Jack King’s marathon journey towards 300 Ovens and Murray games – and beyond – began in 1895, on a rough, tussock-laden paddock behind the family home…….When Wangaratta’s Daine Porter reached the target a fortnight ago it was on a floodlit oval, in front of a large, adoring home crowd, which cheered his every possession……..

The ‘paddock’, on which King honed his footy skills, was re-shaped to become Barkly Park, home of the famous Rutherglen Redlegs.

Of the seven King brothers who played their part in helping the ‘Glen become a behemoth at the turn of the century, Jack was the pick of them.

St.Kilda lured him to their Junction Oval for a brief eight-game stay in 1904. But he was content to ply his craft back home, chalking up 11 premierships in a 26-year career, before hanging up his boots, aged 47, in 1926…………….


In fact King is the only member of the O & M’s exclusive 24-Member ‘300-Club’ to have played League football……Would a few of the others have made it, had they so desired ?………Maybe, but that’s purely hypothetical…..

Robbie Walker, for instance, simply reckons he wasn’t good enough. He was invited to play with North Melbourne’s Thirds and Reserves, but homesickness got to him……..307 Games later, with four Premierships, 12 Wangaratta Rovers Best & Fairests and 5 Morris Medals behind him, he retired as a Legend of the local game.

It’s said that Essendon made overtures at one stage, and Footscray offered to draft him, with the promise of senior games, but he resisted.

After winning his fifth Medal in 2003, a debilitating back injury cut him down whilst there was still plenty of footy left in the Walker legs.

At various stages in his career, Walker played alongside six other 300-Gamers in the Hawk line-up – including the unflappable Mervyn Holmes.

Holmes, a Carboor farmer, was the epitome of the tough-as-teak country footballer. He also provided ample leadership. When Robbie Walker was making his way in the game, it was ‘Farmer’ who was his coach and inspiration.

Michael Wilson took over Holmes’s prized Number 16 locker and did it proud. For 17 years, and 316 senior games Wilson ran harder, and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone. He was acclaimed as the model clubman at the W.J.Findlay Oval, and wore the Black and Gold O & M jumper on 23 occasions.

Wayne Pendergast was one of the opponents who often crossed paths with Merv Holmes. He had the unique distinction of playing in premierships with three clubs – Wodonga (1981), North Albury (1984) and Lavington (1986) in his 312 games.

When his son Matthew started coming through the ranks at Lavington, the good judges salivated. Matt was more skilful than his dad, ultra-competitive, and almost as tough. A regular inter-league rep and five-time Lavi B & F, he made 262 appearances with the Panthers, and a further 38 with Wodonga Raiders.

Kerry Bahr had the distinction of playing with both of the Pendergasts. He was recruited to Lavington from Walla Walla in 1987 and played in a losing Grand Final against Wang Rovers the following year. A skilful left-footer and renowned on-baller, he morphed into a dogged tagger, and played a key role in two Panthers flags in the early-2000’s.

Mark Booth arrived on the scene just as the Rovers embarked on their Golden Era of the ‘70’s. They didn’t come much tougher – or more durable – than the 13-time O & M rep, whose first flag came in 1974…..and his fifth 17 years later.

He would have added another in 1988, only for a moment of madness in the final home-and-home game, which saw him rubbed out for the finals……


Talking of ‘hard-men’, there were few who played with the spirit and endeavour of Johnny Smith, who hailed from the hill-country, up near Mitta. Smith first stripped with Rutherglen, under the coaching of his brother-in-law, Frank Hodgkin, before moving on to North Albury, Wodonga and Myrtleford.

His sole flag came in 1980, when he played a starring role in a North victory which prevented the Rovers’ bid to win four in a row.

Smith won four B & F’s, represented the O & M 33 times and clinched a Morris Medal in 1973.

He was poised to play in a flag that year, but the Hoppers were upstaged by Benalla, and Smith’s legacy from the game was a six-week suspension.

It cost him another Medal, as he also topped the count in 1974, but was ruled ineligible……It was the major disappointment of his 315-game O & M career………

Johnny Hunt’s game was based around gut-running and speed……He patrolled the wing at the Lavington Oval for nigh-on two decades, played in two flags for the Panthers, won a Did Simpson Medal and a B & F in a premiership year………So he was no slouch…..Year after year, when Hunt’s demise was predicted, he kept producing, playing a league-record 420 games.

