Finding form at the right time by KB Hill

Paul O’Brien played 90 games for Wangaratta Rovers during their ‘Golden Era’ of the seventies. Mid-sized, burly and super-competitive, he was an ideal spare-parts man, who could be thrust into a variety of roles with telling effect.



Some would say he timed it to perfection when he made the move from Greta in 1974, but it was no accident that he was to figure in four premierships in his six years at the Findlay Oval.



O’Brien was a strong personality; the archetypal big-occasion player, who could take a game by the scruff of the neck. In short, he was born to play in finals. One of his best performances came on a warm late-September day in 1978…



The memories come flooding back when we start reminiscing about that Grand Final.



“I know we weren’t expected to win,” Paul says, “Benalla were the form team. But, as with a couple of those other premierships in the seventies, we weren’t necessarily the most talented side. It was a matter of being able to produce it on the day.



“The game had an extra dimension to it for me, because ‘Ab’ (his brother Greg, who had tied for the 1976 Morris Medal during his stint with the Hawks) was lining up in the back pocket for Benalla.



“There was talk of a fair bit of money being thrown around by their backers…and a few of our supporters lining up to accommodate them…”



The Demons started the season in less than emphatic fashion. They’d finished seventh in 1977, but recruited well, and were expected to be among the big improvers.



After four rounds they were lying second-bottom, with just one win. To accentuate the pain, they were reeling from a 79-point belting at the hands of the Rovers.



From that point on, they’d string together fifteen straight wins, including an exciting 13-point victory over North Albury in the second semi-final. Brilliantly led by favourite son Billy Sammon and with players like Martiniello, Hyde, Ellis, Symes and De Fazio at their peak, they were in rare form. They’d been so irresistible that few tipsters dared to go against them.



The Hawks’ finals prospects appeared ‘shot’ when North Albury gave them a ‘touch-up’ in the Qualifying Final. But they recovered strongly, with impressive performances against Albury and the Hoppers in successive weeks, to win their way into their eighth Grand Final in nine years. The stage was set for a classic at the Wangaratta Showgrounds.



Rovers coach Darryl Smith was in his second year at the helm. Eighteen months earlier, and still laid up after a knee ‘reco’, he was surprisingly appointed as Neville Hogan’s successor.



“My first year as coach was a nightmare,” he recalls. He battled his way through ’77, suffering a succession of niggling injuries, and started on the bench in the decider, in which the Hawks thrashed Wangaratta.



Although still not playing with the freedom of his earlier years, Smith was still happy enough with the on-field contribution he’d made in 1978, and was looking forward to performing a role in the Grand Final.



“I had my leg propped on a rub-down table, doing a few stretches before the game, when I felt something go in my calf. I thought, ‘Shit, that feels no good at all,’ and asked our trainer, Johnny Spence, if he could have a look at it.



“He went away and grabbed a glass of water, handed me a tablet, and said: ‘Here, take this.’ It worked wonders and I didn’t feel a thing after that.”



Smith and his selectors sprung a surprise when they punted on an 18 year-old beanstalk, Neale McMonigle, who had played just three senior games.



His dad, ‘Big John’ had been a premiership ruckman for the Hawks twenty years earlier, and was remembered as a highly-talented, nonchalant character. The lad inherited similar traits, but had forced his way into the side with some exhibitions of fingertip marking and long kicking. Nonetheless, it was a risky selection, the critics surmised.



The inexperienced Graeme Bell was handed one of the toughest assignments. He had the responsibility of trying to nullify potent Demon ruck pair, Emmie De Fazio and Malcolm Ellis. In another crucial match-up, long-kicking left-footer David Spence lined up on dangerous Demon spearhead Brian Symes…



The Hawks got away to a flier, kicking two goals in the opening minutes. But it was the mid-field fisticuffs, as much as the football, that fired the fans in a frenetic opening term. When the dust settled, umpire Glenn James had booked Benalla’s Stephen Hide for striking back flanker Chris Porter.



