Almanac Footy History: In search of the best roving pairs

More than being the best one-two punch in the game, Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield are a reminder of when having a great side meant a pair of menacing mosquitoes.

Of course a mosquito in the modern context means an on-baller of any size. Dangerfield is virtually the same height as John Nicholls and rotates on and off the ball as part of a midfield division.

But the point of this reflection is to acknowledge rovers have always carried a certain panache denied to those tradies in pockets, on flanks or in the ruck.

To have one great rover was a charm to have a pair was bejewelled. Here are a few:
Peter Crimmins – Leigh Matthews
Dick Reynolds – Bill Hutchison
Roger Dean – Kevin Bartlett

When I asked ABC AFL-ologist James Coventry for some suggestions he offered:
Greg Williams – Gerard Healy
Michael Voss – Simon Black
Bob Quinn – Allan Reval

Watching the SANFL in the 1970s my favourite duo was Kym Hodgeman and Peter McInerney at Glenelg.

However a decade earlier the same club boasted a sparkling pair, having recruited Colin Rice from Geelong and Brian McGowan from South Melbourne.

The little men had a big impact. In 1964 they booted almost one hundred goals between them taking Glenelg from the bottom reaches of the league to within a controversial free kick of the Preliminary Final.

McGowan thinks they could have won the flag if luck was on their side by which he means South Australian umpires were reluctant to give free kicks to Victorian hotshots.

Colin Rice says it was only when he played State football that he was considered a local and qualified for some decisions. Watching the modern game from his home in Bendigo, Rice laments the lost art of rucking.

He sees big men “jumping, sticking their knee up and hoping for the best”. Often this means the ball is hit straight down, leaving Dangerfield and Selwood to do the work.

In the early 1960s Rice used to dart into space and Polly Farmer would palm a ball over his head five yards into his rover’s waiting arms.

Not that Rice saw that much of Polly.
“Billy Goggin used to follow him around like a dog,” he says.

Rice and Goggin were Geelong’s roving duo … at South Melbourne McGowan’s partner was Bobby Skilton.


South Melbourne 1962

South Melbourne 1962: McGowan and Skilton

“He just had this ability. He wasn’t quick at all but he had great reflexes and super ball getting ability, right or left foot. You would see the ball coming down the pack and see him coming behind the pack and somehow or other it flipped over the back and landed in his hands. An uncanny knack of reading the play. He was a tough little bugger too,” he says of Skilton.

McGowan is in his late 70s now and still selling cars in the Adelaide Hills. As a youth he was strong and fast for his size, competing in professional foot races.

His party trick was putting a shilling on someone’s flat palm. He would touch the underneath of that hand with his index finger and challenged the person to close their palm before could reach in and snatch out the coin.

He mostly got the money.

McGowan’s reflexes were first identified by the Bedser twins – Alec and Eric.

The Englishmen were touring country Victoria on the pay of The Argus in the 1950s identifying cricketing talent when they saw a stocky wicket keeper at Kerang Oval.

They told the teenager he should go to Melbourne, so he found his way to South Melbourne Cricket Club and eventually the footy team.
In his first season (1956) he played in a night premiership with the Swans.

That success was fleeting and over the next few years the play of he and Skilton became a rare bright light for the Swans.

The pair even turned the relationship into a small commercial gain by promoting the benefits of healthy drinking by toasting each other with beer glasses filled with milk sponsored by the Dairy Board.

Brian Bobby milk advertisement

“It was quite embarrassing sometimes because Skilton and I were the only ones getting a kick because we were a lowly side. They wrote articles in the paper saying SMFC stood for Skilton-McGowan Football Club – which was bullshit.”

McGowan thought he and Skilton were among the best roving pairs at the time and when asked to point out the others he fingered Ian Ridley and Stuart Spencer at Melbourne and Mick Aylett and Gerald Eastmure at North Melbourne.

The last rating is the reason he likes the memory of the day he kicked seven against the Kangaroos.

“I think Skilts got five that day too.”

That was the other part of the role that added glamour to roving.

When not in the guts, they rested in a pocket, turning crumbs into goals.

Colin Rice captained Geelong, won a best and fairest and a premiership before he turned 25. Like McGowan he moved to Glenelg because of a good offer and the persistence of Secretary Ray Curnow who “had a strong story to tell”.

Their unlikely coupling was a huge success at the Bay. They won best and fairest awards, played state football and instilled an uncompromising style of play at Glenelg. Their leadership included arranging extra runs on the beach on nights when there was no training.

So good were they that Glenelg’s other state rover – Colin Richens – moved to the back pocket to allow the Victorians to play on the ball.

Their impact was fleeting though.

Rice went to coach South Bendigo in 1966 while a bung knee ended McGowan’s career at the end of that season.

As good as this combination was James Coventry has another suggestion of a pair of rovers coming together in unusual circumstances. It may be the best ever.

In 1944 war service saw two naval recruits play a half a dozen games together for South Melbourne.

