When the North Adelaide Roosters were kings

1972 Champions of Australia final (from left): Bohdan Jaworskyj Geoff Paull, Alan Howard, Trevor Keogh, Bob Hammond

Darryl Webb is a business manager with Regional Development Australia these days. His office is on the Adelaide road at Murray Bridge so when a semi-trailer thunders past outside, the walls gently vibrate. He is in his sixties and the mop of curly blond hair from his playing days is now sandy and trimmed.

Forty years ago he launched one of the best-worst kicks ever seen on Adelaide Oval. It made Barrie Robran curse under his breath, thousands of fans scream in horror and excitement and confirm that in 1972 North Adelaide had the bragging rights over any side in the country.

“I marked on the wing,” he remembers “and was going to kick a big, long screwie toward full forward of course. Now sometimes my kicks are great sometimes not so great and this one went off the side of the boot out on the full. I thought no I have turned it over and then the siren went and it was such relief quite frankly.”

But this story is getting ahead of itself.

In the late 1960s North Adelaide were a good side but like everyone else in the SANFL at the time couldn’t get past Port Adelaide or Sturt. Port played ugly winning football while Sturt played beautiful winning football. The other eight sides played on Saturdays.

Geof Motley was in charge of the Roosters and saw some good kids arriving at Prospect Oval. The greatest was Robran who came from Whyalla where he had honed his natural skills with hours of practice. Like Bradman in Bowral hitting the golf ball with a stump against the rainwater tank, Robran tossed the footy onto the roof of the family home in the steel city and as it rolled off would leap up the drain pipe and snag it mid air. He was comfortable on both sides of his body and developed a long left foot kick. What wasn’t taught was the balance and poise that allowed him to play the game in his own orbit.

When he came to Adelaide, North recognized the ability and played him at centre half forward. By his own admission Robran didn’t find the position easy but applied himself. That first year he shared the best and fairest award with his idol Don Lindner. He won the next six on his own as he played wherever the side needed him from ruck to rover. “Only position he couldn’t play was 19th man,” said West Adelaide’s Doug Thomas.

There was also a clutch of teenagers from a club on the outskirts of Adelaide at Gepps Cross who had grown up playing footy with the smell of the stockyards and abattoirs in their nostrils. Dennis Sachse was a bear who filled the goal square and kicked a ton in a season. His brother Neil was a cat like jack-of-all-trades who was prepared to hurt someone if it meant having a touch. Darryl Webb’s plan for footy was: see ball get ball.

There was also Garry Sporn leading the rucks, Bohdan Jaworskyj across half back, a wiry wingman Barry Stringer and Bob Hammond who had size, strength and smarts in the defensive goal square.

They were all there in 1970 when the committee appointed Mike Patterson as coach. The Swamp Fox had won a couple of flags with Richmond and brought their plan which he believed would match the ball control of Sturt and the intensity of Port Adelaide.

Robran describes Patto as a “fairly ruthless player” who set an example for all of them. Ultimately, he says, he was such a good leader of men that they would have done anything for him.

In the first half of the 1971 grand final they destroyed Port Adelaide. The Magpies had just three points on the board at half time as they trudged in. Their full forward Eric “Fritz” Freeman had his face buried in a towel. He had collided with Patterson in a marking contest moments before the siren. Port coach Fos Williams demanded Freeman follow the Magpie creed and ignore the injury. Then the trainers pulled the towel away to reveal what remained of his lower jaw and the coach turned to the 19th man and told him to get ready.

The Roosters repeated the dose in 1972 with an even greater humiliation of the Magpies, winning by 56 points. Patterson had retired as a player and the club has recruited the gargantuan Jack Spry from Claremont to fill the breach. Dennis Sachse kicked six.

After the grand final, North took part in the Champions of Australia series. This competition had first been played at the turn of the century with the idea of pitting the best clubs from the football states. South Australian teams had done remarkably well over a decade with Norwood, West Adelaide and Port Adelaide sharing the spoils with Essendon and South Melbourne.

When the series was revived in 1968 the Victorians were far too strong. The Sturt machine that befuddled all sides in the SANFL was walloped by Carlton and Richmond. Hawthorn took care of North Adelaide in 1971.

The 1972 tournament began on the Saturday. North Adelaide took care of Tasmanian Premiers City-South and Carlton beat East Perth but not before the Royals Captain-coach Mal Brown turned the match into his own episode of TV ringside. It’s become a favourite of footy violence montages over the years – Brown like a villain in a western bar slowly being backed into a corner by the opposition and so decides to come out blazing. Bruce Doull, Percy Jones, Ian Robertson all get a whack and then Trevor Keogh gets a mighty smack in the chops.

