” ‘Leroy’……Loyal To The Core” by KB Hill

I’m helping man the gate on this balmy Saturday arvo, as confident Hawks and optimistic Pigeons stream in. Our tiny group is adept at chin-wagging, and engaging with everybody. Even if we don’t know someone, we make out we do…….

 

It’s always good to have a yarn with Leigh Hartwig, who’s one of us. During the course of conversation I ask him how his old man’s travelling…….”Aah, he’s loving watching Tyson again….. He still gives you an expert analysis of the game, even though he can hardly pick out what’s happening on the other side of the ground ………..”

 

At that moment I spot an old bloke negotiating the small incline of the bank near the Hogan Stand, as though he’s tackling Mount Kosciusko……..It’s 91 year-old Rex Hartwig……….

 

***

 

Leigh was born in December 1954, just after Rex had struck a vital blow for Australia’s Davis Cup hopes by knocking Tony Trabert out of the Victorian Tennis Championships. Ranked number 5 in the world at the time, he went on to play his part in a classic Challenge Round, when they wrested the Cup off the Yanks.

 

“I think my arrival might have got Dad thinking about putting down his roots and consolidating the family,” Leigh says. “He always wanted to be a Farmer, so he and Mum (Madge) bought the farm at Greta in 1958 and started a Poll Dorset Stud there in ‘63.”

 

“Even now, that’s all he wants to do……wander around the farm.”

 

Leigh was 13 when he played in a Seconds Flag with Greta. Early on they wouldn’t let him play against the tough sides. But they soon relented, and he won the Seconds B & F the next year.

 

“We had Max Newth coaching when I moved up to the seniors,” Leigh recalls. ” He was inspirational, and was still getting plenty of kicks in his late thirties. Stories about ‘Pigsy’s’ toughness are legendary…..playing with broken ribs and that sort of thing…..

 

“They talk about the time he was shearing a ram which was almost as big as him. It fought him and tried to escape….He should’ve let it go, but he wrestled with it, under the Wool Table and around the shed floor for what seemed like ages before he brought it under control….”

 

After two successful years, word had filtered through about the lean kid from Greta. Leigh played a practice game with Wangaratta, but settled on the Rovers after President Jack Maroney and coach Neville Hogan made the 15-mile trek out to Banksdale Road to sign him.

 

“My Grandmother was most disappointed. She’d formed the opinion that the Rovers were a dirty mob, probably because of the stories she’d heard about Ken Boyd being so rough.”

 

“She was set in her ways, Nan …….watched me in a school game once, when I mangled my knee and got carted off. She never saw me play another game……..”

 

The Hawks found a spot for four first-gamers in the opening round of 1972. Three lads from surrounding farming families – John Byrne, Mervyn Holmes and Hartwig – plus Hastings utility Daryl Smith, broke into a premiership line-up…….All of them were to prove champions.

 

Leigh played 17 senior games – and kicked 34 goals – in ‘72, but was left out of the Grand Final, which the Rovers won.

 

 

 

“I got the feeling they thought I wasn’t strong enough for such a big game; they opted for the Seconds captain Graeme Briggs instead,” he says. “But, gee, it hurt watching on.”

 

He headed off to Yanco Agricultural College – in the heart of the Riverina – for a one-year course the following year. South-West League club Whitton offered the 18 year-old Hartwig the assistant-coaching job, a car and a handy sum of money.

 

But he chose to line up for Narrandera, coached by ex-Wangaratta ruckman Jeff Hemphill. They finished third, and Leigh picked up the Best & Fairest……….

 

***

 

He learned all about the vagaries of agriculture upon his return to the family farm in the midst of a drought.

 

“The bottom line was that we lost $15,000 in my first year back and $9,000 the next. Just to illustrate how crook things were, we sold our entire mob of 70-odd vealers to a buyer from Casino for $11 each ……You’d probably get a thousand bucks a head for them at current prices.”

 

So, to supplement their income, he and Rex decided to go on the Tennis-Coaching circuit.

 

“We’d complete our day’s work on the farm, then jump in the car. Rex would drop me off at a place like Goorambat, and he’d go on to a nearby town, say, Dookie. We’d end up getting home at about 10pm, buggered.”

 

“We conducted Holiday Clinics at places like Tooleybuc and Nyah West. It wasn’t much fun being out in the Mallee sun in January-February. I counted up once, that we coached at 45 different towns….Thankfully, things settled down on the farm after a while……..”

 

***

 

Leigh was back with the Rovers in 1974.

 

“ ‘Old Jack’ and Neville Hogan paid me another visit. I don’t know whether they felt they had to re-recruit me, but it was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned,” he says.

 

Good decision, that !

 

He was to play in the next seven O & M Grand Finals, and prove a key component in the 1974, ‘75, ‘77, ‘78 and ‘79 premierships.