John ‘Shorty’ Martiniello became an institution at the Benalla Showgrounds, after making his senior debut in 1977. The tiny rover’s first – and only – opportunity to play in a premiership came the following season, when the highly-fancied Demons were belted by Wang Rovers in the Grand Final.

‘Shorty’ was forever burrowing feverishly around the bottom of the packs and won six Club B & F’s. He finished runner-up once and third twice in the Morris Medal, and represented the O & M on eight occasions during his 316-game stint in the Red and White guernsey.

Sixteen year-old Anthony Pasquali walked into a sports-store owned by two Wang Rovers stars in 1983, and asked how he could go about joining the club. They could scarcely believe their luck. ‘Pas’ was to become a champion, sharing in three flags, and representing the League 12 times.

He finally cracked it for a Club B & F when coaching GV club Benalla ( he also won the Morrison Medal ), then returned to lead the Hawks for three years.

Nic Conway’s was a different story. He grew up as a mad Wodonga fan ( where his dad had been a star ) but played his junior footy with Wodonga Demons. When the Raiders ( who originated from the Demons ) finally gained acceptance to the League in 1989, young Nic went with them.

He rode all of the highs and lows of the fledgling club but his loyalty was vindicated when he helped them to a flag in 1998.

Like Conway, Matthew Allen’s dad also made his name with a rival club. Rex played in Wangaratta’s 1957 premiership, but the young fellah was enticed ‘over the road’ to the Findlay Oval, in 1983.

A strong-marking defender, with an ungainly, but effective left-foot kicking style, Matthew Allen played the last of his 416 O & M games in 2010, amidst universal acknowledgement of his consistency and effectiveness. He even showed his adaptability by booting 83 goals in 1992 in a rare foray up forward.

Interspersed with his time at the Rovers was a three-year spell with Corowa-Rutherglen, and a season in the Bendigo League, with Northern United.

Ross Hill’s boyhood dreams were realised when he lined up alongside his heroes in 1995. Unfortunately for him, the Rovers era of prolonged success was drawing to a close, but he became a stalwart- and long-term skipper during an 18-year career with the Hawks.

Denis Sandral had a hard act to follow, treading in the footsteps of his famous triple-Morris Medal-winning father, Jim.

But he made more than a decent fist of it, and is recognised as one of the competition’s finest-ever defenders.

Denis showed early promise when he played in Wangaratta’s 1977 Grand Final side whilst attending Champagnat College. He then returned home to become the cornerstone of Corowa-Rutherglen sides for almost two decades.

Like his father, he was a five-time B & F winner, and represented the O & M 21 times.

Playing alongside Sandral for a good portion of his career was Paul Bartlett, a talented, pacy all-rounder. Proof of ‘Barty’s’ consistency was his ten consecutive top-three finishes in the Club B & F. He broke through for a win in 1989.

Persistence was also a Bartlett trait. He tried out with five AFL clubs before coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t to be.

Undoubtedly his career highlight was playing in the Roos’ record-breaking premiership victory over North Albury in 2000.

Brendan Eyers also ticked that box. The giant ruckman toiled manfully in the ruck – sometimes against the odds – after making his senior debut for Corowa-Rutherglen in 1989.

The arrival of Peter Tossol as coach introduced a degree of professionalism which hadn’t been seen at John Foord Oval and, in turn, led to the Roos two memorable flags- 2000 and 2003. Eyers was a crucial component of those line-ups.

Matthew Fowler was recruited to Albury from Hume League club Walbundrie at the age of 16, just in time to slot into one of the Tigers’ finest eras. A bulky forward with a booming right foot, he played his part in a hat-trick of flags in 1995-‘97, and was there when they repeated the effort in 2009-‘11.

With six premierships, 812 goals, captain of the Tigers for a decade, and 354 games to his credit, he earned a ranking as one of the O & M’s finest forwards.

There was always conjecture among the good judges as to where Daniel Leslie was best suited. He could hold down centre half forward or CHB with ease, and had all the attributes – power, pace for a big man, and a prodigious kick……..

He played an important part in North Albury’s 2002 premiership, after having debuted on a wing two years earlier.

