‘HAWKS SAVOUR THE REWARDING TASTE OF VICTORY…..’

“Losing builds character;  losing week after week builds grace……. When the prospect of winning is there, when we can sniff the four points, things just seem to work better……… Kicks hit the target, marks stick and clearances are won. It makes the rare taste of victory all the more worthwhile and rewarding……”
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In a match that had minimal significance on the radar of the Ovens and Murray populace, North Albury and Wangaratta Rovers – situated eighth and ninth on the ladder – squared off at the Findlay Oval today.

It’s been a season from hell for these two proud clubs, combatants in three O & M Grand Finals, but they looked pretty evenly-matched. To paraphrase the Form Guide’s summation of a horse running at Rosehill today, they were: ‘…..Back in class in this one….. Not without a chance……’
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Talking about character, the Hawks were feting two of their own who have it in spades.

The respective journeys of Ben Kneebone and Sean O’Keeffe to the 150-game milestone is a study in contrasts, but a tribute to their deep love of the game and the Club.

Benny was in Year 8 when his fellow Wang High School student,’Okey’ was drafted to Carlton. He was, he says, in awe of the precocious talent of a kid who had already played senior footy with the Rovers at age 16 and was to go on to a stellar career in three states.

It included representing the Australian Under 18’s against Ireland in International Rules ;  playing AFL football ;  winning a Best & Fairest and successive VFL flags with Sandringham;  SANFL appearances with Sturt ;  taking out the Goldfields (WA) Medal with Kalgoorlie club Railways and finally, dual B & F’s with the Hawks.

His dad Greg had been a star back in the seventies and eighties, his family was steeped in the Rovers tradition and it was always his ambition to finish his career in the Brown and Gold.

Just that he didn’t think it would extend to 150 games…….

Whereas ‘Okey’ had the happy knack of the Sherrin being drawn to him, Benny, like so many of us, had to search for the key to unlock the game’s subtleties.

He figured in a Thirds premiership in 2003 – five years after ’Okey’ achieved the same distinction and spent a couple of solid years with EDFL club Blackburn whilst at university. He then returned home to realise one of his great ambitions – to play alongside his distinguished uncle, Matt Allen, as part of the Hawk defence.

An assortment of injuries have stricken his wiry frame over the last dozen or so years, and have usually hit when he was well-established in the side. Then he’d have to resume the fight, after a lay-off, to regain his spot.

He’s the archetypical ‘battler’ who has won over his coaches by giving nothing less than 100 per cent effort……..

Ben reflected briefly on his debut game, back in 2004, when his coach Peter Tossol threw him the monumental task of lining up on a ‘Hopper star, Daniel Leslie. “Wow,” he said to himself,”Look at the physique of this fellah,” as he proceeded to chase him around all day.

“And I had to do the same thing out there this arvo, for a while.”

Sean and Benny are both blokes who set the classic example to the young’uns of what it takes to be part of a footy club.

On a match-day it might mean having a yarn to the gate-keeper on the way in, paying due respects to the supporters who wish them well, and thanking the volunteers who do so much to keep the club going behind the scenes.

That’s why this game meant so much to their team-mates……..
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To be honest,  it didn’t scale any great heights, but boy, it was a fair dinkum contest.

It was obvious early on that the Hawks’ biggest bugbear would be Leslie, North’s co-coach, and the subject of some controversy in recent weeks.

He played today as an on-baller and racked up a mountain of possessions, but I wondered whether his absence as a marking target, would cost the Hoppers when they launched into attack.

The Hawks snuck away to an early lead, with the first two majors of the game, but North, with the aid of the breeze, enjoyed plenty of forward thrusts.

The home side obtained a distinct advantage at the stoppages, where Shane Gaston and Chris Knowles held sway in the ruck, feeding plenty of opportunities to those at ground level.

The continued improvement of Ben Clarke throughout the season was best exemplified today. With unerring Bontampelliesque precision he continued to extricate the pill from the packs to a running player.

