‘THE ULTIMATE TEAM-MAN…………’

The prized Number 16 locker at the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club belonged to just two players over a 32-year period. The first of these was the inimitable Mervyn ‘Farmer’ Holmes, who held sway in defence for 302 games.

Upon his retirement in 1986 a slightly-built 17 year-old asked if he could have the privilege of taking over the number.

For the next 17 years Mick Wilson played with fearsome determination. He ran harder and tackled and harassed more ferociously than anyone, and after 316 senior games, earned the universal acclaim of country football folk when his playing career drew to a close in 2004.IMG_3996

In an era when loyalty in footy was treated contemptuously, he led by example as the consummate team-mate.

He was the advance welcoming party when new recruits arrived; the pace-setter at pre-season training; the long-term trip-away organiser; the sympathetic listener to aggrieved players; and was ever-ready with a tip on fitness or tactics for grateful youngsters……….
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The three Wilson kids – Mick, Joe and ‘Waldo’ – were just whippersnappers when they wandered down Nolan Lane, Tarrawingee, to train with the Bulldogs’ newly-formed Thirds team.

“I think I was about 11, and the coach, Des Griffin used to let us join in. Then, on Sundays we’d head across to play with the Whorouly Midgets,” says Mick.

“I always thought it would’ve been more convenient to go into Wang and play in their Midget comp, but Chas (Dad) joked that there was less chance of him being pulled over by a breathalyser this way. And besides, he said, there were three pub stops on the way home – at Whorouly, Milawa and, of course, Tarra’s Plough Inn.”

His parents, Chas and Toni, are legendary figures in local sport.

“Chas, in particular, had some off-beat philosophies,” Mick recalls. “For instance, after a good rain, he’d gather a heap of snails; weigh them, number them and put them in an old microwave one by one, to see how long it took them to explode. He was trying to justify some mathematical formula that he was working on.”

But Chas and Toni couldn’t have been more rapt when their offspring began to show signs of obvious potential.

Mick had been filling in with Tarra Thirds, on and off, for a few years. He went in one day to watch his uncle, Paul Nolan, strutting his stuff in a practice match with the Rovers Thirds. They were short, and he was pressed into action.

Later in the year, he was slotted in for a couple of games on permit at the urging of coach Darryl Smith; held his spot for the finals, and played in a Premiership side.

He was 16 when he had his first full season with the Thirds, and showed enough to attract the attention of new Hawk senior coach, Laurie Burt.

“Laurie picked 10 debutants for the opening round of 1987, and most of us had come up through the Thirds. It was the dawn of a new era for the Club,” Mick says.

“Laurie was 10-15 years older than most of us. He had the complete respect of everyone, and was still playing great footy. He cared about us as people. Although he was super-professional, he could have a bit of fun, too.”

The Rovers were dubbed ‘Burt’s Babes’. They strung together a succession of wins, which ultimately swept them into the 1988 Grand Final. Their opponents, the star-studded and vastly more experienced Lavington, were expected to have too many guns for them in the Big One.

“I remember my opponent grabbing me in a headlock and throwing me to the ground early in the first quarter,” Mick says. ” I looked upfield and there were ‘spot-fires’ raging everywhere.”

“It was obviously a plot by Lavi to put the pressure on us. But we proved a bit quicker; a bit more skilful. After the game, when we went up to receive our medals, I overheard some fellah say: ‘ I can’t believe how young these blokes are’.”IMG_3990

It was a famous Hawk victory, but the one that gave Mick special satisfaction came three years later, when they belted Yarrawonga: “Joe was in the ‘88 side, but ‘91 was ‘Waldo’s’ first flag. It was a real thrill to share it with them.”IMG_3991

“Yarra had beaten us in the second-semi, and they were really fired up when we met them a fortnight later, at the Showgrounds. They targeted Anthony Pasquali and Peter Tossol for some reason. Big Brett Jukowicz’s eyes were rolling around in his head. He went right off. But I think we won by something like 12 goals.”