Leslie became a key man for the Hoppers’ for a decade and a half, captained the side for eight years, and booted 354 goals in his 300 games.

Xavier Leslie, likewise, is held in the highest esteem by all at Yarrawonga. The classy small man played his first game for the Pigeons, aged 16, in 2002. He featured in Yarra’s 2006, 2012 and 2013 premiership teams.

He also achieved the personal highlight of his glittering career in 2013 when he took out the Morris Medal by four votes.

Smooth-moving Darrell Spencer came across the border in 1987 from his home town of Rutherglen, to try his luck with the Roos.

He never left…..A magnificent kick who rarely missed a target, Spencer was appointed captain in 1998, just as Corowa-Rutherglen were entering a new era. Two years later he held the premiership cup aloft……in 2003 they saluted again.

Spencer finally retired with 333 games to his credit……equaling the club record of champion Denis Sandral.

Last week-end, he and Sandral handed the record over to Kade Kuschert, a hard-working, strong-marking defender, who has been part of the furniture since he arrived at Corowa-Rutherglen from Buraja in 1999.

His team-mates strove valiantly to clinch a win against power team Albury, to honour the contribution of their 38 year-old team-mate.

Much to their dismay, the Roos fell short by two points…….


(With thanks to guest blogger – Simone Kerwin)

HISTORY is peppered with the stories of young footballers who moved to the ‘big smoke’ to try their luck at the highest level, only to walk away disillusioned by the process or unable to gel with the lifestyle. But there is only one among their number who has gone on to train two Melbourne Cup winners.

The Robert Hickmott story reads like something that might have been dreamed up by a sports-loving youngster mapping out his life… first I’ll play junior footy with my mates, in between helping Dad train horses, then when we’re teenagers, my mates and I will win a senior country footy premiership together; I’ll get noticed by a couple of league clubs, give it a whirl in the AFL, play a bit more footy, then get back into the horses and help guide a couple of them to take out the richest race in the land for a wealthy, generous owner.

Sounds like pie in the sky stuff, but essentially that’s how life has played out for Rob, or Hicky, as he is better known locally. Of course, a life viewed in hindsight can often seem like a fairytale, but even the laidback subject at the heart of this story can appreciate the great fortune and long-lasting memories that have come his way over 49 years.

Rob was born and raised in the Wangaratta district, and developed a passion for racing in his very early years, while helping out around his father John’s stables at Eldorado.

“Dad was a real estate agent at the same time, so we’d get up early and do the horses, then I’d go to school and he’d go to work at about 8am,” he said.

While racing was a passion, Rob described footy as “an outlet”. He enjoyed the chance to spend time with his mates, including the three Wilson brothers, Mick, Joe and Andrew (Waldo), as they made their way through the thirds ranks to play senior football at Tarrawingee.

As Mick Wilson began to follow the path worn by his uncle Mick Nolan, from Tarrawingee to the Wangaratta Rovers, Rob was enticed to join his mate, who had been playing the occasional Sunday game for the Hawks after lining up with Tarra’s Bulldogs on a Saturday.

“Darryl Smith was coaching then; I came in in 1986 and played a couple of games, but we didn’t make the finals in my first year,” he said.

By 1987, word of Rob’s emerging ability had spread to talent scouts in Melbourne. He was invited to train with Hawthorn, but the day before he was due to report to Glenferrie Oval, persuasive Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy and Bombers team manager Kevin Egan knocked on the Hickmotts’ door.IMG_3587

“I can’t remember too much about it – he probably had a cup of tea with the old man out the back, and talked about a bit of money. I was a bit overawed, and I signed up with Essendon; Hawthorn wasn’t very happy,” he said.

But Rob found the world of senior AFL footy an uncomfortable fit: “I missed a lot of training because I was going to the races. I played the first two pre-season games at Essendon, then I got homesick and came straight home”.

“Change is a big thing in life, and it’s something that a lot of country kids don’t adjust to. There would be hundreds of stories like mine. I was talking to Kevin Sheedy one day about how he wanted to put it in the curriculum – dealing with change in all aspects of life,” Rob said.

“I went back and did a pre-season (with Essendon) in 1989, but I got de-listed because I wasn’t really putting in. Then Melbourne said if I continued to do everything right, they’d pick me up in the draft, so I went to Tasmania and played under an assumed name,” he said.