Sam Carpenter, too, knocked up winning kicks, enjoying the rarified-air of the open spaces. Josh Newton’s consistent year continued, as he worked hard in the clinches. At the main break the Hawks had opened up a 21-point break and were playing like winners.

But the fans were still none too sure. In a season when they have barracked for the clock as much as the scoreboard, their ‘glass half-full’ attitude was understandable.

Consequently, it was terrific to hear the pent-up, guttural roar come from the balcony, when, in a matter of a couple of minutes, Cam Fendyk twice snapped truly to extend the advantage.

The Beechworth youngster has proved his mettle in recent weeks and looks a born-forward.

Again North fought back, but just couldn’t kick the multiple goals which would put the pressure back on the Hawks. Shaun Mannagh, who is always a danger-man, snagged a couple of majors for the day, but was fairly well-held by the Hawk ‘blanket’, Dale Martin.

Another reason for their difficulty in finding a clear path to goal was that the defiant, loose-limbed Michael Clark, who has fought against the odds this season, was providing stern resistance in defence.

Ben Lloyd made the most of his chances and was a fine player for North, as were Tom Gallaway and Danny Warren. But with the Rovers well in command it was obvious that they’d need a huge turn-around to pull this one out of the fire in the final stanza.

You knew that the Gods were shining down on the Hawks when Kneebone, the ‘Milestone-man’, gathered the ball on a tight angle in the pocket, sighted the big sticks and squeezed it through, a’ la Eddie Betts.

The only downer for the Hawks was that they relaxed a little in the dying stages, and leaked a couple of late goals. When North again scrambled the ball forward, the siren thankfully prevented them inching closer than the 26 points which separated the two old rivals.

It had been a solid team performance, with a host of contributors.

So the Rovers song was belted out with extra oomph in the packed rooms after the game, and the message is that there’s still plenty of life left in what was purported to be a scarcely-breathing corpse……..

“PUSHING UP DAISY…………”

Football clubs are a microcosm of life, they say……..The Rovers are no different.

In a passing parade of personalities over the years, I’ve witnessed, at close quarters, the convergence of cockies and cops, piss-pots and larrikins, stirrers and comedians, the extroverts and the painfully shy………..

I see a burly, wise-cracking farmer with a ripe turn of phrase become acquainted with a newly-arrived pastor, whom he instantaneously dubs ‘The Pope’. The pair strike up a friendship and become premiership comrades.

I’m there when a slightly-built, indigenous rover materialises at training and shows enough to quickly earn senior selection. It’s only when a club veteran seeks out the ‘newcomer’ to wish him all the best for his ‘debut’ that he remembers playing with him a dozen years earlier – under another name……….

A strongly-built forward steps off the train, mid-trip, en-route to Melbourne. Ah, Wangaratta, he recalls, this was the place an old team-mate was taking on a coaching job. He looks him up and says he’ll stick around and have a game. I play alongside him for a couple of months, and only when the recruit from the West has struggled for fitness and form, made no attempt to land a job and generally made a nuisance of himself, does he disappear into the wilderness……..

A lad from King Valley calls in to a local sports store and asks how he can go about signing up with the Rovers. He’s destined to become a Club legend, goes on to play 326 games and coaches the Hawks to a Grand Final……..

Every new arrival places his stamp on the character and culture of the Club – whether it be it a highly-touted recruit or an excited youngster who’s dreamt for years of one day wearing the Brown and Gold…………

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Dale Martin belongs to the latter category.

‘Daisy’s’ an unassuming type, who seems content with his lot in life. If he had one regret, it might be that the good Lord didn’t bless him with another four inches, to add to his vertically-challenged 5′ 9″.

That would have made him, indeed, a formidable customer.

As it is he is tough and feisty, battles like heck and, as all of his coaches would attest, ‘has his heart in the right place’.

His dad was a country football journeyman. Rick is Myrtleford-born and his job as a school-teacher saw him despatched around the state. He had a stint with Sebastopol, spent  time on St.Kilda’s list and represented Victorian Country whilst playing in the Ballarat League.

Following a move to Robinvale he wore the Sunraysia League jumper on about 15 occasions, then, on his return  to this area coached Benalla for two seasons.

