In the testing ground with the centre half backs

The centre half back is the prime defender in a football team, so he is sternly tested every game. He is also expected to forge the team’s attacks, so the qualities he needs are positively heroic. Who are some of the paragons in this staunch position, and what kind of heroes would they be?

Setting the scene is a condensed extract from the chapter by Tassie Johnson on ‘The half back’s task’ in High mark 2nd edition edited by Jack Pollard (Sydney: Murray Publishing, 1967):

‘Centre half backs generally are powerfully-framed blokes of resource and calmness. They have to think quickly. Their judgement of when to mark and when to spoil can be both frustrating to opponents and a morale-boost for team mates. In spoiling an attack, the half backs should position themselves so they can follow the ball through and perhaps start an attack. Ideally the centre half back should be a competent mark and a safe kick with either foot. He should have exceptional manoeuvrability, a master of baulking, sidestepping, spinning and turning so that he can get away from difficult scrambles and get in his kick. And he should be adept at plucking the ball from the ground at speed. Whatever the position of the game, keep tackling. Never give up. Persistence is a priceless asset. Hit opponents hard, but beware of the half back’s major sin, conceding free kicks. It can cost your side the game.’

Phew! Anyone who can play this position well is superhuman. You have to be hyped up but calm, powerful but gymnastic, aggressive but analytical. Someone with all those attributes was South Melbourne’s Laurie Nash. Short and stocky, Nash played at centre half back in South Melbourne’s 1933 premiership team and was also named in that position in Tasmania’s team of the century. Supporting Jack Dyer’s claim that Laurie Nash ‘could bite off more than he could chew, and chew it’, he was named at centre half forward in Sydney’s team of the century, and was its leading goal kicker twice. Nash served as a Trooper in New Guinea in World War Two, and then was a willing participant in the 1945 bloodbath grand final. ‘I was never the best and fairest but I reckon I might have been the worst and dirtiest’ he said, sounding like the equally pragmatic and effective Dirty Harry.

The ideal centre half back has supreme confidence, which then rubs off on the rest of the backline, as well as energising the players further up the ground. Laurie Nash epitomised this confidence, and when he was asked who was the best player he ever saw, famously replied, ‘I see him in the mirror every morning’. Rather more modest was Adelaide’s centre half back of the decade Peter Caven, who became an instant hero when, like Horatio on the bridge, he single-handedly kept at bay the Kangaroos’ potential match winner, Wayne Carey, in the Crows grand final triumph in 1998. By contrast, Nigel Smart was as brilliant and dashing as they come. Notso was notorious for that fire-walking episode but later stood for Parliament, so he kind of went from Superman to Clark Kent.

Trying to identify who has played centre half back is not easy. In the old days the positions on the field were clearly nominated and players held position, but nowadays positions are so fluid it is tricky to decide which players to talk about as predominantly centre half backers.

One that is indisputable is Paul Roos. The ultimate compliment to him was the description of Ted Whitten as ‘Paul Roos on speed’, so it was fitting that he won the inaugural EJ Whitten medal in the State of Origin game in 1985 and again in 1988. Playing for Fitzroy and Sydney, the laid-back Roosy had all the lion-hearted skills and courage of the centre half back and none of its potential bad boy qualities. He was reported once in his 16 year career—for abusive language—and of course he was cleared. Being a smart charming high flyer he reminds me of South Australia’s beloved World War One flying ace Sir Ross Smith, whose statue outside Adelaide Oval commemorates his win in the 1919 England to Australia air race.

The State Library of South Australia is fortunate to hold Ross Smith’s beautifully written World War One letters and diary in its collection. You can read transcripts of them via the catalogue, such as the letter written on 8 February 1917 from Egypt which begins, ‘Mother my dearest. I have just come in from kicking a football about and the run round has made me feel fine. We are playing a match on Sunday against the 8th Light Horse and I am trying to get into some sort of form’.

In the Sturt teams I loved to watch in the 1960s, Phil Nelson was quiet and unassuming but entirely competent, and because his name is half way there already, Sandy would be another brave Horatio, Lord Nelson. Talking about the 1960s, my old school Brighton High produced some Coenesque brothers, with Wayne Phillis at centre half back and Fred Phillis at full forward for Glenelg, which doesn’t seem have a ‘team of the century’.

