s a scenario that’s played out each winter Saturday, on ovals throughout the nation………

The game’s in the balance……… Less than a kick separates the two sides. The veteran coach, pupils bulging, veins protruding, pleads with his charges. He glances up at the whiteboard and states the obvious……..

“Fellahs, we’ve gotta keep working for one another,” he implores. “….. Look at that tackle count……….Good……..Keep up the momentum………You can see they’re tiring…….Look, we’re right in this…………Here’s our chance to prove we’re serious finals contenders …..”

It’s three quarter-time, and Moyhu are trailing by one point against the highly-fancied Goorambat.

Listening intently to the coach, Johnny Paola, is a bloke who has tuned into (and sometimes out of) a fair share of impassioned pleas, vitriolic blasts and lyrical outbursts over the years.

He’s Andrew Balfour, who happens to be playing his 400th club game in the Green and Gold guernsey……………

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It’s another typically ‘tough day at the office’ for ‘Balf’.

The contest has ebbed and flowed. The ‘Bats’ had sneaked away to a handy 14-point lead at half-time, which, in the context of this tight encounter, was substantial enough.

Their key forward, Cameron Symes, was proving more than a handful, and had, remarkably, kicked all of their seven goals at the break.

But Moyhu appear to wrest the initiative in the third term. They have an advantage in the ruck through the spring-heeled Anthony Welsh and are being served diligently in defence by under-rated Leroy Dowling.

Thanks to some creative work up forward from elusive Jeremy Wilson and Scott Atkinson, they find themselves down by the narrowest of margins at lemon-time.

Paola reminds them that they’d been in an identical situation against Greta the week before, and finished over the top of the Blues in impressive fashion. So there’s good reason to believe that they can do it again.

To my mind, the visitors appear to have run their race.  When the ‘Hoppers snag one early, then Paola kicks an inspiring team-lifter soon after,  their noisy fans are starting to ride them home.

But alas, the ‘Bats find an extra gear and the result of three or four forward thrusts is a couple of vital goals,  which again hands them the lead.

They hang on in a nail-biter, to prevail by two points and rob Andrew Balfour, the 42 year-old stalwart, of a Cinderella-like finish to his milestone game………

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Many of his old team-mates were on hand to watch ‘Balf’ in action. A few of them even reminisced about the mere 17 year-old debutant stripping alongside them, back in 1992.

He was lithe and athletic then. A player of the future, who seemed destined to be snapped up by one of the clubs ‘in town’.  As a born and bred Moyhu lad, he followed in the footsteps of his dad Stan, and uncles, John (‘Roo) and Ray Munari – promoted to the seniors, after an apprenticeship in the ‘twos’.

They settled him into defence, and it seemed to suit him to a tee.  Apart from a few stints up forward, ‘Balf’ was destined to jostle, wrestle with, and nullify the best forwards in the competition for nigh-on a quarter of a century.

And when you go through it, there’s a fair list that he’s had to contend with. Fellahs like Todd Stone, Darren Bate, Brendan Sessions, Dale Andrews, Nathan Lappin, Daniel McCullough and the like, all provided headaches in their own way.

I suggest to him that he was lucky he arrived on the scene when he did. Over the previous thirty years, Moyhu had been spectacularly unsuccessful.  A  long-overdue flag under Mark Ottrey’s coaching in 1988 had been preceded by years of drought.

Compare that to the modern, Balfour-era when they snared five premierships – all of them momentous – and have rarely missed finals action.

He played a vital part in this success, but also points to a terrific culture, which made Moyhu a great club to be around – and to stay at.

“He and ‘Jidda’ Douglas were our two key defenders during that time, and both were really consistent, tough and dependable. They were as good a combination as any going around,” says Mark Higgs, who can hardly remember ‘Balf’ playing a bad game.

“He was our captain for a few years, and led by example.”

Andrew was tempted to have a crack at O & M footy when he was working on the Border many years ago.  He played a practice game with Wodonga Raiders, but after the initial excitement of ‘spreading his wings’, headed home.

He had a couple of training runs with the Rovers later on, ‘just to see what it was like,’  but it didn’t seem right to leave the Hoppers.

He says he became more dedicated as the years wore on. After ‘doing’ his shoulder in the 2002 Grand Final, he needed a ‘reco’  which cost him eight games in 2003 . He decided then to work harder on his fitness.

There was another substantial injury in 2012, when he backed into a converging pack at Milawa,  and copped a punctured lung and a guernsey-full of broken ribs.