Forty years later Geoff Southby gets the giggles at the memory. “He didn’t break his jaw but I remember poor old Trevor reeling back as one of his teeth flew out.”

The organizers hastily put together a tribunal sitting after the match where Brown put in some of his best work, splashing cold water on his face and trembling to the judiciary that he was concussed and in shock. He got off. Richmond got in contact with him.

The next day the black and blues faced North Adelaide. It was a miserable afternoon with a blustering southerly and showers. Carlton couldn’t get into high gear but still held a five point lead at the final break kicking home with the wind. Jaworskyj remembers it was one of those days where you struggled to get possession and when you did you just tried to slam the ball forward 20 or 30 yards to the next contest. Win the ball and get it on to your mate like Patto drummed into them. The Roosters had players like Neil Sachse, Jaworskyj, Arch Wilkey and Webb who could do that.

While the others grafted in the mucky conditions, Robran glided across the surface. There are only a few seconds of film that survive but they show him sure handed and elusive. It is said that after one sublime moment Alex Jesaulenko applauded Robran.

Both sides managed only one goal in the last quarter as the needle clicked into what would be a small amount of time on. Rover Adrian Rebbeck found the ball in the forward pocket, handballed to Webb who shunted through a goal that gave the home side a one point lead.

“Oh what a boil over this is?” cried Mike Williamson to the TV audience as the ball was returned to the centre and came loose. Webb took a strong mark on the wing and was collected by Doull. He straightened himself up and looked for Sachse at full forward. The heavy ball corkscrewed off his boot out on the full. Robran cursed. Webb thought he had blown it. The ball didn’t get back to the Carlton defender before the siren went. No Victorian had ever coached an SANFL side to a flag before Patterson did at North Adelaide and now he had beaten Carlton too.

The Roosters collected $10,000 and title of “Champions of Australia” and they didn’t celebrate alone. The entire SANFL shared their moment as a high water mark for the league. At Prospect the match has become a revered moment. Tony Bowering who is the man who wears the mascot “Rocket Rooster” suit at home games has a son who is an artist. His painting of the game is a glossy Technicolor with the bright red of the north jumpers against Carlton’s navy blue. Players tangle in front of a capacity crowd on the canvas. A scene of the impossible becoming real.

Unknown at the time was that the match signaled the final point of this brief brilliant era. In 1973 the Roosters lost a heart-breaking grand final to Glenelg and then key players were injured, transferred or retired. Robran’s knee was smashed in a collision with Leigh Matthews during a state game in 1974 and he limped out the remainder of his career. Patterson finished up after the 1977 season with the club eighth. The last Champions of Australia series was played after the 1976 season with the VFL clubs never being challenged again. The series was replaced by various night competitions until the national league arrived.

This year the surviving members of the North Adelaide side will remember when they were the best club in the country. It will be a popular reunion.

About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a journo working for the ABC in SA. His scribblings include "1964", "Fos Wiliams on Football" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

Comments

  1. Great memories Mick but even at the time I thought it was hard to take any title seriously…an end of season trip and precursor of the London matches!

  2. Barry Nicholls says:

    Terrific Piece MS well done. Brings back some memories of the earliest days at the footy.

  3. I got shivers reading this Michael. Many thanks.
    I was on the concrete steps on the wing by the VY Richardson Gates for the match. I have always thought Robran’s game that day was the best solo performance by a footballer I have ever seen. He truly beat Carlton on his own, with a modest but hardworking team around him.
    I have the clearest mind’s eye picture 40 years later of Robran taking pack marks in front of me with 3 or 4 other big bodies stretching for the same contest. It was like he was pocketing doves in flight.
    Robran was a beautiful footballer before Leigh Matthews destroyed his knee with a late collision.
    SA had a lot of beautiful footballers in that era – Paul Bagshaw, Lindsay Head – but Robran was a complete footballer. Tall, high marking, beautiful hands and good below his knees, and could kick either foot when that was a rarity.
    I was a Torrens supporter but like most hated Port because they were dirty, and Sturt because they were too good. The Bays were long haired lairs.
    So I always had a soft spot for the Roosters, and the tough, laconic Swamp Fox. He was a beauty on the Sunday Sports Shows. Gordon Schwartz and the Advertiser Boys on 7’s World of Sport. Mike Peterson and Max Hall with the News writers on 9. The great Charlie Walsh on the bike races on rollers.
    ‘Bugsy’ Jaworskyj (who could pronounce Bohdan in those days) across half back; Bob Hammond at full back and Geoff Paull in the back pocket (whatever happened to back pockets – they were my faves?) were the core of a great Roosters defence.
    Thanks for bringing back those memories, Mike.