Nor does South Adelaide—rather it has its ‘greatest team’ and at centre half back is Dan Moriarty, the only person to have won three Magarey Medals in a row. That all-round sportsman Vic Richardson considered Dan to be the greatest footballer he ever saw. With a name like Moriarty it’s tempting to venture into Sherlock Holmes territory, but as a small, high leaping player with amazing anticipation and rebound he sounds more like Spiderman.

Port Adelaide in the SANFL has a team of not one but two centuries. With my in-built bias I always thought of Port as a team of thugs, but one of their number was never reported—Geof Motley. As well as being a sound but dashing player, Geof must be the cheeriest person ever to play footy—on and off the ground—so with the festive season approaching he is Santa Claus in footy boots. Greg Phillips was built like the Incredible Hulk but with dash and drive—and we are also grateful to him for his football and basketball playing daughter Erin. The baby-faced and rather gawky Magarey Medallist Peter Woite was like Chief Inspector Barnaby from Midsomer Murders, rather appropriate as Woitey went on to become a detective. For the other black and white mob, Port Power’s Darren Mead was a lean mean but dedicated and smart RoboCop, while Chad Cornes was all arms and legs and chirpiness like the Little Drummer Boy scampering into battle to the tune of his own drum.

Sturt’s centre half back of the century was triple Magarey Medallist Len Fitzgerald, whose phenomenal strength and ball handling skills makes him a modern day Hercules. Fitzgerald moved to Sturt from Collingwood, whose centre half back of the century was Albert Collier. Leeter played in four Magpies premierships from 1927 to 1930 and was a fiery customer, but was always looking to help out his team mates. Since we’ve recently had our Remembrance Day, I’m put in mind of the courageous Simpson on his donkey helping out his mates.

North Adelaide’s centre half back of the century was Ron Phillips, who won a Magarey Medal in the position in 1933 then won a second at centre half forward the next year, and topped North’s goal kicking for four years. Because of this he was known as Mr Versatile or in Greek mythology he would be a shapeshifting Proteus. A rather lesser known North centre half back is Peter Cloke, brother of David and uncle of Travis. My other half talks with awe of a mark Peter Cloke took backing back into a pack, which instead of bowling him over, exploded around him like ten pins while he coolly took his kick. Unfortunately Clokey suffered from arthritic knees which required regular injections, obviously his Achilles’ heel, and maybe because of that he wasn’t a great kick on either foot. But he is something of a legend among Roosters supporters, and no doubt also at Mundulla where he led that small country town to a swag of premierships.

Two more sometime centre half backs became cult figures. Paul Bulluss took his flowing Tarzan locks from Woodville West Torrens, where he was named as an interchange in its team of the decade, to Richmond, which has a fond history of making lovable cult figures out of honest triers. Val Perovic earned state selection at centre half back in 1978 while playing for St Kilda, then moved to Carlton, where he became the first person to attract the crowd’s call of ‘woof’ as he hoofed the ball on its way. He looked like a cross between the goodhearted Cisco Kid and the hapless Pancho, and you couldn’t resist joining in the ‘woof’ from the couch. Continuing the Western theme, among Hawthorn’s posse of proud centre half backs rounding up the forward hombres, Chris Mew was the dour Sheriff in its team of the century, with Peter Knights his flashier Deputy.

Another couple of professional centre half backs were the square-jawed Argonauts, Glen Jakovich and Ross Glendinning. Jakovich’s battles for West Coast against Wayne Carey were the stuff of legend, usually going the defender’s way, while Glendinning’s bold charges out of defence for North Melbourne won him the 1983 Brownlow Medal. Another Kangaroo, Glenn Archer, was the epitome of the Shinboner spirit and would have made a fearsome Gladiator.