Mick was to become synonymous with inter-league football, after making his debut in 1990. The challenge of lifting to a higher standard always brought out the best in him. He was to represent the league on 23 occasions (6 times as captain) – and play at two Australian Country Carnivals.

An example of his fabled durability came when he hobbled off during a clash against the Latrobe Valley, at Traralgon. Two days later, the Rovers were due to meet Myrtleford. He got home, set his alarm, and iced his dicey ankle every two hours in order to be right to line up against the Saints.IMG_3994

Probably the highlight of his representative career came in 1994, when the Wilson trio were selected to wear the Black and Gold O & M guernsey at Sunbury.

This was during a period when the Rovers had assembled one of the greatest of all O & M sides.

They chalked up 36 wins on end and were rated near-invincible. At the height of it, they took out the ‘93 and ‘94 premierships and their reign was showing no signs of stalling.

Alas,  that triumph of 1994 was to be the Hawks’ most recent flag.

“It seems strange to say,” says Mick,”……but during that winning era, it started to become a bit boring. You had to really psyche yourself up some weeks.”

“But when I looked back in the late nineties, I came to realise how hard flags are to win. In some of the ones we missed out on, we were close to – or as good as – the sides that won them.”

“In those ‘nearly’ years, the connection mightn’t have been as strong off the field as it could have been. The odd blokes might have been playing for themselves, maybe worried about their positions, or form, or whatever…….”

“There was a high correlation, with the teams that won flags, where we really gelled as a group.”

The lasting memory of Mick Wilson is of him setting off downfield from the half back line, and launching the ball deep into attack – or throwing himself into a pack with courage. His fitness was famous and he trained with rare intensity.

“When we had those great sides, there were some ding-dong battles on the track. We liked to set the standard for the younger blokes at training,” he says.

He still played an important role in the Hawks’ most recent Grand Final appearance – in 2002, but two seasons later, realised that Father Time had caught up with the body that he had punished year after year.IMG_3999

“It was the opening game of the season, and someone from Corowa-Rutherglen was tagging me in the Seconds. He was giving me a hard time, and I couldn’t be bothered retaliating. I knew it was time to give it away.”

“I could’ve gone back to Tarra, but instead, kept training and did the running for ‘Toss’, who was coaching. I just didn’t play again.”

So he hung up the boots after a devoted career in Brown and Gold. He and his brothers (Joe 240 games, and Andrew ‘Wal’ 258) amassed 814 senior games. They’re Hawk Life Members, as are parents Chas and Toni……
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In 2007, the Bulldogs finally lured their favourite son home as coach. He had no set coaching plans, other than trying to make Tarra a really enjoyable place to be.

“They were probably expecting me to be really strict, but on one of the first training nights I produced a couple of slabs after training. We tried to prioritise things like the players keeping the rooms clean, always thanking the volunteers, and making the netballers inclusive.”

“I had good support on the footy side of things; that part of it was really easy, and the club was well set up off-field.”

The Dogs broke an 18-year premiership drought when they overcame a persistent Bright in the 2008 Grand Final. They were hot favourites the following season, having won 39 games on the trot.

But Milawa got the jump early and held on to win a thriller.

The 2010 decider was also a nail-biter. In a game that went down to the wire, Tarra got up by two points in one of the greatest of all O & K Grand Finals.

With that, Mick Wilson decided to walk away from coaching,

He had already become somewhat of a sporting icon at Tarra, having captained five of their cricket premiership teams over 20 years, but old Dogs, who had become used to years of heartache appreciated his role in returning the Club to the upper echelon……..IMG_4001
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Mick is now involved in his ‘dream job’ as Talent Identification Manager of the Murray Bushrangers. In this role he’s charged with the responsibility of uncovering the cream of the region’s young football talent, and giving them the opportunity to impress the nation’s recruiting scouts.

