“ONE OF CHILTERN’S FINEST………”

I’ve arranged to catch up with Billy Peake today but, beforehand, I duck in to renew acquaintances with one of his old stamping-grounds – the Chiltern Oval……..

Nothing much has altered in forty-five years……….Those expansive, wide wings and deep pockets used to give the impression you were playing in the middle of a three-acre paddock. 

The prospect of lining up here intimidated visiting clubs……You were invariably on the other end of a hiding, and the passionate Swans supporters would sure let you know about it………

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Bill laughs when I comment on the size of the ground: “They’ve actually bought it in a bit from when I was a kid, you know…… My first coach, Greg Tate would tell us: ‘Keep the ball moving, …..If you’ve got no-one to kick it to, kick it out in the open spaces…..Run ‘em off their legs ……’ “

Billy’s a legend around these parts – quietly-spoken,  terrific footballer in his day; terrific bloke…..

He and Faye live in High Street, which has itself played an intrinsic role in the history of this famous old footy town.

When Chiltern won the O & K flag in 1968, the side comprised no less than eight High Street residents.

“Kevin, Jock and ‘Rowdy’  Lappin lived over the road from us…..Billy and ‘Meggsy’ Cassidy were next door….Gary Howes lived down the road a bit….Dessy Lappin was up that way, too…..” Bill says.

“The Lappins had a paddock behind their house….When we were kids we used to kick the footy ‘til all hours…….. Faye’s dad ‘Cob’ (Lappin) would be there and the rest of them, even the little tackers , like his youngest son, Rick, joined in……”

“The ambition of every youngster in town was just to play for Chiltern…..That’s why most of ‘em never left. They went to school together, and played together……….”

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The Swans’ reputation as a footy leviathan grew in the late 40’s-early 50’s, when they strung together seven Chiltern & District League premierships in nine years.

“My older brothers played in a few of those sides,” Bill says. “Mum and Dad (Tom) loved the game, especially Mum, who was a fanatic……That’s all they lived for…..I was the team mascot, and grew up with a footy in my hands; no other choice, really…….”

When the CDFL disbanded at the end of 1953 Chiltern gained admittance to the Ovens and King League. But Bill reckons the best thing that ever happened to the Club was the recruitment of Greg Tate as captain-coach.

‘Spudda’ Tate had been a star during Essendon’s Dick Reynolds-John Coleman era, then coached Rutherglen to their last O & M flag, in 1954.

“He’d been working at the Springhurst Butter Factory, but Dad, who was on the Shire Council, urged him to train up to be the Shire Secretary. He moved his family to Chiltern and lived in the Shire house.”

“He was a great leader…….Everybody loved him. I was just so fortunate to be coming through when he arrived .”

“Of all the coaches I’ve heard, he was the best orator ……Even when he went crook at you, he’d put it in such a way that you didn’t realise he was giving you a burst……….”

“In my opinion, he laid the foundation for the Club’s future success………..”

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Bill was 17 when he played in Chiltern’s 1957 flag.  King Valley, under the leadership of lanky ruckman Bill Pinder, had beaten the Swans three times during the season, and started hot-favourites in the Grand Final.

Despite a howling gale blowing towards one end,  Tate won the toss and kicked against the breeze.

“We held them to a goal in the first quarter, then Tate kicked 5 of our eight in the second quarter. That broke their back a bit, and we went on to win by 44 points,” Bill recalls.

He shared in the premiership triumph with three of his brothers – ‘Jonna’, Frank and Alan ( who starred in a back pocket ) – and a cousin, Bobby.

But he was rapt to also play alongside one of his heroes, Ron Howes.

“He was the best footballer I’d seen play around here…..Never wanted to leave Chiltern, though…… “

“Ron only stood 5’8 – 5’9”, could kick either foot and play anywhere. He kicked 100 goals the previous season, lined up at full forward in that Grand Final – then promptly retired.

The Peake quintet were also members of the 1958 Grand Final side, which engaged in a titanic struggle with Greta, in miserable conditions.  

Bill started on the half back line that day, but swapped flanks in an endeavour to shut down dangerous half forward Ian Younger, who’d booted  three early goals. Chiltern had registered the first point of the game, lost the lead and trailed from then on. They finally drew level at the 25-minute mark of the last quarter……..With the clock ticking down a free kick was paid in the dying moments.

To howls of indignation from Greta fans, the umpire penalised one of their defenders for hanging onto Chiltern forward Tony Borrack.