Four very different some time centre half backs in four different teams. Dennis Carroll’s beautiful long kicks and glorious high marks for the Sydney Swans made him as watchable as a dark and dashing Zorro, while Essendon’s Mark Harvey had a Han Solo take-no-prisoners approach in a hostile universe. By comparison Gary Hardeman was a no frills rather dour but never-say-die Hannibal crossing the Alps in Melbourne’s team of the century. Defying the solidly built archetype, Harry Taylor is light on his feet like Robin Hood, and for years has been pinching the ball off opposition hotshots and distributing it to his Geelong team mates, being twice rewarded with All Australian selection at centre half back.

The All Australian centre half back this year is the estimable Daniel Talia, continuing the tradition of wonderful selfless centre half backs for the Adelaide Crows. In my final heroic analogy, being tall and fair and slim and modest, he is my Sir Galahad.

So the centre half backs go way beyond the call of duty to defend their team’s honour and set up victory. It’s a fun exercise to think who you would like to have at centre half back and what sort of heroic figure they would be, in the team you would want to watch in a pantheonic heaven.

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  1. Peter Warrington says

    Carey stayed down the windy end one night against the Crows at Footy Park. His efforts at CHB were incredible.

    Shaun Wigney was good against Carey a couple of times. Paul Bulluss had hair, liked to drum and hated footy. He was one of my faves.

    Chris Mew in the late 80s able assisted by Jencke and Ayres.

    The unfeasibly tough Robbie McGhie, who was actually a very skilful CHB despite his tough guy look and rep.

    (I played there in my late career social revival and found it easy to play if you had ever goalkept in soccer. Read the game and you turn into Paul Roos marking and handpassing off. Or so I liked to think.)

  2. Gary Hardeman, there’s a blast from the past.

    Peter Knights at his peak was marvellous. Great leap, attacking centre half back, blessed with a range of attributes. Incredibly versatile, playing a lot of footy up forward. I think he topped Hawthorns goal kicking in 1972, the year Peter Hudson went down.

    Bernie Quinlan also played centre half back a fair bit during his early years at Footscray. Peter Walker from the Geelong side of the 1960’s, retiring mid season 1971, also had big wraps on him. It would be remiss not to include Greg Dermott, Port Melbourne , VFA, centre half back, but that’s going of on a tangent.


  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Another fine compilation Carolyn.
    Loved Billy Picken as he would fly for marks and go places others feared to tread.
    Agree with Glen about Peter Knights at his peak – grace, flair and courage. Glendinning was brilliant and ‘Leeter’ Collier was the Pies’ protector and enforcer in our glory years.
    ‘Mopsy’ Fraser was one who intrigued me when I used to read about footy as a kid -tough,talented,undisciplined,mercurial. Cheers

  4. Great recollections Carolyn. Couldn’t pick between Knights, Roos, Glendinning and Jakovich as the best I have seen in their prime.
    Loved your SANFL names. Norwood – Ron Kneebone won a Magarey in the 60’s. I remember Geoff Motley as a small defender – back flank rather than CHB – but a terrific rebounder before it was fashionable and also won a Magarey.
    Johnny Graham was the best CHB I can remember at Torrens in the 60’s and 70’s, but he wouldn’t hold a candle to the names you mentioned. Crio and Budge would put in a good word for Glen Pill (lots of ability but his mind seemed to be elsewhere).
    The only notable omissions I could think of were Carlton players – John “Ragsy” Goold and Kenny Hunter (more a flanker?) were courageous strong marking left footers who deserve their place on the list of CHB greats.

  5. Well spotted Phil. I forgot Billy Picken. He came down as a gun forward but turned out a very good CHB in both Carringbush and Sydney.

    PB, Hunter, Gould, Doull all seemed to alternate between CHB and the flank. Markk Maclure started at CHB.


  6. What I always used to love about chb/chf battles was back in the days of more positional play, the skills required for two positions were often interchangeable. So players like Carey, Hird and Jakovich would often switch to the other position as the conditions of the game demanded. Other players (like my favourite in this spot Rodney Maynard) would spend different parts of their careers in those positions. It’s hard to imagine Tex Walker parking himself at chb to stem the flow for a period.

  7. I saw that Peter Cloke mark too! Great stuff Carolyn

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