But they were only incidental, ‘Balf’ reckons, compared to all of the thrills – such as the premierships……

He remembers them as if they were yesterday. Like the one in 2002……

Beechworth had beaten them in the second-semi and were hot favourites to win their third straight flag. Moyhu hit them hard early, and gun forward  Darren Bate, and Mal Boyd reeled from heavy knocks.

The Bombers were rattled and the Hoppers ran away in the last half to win by 29 points.

The following year it was all over by half-time, by which time they’d established a 56-point lead over a lethargic North Wang, who had no answer to their midfield dominance.

After falling short by just 4 points against Bright in 2004, they were propelled to the flag the following year by a 10-goal haul from the evergreen Gerard Nolan. Whorouly had threatened several times, but Moyhu were able to hold them off by 10 points.

The Lions were unable to match the Hoppers when the two rivals met again, 12 months later. This time Moyhu raced away with the game in the third quarter – an assault from which Whorouly couldn’t recover.

‘Balf’ was a solid contributor in all of those wins, but his best Grand Final performance was probably saved for  a gripping clash against Tarrawingee in 2011.

There were a few heroes that day, but none stood out more than Moyhu’s number 7.

“Big-game players step up when no-one expects they can do any more,” one scribe reported.

“Andrew Balfour proved experience is hard to beat, after starring in his fifth Premiership on Saturday.”

“The Hoppers’ skipper repelled attack after attack in the enthralling two-point win against Tarrawingee, and single-handedly saved the day for his side late in the match.”

“Leading by two points after 28 minutes of the final quarter, Balfour etched his name in Ovens and King folklore, taking a courageous mark in defence after going back with the flight of the ball.”

“The mark was just one inspirational act in the highlights reel for the veteran defender, who was like a rock in defence for the Hoppers…………”

There’s little doubt that ‘Balf’ would have made his mark in O & M footy – and quite possibly been a star. But he’s more than content with the contribution that he’s made to his beloved Hoppers.

“He just enjoys the footy atmosphere, and likes being around the boys,” says one team-mate.

You can expect the old bloke to add a few more to his total of 368 senior and 32 Reserves  games before he hangs up those well-worn boots……………….

 

 

P.S:  Andrew’s five O & K flags don’t entitle him to bragging rights in the Balfour family. His wife Colleen has featured in eight premierships with the Hopper’s netball team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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INDEFATIGABLE HOPPER VETERAN SOLDIERS ON…

I fork over 10 bucks and enter the Moyhu Oval, on this chilly, forbidding late-July afternoon.

It’s a middle-of-the-road clash between the Hoppers and Bright. Both teams realise that they’ll need a minor miracle to force their way into the O & K finals.

But, for the loser today, it’s definitely curtains.

Doesn’t sound too riveting, does it ? But it develops into a darned good tussle and both sides handle the slippery conditions really well. It’s still in the balance early in the last quarter, but Moyhu gain some crucial possessions, kick a couple of vital goals and draw away to win by four goals.

I’m seeing a few players in action for the first time today, and it’s always interesting to put faces to the names you’ve read about.

Then there’s a trio of super-veterans from Moyhu. Andrew Balfour, Peter Sullivan and Anthony Welsh have all had terrific careers and are still picking up a kick or two.

“They call us the Three Fossils,” says Welshy, who, at 38, concedes a few years to 41 year-old ‘Balf’, a veteran of 359 games and 5 flags ; and ‘Sully’, 42, who has racked up 309 games.

Being a North Melbourne fan, Anthony Welsh is quite tickled when I suggest he reminds me of a poor man’s Todd Goldstein. “Ah well, I am a left-handed knock ruckman and a left-foot kick and I like to ruck all day. That’s about where the similarities end, though,” he says.

He admits he wouldn’t have minded being blessed with a portion of the 20 centimetre height advantage that ‘Goldy’ holds over him.

Most weeks he gives away height and weight to his opposite number in the ruck, but it’s a spring-heeled leap that stands him in good stead.

He got reported and sent off for tripping in the third quarter on Saturday. “First time ever,” he says.

The ump was convinced by the players that there was nothing in the incident, and rescinded the report after the game.

So he’ll be lining up for the crucial match against Tarrawingee on Saturday, and adding to the 170-odd games that he’s already played in the Green and Gold guernsey.

“It’s a good club, Moyhu, and they’ve been really good to me. I’m keen to reach the 200-mark.”