Borrack converted from the goal-square to establish a six-point lead…..The siren blew seconds later, to give the Swans their second successive flag…………

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“Handy start to your career, Bill….Dual premiership player, and a Best & Fairest at 18,” I suggest.

“Yeah…..pretty lucky, I suppose . The only setback came in 1960, when I had a pinched cartilage….Missed about 6 games…..Then I heard about a fellah called Taylor, up at Beechworth, who was a bit of a miracle-worker…… He fixed me straight away.”

That was the only year he ever missed playing finals. 

The following season he played a couple of practice games for the Rovers, before a Chiltern icon Norm Minns enticed him to have a run with Wangaratta. Again, his run of good fortune continued….

He managed to hold his place in a strong Pies line-up which was on the march to a convincing September series. 

A side numbering multiple stars such as Constable, Mack, Killeen, Waller, Steele, Woods and Mulrooney, thrashed Corowa by 40 points, and Wodonga by 52 in the lead-up finals.

The inclusion of Ron McDonald, a talented centre half forward from Richmond, had put the icing on the cake for Wang. The Grand Final was a slaughter, as they ran over Benalla by 63 points. McDonald booted 16 goals in the three finals games.

Bill had played predominantly in the forward line during the season, but was switched to the back flank five minutes into the decider, when Rodney Swan went down with an damaged ankle.

It was the makings of him. He gathered 23 possessions and was named among the best players. “Until then I’d been battling up forward, but thereafter I spent most of my time as a Back Flanker,” he says.

Occasionally, though, when the Pies needed a ‘stopper’ he’d be handed a job on the gun mid-fielders of the day, such as Hogan, Deane, Gayfer or Hanlon…….

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Greg Tate had worded up his old club, Essendon, about the likely-looking young bloke from Chiltern.

“John Coleman was coaching. He and ‘Tatey ’ were good mates, so I was invited down for a run. But I hated the city,” Bill says.

“I trained for a few nights, and played in a practice game, but couldn’t get home quick enough ! “

Wangaratta remained there, or thereabouts, in Bill’s seven years in the No.5 Black and White guernsey. They reached a further three Grand Finals, bowing out to the Rovers in 1964 and ‘65, and Albury in ‘66.

The last of his 120-odd games was another riveting Final – the 1967 First Semi against the Hawks. It was a battle of the defences at Rutherglen, but the Pies were in the horrors in front of the big sticks. 

Forward Ron Critchley couldn’t buy a goal ( finishing with 0.8 ) as their rivals sneaked home by three points.

Chiltern was calling. His old Magpie team-mate Lennie Richards was in his second year as coach and they’d recruited well.

He took out his second  Club B & F ( 10 years after the first ) and finished runner-up to Whorouly’s Billy McAuliffe in the O & K’s Baker Medal.

And, in a carbon-copy of the Grand Final a decade earlier, Chiltern snatched the flag from under the nose of their old rivals, Greta.

“They’d beaten us three times during the season, but we sniffed a chance in the Second Semi,” Bill recalls.

“We were on the smallish side….Our ruckmen, Paddy Tognello and Bob Lappin, were both only around 5’11”, but we seemed to have all the answers for Greta that day, even though we only got up by four points. It was a bit of a triumph for Len Richards, who was very popular.”

Three years later, the Swans held on to pip Milawa by 6 points.  

“Milawa had a crop of good kids at at that time. Barry Cook, Merv Holmes, Ross Gardner and Gary Allen went on to do big things with the Rovers. But ours was a young side, with the Lappin boys, John and Charlie Narres and Johnny O’Neill.”

“ ‘Skimmy’ O’Brien had come from the Rovers as coach. I liked ‘Skimmy’ and it was a pity he gave it away after just the one year.”

Bill’s fifth flag with Chiltern came the following year, when they overpowered Beechworth in the the dying minutes of a thriller. The Bombers were leading by 12 points,when the Swans hit back.

“We had a 16 year-old, Don Mattson up forward, who took three big grabs in the goal-square and helped turn the game.”

“He had plenty of talent, Donny, and went on to play with Richmond and Essendon. But he probably didn’t like putting in the necessary hard work to make the grade .”

Bill played the last of his 230-odd games with Chiltern in the 1973 Grand Final. It was a memorable, bruising affair against a tough North Wangaratta side, which was chasing its first O & K flag. The Northerners finished in strongly to deny him the perfect farewell.

He thought he’d hung up his boots…….until his brother-in-law Jock Lappin took on the coaching job at Brocklesby a couple of years later, and sought his help to drag the Hume League cellar-dwellers up the ladder.