Rob was indeed drafted by the Demons, and played two senior games for the club in 1990, debuting against St Kilda in round 13, and playing the following week against North Melbourne.

“They were terrific at Melbourne, with blokes like Jim Stynes, Garry Lyon and Rod Grinter on the list. Then I busted my finger and it got infected, just as I was starting to get my head around things,” he said.

Though he remained on the Demons’ list in season 1991, Rob did not play another senior match. Footy on the big stage had not panned out as he may have hoped. However, Rob said some of his fondest sporting memories were borne from his Ovens and Murray career.

He describes the Rovers’ 1988 premiership win over Lavington as “probably my biggest thrill in football”. Coached by Laurie Burt, and known as ‘Burt’s Babes’, the ’88 Hawks had an average age of 21 and were in essence a bunch of local kids who just loved hanging around together.IMG_3588

“I will never forget the moment when that siren went, just the elation. You couldn’t move on the ground, and the after- party went on for the next two or three weeks,” Rob said.

He was named among the best players in the 26 point victory over the Blues, alongside a host of others who have become Rovers royalty – coach Burt, Robbie Walker, Mick Caruso, Scott Williamson, Mick and Joe Wilson, and Rick Marklew. After leaving Melbourne, Rob returned to the Rovers and played in a second premiership under Burt in 1991.

“It’s a great footy club. They were lucky with the blokes they got together in that era, including one of the best country footballers ever in Robbie Walker; it’s one of the best recruiting efforts you’ll ever see,” he said.

Time with Myrtleford and Wodonga, including playing in a grand final for the Bulldogs against his Rovers mates in ’94, was next on the agenda for Rob. He went back to the Rovers in 1996, before following his father to Murray Bridge in South Australia.

“I went to Dad’s and worked for him and played over there, but I broke my leg in an elimination final, then I went to Queensland and played four or five games at Southport, where there was this young forward coming up through the ranks named Nick Riewoldt,” he said.

Rob played his last game of footy at the age of 29, but after his stint at Murray Bridge, he realised his future lay in the racing game. He took up a role at Caulfield with Colin Little, where he met his future wife Michelle, a track rider, and also worked with Tony Vasil and Alan Bailey, before moving to Michelle’s native Queensland to work for John Wallace. The couple spent four years on the Gold Coast, and welcomed son Josh, now 15 (who was followed five years later by daughter Sharnia).

Then Rob’s mate, Lincoln Curr, helped him secure a role with Team Williams, working under Graeme Rogerson at Flemington, until operations shifted to Macedon Lodge at Mount Macedon five years later. He is full of praise for Lloyd Williams, the high- profile boss he helped to win two Melbourne Cups, with Green Moon in 2012, and Almandin in 2016.IMG_3583

“His passion for racing is amazing. Obviously as the casinos were up and running and he was starting to get out of that, he had a more hands-on approach, and contact with him went from almost daily to two or three times a day,” he said.

“When we moved out to Macedon, it was different again, because he had a property across the road, so we’d speak five or six times a day. Over the years, you build up a rapport with someone, you understand them and vice versa; we got on well.

“His attention to detail is second to none; his approach was always, ‘you won’t trip over a boulder, but you might trip over a stone’. It’s taking care of the little things that he prides himself on, things we wouldn’t think of, he points out to you. He’s a very generous man, and really cares for people.”

Rob said he struggled to understand the fuss that was often made of the fact that while he was credited with training the Cup winners, Lloyd Williams and his son Nick were spokesmen for the team.

“It’s Lloyd’s business, so the spokesperson was always Nick or Lloyd – that’s their model. The press used to get their noses out of joint because they couldn’t talk to me, but I was happy with it that way. It’s obviously a by-product of the racing game, but I’ve never been a person who thrives on that sort of stuff,” he said.

Rather, Rob enjoyed seeing the smiles on the faces of his family as Team Williams enjoyed the success they knew he had helped achieve.IMG_3585

“That’s the most gratifying thing out of it – it’s more for the families, the chance for the kids to take the cup to school and get bragging rights,” he said.

“Because I was working solely for Macedon Lodge, it was like a team environment, so it was a bit like a footy team; the only difference is you are back to work the next day with racing. Lloyd is a big one for planning, so there wasn’t as much time to soak it in.”