The Wilson kids, Brylee, Kelsie and Darcy are showing plenty of promise in football, Netball, cricket and athletics, and appear to have been endowed with a healthy dose of the family’s renowned sporting genes………

(With help from Rosco & Fix’s Podcast  ‘”I like the Cut of your Jib”)IMG_4015

‘A VARIED NETBALL ( AND SPORTING ) LIFE……..’

A long piece of galvanised iron piping, with Netball ring attached at the regulation height of 3.05 metres, is cemented into an old oil drum at the rear of the Plough Inn Hotel.

A youngster’s attention is focused on shooting goal… after goal…. after goal, despite having an errant football occasionally booted in her direction by brothers Pete, Mick and ‘Turt’………or sometimes having to intervene in the scuffles of her five other siblings.

This is the ‘playground’ of the growing Nolan clan. It’s Tarrawingee’s ‘Centre of the Universe’ and watering-hole of the town’s sporting teams.

As time goes by, the kids become part of everything that goes on in Tarra. They ‘sub’ when the cricketers are a fielder short, train with the footballers, belt tennis balls on the cement courts – and, in the case of Toni, occasionally fill in with the Netball team………….

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Toni is just 12 when one of the tiny town’s netball stars, Mavis Farmer, asks, after one of those fill-in games for the Bulldogs, whether she’ll be able to play every week.

“But wouldn’t that be against the rules. Don’t you have to be over-14 ?” she asks. “Don’t worry about that,” was the reply. “I’ll have a yarn to your mother.”IMG_3189

So begins the sporting career of Toni Wilson……………….

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Sixty years later, we’re chatting in the Wilson’s gazebo, a couple of decent ‘Waldo’ torpedoes away from the ‘Plough’. Sprinklers chit-chit-chit away behind us…..Boof, the 15 year-old family dog stretches out beside Toni……………..

She loved all sports, she says, but particularly Netball.

After leaving home to study politics and economics at Monash, she was ‘roped’ in to play with rivals, Melbourne University Blues. Someone had enterprisingly got hold of an ID and registered her under an assumed name.

A netball icon, Lorna McConchie – the coach of Australia’s first-ever touring team – was in charge, and Toni made her mark, playing Defence, learning plenty, and fitting into a strong side.

When she met VFA footballer, and school-teacher Chas Wilson, they moved to Mildura…….and she kept playing.

Maureen Weightman, matriarch of a famous sporting clan, immediately recruited her to Swallows, the netball team closely linked to Imperials Footy Club, with whom Chas had thrown in his lot.

Theirs was a mid-week competition, and Swallows, who were all-powerful, won a string of premierships. By now, she also had three youngsters in tow, but Chas kept an eye on them, to allow her to keep playing.

“The boys were pretty active at this stage. Chas used to take them down to the football club’s Sunday morning barrels, and they loved knocking around with the kids of the other footy dads,” she recalls.

“That’s where ‘Wal’ got his nickname. He’d always be wrestling, and family friend Dale Weightman nicknamed him “Waldo von Erich”, after one of the star performers in ‘Ringside with the Wrestlers’.”

When the family decided to settle back in Tarrawingee, Toni took over as playing-coach of the Netball team. Greta was the dominant side of the era, and the ‘Dogs were just unable to bridge the gap, finishing runners-up in three successive years.

Mick and Joe were already playing with the Rovers, and when Andrew (Wal) also made the move from Tarra in 1989, Toni decided it was time to start following them.

And, like any mum, she rode the fortunes of her boys, who were stars in a Golden Era for the Wangaratta Rovers.

Chas joked about the day Mick took a mark deep in defence, copped a knock from his opponent, and then tried to stage for a free-kick.

“He was lying there, and Toni jumped the fence and ran onto the ground. She was a typical Mum ; she tried to see the whole game, but inevitably she saw her own first.”

Toni reckons that’s not quite right. On that occasion, she says, she feared Mick had been seriously injured.

Mick and Joe were part of ‘Burt’s Babes’, who stormed to the 1988 flag. ‘Waldo’ shared the glory of the ‘91, ‘93 and ‘94 premierships with them. Also, in a first for the O & M, they played in an inter-league match together, against the Riddell League.

