‘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’

‘BACK IN ’77………’

“Would you be interested in being secretary of the Rovers? ” he asked.

It was early 1977. At 29 the aches and pains from a dicey back had confirmed that my uninspiring footy career was stuffed.

Having dreamed of amassing an obscene number of games, starring until early middle-age, then riding off into the sunset, the curtain-call came too quickly.

“What an honour to be asked” I said to Moira, who was too busy tending to the two babies to effect much interest. She would soon be pregnant with a third nipper (an ‘Irish twin’, she called him, who would arrive later in the year) and rolled with the punches when I told her I might go back to help the Hawks……………….

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I asked him what the job entailed.

“Ah, nothing much. Mainly taking down the minutes of the meetings and scribbling out a few letters.”

Who does the recruiting ?

“You’d do a bit of it. You just have to sell the club. You’ll do it on your ear,” was the response.

As a glass half-empty sort of bloke, I soon felt I’d let the club down.  My first two recruiting targets – North Wangaratta full back Alan Bodger and ex-North Melbourne and Wodonga ruckman Neil Brown ignored my somewhat naive approaches and decided to sign with Wangaratta.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. I’d better explain the lead-up to the summer of ’77……….

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There was a suggestion from outside the Hawk camp that they could be on the wane.

Following the glory years of the early ’70’s they’d uncharacteristically struggled for form and fitness during a hazardous 1976. At one stage, in mid-season, they dropped seven games out of 10 to tumble down the ladder, but recovered sufficiently to squeeze into the finals by half a game.

Coach Neville Hogan had battled a nagging hamstring which cost him 10 games; key position player Daryl Smith was sidelined after a serious knee operation. The spark that ignited their legendary team-game was flickering weakly.

But, after surviving a drawn Elimination Final against Wodonga, they turned it on in the next three cut-throat games, to secure a Grand Final berth against Wangaratta.

The ‘Pies, on one of their most memorable days, ran away from the Rovers in the last quarter, to clinch the flag by 37 points.

It seemed to confirm the popular assumption –  that the old champs had courageously psyched themselves for one last crack at the title, only to be outdone by the bold new challengers…………….

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Hot on the heels of Neville Hogan stepping down from the coaching position after seven years, club icon Jack Maroney relinquished the Presidency.  ‘Old Wally’ had been a constant in times of trial and tribulation. He handed over the baton to a man less than half his age – Brian Sammon.

Neville became Thirds coach and intended to play on.  Surprisingly, despite all of the big-name outsiders who were touted on footy’s grapevine, including the favourite, classy Preston small-man Peter Weightman,  Daryl Smith was handed the plum job.

Considering that Smithy was still experiencing some difficulty with his knee rehab it was a bold appointment.

“I must say I was a trifle apprehensive how the knee was going to stand up,” Daryl recalled the other day. “The coaching side of things was okay – the players were really switched-on and gave me plenty of support.”

What struck me about the playing group, on returning ‘home’ to the City Oval, was their self-belief. And, having been involved in a winning culture for some time, they didn’t need much geeing up . Their mission was to make amends for ‘dropping the ball’ in that Grand Final – only the third loss to the ‘Pies in their last 19 meetings.

Another plus was the depth of the list. The Hawks were the reigning Reserves premiers and departures had been minimal. The only major loss was defender Greg O’Brien (the joint Morris Medallist) who decided to pursue his career at Myrtleford.

The recruitment of Gary ‘Sticks’ Allen, the talented Milawa ruckman, compensated for ‘Ab’s’ departure.

If there was any doubt about the Rovers ability to remain around the top they snuffed that out by winning the Pre-Season title, then belting Corowa by 34 points in the opening game.

Albury brought them down to earth the following week in an absorbing clash at the Sportsground, but the news that the great Neville Hogan had finally yielded to Father Time just two games into the season, provided a double whammy.

He had notched up 246 quality games at the Club and exerted a huge influence on many of the current players.

But the Hawks had convinced most critics, by mid-season, that they were the team to beat. With stars on every line, they dropped just three and a half games to finish clearly on top.

They avenged a one-point loss in the final round to Wodonga, to eclipse them by 33 points in the Second Semi-Final.

There to meet them in the Grand Final was a rampaging Wangaratta. The Pies had come from ninth spot mid-season to win their way into the ‘Big One’ and were confident of again turning the tables on the old enemy.

Daryl Smith approached the encounter with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He had experienced a season from hell after recovering from his knee op. In succession he copped a broken nose, a torn hamstring, broken ribs and a severe ankle sprain which in total limited him to just 5 games.