Dale missed Rick’s career, but volunteers that: “they reckon he was a handy player.”

However, he would have a fair idea of the Martin footy philosophy.

Rick was appointed coach of the Rovers Thirds when ‘Daisy’ stepped up from College in 2008. His new team-mates included the now Sydney Swans forward Sam Reid, and Timmy Segrave, a youngster who had shown flashes of talent during the season.

It was the elusive Segrave, with five goals in a scintillating third quarter, who helped to turn the Grand Final around and guide the young Hawks to a 21-point win over Yarrawonga.

On the strength of that performance, ‘Timmy Terrific’ was rookie-listed by Greater Western Sydney later that season.

Harking back now, ten years on, Dale is the only player of that Premiership squad still  at the Findlay Oval.

He’s highly-regarded by his peers, who have, for the last three or four years elected him into the leadership-group. That’s more a tribute to the example he sets on and off the field than any excessive use of his vocal cords.

His coaches are well-used to this. When loading him up  with a list of pre-match instructions on how to handle his prospective ‘tag’ his reponse is often a nod of the head or, at most, ‘Yep’.

He’s a man of few words………

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‘Daisy’s’ an electrician by trade, but opines that there’s nothing more relaxing than venturing into the bush in his idle moments.

When he was a bit younger, Rick used to drop him off and he would spend the day tramping the hills and shooting deer.

On the odd occasion, he’s been helicoptered in to the densest scrub. But of more recent times he might head to Corryong or King Valley every Sunday, with a bow and arrow, either on his own, or with team-mate/ work-mate Matty Smith.

Bow and Arrow? “Yeah, it’s more of a challenge,” he says. ” It’s great. You feel really refreshed after you’ve spent a day walking. It helps get rid of the sore spots from footy.”

He laughs when I compare his method of rehab to the one we used to adopt – a brief Sunday morning warm-down, comprising a couple of laps and random ball-work, a few ales at the Club barrel, then out to the Vine Hotel to collect some ‘long-necks’, for an afternoon of ‘bonding’ at Yellow Creek…….

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At 24, going on 25, Dale’s a budding pastoralist. He owns 160-odd acres and also leases a bit of nearby dirt out at Taminick. He runs about 1,000 sheep.

How do you get the time to look after them ?   “Whenever I’ve got a spare moment, I’m out there,” he says. “I fit it in.”

I suggest to him that footy must get in the road sometimes. “Never. I love it.”

He had a meteoric rise in 2009. After spending the first half of the year in the Thirds, he showed out in a few Reserves games and was then given a taste of senior football.

The next season he alternated between the one’s and  two’s. From then on he’s been a fixture in the Senior line-up.

He had a few different roles early-on – back pocket, mid-field, wing – but his break-out season came in 2012 (Barry Hall’s year) when coach Mick Caruso assigned him a task as a ‘run-with’ player.

It worked. He found out he was getting more kicks as a tagger than he did when he ran free. The stars were leading him to the ball – and he gave them buggery.

Sometimes, though, he ran foul of the odd opponent who didn’t appreciate the close attention he was receiving.

It was rare that a game would finish without ‘Daisy’ carrying a war-wound of some sort. His trait of playing it hard and tight even earned him a trip to the Tribunal one year, when he was booked for head-butting Yarrawonga’s Luke Ednie.

Were you guilty, Dale, I ask. “I didn’t think so. He probably exaggerated it a touch.”

Whatever, it cost him a week on the sidelines and was a lesson learned.

His form has been consistent over the past few years, particularly in 2014, when he took out the Club’s Most Determined Player Award. The trophy seems tailor-made for a player with his qualities.

Niggling injuries have cost ‘Daisy’ a few games here and there, but it was a broken scaphoid bone in the wrist that cruelled a promising 2016  after just four games – just when he was eyeing off his 100th game.

He finally reaches the coveted milestone on Saturday, becoming the 83rd football member of the Hawks’ most prestigious club (his sister Ash, a top netballer, is also a Centurion).

There’ll be no-one prouder to join their ranks than the dogged Vice-Captain……….