‘Cattle, sheep and sport…a veteran’s lifetime obsession…’ by KB Hill

 

 

I’m in my customary match-day spot………. on the Gate at the footy, flogging raffle tickets, when a cheery, well-preserved old fellah succumbs to my wiles and throws me a few bob……

“Anything to help a struggling club,” he jokes.

He’s going on 85….. and a champ of my playing era…….. I still hark back to the day he helped break our hearts, just when we thought we had a premiership in the bag……

Graeme Ward is proof of the intangible rewards that can be elicited from playing sport…….His occupation led him to various destinations throughout country Victoria and Southern Riverina, during which time he cultivated the myriad of friendships he still shares.

His is the tale of a kid, brought up in leafy East St. Kilda, who carved out a fine footy career, and has spent almost seven decades in the livestock industry……..

 

Graeme Ward’s ‘second home’ for 68-odd years has been the Saleyards of the region.

 

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His dad Bill played a handful of games for St. Kilda, and later represented Australia in Discus and Shot Put events at the Sydney Empire Games:

“He was a big fellah, about 6’1”, and a real sports fanatic,” Graeme recalls.

“Like so many of his generation the War put paid to his active involvement in sport…..He was among the 14,000 troops assigned to the Middle East and served as a Dentist to the Armed Forces……. became one of the Rats of Tobruk.”

“I remember, not long after he got home, he took me to a Melbourne Harriers meeting…..I’d have been roughly 5 or 6, I reckon….Dad had formed a connection with a bloke who brought out two Jamaican runners to compete at the Junction Oval….”

“Gee they stood out….I was mesmerised by their litheness and grace……That stirred my interest in watching top athletes, which I’ve maintained to this day…..”

 

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Graeme was doing his Intermediate Certificate at sporty, prestigious Caulfield Grammar when he expressed his desire to pursue a career in the rural domain:

The Headmaster, Rev. Stanley Kurrle said: ‘Look, my parents run a farm up near Bendigo, and are Goldsborough-Mort clients…….They’re a really good company…..I’ll see if I can get you an interview with them….”

“And that was that…..I started at Head Office in Melbourne and stayed with them until I branched out to do other things more than 20 years later. “

His initial move with G-M was to Camperdown…..He was just 17 when he played his first – and only – senior Hampden League game:

“I’d been playing kid’s footy with Power House in Melbourne, but picked up a few kicks in Camperdown’s last practice match….They must have thought : ‘this kid looks alright’…..But I only touched the ball 3 or 4 times and got barrelled unceremoniously….”

“I could’ve played again, but the Thirds were going well, and that’s where I wanted to be…….I wasn’t mature enough, or ready, for the Seniors… ..It was terrific playing against emerging stars like Stewart and Alistair Lord, John Rantall, and others in the lower grades…”

“So my next move was from cold old Camperdown to a lovely place on the Murray River…..It’s called Albury!…….The person who picked me up off the train was Leon Paine……a great bloke, and a great kick of the footy…… He became a really good team-mate at Albury.”

Graeme soon became a crucial part of the Tigers’ big-man contingent, and was probably a little unfortunate to miss out on playing in a Grand Final in his first season – 1958.

Heavy rain had drenched the Prelim Final venue, the Wangaratta Showgrounds…… Albury held a seven-point lead at three-quarter time, but were unable to hold off a persistent Wodonga, who snuck home in the dying minutes, to win by 4 points.

The following year – his last with the Tigers – also brought down the curtain on the successful Jack Jones-era.

“He was a premiership coach and an inspirational player…..but also, you wouldn’t meet a better bloke. Just to illustrate this, Jack was approached to coach Kergunyah after resigning from the Albury job….”

“They offered him £35 a week……Jack said: ‘That’s too much…..make it £25.’….”

 

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During the year Graeme had graduated from his role as a Sales Clerk to being given a Vehicle and servicing rural clients around the southern Riverina.