He named himself on the bench for the Grand Final, and the line-up looked like this:

Backs: Greg Rosser,  Denis Hill,  Robert Lowe.

Half Backs: Chris Porter,  Merv Holmes,  Gary Bell.

Centres:  Barry Cook,  Paul O’Brien,  Peter Booth.

Half-Forwards:  Leigh Hartwig,  John Iwanuch,  Mark Booth.

Forwards:  Trevor Bell,  Steve Norman,  Eddie Flynn.

Rucks:  Gary Allen,  Andrew Scott,  Phil Stevenson.

19,20:  Greg Elliott,  Daryl Smith.

The game started in explosive fashion when ‘The Enforcer’,  Merv Holmes, flattened Magpie rover Craig Godde, prompting a spill-over of tensions and an all-in ‘barney’.

It resembled a tank battle and the upshot was that ‘Pie big man Neil Brown went into the umpire’s book.  But, just as significantly, Holmes had made a giant statement. He was to go on and  collect 22 kicks at centre half back and keep his opponent, Chris Schubert, kickless, in a best-afield performance.

Wang kept pace with the Hawks, to trail by just a point at quarter-time, but the second term belonged to the Rovers.

They stretched their lead to 29 points at the big break and from that point on were never challenged. John Leary, who had been a Pie hero in 1976 with 5 goals, was shut out of the game by Denis Hill and picked up his sole possession, a free kick, in the third term.

Hill, Robbie Lowe, Greg Rosser and Chris Porter collected just 19 kicks between them for the game, but were ‘Scrooge-like in defence.

It was a multi-pronged forward line which did the damage for the Hawks. Steve Norman (8 goals), John Iwanuch (3),Eddie Flynn (3) and Trevor Bell (3) reaped the rewards of the brilliant work of on-ballers Paul O’Brien, Andrew Scott, Phil Stevenson and Gary Allen.

Norman and Iwanuch had been outstanding in attack all season and between them booted 184 goals (Norman 115, Iwanuch 69).

The Hawks ran away in the second half, to win : 20.16 (136) to 12.12 (84).

The speedy, systematic Rovers Reserves virtually had their flag sewn up by quarter-time. Two long goals from ruck-rover Paul Hogarth set the pattern early. Hogarth finished with five in the 45-point victory over Myrtleford.

Fringe senior players Neville Allen, Peter McGuire, Phil O’Keefe, Gary O’Keeffe and Keith Rowan all shone out. As did the talented youngster Graeme Bell, who must have been dead unlucky to have missed out on senior selection.

The Rovers Thirds fell short of making it a trifecta for the Club when they lowered their colours by 35 points to Wodonga. Lanky ruckman Neale McMonigle was their star…………..

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So a season that had begun with a degree of uncertainty produced almost a clean sweep for the Hawks. They had finished Minor Premiers in all grades, won the Pre-season, the Club Championship and two flags.

It was, indeed, a Year to Remember…………..

 

 

P.S: Memories of 1977 will be evoked at a re-union of the Premiership teams at the Findlay Oval on Saturday. The Rovers 2007 Reserves Premiership team, coached by Bob Murray, and including three presents-day players, will also be re-assembling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘ROBBIE WALKER………WHAT A CORKER ! “

I wasn’t the only one who felt disposed to offer up a silent prayer in that summer of 2004.

Other club stalwarts, who had gathered to cast their eyes over pre-season training, also considered reaching for the rosary beads, as they struggled to digest the latest news.

One even recounted the dream he’d had…..

……..He was staring wistfully towards the gates of the W.J.Findlay Oval……..Suddenly, out of the gathering dusk came an apparition…….It was the club’s legend, bag slung over his shoulder, belatedly, and against all expectations,  saddling up for another season…………

Alas, he woke up with a jolt and confronted reality……………The career of Rob Walker, the Ovens and Murray League’s most decorated – and one of its greatest-ever footballers, was over…….

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The 15 year-old was belting tennis balls around Our Lady’s courts when I crossed his path for the first time. Daryl Smith, the Rovers Thirds coach, had been on his hammer for a while and was keen to maintain contact.

“Just pop in to say hello and let him know we’re dead-set keen on him. He’s a shy kid ; you won’t get much out of him,” was Smithy’s advice.

He was polite enough, but you sensed that, deep down, he wished that everybody would just leave him alone.

Daryl’s persistence was eventually rewarded when he talked Rob into filling in on one of the days that the Thirds were short.

“And that was that….. But I still reckon he stayed in the Junior League for too long,” he recalls……….

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Daryl played through an era which produced several out-and-out Rovers champions, so he was not one to wax lyrical about promising newcomers. However, he knew that this kid with the obvious talent and superb physique, was one out of the box.

