‘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’

TOUGH NUT TACKLES COACHING CHALLENGE

Andy Hill has scant regard for statistics.

You run his impressive footy CV past him and it barely raises an eyebrow. But touching on the fact that he’s following in the footsteps of his grandfather – and his dad Denis – brings the hint of a smile to that otherwise impassive countenance.

Len Hill coached the Wangaratta Rovers to their first premiership – in the Ovens and King in 1948. He stayed around for another four decades, to help build the Club into one of the most famous in country Victoria.

So the young fellah is chuffed to be taking on a co-coaching role – 69 years after his Pa was originally coaxed into the position.

His mates say that he has an innate knowledge of the game which will stand him in good stead.

The many other intricacies involved – like man-management, transmitting the message and maintaining his equilibrium, will be a vital part of the continuing football education of he and his coaching partner, Sam Carpenter.

On the face of it, there couldn’t be a better man for the job……………..

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Andy was destined to become a Hawk. He played junior league football with Tigers, showed promise, then spent a couple of years in the Rovers Thirds. His class was obvious; it was just a matter of when he would be blooded in the senior side.

He played his part in Thirds flags of 1995 and ’96 as the kid who had the potential to turn a game of football.

So when he got that senior opportunity, against Yarrawonga early in 1996, at the age of 16, plenty of eyes were trained on this ‘star of the future’.

It was a dream debut. He picked up a few possessions, the Hawks booted 29 goals, won by over 100 points and there were slaps on the back aplenty for the newcomer.

“How good’s this,” he no doubt mused, as he toasted the debut with a couple of cleansing ales.

Tiredness crept in. He decided to reflect on the day’s events with some silent contemplation in a Bull’s Head toilet cubicle, where he awoke around 4am, stumbling out of the pitch-black hotel onto a deserted Murphy Street.

He played the next week too, then it was back to the Thirds. But when he was selected in the opening round of 1997, he was there to stay.

It was a tumultuous time for any young man to arrive in senior ranks. The Rovers had declared themselves ‘broke’ during the off-season. The seemingly invincible Hawks of the early nineties were bleeding and the players were prepared to accept no payment for a year. The wider football public expected them to fracture.

But the financial demise had no effect on the attitude of the players, or their performances. Maybe it eased the pressure on youngsters like Andy, Daniel McLaughlin and Danny Nolan. They handled senior footy with ease as the club boxed on to finish a creditable sixth.

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Toughness and a fanatical determination were essential ingredients in the make-up of Andy Hill.

He hated the limelight, but when you have the ability to climb through the air and take that spectacular mark, then convert that crucial goal, it’s rather difficult to avoid the accolades that come your way.

And he wasn’t backward when it came to a bit of on-field argy-bargy. Hawk champ Rob Walker, who was embroiled in a scuffle with Mark Duryea in a 1998 semi-final, remembers a fist whistling past his nose, in the direction of the Tiger tagger. It belonged to the 18 year-old in the number 6 guernsey.

Andy was well-schooled by some superb role-models ; playing alongside half a dozen superstars of the club. He learnt to train as intensely and prepare as diligently as they did.

He was soon recognised as a star in his own right. Whilst he didn’t fancy the peripherals, such as team-meetings and pep talks, once he crossed that white line, there was no-one who cared more for the Brown and Gold.

He wore the Ovens and Murray jumper for the first time in 2001 and was runner-up Best & Fairest to the legendary Walker.

In what became a recurring them during the 2000’s, his absence at a vital time proved costly to the Hawks. He ‘popped’ a cheekbone in an Elimination Final victory over Corowa-Rutherglen and was missing the next week when Wodonga Raiders clinched a thriller at Myrtleford.

To his surprise, he received an approach from Collingwood at season’s end, and was drafted. Considering his age (22), he thought he had ‘missed the bus’. He later discovered that a Rovers team-mate, Rob Panozzo, had forwarded a tape of highlights to a suitably-impressed Magpie recruiting chief Noel Judkins.

He had no regrets at not making the grade, even though he played a couple of NAB Cup games, and spent the season with the Magpies’ VFL affiliate, Williamstown. “It was a great experience and I learned a lot from watching the top guys train. I just wasn’t good enough”, he said later.

So he returned to the Hawks in 2003, then moved up to the Top End to play in an off-season premiership with Darwin club, St.Mary’s. Scouts from South Australia and the West, who salivated at the sight of this gem in the sweltering north, were unable to tempt him with their attractive baits. He returned home to the Findlay Oval.

When the older generation of players had hung up their boots, Andy’s work ethic, preparation, performance and consistency, became the benchmark for all other players.

The philosophy that he had taken from his stint at Collingwood, was simply that ‘if you train hard you’ll get more out of yourself’.

And so it proved. He took out five Bob Rose Medals, was runner-up twice, third once, and twice finished fifth in the Morris Medal. He booted 225 goals in his 254 senior games.

He was, indeed, the player to be watched if the Hawks were to be stopped.

But again, fate intervened in a couple of years that the Rovers were running hot. His fractured collarbone in the opening minutes of the 2007 Elimination Final proved costly, as the Hawks just failed to run down Wodonga.

And a painful neck injury, which was to ultimately force him out of the game, saw him operating at half rat-power for much of a 2012 season that saw the club go within a whisker of a Grand Final.

His one regret, in a glittering career – other than not sharing in a senior premiership with the Rovers – would probably be not making himself available for more representative football.

But that was a small price to pay, he felt, for making sure he was in the right nick for club footy.

As a player who could be thrown to either end of the ground with equal effect, was as tough as boot leather, could produce dashes of unbridled brilliance and reeked of team spirit, Andy would have held his own in any era.

He must rank among the greats of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club.

 

P.S: The  Andy Hill story was penned to coincide with his recent induction to the Rovers Hall of Fame.