Goldsborough-Mort opened a new branch at Corowa in the meantime, and he was sent there to assist the Manager, Kevin Hines.

He was a great pick-up for the battling Spiders, who, under the guidance of new coach Frank Tuck, began to show signs of improvement.

“ ‘Tucky’ had knee problems but was still a fine player, and with the likes of Jimmy Sandral, Adrian Chisnall, Kevin Witherden and Bobby Ronnfeldt, we were able to sneak into the Finals in my second year….”

“Then I was off to Bendigo, and lined up with Golden Square…….It was so much fun that year…

…..they loved singing and they’d celebrate at the drop of a hat….”

Golden Square, coached by ex-South Melbourne star John Ledwidge, met Rochester in the Grand Final and went down by 3 points…….The ruck battle between Ward and Rochester star Ray Willett was one of the highlights of a thrilling encounter.

Graeme took out ‘Square’s’ B & F and, during the season, helped the Bendigo League to a 28-point win over Wimmera in the Country Championship Final, in front of a partisan crowd of 14,000 at Horsham. He and Willett shared the ruckwork, and, along with Peter Lyon and captain Greg Sewell, were Bendigo’s stars……

His next transfer took him to Myrtleford, as Manager of Elders-GM …….

“I loved the place…… it got me going, as far as business was concerned…….In this little town of 3,000 people, everyone knows everyone……It’s so multi-national…..We ( wife Linda and their daughters, Terri, Angela and Jacqui ) made a lot of friends, and it still feels like home whenever we go back……”

“Ron Branton, who’d finished equal runner-up in the Brownlow Medal the previous season whilst captain of Richmond, was the new coach of Myrtleford when I got there in 1963.”

“At the time, Mick Grambeau, who got £70 a week to coach Ganmain, was country footy’s most expensive coach…..They paid Branton £65 a week……I sat next to him at the half-time break in his first game (against the Rovers at Wangaratta)…”

“It was a hot day and he’d put himself in the centre……He was flabbergasted how hard and tough the footy was…..He said: ‘Geez, it’s a lot better than I expected’…..He never played himself in the centre again, in the three years he was with us….”

“Then Martin Cross took over…..everyone loved ‘Crossy’; he was fantastic…..good for footy….good for Myrtleford…”

 

 

 

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Myrtleford’s O & M reps – Graeme Ward, Bruce Waite and Martin Cross
with Club Official Ken Johnston.

 

In his eight years with Myrtleford Graeme played in five Preliminary Finals. The Saints were, typically, a physically strong line-up and played a robust style of footy.

He won their Best & Fairest in 1965 and ‘68 and was regarded as one of the League’s premier ruckmen. With a surfeit of big fellahs like Deric Taylor, Pat Quirk and Bruce Waite at their disposal he was often swung into a key position…… He was the answer to a coach’s prayer…..

He wore the O & M guernsey on six occasions; the last of them in a Country Championship semi-final against Hampden League, at Warrnambool.

“It was a windy, rainy day and we never got into the game…….Not a cherished memory at all…..But I loved testing myself in those games….”

 

 

After being on the periphery of premiership glory for several years Myrtleford’s moment in the sun arrived in 1970…….

In the lead-up to the finals they were probably rank outsiders…..Wodonga had gone through the season unbeaten, and the Rovers had lost just four games, but the dominoes seemed to fall the Saints’ way.

Firstly, Wodonga suffered a shock loss to the Hawks in the second semi after Myrtleford had comfortably accounted for Wangaratta in the first semi……

“It was funny how it all worked,” Graeme says.

“I’d copped a rib injury at Benalla, which came good in time to enable me to play against Wodonga in the Preliminary Final, which we won by a point……I recall Gary Williamson swooping on the ball with seconds to go, swinging onto his left boot……and just missing a goal…….We were in the Grand Final against the Rovers….”

“ Red, White and Black streamers were the dominant theme in the crowd that day……Because we were the underdogs – and chasing our first flag – the neutral observers were all on our side….”

