Footy history: Clegg’s Match

By Richard Davis

In 1926, Alec Duncan of Carlton, took 33 marks in a game against Collingwood at Victoria Park. For 25 years, his performance was regarded as the best game of football ever played in the VFL, until a South Melbourne footballer in 1951 played a game which matched it. That player was Ron Clegg and the game became known as ‘Clegg’s Match.’

Ron Clegg, the winner of the Brownlow Medal in 1949, stood 6’2” tall and weighed about 14 stone. An exceptionally high mark, he had great speed and was extremely agile, which enabled him to evade opponents and play on whenever he could. His ability to anticipate what would occur in the play made him a ‘master of the game.’

At the end of the 1950 season he was approached to be captain- coach of New Norfolk

Football Club in Tasmania, on the highest salary ever offered to an Australian Rules footballer. At that time, VFL players were paid a minimal fee of four pounds a game, whereas country clubs and Tasmania, in particular, could offer huge amounts for the services of the best VFL players. At New Norfolk, Clegg was offered twenty-five pounds a game, a house, a job at ten pounds per week, and seven pounds a week for his wife.

 

Unable to gain a clearance after months of conflict, he returned to South Melbourne to play in the final practice match a week before the season began. Fred Goldsmith, whowas there as a young recruit, described Clegg’s reappearance as that of a film star.

Such was his reputation that everybody was in awe of him. With no match practice and little training, he took to the field and demolished the opposition. A natural footballer, lack of match practice and fitness could never stop him from winning the ball.

 

As the season progressed, Clegg’s form progressively improved to the extent that he was playing in the best form of his career, having been named best player on the ground in Rounds 3, 5 and 6.

On June 23 1951, the day of Clegg’s Match, South Melbourne’s opponent was Fitzroy.

South Melbourne was coached by Gordon ‘Whopper’ Lane, a former Essendon ruckman.

Fitzroy’s coach was a young Norm Smith, who went on to become perhaps the greatest coach of all. Fitzroy was 4th on the ladder and South Melbourne 8th.The game was played at Brunswick Street Oval, with Fitzroy strongly favoured to win.

 

The South Melbourne team was young with ‘Whopper’ Lane, Billy Williams, Clegg and youngsters, Jim Taylor, Mick Sibun and Eddie Lane their best players. Fitzroy was represented by many players of great experience like Allan Ruthven, Bill Stephen, Arthur Coates, Bert Clay, Norm Johnstone, Butch Gale, Eddie and Don Hart, and Don Furness.

 

The game was played at high speed. Too fast for Fitzroy in the first quarter, South Melbourne slammed on three goals before Fitzroy scored. It was tough with many scuffles in the first ten minutes of play as Fitzroy tried to unbalance the young South Melbourne side. Clegg was described as being impassable at centre half-back and 19-year old Taylor was winning in the ruck. Clegg’s first opponent was Don Hart, who was high on the goal- kicking ladder. Fitzroy kicked a couple of goals towards the end of the quarter to get back into the game and by quarter time the score was South Melbourne 3-5 to Fitzroy 2-3.

 

In the second quarter, Clegg, at centre-half back, continued to mark everything, constantly blocking Fitzroy and appearing to be everywhere. The South Melbourne forward line was playing desperate football. When Gillett, Schaffer and Eddie Lane each kicked a goal, South Melbourne took a half time lead of 32 points.

Fred Goldsmith was playing with the Seconds on another ground, when he excitedly told his teammates that the radio had reported South Melbourne was winning and Cleggie had taken sixteen marks to half-time.

 

After the half-time break, Fitzroy moved Butch Gale, a strong ruckman, onto Clegg with the aim of ruffling him, but Clegg continued to mark all that came his way. The balls he didn’t mark he usually secured from the ground. Fitzroy hit back with three goals to Eddie Hart and one to Coates. Coach Smith now advised his players to play wide of Clegg, and they hugged the flanks in an attempt to keep the ball away from him. Bert Clay, Clegg’s third opponent, also aimed at roughing him up, but it had no effect. South steadied with two goals but Fitzroy also kicked two, which gave them a winning chance.

 

At three quarter time South Melbourne led by two goals, 11-10 to 9-10. During the three-quarter time break, coach Smith instructed Norm Johnstone to move onto Clegg. He said,

“No! He’s made a dickhead out of four blokes already and he’s not going to get me.”

Such was the dominance of Clegg in the game.

 

A mighty roar from the 18,000 spectators greeted the bounce of the ball for the final term.

