In the skyline with the full backs
As the last line of defence for the team, the full back has to have a solid foundation, like a building designed to stand for hundreds of years. There have been so many grounded full backs over the years, but who are those standing tallest, and what sort of structure might they be.
St Kilda’s Verdun Howell wrote the chapter on full backs called ‘Those dogged shadows’ in High mark second edition edited by Jack Pollard (Sydney: Murray Publishing Company, 1967):
‘Make an absolute fetish of getting that ball. Play shoulder to shoulder with your man if need be, but don’t allow yourself to be side tracked by his vigour. Get that ball, get that ball … and you will frustrate even the most aggressive and talented rivals. If you make a mistake recover smartly. Don’t let it rattle you, because until the ball passes through the posts there is still time to check, bustle or spoil with a punch at the ball. There are two basic types of full backs, those who seek to outmark or outpace the opposing full forwards and beat them with sheer ability and those who resort to irritation tactics. If you are not a reliable mark you should not be a full back. The full back can never afford to relax his concentration for a moment, doggedly shadowing his man and incessantly keen to contest possession. Experience will teach that calmness is the key requirement up close to the posts. Even to touch that ball as it sails toward the posts can sae five points so don’t give up hope until it’s over the line. The full back is the last obstacle between the attacking side and a goal. Through his diligence and craftsmanship he can thwart even the most brilliant forwards. The full back should be the last man in a side to drop his bundle, the most eager to lift team mates by determinedly shouldering aside an attacker, the keenest to soar up for the mark that has made this game.’
Verdun Howell was the right person to pen the piece on full backs in High mark, but its cover features the classic image of another St Kilda full back wearing number 6, Bob Murray, whose mark against Collingwood in the 1966 semi-final is the stuff of legend. Bob Murray was brilliant and fair in all senses of the word, and is a Beacon of goodness that everyone can aspire to.
For South Australians the classic image of the full back is North Adelaide’s Ian McKay soaring over Norwood’s Pat Hall in the 1952 grand final. This mark is indelibly printed in our mind, like Colonel Light’s Vision immovably pointing down to the scene at Adelaide Oval. Bernard Whimpress in The Footy Almanac nominated this image as South Australia’s greatest sporting photograph, and his story gives an amazing insight into the taking of the image. Adding to the occasion, McKay was wearing number 1 as if to say look at me look at me. He was the first player to win a Magarey Medal at full back, was captain of the Roosters in their 1949 and 1952 premierships, and captained South Australia twice. Ian McKay wasn’t just a taker of speccies, he could nullify, as John Coleman found out in their interstate clashes.
Staying in North Adelaide, the squarely built Bob Hammond was safe as houses for the Roosters and would be one of those substantial Bluestone Mansions that grace that leafy suburb. He went on to be a much respected administrator at the Adelaide Crows. Ben Rutten played with authority for the Adelaide Crows for many years. He wasn’t called the Truck for nothing, but as well as having all the physical qualities a full back needs, he had decency and grace under fire, so he would be a Fire Station. He also scored goals with his first three kicks in the AFL, and a goal with his last kick, which shows the sort of skills and qualities that he developed at that terrific teaching club, West Adelaide.
Sturt in the 1960s had Bruce Jarrett at full back—not the sort of talent and skill that abounded up the ground, but safe and solid, and the full forwards no doubt had a few bruises at the end of their day against those hard hips and niggling elbows, like running into the Tram Barn. A later occupant of the position was the quietly competent Colin Casey, more like the Unley Town Hall. I remember at Unley Oval training one night there was a bit of a game going on, and Col had followed the play up the ground, prompting Jack Oatey to call out, ‘Guard your goals, Casey’. That’s how it was in the days of position play. Bruce Winter was born in Papua New Guinea (like Brisbane’s full back Mal Michael who was a touch exotic like the Taj Mahal) and became a classic all round full back at Sturt, and then went on to more honours as player and coach at Norwood—cue the Norwood Town Hall.
Of the other SANFL teams, I remember Port Adelaide’s Ron Elleway was a bit scary like some of the old rides at the Adventure Park at Monash where he was born. There was nothing scary about Dave Darcy at South Adelaide who had the charm of the Elder Park Rotunda. I’m struggling to recall some of the other standout full backs in the SANFL—no doubt Footy Almanac readers will remind me.
The 1967 grand final between Richmond and Geelong was the first I watched in the VFL, and I was full of admiration for the curly locked Barry Richardson, whose old fashioned grace echoed the classic Royal Arcade. The Tiger full back seemed slightly ungainly but what a mark and you just knew he would always do the right thing.
I loved Geoff Southby. As a player he was earnest, honest, absolutely capable, and everyone admired his gentlemanly play, except that day’s opposition supporters. What a class act. He was brave and bold, the embodiment of the Statue of my favourite maritime explorer of the South, Matthew Flinders. We are also grateful for Geoff’s netballing daughter Eloise. Geoff Southby was named in Carlton’s team of the century, but not at full back, because along came Stephen Silvagni, the AFL full back of the century. SOS seemed to play the position in a new way with unorthodox abandon, arms and legs all over the place, sustaining lots of injuries but overcoming them. Positively gymnastic and so artistic, he brings to mind the graceful arches of La Scala, appropriate for his Italian heritage.