  4. Fair enough Peter.
    I was at those games too and memories are risky at 40 yrs. I reckoned Robran’s 2nd semi was his best…it mattered.

  5. I was also there and recall Robran doing as he wished. Terry Von Bertouch would have been running around with them then as well and Peter Anderson before he went to the Bays I think. They had a pretty good team. It was interesting that when Patterson came to the Roosters he changed their jumper to be a red and white replica of the Big V jumper which was somehow seen as having an intimidation factor in SA. Seemed to work OK for North for a few years. When did they change from the Big V to the vertical stripes?

  6. John Harms says:

    Mike, I have just had a few days in the Barossa and the more I observe the more I reckon Austalia is six or seven nations. Your piece is delighfully South Australian – a terrific read – and I love the internationalist Jezza (born in Salzburg of Russian and Ukrainian parents) applauding the champ from Whyalla.

    Really enjoyable read.

    PS I drove from Tanunda to Mt Barker past all those hills ovals while listening to Cornes and Rowe on 5AA. Now that did feel South Australian.

  7. Richard Naco says:

    Very South Australian indeed.

    I was a devoted follower of said bunch of “long haired lairs”, so the crowning achievement of the ’73 premiership was not just breaking the thirty something year drought nor doing it in the last Grand Final to be played on the glorious Adelaide Oval, but that both were achieved against that mighty behemoth of a club, the Roosters.

    I grudgingly loved Robran, laughed with Dennis Sachse (a veritable man mountain), admired Bob Hammond, and loathed the king hit artist of the SANFL, Neil Sachse (although I would never have wished his eventual fate upon even him). More importantly, they were the only team to defeat Glenelg in 1973, so I was absolutely terrified of the while damn mob as well.

    It’s 27 years since I left SA (Adelaide’s major export to the eastern seaboard being its own sons and daughters in need of any sort of career – especially to Canberra), but try as I did, I could never embrace either the Crows or Power. So my brother, my son and I are now deeply entrenched Geelong people, albeit somewhat incongruously.

    (Luckily, they seem to do a lot of importing of SA’s major export for their playing list!)

  8. Michael Sexton says:

    The question of how seriously Carlton took the match is a good one. My experience of high achieving sportsmen is if you are keeping score then they play to win. Once when I asked Chris McDermott why he didn’t play in a charity match (presuming it was bad knees) he replied that he didn’t know what to do – he couldn’t play just for fun or vaudeville. Every Victorian team won comfortably in the Champions series except in 1972. The North players acknowledge Carlton were a bit sore but Geoff Southby said that 40 years on the result “still hurts” – which is what I would expect.
    If you ever see a copy of the Football Budget from the period look for the advertisement for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Features Mike Patterson in his Roosters jumper holding the bucket and urging the reader to give him a ring to organise your next get together. His phone number is listed. Imagine coming home from the footy and feeling a bit peckish and someone suggests getting take away and so you give Patto a ring to sort things out. Reckon he might have taken the phone off the hook on Saturday nights.

  9. Denis Sachse would have eaten it all for lunch!

  10. bernard whimpress says:

    A lovely piece Mike.

    For anyone who wants to get a wider appreciation of the history of these matches they should read Max Sayer’s book, Champions of Australia (2003) which I edited and published on behalf of the SA branch of the Australian Society for Sports History. It covers the games from 1888 (when Norwood beat South Melbourne in all three games at the Kensington Oval) to 1975, as well as matches between premiers of state leagues, and the National Football League championships of the late 1970s.

    The book was published in a limited edition of 100 and when it sold out we printed another 50 and they too sold out. Santo handled the book at his shop but I don’t know how many are around Melbourne.

  11. Steve Thomas says:

    I was there at the game in 1972. My dad, Billy Thomas,, was Norths runner. I have read the comments about whether Carton was fair dinkum in that game. Make no mistake, They were trying to win. Are Carlton ever happy to lose? give me a break. I remember the sublime Barry Robran in that game. I also remember the Mal Brown fight on the Saturday, but it didn’t seem much different to a lot of other games… The Monday papers were talking about Patto’s strategies to beat John Nicholls, simply, ruck from his left side, as he only tapped with his left hand. As a youngster on the Sunday night after the game, I was on awe of the vics coming out of the rooms at the front of the stands at adelaide oval. No doubt they were bigger and uglier than the black and white sunday vfl replays portrayed! But geez they looked big. About the north v hawthorn game of 1971. That was norths finest hour in my opinion. They were overcome by 14 points I think by a team including Hudson, amongst others. Pretty sure they tried even harder to get Robran after that game, and recruited bugsy jaworsky on the strength of that game alone. Proud to be a roosters supporter!
    And Bernard, I’m keen to get a copy of that book.