Fitzroy closed up the game to restrict South’s speed and it worked. Fitzroy’s Eddie Hart goaled, and the gap narrowed to a mere five points. The ball shuttled back between the two half-back lines, as both sides struggled to gain an advantage. Fitzroy goaled to lead by a point, Billy Williams kicked a point to level the score then ‘Whopper’ Lane goaled for South. With time running out, it seemed that South Melbourne would hang on, but a goal to Gervasoni, and another point, levelled the scores again. The game developed into a desperate struggle as South’s Taylor had a shot but failed to score. This allowed Fitzroy to sweep the ball down to the other end where Don Hart took possession. He was about to shoot for goal when Clegg, after a desperate chase and tackle, caught him holding the ball. The ball trickled free and, with the Fitzroy crowd cheering hysterically, Eddie Hart snapped a goal. However, the umpire had made his decision and the ball had to be brought back to Clegg, who kicked to the outer wing. It remained there for the final seconds of the match and, as the siren sounded to end the game, the two teams were locked on 12-13 each, a just result.

 

Statistically speaking, Clegg took 32 marks, (16 in each half), and had many disposals, which must have totalled above fifty. The exact number is not known because statistics were not collected then as they are today. Breaking down Clegg’s game meant that he took a mark inside every four minutes of the game.

 

The media was full of praise for him. Harold Rumney in The Sun wrote: Ron Clegg gave one of the finest exhibitions of marking and kicking that I’ve seen.” The Age commented, “After half- time Fitzroy tried to bypass Clegg, so great was his dominance of the game.” The Argus reportedRon Clegg was unbeatable at centre half- back.” The South Melbourne Record said: “Not since Alec Duncan dominated a Carlton-Collingwood Game back in the 20s, has such a glorious exhibition been given by any individual and This match will surely go down in history as Clegg’s match.”

 

In a postscript to the game, Fitzroy was defeated by Essendon in the last game of the season to miss the finals by only 2%. They had two draws for the season. South Melbourne finished eighth after being one and a half games out of the final four and two games to go. Unfortunately, Clegg was injured and did not play in the last two games.

Ron Clegg won a number of newspaper and radio awards for being the best player of the season. He finished second in the Brownlow Medal, three votes behind Bernie Smith of Geelong, the team which went on to win the next two premierships.

Clegg retired in 1960 with the following achievements: club record holder with 231 games; the 1949 Brownlow Medallist; a member of the South Melbourne/Sydney Team of the Century, the Hall of Fame and of the VFL/AFL Hall of Fame. He died in 1990 at 62 years of age, having suffered aortic aneurysm in his sleep.

Comments

  1. Great stuff, Richard, I really enjoyed it.
    My father had a great mate in Melbourne, Neil Ferguson, who was a South Melbourne tragic. I remember our first visit from Adelaide to Melbourne in the late 60’s and going to the Lakeside Oval to watch Skilton. I had been going to the SANFL since I was 8, but I had never seen anyone with the two sided skills of Skilton. I just remember being amazed that a man could do what was clearly beyond my SA footy gods.
    I never understood how South and St Kilda (my Melbourne teams) had great stars, but generally dud teams (Barker and Lockett at St Kilda come to mind).
    Your Ron Clegg article reiterates the point. 32 marks and 5O+ possessions – astonishing – and from the names of Stephen, Ruthven and Gale – the Royboys were no mugs.

  2. Daryl Sharpen says:

    Great story, Richard. Fairly sure Ron ‘ Smokey’ Clegg died in Hobart. He certainly lived for a time in later years with his brother Brian who was a well known publican in Hobart. Brian ran the Beltana Hotel in Lindisfarne and finally the Carlyle Hotel in Moonah. The Smokeman could be seen regularly around these pubs as he helped his brother running them; senior boots was most likely his role. I think Smokey lived on site so probably passed away at the Carlyle. Most of the generation were totally unaware who he was and oblivious to his football presence, me included. Someone who knew his back ground told me once of his football achievements which prompted investigation and revelation of his footy status. His name comes up whenever the ‘1945 bloodbath final’ is periodically regurgitated. He was stooped and looked arthritic so it surprises me he was only 60 when he passed away. Seemed a very unassuming almost shy man who never interacted with anyone much.

  3. Rocket Nguyen says:

    Great piece! Wonderfully told – a gripping last quarter!!!

    Smokey Clegg went up to coach North Wagga in 1955. Not sure he achieved much as coach but was brilliant on the park. Lived in the Black Swan Hotel (affectionately known as the Dirty Duck) just at the back of the North Wagga footy ground, McPherson Oval, where a young Wayne Carey struuted his stuff in the early 80s.

    Clegg only lasted one season – he then back to play with South, then coach them in 58-59.

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