A good judge like Dick Reynolds reckoned Collingwood’s Jack Regan was the best full back he ever saw, known as the Prince of full backs, partly because he was such a terrific bloke. A great mark and a fabulous long kicker-in, he was also a lay preacher, so is my Cathedral Spire.
Kevin Murray’s career spanned from 1955 to 1974. Only five foot ten, he attributed his fitness to his work as a scaffolder, developing strength from hauling himself up to the next level. The Bulldog joked that he was the only scaffolder to have an MBE, adding to the captaincy of Fitzroy, and a Brownlow Medal. Kevin was beloved of all footy watchers and not fussed about taking his false teeth out for convenience. He would be the Grandstand at Flemington Racecourse. Gary Pert’s strong build and allround skills at Fitzroy saw him in the state team as an 18 year old, but we’ve realised that he was so much more than a footballer since becoming OIC at Collingwood. He is a smooth operator putting me in mind of the Arts Centre Tower.
Dustin Fletcher’s statistics all seem to involve the number 4 and are still clear in the mind. He retired at the age of 42, played 400 games for Essendon and garnered 4,543 kicks, many of which were his trademark booming torpedo punts. Inspector Gadget must have been a nightmare for opposition full forwards, as you knew he wouldn’t give you an inch. What a player. He stood tall like the Eureka Skydeck on the Melbourne skyline. David Dench was the backbone of North Melbourne’s team and had a devoted set of Kangaroos fans, along with another strongman sometime full back Michael Martyn, and they would have to be parts of the local Gasometer which was removed in the 1970s, but the Gasometer Hotel remains.
Danny Frawley was a whole hearted and excellent full back, and the longest serving captain at St Kilda to his great credit. Spud wore his heart on his sleeve as a player, but I have to say his antics in the media do nothing for me. He seems like a fun-loving guy, putting me in mind of St Kilda’s Luna Park. His nephew James left Melbourne to become a brown and gold Chip off the old Spud, doing well at full back in the 2015 finals series and keeping Josh Kennedy goalless in the grand final. As a big solid Ballarat lad he brings to mind one of those goldmining Towers.
You can’t think of the great Hawthorn teams of the 1970s to the 1990s without thinking of their full backs. Kelvin Moore played in three premierships and 13 state games and was Hawthorn’s full back of the century, cool and calculating, but specialising in dashing bounces out of defence. Hailing from Frankston, he was the ‘ever reliable’ like a Lighthouse protecting the gorgeous Mornington Peninsula. Following Kel was someone who took cool to a new level, Chris Langford. He was impervious to the machinations of the forwards bustling around him, like the Flinders Street Station Clocks ticking over mercilessly above the hordes below. But wait there’s more. Gary Ayres was a five time premiership player and the first player to win two Norm Smith Medals. Totally fearless, he was described by Allan Jeans as ‘a good driver in heavy traffic’ so he would be an impressive set of Traffic Lights.
Matthew Scarlett was an ornery full back for Geelong, hated anyone getting a kick on him, and glowered at opponents and umpires alike, and occasionally at team mates. He’d be a Tattoo Parlour, and don’t you just love that juxtaposition of words! Almost the exact opposite in disposition was another sensational Geelong defender, Tom Harley, who radiated thoughtfulness, inspiring trust like a State Library. We are blessed with our state libraries in this country, which are popular meeting places and research centres blending old and new buildings. The sad exception is Hobart which badly needs a new building of the status of its new museum and its drawcard MONA. The State Library of South Australia’s two heritage buildings flank an inspiring glass fronted main library building designed by the team responsible for Canberra’s new Parliament House. The North Terrace venues are much in demand for special occasion events, with a wedding reception every week in the spectacular Mortlock chamber.
Talking of spectacular things, Leo Barry secured Sydney’s victory in that classic 2005 grand final against the West Coast Eagles. His curving leap of faith across, rather than over, the pack echoes the iconic curve of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Fortunately for his coach, Leaping Leo was rather less high maintenance than the Bridge. Ted Richards was an unlikely full back for the Swannies, being so lightly built, but he nullified many full bodied forwards through his great reading of the play and smart decisions. He is now in the banking industry, so our finances are in good hands, and bring to mind the imposing head offices of the Commonwealth Bank. The latest of the Sydney defensive stars is Aliir Aliir, who seems to play the game in a whole new fresh way, and not just because of his Sudanese heritage. He is as lyrical as the Sydney Opera House and I look forward to watching him next year.
The current All Australian full back epitomises everything you could hope for in the position, and with Hollywood glamour to boot. How can there be so much perfection in one player? In my final structural analogy Richmond’s Alex Rance would be a Stairway to Heaven.
It must be a nightmare for the full forwards to come up against the immovable objects that are the typical full backs. It’s a fun exercise to think who you would like to see playing at full back, and what sort of structure they would be in the team you would want to watch in a built-up heaven.