  12. Hi Mike,
    Another great article. We were privelaged in 2008 to have Roosters Legend and former SA Captain Michael Redden interview the great Barrie Robran about his career and they did focus on his special feats on that famous day. The late Barry Stringer also spoke of how incredible it was to play alongside Robran, particularly in such big games.
    Barrie Robran is a terrific bloke and a great supporter of Charitable organisations in SA, a true champion on and off the field

  13. Darryl Webb says:

    Thanks Mike,

    A great article and brings back so much of the day. Is a great team!

  14. John Sachse says:

    Mike,

    A great piece.

    To this day I still feel truly privileged to have been at the game. Both grand finals were great wins, but did not compare to this one.

    For me, this was the best game of football I have ever seen. The atmosphere, the timing, can never be repeated. Both sides gave all they had on the day.

    Patto got his players to play at a level, a level sometimes I think well beyond their capability. Something that is a rarity, even in todays game.

    Good to see Daryl Webb’s comment. I would like to see the other players get involved too. They deserve to have their memories immortalised. And to hell with political correctness, North won.

  15. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    I just remember this game and Jezza clapping B Robran . My most vivid memory of Robran as a player are him destroying , Norwood on , 1 leg in 1980 . I spat the dummy that we had lost and later in the night it hit me I had been privileged to see the greatest player ever I have since spoken to , Neil Balme who said he had exactly the same feeling . Ad Uni FC had a roast for Chocka Bloch getting a OBE for his services to football as a organizer of the night my phone rings hello , Malcolm Ashwood speaking
    Ion the other end it is , Barry Robran asking me if it is ok to propose a toast to Chocka after his speech I reply that is fine , Barry a bier chat and I think wow , God just asked me for permission . North a Champion team and , B Robran brilliant footballer and a even better bloke Thanks Mike

  16. Wasn’t around to witness Robran in his glory, but I have often heard of his ability to play “on one leg”… many say he was still the best they’ve seen, whilst playing on a severely injured knee.
    Imagine what he could have achieved if fully fit!

  17. Troy Hancox says:

    superb read!
    never got to see the great man, Barry Robran.
    Only heard the stories, there are that many that it only leads to believe them ALL true.
    Even none Rooster supporters all agree.

    Thanks for sharing your story. After reading, i felt like i was there!

    Thanks Roosters for 3/4 of my mobs Premierships. :)

  18. Peter Schumacher says:

    I found this post and indeed the comments associated with it uplifting, enjoyable and just a great read. Thanks to all!

  19. Was there that day cold & miserable but to see hearl, rebbeck marsh, vonbertouch etc run amok up forward was wonderful, how tough were webb, the sachses david burns. Who did the job on syd jackson, and sporny plummer and of course bob and weeny down back with alan howard. And of course that Robran fella, i loved my roosters. Loved patto loved sticks and stringer across the middle. And rick scubertand rosy barr. Terry collins geoff strang bugsy, rodney and michael langdzins mick eichner the may boys johnny payne. Gee what a club. Keith at canCandelo n. S. W.

  20. Great article. Loved it

  21. Brenton Woolford says:

    Robran dominated football at that time like no other,
    his skill and athleticism set him apart and this was a golden period of North Adelaide history defined by this freak of a footballer and absolute gentleman of the game. In his first season as an 18 year old however I believe he played the season on the wing as I recall, it would be good to have a player from that side clarify this out of interest. That season set him apart as something the like of which people had not seen before and this continued until that fateful day at the SCG when he received the injury that had a major impact on Barrie’s football and life.

  22. Dave Holliday says:

    I was there but what a horrible day weatherwise. I remember Barrie dominating and i remember Jesaulenko applauding him after he sold the pup to about 4-5 players. Patto’s team were the most ferocious and played brilliant uncompromising football. The guernsey was fearsome and should be adopted exactly for todays Roosters. What a shame there is sod all footage of this game……..how could that be? Is a day I will never forget as long as I live. Got to play with one of my two heroes ( Barrie & Big Dennis) at Ingle Farm for a couple of years. Big Den, a very hard player and great bloke.

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