He does have some great memories to add to his collection, though.

“Green Moon was the first one. He’d been bumped around in the Cox Plate and came out of that battered and bruised, so he had a very light 10 days leading into the Cup. That was the key to winning. The way the race was run suited him to a tee – he had a slow start, but came home strong. When he hit the front, it was amazing, just a great feeling,” he said.

“With Almandin, a lot of work and time went into him off a tendon rehab, so it was probably more gratifying in that regard. To get him back into form was a feather in everyone’s cap.”

Rob is hoping for more of those feelings in the years ahead, as he branches out on his own after departing the Williams stable late in 2017.

“Towards the end, I was getting a bit stale, and my passion started to waver. I needed some diversity to develop my own style. I thought it was the right time to leave. I’m looking forward to the next chapter,” he said.

Though his plans for the future are “still up in the air”, Rob is keen to secure boxes at Flemington for his stable, and continue with the success he experienced with the Williams family.

“I know how to produce a winner, as long as I get the right quality of horses. We’re going through that process now, and it’s exciting. It would be nice to secure a few from overseas, and target the Melbourne and Caulfield Cups this year,” he said.

There will also be plenty of time for family.  Josh, a rising star in the Calder Cannons’ under 16 Barry Davis squad, is showing interest in the family business, though Rob jokes, “I told him he’ll be picking up sh.. to start with.” In fact, Josh’s studies at Salesian College may be developing a homegrown media manager, so Rob can avoid the part of the racing game he doesn’t enjoy.IMG_3586

While Sharnia enjoys the race day aspect, taking her friends along for a day out, she is exhibiting talent as a soccer and netball player, singer and guitarist. And Rob said the benefits of having Michelle at his side are huge.

“It’s handy to have someone who understands the rigmarole, and how demanding the job can be,” he said.

“She stopped riding when she was pregnant with Josh – she was passionate about riding, but it just wasn’t worth (the risk of injury to continue). She has a dog- grooming business now, and has also trained to be a shiatsu massage therapist; to get her head around what she has to do that has been amazing. It’s amazing how people evolve.”

Indeed. And the evolution of Robert Hickmott has been a fascinating journey, still no doubt with plenty of twists and turns ahead………..


( ‘Life – What a Ride’  appeared in the Autumn Edition on North-East Living.  The Spring Edition is on the bookshelves next week.)IMG_3584


You’d be hard-pressed to find a more fervent football disciple than Laurie Burt.

He posesses a boyish enthusiasm for the game. It came to the fore last Saturday, when his old side, the Hawks, clinched the unlikeliest of victories.

I’ve seen him entranced by games at all levels. Even when he sights two little fellahs fondling the Sherrin, you can see his brain ticking over and dreaming of their potential.

If it was my task to appoint a Football Ambassador, Laurie would be my man…….
His attitude to footy now is no different to that of the squat, dumpy 9 year-old kid who turned up to play with St. Andrews Under 13’s in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

Ron Taylor, who coached him at junior and senior level, saw players of the calibre of dual Brownlow Medallist Keith Greig and champion goalkicker Geoff Blethyn go through the club, but rates Laurie the most dedicated he has seen.

He was determined to extract the best of his ability and headed to Coburg, where he was soon to make his mark, despite his unlikely stature.

Channel 10’s live Sunday afternoon coverage of matches during the ’70’s and ’80’s drew a cult following to VFA football and Laurie was one of its biggest personalities.

Harold Martin, who played with and against Burt in this era, gave this summation of the Coburg on-baller :

“He looked more like a hairy Sumo wrestler than a footballer, but boy, could he play ! He was tough at the ball, skilful and had no fear. He was always at the bottom of the packs, taking courageous marks by backing into packs or standing his ground.”

“The umpires loved him, everybody loved him. He was undoubtedly one of the top three VFA players in that era. He was the King of Coburg.”

Laurie played 157 games with the Lions, was Best and Fairest in 1978, ’79 and ’81, captain for three years, runner-up in the VFA’s 1978 J.J.Liston Trophy and a regular and dependable VFA representative.

His only taste of premiership glory came in 1979, when Coburg broke through to win their first Division One flag in 51 years.