Following brilliant careers, the boys were all rewarded with membership of the club’s Hall of Fame.IMG_3196

After one of those flag triumphs in the nineties, someone hung a poster on the front fence at the Findlay Oval : ‘Thank God for Edna Daniher……and Toni Wilson….’IMG_3197

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She and Chas were enjoying a great ride, and had become deeply involved in the Club.

But when the Ovens and Murray Board took the initial steps to inaugurate a Netball competition, Toni was invited to share in the discussions.

“It had surprised me actually, that, although netball was a really vital part of the culture in minor-leagues, the Ovens and Murray hadn’t already given thought to introducing it,” she says

She had seen what a contribution the O & K Netball Association, which had officially kicked off nearly forty years earlier, had made towards enhancing the community aspect of the Ovens and King League.

“Sandy Thomas was the secretary of the O & M at the time, and was a major instigator in getting the concept up and running. And Janelle Hartwig, who had come to the Rovers from Greta, became the first Netball secretary. Janelle did a lot of work in the initial stages.”

“Some of the clubs were fairly lukewarm. In fact, it was the non-Border clubs who really pushed for a Netball competition.”

“We impressed upon the Board that footy needed to add another dimension, to make the League more family-oriented. Introducing Netball was a perfect way of doing it.”

“Families would embrace it. Wives, girlfriends and sisters could play netball at the same grounds as the football team was playing. It would become a real family day.”

So the Ovens and Murray, in 1993, became the first Major League to implement Netball. The stipulation was made that all 10 clubs must have A and B-Grade teams, and that, within three years, they have netball courts within the confines of their grounds.

Besides becoming the inaugural O.M.N.A President, Toni took on the role as coach of the Rovers’ A and B-Grade sides.

The A-Grade team went through the 1993 season undefeated, then outpointed North Albury in both the Second-Semi and Grand Final.IMG_3194

 

 

They lost just three matches in ‘94 and again got the better of North in the ‘big one’, winning 47-45 in a tight affair.

The B-Graders also had a good line-up, and finished Third and runners-up in the first two years.

“To be quite honest, a drover’s dog could have coached the group of girls we had,” Toni says.IMG_3192

“We were pretty lucky to have some really good players who were sisters or girlfriends of Rovers players, or came from traditional Rovers families. And they all just jelled together perfectly.”

Toni coached the A-Grade team for a total of eight seasons, spanning 1993-2004. Her five years in charge of the B-Graders was highlighted by their first premiership, in 1999.

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The Wilsons are a unique combination. Their lives have been heavily intertwined in sport, and they have a better ‘feel’ for it than most.

In the early nineties, the first maths project Chas would give the kids at West End Primary of a winter’s Monday morning, was the task of doing up the O & M netball ladders for Toni.

When she was coaching, Toni would see less than a half a game of footy, and would have to rely on Chas to provide the post-mortem of the game, including a ‘critique’ of the three boys’ performances.

Both served lengthy stints on the Rovers Board. Toni was co-opted in 2000, at a period when the Hawks were still clawing back from a near-crippling debt, and financial prudence was the order of the day.

She took a step back from the Board in 2008, after nine years. She had earlier handed over the responsibilities of Rovers Netball to the younger breed.

Additionally, after 12 years as OMNA President, she felt it was time to retire . “It’s important to know when to move on and let someone with fresh ideas take over,” she said.

Toni’s marathon spell in the game had seen her rewarded with Life Memberships of Tarrawingee, the Ovens and King League, the Wangaratta Rovers and the Ovens and Murray League.

She became involved in her new pastimes – Golf, the garden – and keeping tabs on the six grandkids.

They’re already making their mark in sport, so there are exciting times ahead.

Toni follows the Hawk closely, and still helps out at a few catering events or Club functions.

Like the one that’s on tonight. But she’ll be a Guest of Honour at that.

You might have heard ; she’s being inducted to the Wangaratta Rovers Hall of Fame……………..IMG_3198

 

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