Almanac Lunch: Balme in the Barossa





Neil Balme says he enjoys getting around a glass of red which immediately put him on-side with a room full of conviviality at The Clubhouse in Tanunda at the recent Almanac Lunch in the Barossa.


Although mine host Jack Ferrett had the fires crackling, there was a feeling that winter is in its final throe – finals are around the corner, the sun is making more of an effort and the ancient vines are at budburst.


On the drive up, my companion Jeff reflected on Balme’s Norwood years. In those days Jeff worked as a cameraman on Channel Nine’s SANFL coverage. His favourite role was on the sideline where he would spend Saturdays chasing the action at Football Park, the Parade, and every other suburban ground.


‘Plenty of characters in the `80s,’ he reminisced, ‘Blight, Jumbo, Kerls and Balmey.’


In those days, Balme carried a reputation as football’s version of Odin – the Norse god of war and battle. The film of him clocking Geoff Southby in the 1973 VFL Grand Final is still difficult to watch.


‘He took a swing at me once,’ said Jeff too casually. This needed to be unpacked.


It was in 1989 when Channel Nine had negotiated with each club to allow a camera onto the ground during the quarter-time huddle with the agreement it would shoot for 30 seconds and then leave. It was either a chance to bring the viewer closer to the action or a radical intrusion, depending on which side of the lens you were on.


At a Norwood-West Adelaide match, the camera came out to the Bloods’ huddle where coach Kevin Morris muttered under his breath until the focus turned to the Norwood huddle where Balme was at work.


‘The director was in my ear and told me to set up the shot, but that he wouldn’t come to it straight away,’ explained Jeff. ‘Trouble was that Balme thought we were rolling the whole time and he started pointing and telling me the 30 seconds was up and to leave, while the director was telling me to stay ready.’


Eventually, Balme had enough, lurched toward Jeff, and let fly with his lethal left arm.


‘I was a bit younger and quicker in those days and so pulled back in time and he cuffed one of his own players in the ear instead and that caused a kerfuffle that gave me time to exit.’


At lunch, Balme appeared in his Hemingway-in-Cuba look, far from the furious image of old. His reflection was that he played as someone else on the field – needing to impose himself and that Richmond’s do-as-you-are-told philosophy did not include ‘finessin’.


‘No bloody finessin – now finessing is all footy is about.’


As an illustration, he told of a conversation with Francis Bourke (whom he holds in the highest regard) where he explained how kicking to a certain space would make it easier for Balme to mark. After some thought Bourke replied, ‘That is weak as piss – get it yourself.’


If Balme was Odin then the full characteristics of that pagan god included knowledge, poetry and healing. The room heard how Balme’s role at Geelong, Collingwood and Richmond was difficult to define and he confirmed he arrived at work every day with a backpack that didn’t contain anything. What isn’t questioned is that success followed him to each club.


His biographer Anson Cameron suggested he was a calm man in a frenzied workplace. When Jimmy Bartel was in a personal crisis, he told Anson he only remembers Balme asking how he was. Balme said success comes from getting young men to play at the edge but that now it is achieved in a radically different way to his own time.


To end the lunch, Balme signed books and I watched Jeff join the line. When he reached the head of the queue the body language suggested the incident from 1989 was being recounted. At one point Jeff had an imaginary camera on his shoulder and then Balme stood up straighter and his eyes widened. They end with a handshake and as Jeff eased back to his red, he opened the book to show the inscription on the title page.






More from Michael Sexton can be read Here.




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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.


  1. Fabulous summary. Sorry I missed it.

  2. As a Norwood supporter since the ’57 SANFL Grand Final, like Dips says, “Sorry I missed it”. The eighties and ’90 were the Balme years at Norwood, all of which when the SANFL was at its very best.

  3. Daryl Schramm says

    Great story, well told here and on the day. Halfway through the book. Fascinating read. An entertaining afternoon.

  4. Malcolm Rulebook Ashwood says

    Well told Mike – great day glad I caught up with you and Jeff

  5. Thanks Mike. Great to see you and briefly discuss the prospects of Glenelg in the coming weeks! It was an excellent afternoon of storytelling, humour and insight. I suspect NB’s more significant legacy will be off-field and not on given his work within clubs using his highly developed EQ.

  6. John Harms says

    Thanks for this yarn Mike. I should have invited Jeff to the mic. Would have brought the house down. Great to see everyone at lunch. We’ll do it again.

  7. Andy Thurlow says

    It was a terrific lunch. I enjoyed the story (I forget which opposition player told it) where when Mike Green (Balmy’s co-ruckman at Richmond) came to the middle to ruck, the opposition would start heckling. Mike was studying at uni, and so comments like ‘ the next crack you hear, Green will be your ribs caving in’ and ‘you’ll be spending some time at the university hospital next week, Green … but you won’t remember any of it’ (or stuff like that anyway). However when Balmey came in to ruck there was dead silence. They figured he was perpetually angry, dangerous, and they didn’t want ‘to poke the bear’!

  8. Jim Kesselschmidt says

    Great read. Thanks

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