Sounds like you’ve got no intention of giving it away any time soon, I ask. “No, not when you love footy as much as I do.”

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When I catch up with him, ‘Welshy’ is wearing one of the special North Melbourne jumpers that had been produced to commemorate Brent Harvey’s record-breaking game against St.Kilda. He had just come from helping out at Auskick. I gather, once we get going, that he’d talk footy till the cows come home.

He’s from the northern suburbs of Melbourne, like ‘Boomer’. He was 13 when he headed down to Macleod Football Club to have a game. “The old man said, if you’re gunna play, you might as well take your brothers down as well. So they recruited 5 of us. My two sisters tagged along, too.”

He moved to Preston RSL to play in the U.15’s and U.17’s, playing in the ruck and palming the ball down to a tiny kid who sometimes ran the length of the field, bouncing the pill as if it was attached to him, dodging and weaving and kicking goals.

It was ‘Boomer’ Harvey.

“Neil, his dad, was the trainer. A real tough bastard who knew his footy and worked us hard, even though we were young kids.”

The next stop for ‘Boomer’ was the Northern Knights, then the AFL – and stardom. ‘Welshy’ also had a few runs with the Knights, but was dropped from their list and instead, moved to North Heidelberg, where he played a season, alternating between the Under 19’s and Reserves.

He took three years off, and it was only when he moved to Seymour, that he decided to have another kick. “My brother was playing at Nagambie. I went out to watch him one day, and one of the fellahs threw me a guernsey and said you might as well have a game too.”

In three seasons with the KDFL club he won a B & F and played in a losing Grand Final, then spent a year with Seymour, where he acquitted himself well.

“Kylie (his partner) has family in Wang, so we ended up here in 2004. I was working out at Merriwa Industries and Pete Hawkins asked if I played footy. The next thing, Damien Sheridan has visited me at the Parfitt Road Caravan Park and I’m training with Moyhu.”

It would be simple to say that the romance between ‘Welshy’ and the Hoppers was made in heaven, but that wasn’t quite the way it worked out. There have been plenty of ups and downs in the ensuing 13 years.

He transferred to North Wangaratta in 2008, but lasted eight games. “I don’t think we were cut out for one another, ” he says, and leaves it at that.

Then there was his three-year stint with newly-admitted O & K club Tatong, from 2010-12, where he won a B & F, was runner-up twice and was rarely out of the best players..

But in his nine years with Moyhu he has played some outstanding football. His main attributes, I’m told, are that he’s never beaten, is a combined ruckman/ ruck-rover, picks up plenty of possessions and plays a kick behind play to perfection.

Damien Sheridan recalls that when he signed him,’Welshy’ was looking for a club to call home: “His contribution for two hours each Saturday has been unreal. He embraced the footy side of the club, but the social aspect doesn’t excite him that much.”

‘Shero’ points out that ‘Welshy’ has won four Best & Fairests, but it could have easily been five.

“I can only recall him missing a couple of games. One was with a broken knuckle. The other was when his dog cleared off one Saturday morning and he went looking for it . I called to pick him up and he was nowhere to be seen.”

“We had to go on without him. That game probably cost him the B & F, as he missed out by one vote. He won the Baker Medal in 2007, in what was a terrific year for him, but I believe the games that he’s defined by, were the ’05 and ’06 Grand Finals.”

” We beat Whorouly by 52 points in 2006. Gerard Nolan and Shane Moore kicked 10 goals between them, but ‘Welshy’ got the vote for best afield. He was fantastic.”

The newspaper report of the game lauded him: “…..Ruckman Welsh conceded height and battled for taps against Whorouly’s Adam Pascoe and Paul Glanville. But around the ground he was outstanding and drove the ball long with his left foot each time he got a possession…….”

Naturally, he celebrated the flag with considerable gusto.

Anthony Welsh says that his partner, Kylie, is his sternest critic. “She’s never missed a game and she well and truly lets me know if I’m playing below par.”

One of the Moyhu boys claims that if Kylie is unhappy with his performance, she’ll flick the car headlights on and off.

“That stirs him up,” he said .

Anthony Welsh has been one of the Ovens and King League’s most colorful characters and the Moyhu line-up without the gangling, long-armed number 55 wouldn’t seem the same to Hopper fans.

A solid 100 minutes of footy and a few frothies afterwards, is his ideal way of spending a winter Saturday ……..