In somewhat of a fairytale , they reached the Grand Final, but had to tackle Walla Walla without Bill, who’d suffered a broken thumb in the Prelim.

“That was definitely curtains…….I’d had enough by then,” he says.

He concentrated on watching the Swans, and in particular, his son Craig, who played 300 games and shared in three flags with Chiltern.

He spent a year as President of Chiltern, and now follows the netball fortunes of his grand-daughters Lucy and Molly who play with Chiltern U.15’s and Barnawartha U.13’s respectively………

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Bill’s confronted a few health obstacles in recent times.

He’s been living with leukaemia since 2013, then was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus two years ago.

“It came as a shock. They could’ve operated, but advised it wasn’t worth the risk at my age ( now 81). It doesn’t worry me, though……….Faye and the girls ( Ange and Natalie)probably stress about it more than me.”

“When it gets real bad I might have to be drip-fed……But that’s okay, they’ve given me fair warning.”

“It is what it is……..”

Post-Script: The Peake brothers accumulated a total of 28 Premierships: ‘Jonna’ (9), Alan (7), Frank (6) and Bill (6).

MORE THAN A ‘SECOND BANANA’…….

The name – Brian Patrick O’Brien – invokes connotations of a bearded, whisky-swigging Irish poet……or perhaps a loose-piselled Gaelic footballer.

Slot the pseudonym ‘Skimmy’ somewhere in there and seasoned locals will automatically recall a star sporting all-rounder of the sixties and seventies.

He’s got a fair idea of the derivation of the nickname. The kids at Glenrowan State School thrust it upon him, he says, probably because his old man, Des, was a dairy farmer, and it had something to do with skimmed milk.

So he’s been ‘Skimmy’ ever since………….
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He remembers riding the bike to and from the farm at Greta West to attend school and play tennis at Glenrowan on week-ends. His resultant disdain for cycling has continued to this day.

When the family moved in to Docker Street, Des, thinking young Brian would continue to work on his promising all-court game, invested in a membership of the Wangaratta Tennis Club for the eldest of his two sons.

But he never got around to treading the hallowed turf of Merriwa Park.

Instead, cricket and football were to become his passions…………..
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‘Skimmy’ became an ‘overnight success’ as a medium-pace bowler of quality, mid-way through his career, when he unleashed a couple of outstanding performances at Melbourne Country Week.

He’d long been typecast as the ‘second banana’ to more highly-rated quicks of his vintage; the sort of bloke who could tie things up, whilst the ‘big guns’ did the damage at the other end.

To be truthful, he’d been under-valued. A prolific wicket-taker in club cricket for years, his outswinger to the right- hander was lethal. It was just that he was a touch unfashionable.

On his first two trips to Melbourne, the selectors overlooked him. He copped it on the chin, he says, but admits it hurt deep-down.

When he finally ‘hit his straps’ in 1970, he did it with a bang, bowling unchanged in oppressive conditions on successive days.

Operating in tandem with his clubmate Robin Kneebone, he sent down 22 overs from the Railway-line End at Glenferrie Oval, to capture 4/58 against Maryborough.  Kneebone snared 4/60, as they restricted their opponents to an easily-accessible 9/127.

The following day, he completed another marathon performance, to snare 9/91 off 23 overs at Richmond’s Punt Road Oval. Central Gippsland ( 203 ), just failed to overhaul Wangaratta’s 5/222.

It remains the only Country Week ‘9-for’ by a Wangaratta bowler. ‘Skimmy’ had finally won the respect of the wider cricket public………..
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His entry to cricket was low-key. The first three years were spent with Housing Commission in the Social competition, alongside good friend Pat Heffernan and such erstwhile characters of the Sunday game as Rob McCullough, ‘Lofty’ Bracken and Bernie Mullins.

Little wonder that an impressionable lad, in his mid-teens, learned plenty, both on and off the field. Moving into the WDCA, he spent time with both Wangaratta and Rovers, before settling on United.

It was a stroke of fortune for both parties. The fledgling club was on the rise – destined to dominate local cricket for more than a decade. And he was to play a key role in its run of success.

In WDCA history, only the Corowa sides of the late-‘80’s and nineties, can rival this United unit for its depth and overall talent. At one stage, eight of their players were walk-up starts in Wangaratta’s representative teams.

‘Skimmy’ played in six premierships in his first eight seasons – and won the competition bowling average in four of them.

Nagging accuracy, consistent pace – and that hooping swing – made him a difficult proposition.