The only time that his unflinching loyalty to Coburg had deviated was in his early days, when he was invited to do a pre-season at Essendon. He lasted a few weeks at Windy Hill before returning home.

But by the end of 1983 his beloved club had slipped badly on and off the field and there were rumours of discontent in the camp.

As luck would have it, there was an approach afoot from the Rovers. Let me explain how it crystallised.

The incumbent coach, John Welch, had indicated that if the club could find a replacement, it would be in  their best interests to have a change.

Akin to the Hawks’ present scenario in their hunt for a messiah, they searched high and low. Among the many possibilities who were fanned was a dogged Richmond back-pocket player, Michael Malthouse.

But after Mick had expressed some interest, the news came through that he had accepted the job at Footscray.

You’ll do anything for a lead when you reach a dead-end – like contacting prominent VFA media identity Mark Fiddian out of the blue and quizzing him about any likely coaching prospects.

“Well, there are two standouts”, he said. “Graeme ‘Swooper’ Anderson from Port Melbourne is a good player and has plenty of experience. But there’s a fellow at Coburg called Laurie Burt who would make a sensational coach. I reckon he might be receptive to an approach “.

A bit of detective-work was done and the response from all who were asked was the same: ‘Lovely bloke, top footballer, fine clubman.’

Laurie rejected the coaching offer, but warmed to the idea of joining the Hawks as a player, which he did in 1984.

The stern judges who congregated at the bar-end of the Hogan Stand adopted him immediately. They loved his toughness, the way he burrowed in after the ball.

This was no ‘blow-in’ coming up for an easy kick and a quick quid. And he wanted to be involved in everything that was happening within the club.

He was Best & Fairest in 1985, represented the League and was a great support to Merv Holmes, who was steering the Rovers through two difficult, but improving years.

So, when the legendary ‘Farmer’ decided to retire, his successor was a no-brainer – it had to be Burt.

Laurie and his wife Cheryl decided to give it a go and moved to Wangaratta to live in 1987. He accepted a transfer in the Education Department to Barnawartha Primary School and adapted perfectly to life in the bush.

He loved the feel of the town and enjoyed the fact that the locals were so passionate about the footy club. It was different to anything he’d experienced in the city.

All of the Rovers’ champions of the ’70’s (except Mark Booth) had, by now, moved on and there were plenty of spots to fill.

But there was a bevy of young, emerging talent around the club and a couple of experienced players – Maryborough school-teacher Michael Caruso and North Melbourne reject John O’Donoghue – landed on their doorstep.

And it was a big help when classy Robert Walker was lured back from the Kangaroos.

The young, group engendered a good spirit and responded to their inspirational coach.
In his first eight years they clinched four flags and at one stage chalked up 36 wins in succession. It was one of the most dominant periods in O & M history.

Walker spoke of Burt years later: ” Laurie was just what we needed; the right bloke at the right time. He was fabulous for our club and the whole town.”

“He was always reinforcing the team aspects – the guys who were injured or others who had missed out, the supporters who’d backed us and the whole community that was behind us.”

“We weren’t playing just for us, he’d say, but for them as well. The flags weren’t just ours, they belonged to the whole town.”

When Albury broke the Rovers’ sequence of 36 wins early in 1985, a new challenger to their throne had emerged. Indeed, the Tigers did become the pace-setters from that point on, but the Hawks fought ferociously to hang onto that mantle.

Laurie’s coaching reign had spanned a club-record 11 years when he decided not to seek re-appointment at the end of the 1997 season.

He had coached in 230 games for a remarkable success rate of 74.3 which saw the Hawks only miss the finals twice. He had played 152 games and had influenced the lives of a couple of hundred young men who played under him and absorbed his sage football advice.

The gongs that had come his way in a stellar career included induction to the Coburg, Wangaratta Rovers and Ovens and Murray Halls of Fame and membership of Coburg’s Team of the Century.

In the ensuing years Laurie has undertaken a number of roles on football’s periphery and thrived on the involvement.

This year he collected another sporting trophy – a share of Wangaratta Table Tennis Association’s B-Grade doubles title. He was overshadowed by his son Ashley, who took out the A-Grade championship.

I don’t know what it’s like facing him on the other side of the net, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been half as daunting as having him bearing down on you on the football field.