Surely, the planets must have aligned for the Rovers in 1984, because two other lads who debuted with Robbie in the Thirds were his Junior Magpies team-mate Matthew Allen (destined to play 416 O & M games) and Tigers tall-man Paul Bryce ( whose career included 92 AFL games).

The renowned Walker thirst for the contest was on show early. In no time he rose through the ranks and made his senior debut early the following season. He played 11 senior games that year, but in his limited appearances in the two’s, stood out enough to win their B & F.

And so the evolvement of a champ had begun. North Melbourne enticed him down for a season with their Thirds ( and a premiership under Denis Pagan) in 1987, but he was back with the Hawks to play an integral part in one of their most famous flags, with ‘Burt’s Babes’ in 1988.

He took on all-comers at centre half forward and simply ran key defenders off their legs. After finishing third in the Morris Medal and taking out the Did Simpson gong in the Grand Final, it was only natural that North would be keen to lure him back to Arden Street.

He obliged, but the truth was that he couldn’t wait to get home after he had spent a season, marred by injury, with the ‘Roos Reserves.

Homesickness was always a bugbear for Robbie. He went away with the O & M Schoolboys one year and officials recalled that, after two days he’d had enough. They branded him ‘a bit of a sook’.

His response has always been : ” Not good enough”, when people inevitably ask why he didn’t have a decent crack at League footy. But my theory was that his attitude wasn’t exactly right – that he just couldn’t handle life in Melbourne.

Essendon made overtures to him and Footscray offered to draft him with the promise of senior games, but he resisted. Instead, over the next 14 seasons he was to re-write the O & M record books.

He adopted a manic summer ritual, which ensured that he was cherry-ripe when the season proper began. And he and his mates took intensity at training to a new level, as they swept the rest of the group along with them.

They say that if you can find a good centre half forward, you can build a side around him. And that’s what the Hawks did in Robbie’s case.

He was rarely, if ever, outmuscled and used his strength to hold out opponents and mark. His acceleration on the lead left opponents in his wake. He kicked lots of goals – and he never stopped running.

He won his first Morris Medal in 1991, polling a staggering 31 votes – 13 clear of the second place-getter. It was the year that the Hawks recovered from a second semi-final defeat by Yarrawonga, to demolish the Pigeons by 12 goals in the Grand Final.

Two years later, as they embarked on their run of 36 consecutive wins, Robbie was voted best afield in another premiership triumph. This time it was Wodonga who were on the end of a whipping.

A short time later, Bulldog officials flew to Perth to woo East Fremantle star Damien Condon, a son of former Rovers ruckman Brian.

At the interview they succinctly spelt out their mission. “There’s one bloke, we believe, who stands between us and the premiership and you may be able to stop him.”

“Oh yeah, who’s that ?,” said Damien.

“Robbie Walker…….he plays for…….”

“I know, I know. He plays for Wang Rovers – and he’s a gun.”

They had done their teaching training together before Damien headed to the west. Condon did, in fact, eventually line up with the Dogs , but not before the Rovers had grabbed another flag at their expense.

In the mid-nineties Robbie was released from the key position and spent the remainder of his career as a gut-busting on-baller. He was so good that he made stars out of average footballers.

He would become embarressed when people referred to his individual success. Instead,  the prospect of sharing the spoils of victory with his team-mates was the thing that motivated him, he said  .

Peter Tossol once described what it was like to line up alongside the incomparable number 12: “No matter who you played, you always felt you were a chance when he ran out beside you.”

“There were times in games when you were being challenged. You’d just look at his eyes as you ran back to the centre and you knew he was about to do something. He didn’t need to say a word.”

” When I coached against him, he was a nightmare. You virtually conceded that you couldn’t contain him.”

All of his contemporaries can pluck out their favourite Walker moments, but really, his 307 games and 475 goals provided a continuous highlights reel.

In what was to prove his final season – 2003 – Robbie chalked up his fifth Morris Medal. He had tallied 251 votes (at an average of 14.76 per season) over the journey.

To go with this were 12 Bob Rose Medals in 13 years, 16 O & M , 9 Victorian Country and 3 All-Australian jumpers, 4 Premierships and numerous other awards.

It was a degenerative neck and back condition that confirmed his worst fears – he had to reluctantly give football away.

So the great Robbie Walker faded into retirement with a minimum of fuss, much to the dismay of all at the Rovers and the disappointment of the general football public.

He is now feted as a Rovers Hall of Fame member and an Official Ovens and Murray Legend.

But his greatest achievement was that he remained the humblest of champions.