“Why would you want to job ‘Clang’,” said one team-mate. “It was like whacking a slab of cement. Whenever someone had a crack at him he’d just shrug and get on with the job.”



No-one was better suited to handle such a delicate situation than Umpire James, who was among the VFL’s finest and most respected men in white and had a great rapport with the players.



At the height of the melee, young Hawk rover Peter McGuire, who had called him a ‘black prick’, was promptly informed that he was also ‘in the book’. At the end of the quarter McGuire apologised to James, who winked and whispered: “If you start getting a few kicks I’ll forget about it.”



The Rovers, at this stage, were 19 points in front, and in complete charge of the game. By half-time it was as good as over.



Everything they did was a class above their disappointing opponents, and their disposal was spot-on, both by hand and foot. Unfortunately, the Demons chose the season’s biggest occasion to turn in a collective ‘shocker’.



One theory was that, having played just the one match in four weeks, they weren’t sufficiently battle-hardened to withstand the rigours of a boots-and-all Grand Final.


Their coach Billy Sammon picked up his share of kicks, but was nowhere near the destructive force of the bulldozing mid-fielder, O’Brien, who bobbed up everywhere. ‘Sam’ Symes proved a headache for the Hawks in attack, and Gary Walker was miserly in outbustling century goal-kicker Steve Norman, and keeping him to two majors. Their best player – and leading possession-winner, however, was lightly-framed winger Adrian Fuhrmann.



But Benalla couldn’t suppress the brilliant Andrew Scott. In his four years in the O&M he had snared a Morris Medal and twice finished runner-up, rapidly assuming cult hero status within the club. He again revealed all of his attributes in picking up 20 kicks, dishing out 6 handballs and taking 10 telling marks.



Many would have opted for him as best afield, but umpire James gave the gong to Trevor Bell, who also pulled down 10 fine ‘grabs’ in a dominant display at centre half-forward. It was the second year in succession that the prodigiously-talented Bell had taken out the Award.



His twin Graeme, who reigned supreme in the ruck, wasn’t far behind. He repeatedly outleaped his opponents to put the ball in the path of Hawk little men Eddie Flynn, Mark Booth, Neville Allan and Peter McGuire.



The questionable move of playing the ‘greenhorn’ McMonigle, paid dividends when he booted three goals and provided a handy target up forward.



The Rovers eventually cruised to the line, booting 15.18 (108) to Benalla’s 7.12 (54).

The team that got them there was:














# Darryl Smith woke up the morning after the ‘78 Grand Final with excruciating pain in his calf – the same pain he had experienced in the pre-match. He felt compelled to ask Johnny Spence just what sort of a pill it was, that had allowed him to get through the game. “A ‘Smartie’, was the reply.



# Eddie Flynn also felt a twinge in his knee during the match, but played on, to become one of the team’s stars. A fortnight later, the knee ‘went’ during a game of basketball. He had an operation in January, rehabbed frantically and went on to play in the 1979 Flag.



# Fifteen members of the 1978 Premiership team finished their careers at the Rovers with 100 games or more, including (3) 200-Gamers and (2) 300-Gamers.



# Eight players were later inducted to the club’s Hall of Fame. Five are members of the Ovens and Murray’s Hall of Fame.



# Long-striding winger Leigh Hartwig was declared the winner of the ‘Bob Rose Medal’ at the Best & Fairest count a few nights later. He repeated the feat in 1979.



# The Hawks continued their amazing run of success the following season. Topping the ladder with just four losses, they ran away from a plucky Wodonga side in the last quarter of the Grand Final, to prevail by five goals. Chasing four-in-a-row in 1980, they were outplayed in the second half of the Grand Final by a North Albury side which had come the hard way, via the Elimination Final.



# Most of the stars of ‘78, will meet on Saturday for a 40-Year reunion of a famous Premiership. Sadly, they won’t include Garry Bell and Peter McGuire, who both lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents…


The function will also be a reunion of the club’s 1958 and ‘88 flag teams.





KB’s original article can be read here along with other fine works at his site, “On Reflection” here.




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