“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……”

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……’

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……..

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……..


Can there be a more inhospitable place than Birallee Park on an early winter’s day ?

Or more particularly, near the Public Bar, where the congregation of Wodonga Raiders supporters are among the most biting, raucous and biased in the League.

They’re up and about this year, the boys in Red and Blue. After a couple of super-lean years, the advent of new coach Darryn Cresswell and a swag of recruits has given them a fresh lease of life.

Today they brought in former Sydney Swan Paul Bevan and the quaintly-named Yarran Jaffer-Williams from Sydney University. The Border-Mail’s six experts plumped for the home team. Seemingly the Rovers had little chance.

But I liked the great Leigh Matthews summation during the week……………”Even if you’re a 1,000 -to 1 chance, you’re still a chance”…

And after the first 10 minutes, the Hawks’ odds had rapidly blown out towards three figures.

With big Dean Heta reigning supreme at the centre bounce and ramming the ball down the throats of their eager mid-fielders, the Raiders  had three goals on the board almost before the Rovers had ventured inside the 50-metre arc.

These ‘inactive’ periods of 10-20 minutes have proved costly for them this season, as opposition sides have wrenched the initiative away from a young group.

But suddenly, a change came over the game.

I reckon the main factor was that the Rovers collectively lifted in their attack on the ball and man. Their tackling was frenzied and, I think, surprised the Raiders with its intensity.

It was to be well over a quarter before the home team scored a goal. In that time the Hawks booted four and found a couple of tall targets near the goal-mouth.

Shane Gaston, who had moved down forward, marked strongly and kicked truly. Ryan Cobain was also conspicuous with a couple of timely grabs.

That ‘Gatto’ had been able to be spared from the ruck was because second-gamer Chris Knowles was providing a contest in his stead.

It’s a bit of a quirk of mine that I see the mannerisms of old stars in the new arrivals. For instance, 19 year-old Tyler Lowe reminds me of recently-departed Johnny Conroy.

And I see a lot of Barry ‘Satch’ Sullivan in young Knowles’ palming of the ball and general work around the packs. Might I add, not many people would be in a position to argue with this, as ‘Sully’ was a premiership ruckman of 50 years ago.

At half-time the margin favouring the Hawks was seven points. They were again being tirelessly served by Sean O’Keeffe, whose left boot sent them forward time and again. ‘Okey’s’ uncanny ability to read the play and bring others into the game was on display today.

Another factor in the revival was the contribution of Alex Marklew, who found form with a bang. Freed from the pressures that accompany being ‘the man’ up forward, he roamed the wings and flanks and picked up a swag of possessions.

Dale Martin, who is playing the best footy of his 86-game career at present, was assisted off with a nasty-looking ankle injury, which, of course, restricted options on the bench. It was a telling blow.

After the Hawks had kicked a couple of goals clear in the third term, the Raiders pegged them back and it was anyone’s game at three-quarter time.

It really boiled down to which side could assume control. Neither appeared likely to yield.

The Raiders finally regained the lead in the dying stages of the game and looked a real chance to cling onto it. The Hawks’ intensity had probably dropped off a bit and the little breaks had started to go the R’ way  of the home team.

In one of the final, telling acts of an engrossing game, a Rovers forward thrust ended with the ball in the hands of Cam Bishop, 45 metres out from goal.

‘Bish’ had spent the last game in the Reserves. Whilst not entirely contented with his form this season, he was grateful to be re-instated to the seniors and happier still that he was lining up for goal.

The pressure was on the tall, slim, number 25 . His side trailed by a point.

He threaded it through and had guided the Hawks to a thrilling five-point victory.

There were plenty of heroes for the Rovers, but it was exciting to see that all of the youngsters stood up in a tight contest.

I liked the poise and creativeness of Dylan Stone…the telling possessions of James Smith…the ease with which Tristan Lenaz and Chris Knowles have adapted to senior football… the improvement shown by Nick Henderson and Brad Collihole.

So the intrigue of season 2015 continues. Just two games separate the Third and the bottom-placed teams and upsets come by the week.

There are no cheap games in O &M football.