He went to Melbourne to represent the Victorian Postal Institute against the VRI once, he says, and caught the eye of one of the coaches with his ability to ‘move the cherry’.

“But can you control it, lad,” the coach asked. After half an hour  in the nets, into a difficult breeze, he conceded: “You’ve got one of the most crucial parts of a fast bowler’s armoury.”

A couple of his most memorable efforts in WDCA Finals were produced with the willow. He dragged United from a precarious 9/125 to a more comfortable 205 in 1968/69, thanks to his knock of 60, and a last-wicket stand of 65 with Geoff Kneebone.

Then, for good measure, he sent down 18 overs, to capture 3/44, backing up Robin Kneebone’s 6/68, to ensure victory.

A painstaking innings of 80 in the decider against Magpies the following year, along with figures of  3/25, further underlined his value as an all-rounder in this feared United machine……..
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Versatility was the hallmark of ‘Skimmy’s’ footy career. His coaches had the luxury of flinging him around the ground, aware that he’d adapt to any role.

Centrals was his Junior League club. Having  commenced a Telecom Technician’s course in Melbourne in 1959 , he spent half a season with South Yarra YCW. After completing his commitments with Centrals  the following year, he slotted straight into the Rovers Reserves line-up, being selected for the first of his 6 Grand Final appearances with the Hawks.

‘Skimmy’ broke into the senior side in 1961 and was to become a permanent fixture for the next decade . At a little over 6’1” and handily-proportioned, he had pace, and all the skills – bar one.

Surprisingly, he never attempted to kick with his left foot, instead, mastering a side-ways right-footer, which got him out of trouble and was nearly always effective.

He began as a full back, but after receiving a ‘touch-up’ from Magpie ‘Bushy’ Constable one day, was replaced by burly Teddy Pearse, and shunted to the back pocket. They became a formidable combination in the last line.

‘Skimmy’ was one of the youthful brigade who responded to the inspirational coaching of Ken Boyd, who succeeded Bobby Rose in 1963.

Within a year, the Hawks were playing an aggressive, spirited brand of footy which had them ranked as hot flag favourites mid-way through 1964.

But first they had to overcome a worrying slump in form, then a Wangaratta side which had hit top form at the business end of the season. They broke the shackles in a dominant third quarter, to defeat the Pies by 25 points in the Grand Final.

They repeated the dose the following year, this time outlasting the Pies at Martin Park. An O’Brien goal late in the final term had seemingly iced the game, but Wang kept coming and fell short by just three points in a riveting clash.

‘Skimmy’s’ best season with the Hawks came in 1967, when he polled 10 votes in the Morris Medal, playing principally as a winger or centreman. The season, however, ended in Grand Final disappointment, as did his final full year as a player – 1970.

He was appointed coach at Chiltern in 1971 and admits there were some misgivings.
“Especially early on, when I had a yarn to an old Chiltern stalwart, Donny Stephenson. He said: ‘Skim, being an outsider, it might take a while for the players to accept you. I think you’ll probably have to win ‘em over.’ “

“But everyone was great. I just set down one rule: ‘No grog in the pub after Tuesday night.’”

“Old Bill Cassidy, the Chairman of Selectors,  came to me after training one night and took me aside: ‘A couple of the boys have been spotted down at the Grapevine Hotel.’”

“So I walked into the Bar and nabbed ‘em. You could have hung buckets off their eyes, they were that surprised. I said: ‘All right, I’ll have one with ya and then, on your way. And remember, I’m going to run shit out of you at training next week.’”

Chiltern went on to meet Milawa in a Grand Final that had everything. The Swans, with stars Jock and Rowdy Lappin turning it on, regained the lead twice in the final term, to defeat the gallant Demons by six points.

There was no-one more relieved than ‘Skimmy’, that Chiltern had hung on. He’d  played a solid game at full back, but a late Milawa goal – and a drawn game- would have thrown his planned wedding to Marlene the following week into chaos.

So he finished his O & K sojourn with a perfect record.

“They were great people and we made long-lasting friends in our time there. But I was missing the Rovers. I decided to head back home.”

He played just three games in Brown and Gold the next season, before his hamstring gave way.

After 174 senior games with the Hawks, his playing career was over.

He spent three years on the committee, and coached the Reserves into a Grand Final in 1975, before the lure of the Golf course saw this staunchest of Rovers clubmen end his time at the City Oval.

Since then, belting the white ball around has been ‘Skimmy’s’ solitary sporting pursuit. “I don’t hit ‘em as well as I used to, but the game still gets me in,” he says…………..