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.
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………
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.
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.”
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.