Jack Oatey – Jack Sheedy

Think about those two.

I welcome Almanackers’ suggestions on mighty mosquito combinations.

FAlmanac banner

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. Citrus Bob says

    Peter Pianto and Neil “Nipper” Trezise at Geelong where the best ever by far although Dick Reynolds and Bill Hutchison for Essendon were pretty good.
    Hard to compare today’s players as they are nearly all over 6 foot .

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks Mike, I knew of Brian McGowan (of Brian McGowan Motors), but didn’t realise that he was an import.

    Oatey/Sheedy was a good get.

    The pairing of Robin Mulholland and Barry Norsworthy was the first to catch my attention at Centrals.

  3. Dave Brown says

    For the brief period they played together at Norwood I was a fan of Rowe and Jarman – but that might just be the name…

  4. Barry Cable – Graham Melrose

  5. I saw Hayden Bunton Junior when he captain coached Norwood in the late 60’s. What he lacked in leg speed he made up in quickness of eye and hand. He and Robert Oatey (son of coaching legend Jack) were a great roving pair. Cut sides up with handball before it was fashionable.
    HB Jnr and triple Sandover Medallist Billy Walker must have been an extraordinary roving pair at Swan Districts in the early 60’s. Saw Barry Cable and Billy Walker rove together for WA in state games and they are the best pairing I can remember – but didn’t play together at club level. Still see Billy regularly at Swans games.
    Brian “Bucky” Cunningham was a brilliantly skilled rover at Port Adelaide. Like Skilton equally good on both feet. He formed a terrific roving partnership with Darrell Cahill (brother of Jack) who was the workhorse to Cunningham’s brilliance.
    Great topic Mike. I can remember Rice, McGowan and Richens at the Bay. Still have their Mobil footy card images in my brain. When Glenelg were gold with a black yoke.
    Tried to drum up something from West Torrens. Did Johnny Birt and Johnny Cassin (both ex Essendon) rove together for us? Birt was slight, dainty and highly skilled. Cassin was mad.

  6. I was going to add Mulholland and Norsworthy, but Swish beat me to it.
    How’s about Haydn Bunton and Sr and anyone?
    Impressed by the 1944 Naval crew. Were there other ‘big names’ int he same predicament?

  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great topic Mike as a Norwood man unfortunately we only saw them briefly together but Greg Turbill and Neil Craig were a dynamic duo and can’t separate in to only 2 but Rick Davies,Paul Bagshaw,Mike Nunan and Brrenton Howard for Sturt were incredible together as the 4 in the centre square.Darrell Hart and Tony Antrobus at North Adelaide were good.

  8. John Platten- John Kennedy Jnr.

  9. charlie brown says

    A very good read thanks Mike. Your Oatey/Sheedy pick up is fascinating.

    Malcolm – continuing on the North theme, Hart and Sims were a handy pair in 1991 although the latter was barely recognisable/able to walk by the end of that years’ grand final

  10. Weightman-Rowlings. We were the best team ever, for a month.

  11. Haydn Bunton-Bill Walker Swan Districts roving pair for the 1961,62,63 premierships.

    Barry Cable-Graham Jensen Perth in the 1960s (Jensen did spend a lot of time in the forward pocket (resting). Cable also paired with Greg Bennett in that era.

  12. Paul Young says

    The 1977 North Melbourne premiership team was very well served by the roving partnership of Barry Cable and John Cassin. Only got one decent year of them together but it was very effective.

  13. Michael, great story re Brian McGowan. He’s before my time but I’ve heard of him.

    Roger Dean and Kevin Bartlett at Richmond? Dean played as half forward flanker also spent time in defence. Bill Brown was number 2 rover to Bartlett in the late 1960’s early 1970’s.

    Back in the 1980’s Footscray had a great pairing of Brian Royal and Tony McGuiness, two top rovers.

    Getting beyond pairs how many combinations can you create from the Carlton mosquito fleet of the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. Rod Ashman, Alex Marcou, ken Sheldon, Jimmy Buckley, etc. They were a potent grouping.

    Keep up the good work. This is a top piece.


  14. Gary Wilson and John Murphy at Fitzroy. Though, Murphy was probably more a ruck rover/centreman.

  15. jan courtin says

    As soon as I read the heading of the article, my very first thoughts were Bobby Skilton and “Midget” McGowan.
    Brilliant rovers, and great article.

  16. How do we rate Ronnie Wearmouth and Ray Shaw @ Collingwood ?


  17. Tom Martin says

    John Platten and Mark Naley played together in 16 State of Origin games (prove me wrong, fact-checkers), mostly victorious against the best of the Kickavics and Dustgropers.

    Both All-Australian in 1986 and 1987. Both Magarey Medallists and VFL Premiership Players.

    Both genuine rovers waxing out the pocket.

    In terms of the old fashioned, toey, diminutive, courageous crumbers – an incomparable pair.

Leave a Comment