“It was the greatest thing……We were 17 points down and had struggled to keep pace with the Rovers for three quarters…..’Crossy’ brought on little Johnny Bianco …..It was a master-stroke; he was fresh as a daisy, darting around the packs…. And Bruce Waite, Alan Heberle and John Pelos also became dominant players.”

In another shrewd positional move Graeme had been shifted to centre half forward….

The match report described the last term revival: “Ward, with a brilliant drop-kick goal, set up victory for the Saints…..The air was electric, as the Myrtleford crowd roared encouragement; every score was cheered to the echo.”

“At the 20-minute mark Ward notched another great goal to put the game beyond the reach of the Hawks….As the siren sounded, hundreds of jubilant Saint supporters raced onto the ground to do their heroes proud…..They’d got up by 17 points.”

 

Myrtleford’s one and only premiership team – 1970. Graeme Ward is seated, on the far left.

 

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Graeme had another shift in employment, to Narrandera, in 1971; the final stanza in his travelled footy career.

He timed the move superbly, as the South-West League club, under the coaching of former Morris Medallist Jeff Hemphill, scooted to the ‘72 flag.

And his form certainly hadn’t wavered; he took out the Best & Fairest award in both of the years he spent there, after which he decided to hang up the boots – he’d played 308 club games with 6 clubs.

“I was pretty busy, travelling all over the place – Victoria, NSW and Queensland – buying sheep and cattle…….and besides, I was getting on a bit…..”

 

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When Graeme and his family moved from Narrandera, back to Albury in 1973 he was offered a job with Aust-Iran, a joint-venture company between the Shah of Iran and the National Bank of Australasia.

It kick-started a career as a livestock-buyer, which he still pursues…..

“We pioneered live shipping of sheep in the Eastern states……We’d go all over the place buying as many sheep as we could find…..and whatever they could handle.”

“In those days we’d buy loads of sheep for $3 a head……From there it went on and on…..In the finish the price was $40-$50 a head……But it’s dead in the water now, because there are no numbers…”

He was at a Sale at Adelong one day, when he was head-hunted by a company who wanted him to buy Cattle for them.

“They explained that it was a bit difficult for them to travel to Sales in outlying areas…….So I took over, and I’ve been doing it ever since…..We buy at Wagga, in the paddock, and at all the Sales around here….”

 

 

“I also buy bullocks for a guy called Dave McConnachie, who has a feed-lot in Tatong……We buy these big Steers ( around 600kg ). He’ll feed ‘em for 50 days or so….It changes the meat-colour and finishes them off really well…..They get killed in Melbourne and shipped off to America….”

“I’m also involved with a business run by a family in Naracoorte, South Australia, buying cattle to go into a feed-lot……Been doing that for nearly thirty years….”

 

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Graeme remains as fervent about sport as ever ……..

He’d played regular North-East Cup and Melbourne Country Week cricket with Ovens & King.C.A whilst based in Myrtleford, and later played Country Week tennis for many years ( “My regular routine nowadays is to play four sets of tennis at Wodonga, have a bit of yap and a few drinks with the boys, then head home “).

He and Linda have combined travel with regular trips to sporting events; in particular, the Olympics.

“I was only a wide-eyed kid when I caught some of the action at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.”

“Since then we’ve been to the Los Angeles, Barcelona and Atlanta Games……We’re saving up to go to Los Angeles again in 2028…..It’s marvellous, the people you meet with the same interests…..watching the best of the best……You can’t beat it…”

“You have to have some vices in life, I suppose….” quips the self-confessed, broken-down old hack……..

 

Myrtleford’s 1970 Premiership team renew acquaintances a few years ago:
From left: Graeme Ward, Noel Holmes, Alan Heberle, Pat Quirk, ‘Dinny’ Piazza and Alan Crisp.

 

 

This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission.
All photos sourced from KB Hill’s resources unless otherwise acknowledged.

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