 

Wangaratta Rovers , Premiers 1974. Leigh Hartwig is fourth from left, Back Row

 

“There was a core group of about eight long-serving players (150 to 200 gamers ), but we were all mates…..resilient and disciplined……. and had a terrific culture…..and a good administration,” Leigh says.

 

 

Hartwig and team-mates relax on a Gold Coast Trip-Away

 

 

“In some of those flag-winning years we weren’t necessarily the best side. But when it came finals-time we found a bit extra.”

 

“And we were well-coached…….Neville Hogan was tactically brilliant and, of course, a class player. Daryl Smith had the tough task of succeeding him, but he was a fine leader, was popular and strong in his beliefs. He had a real presence on the field.”

 

In Leigh’s first game back in Brown and Gold in 1974, he started on a forward flank, then shifted to centre half forward; kicking five goals after half-time on a seasoned opponent, Wodonga’s Bob Craig.

 

The Hawks now realised they had a mature, poised and versatile player on their hands. He could be swung onto a wing, forward flank, pinch-hit in a key position, or ruck-rove with equal effect.

 

He played some of his best footy, he reckons, when alternating as a ruck-rover with Andrew Scott or Norm Bussell.

 

The Hartwig style hardly attracted rave reviews from the purists. He had a distinctive, loping running gait, yet was able to keep with – and run away – from the fleetest of opponents.

 

An ungainly kicking style prompted the opinion that his disposal could be a touch shoddy; yet he rarely missed a target, and kicked 187 goals for the Rovers. ( He once kicked 70.16 in a season for Greta).

 

He was rarely beaten in one-out marking duels…..would place his lean frame in front of a pack and stand his ground. Alternatively , he could fly over the top of a pack to pluck the occasional ‘spekky’.

 

The ‘Border-Mail’ photographer captured Hartwig reaching for the sky in one Grand Final.

 

That photo was splashed over the front page of Monday’s souvenir post-match edition……….His equally spectacular descent adorned the back page.

 

 

 

A knee operation limited him to just 10 matches in ‘77, but he was flying, come Grand Final day.

 

“We were never going to lose that one…… We were steeled to get one back on the Magpies, who had run away from us in that ‘76 Grand Final.”

 

As Morris Medal fancies were being touted in 1978, the Rovers threw up Hartwig’s name. He’d had an enormous year…….Even the dogs were barking that he was a hot chance.

 

He failed to score a single vote……..

 

By now opposition clubs had become acquainted with the well-honed, but slightly unorthodox skills of Leigh Hartwig. He took out the Bob Rose Trophy in the Premiership years of 1978 and ‘79, and represented the O & M as a winger on four occasions.

 

The Rovers were staring another flag in the face at half-time of the 1980 decider against North Albury.

 

“I prefer to forget that one,” Leigh says. “I played a shit of a game…….only picked up about 6 or 8 kicks. All the talk beforehand was about us winning our fourth straight; but we let ourselves down in the last half.”

 

He’s not sure whether he was still suffering a hangover from that Grand Final, but he found himself in the Two’s in the opening rounds of 1981……That was unaccustomed territory for a player with a bulging CV. But he bounced back to finish third in the B & F; then runner-up to Neville Pollard in 1983 and ‘84………….

 

 

 

Hartwig and Holmes, the cockies who’d commenced their O & M careers in the season opener of 1972, shared their swansong games in the final round of 1986.

 

‘Iron-Man’ Holmes, left the Hawks with 302 games to his credit, and a reputation as an aggressive, ‘take-no-prisoners’ centre half back. He floated off to the serenity of his Carboor farm and rarely felt inclined to take the trip in to the ‘lights’ of Wangaratta from then on ( apart from the occasional wedding, funeral, or a desperately-required piece of machinery ).

 

‘Leroy’ Hartwig had chalked up 252 quality senior games and had, likewise, become somewhat of an institution at the Findlay Oval.

 

Four years earlier, he and his wife Vicki ( who’d been his sweetheart since their early High School days, and a member of the Ladies Committee since she followed her mum there at the age of 14 ) were awarded Rovers Life Memberships.

Leigh Hartwig and his kids, Teegan, Tyson and Courtney, admire
the Australian Open’s recognition of his father, Rex.

 

 

Their love for the Club knew no bounds, but Vicki probably visualised that Leigh’s retirement might usher in a more sedate lifestyle.

 

Not likely!

 

Leigh became Laurie Burt’s Chairman of Selectors for eight years, combined with being the runner for the Seniors. He also took on the Third 18 coaching job in 1990.

 

“We’d be on the go from about 7am of a Saturday, and I’d be one of the last to leave after the main game finished,” he recalls.

 

He coached the Thirds for four years, but continued to be involved with the Club through the Past Players organisation. By then his son Tyson was making his way through the ranks, via the Thirds and Murray Bushrangers.

 

When Tyson shared in the Rovers’ 2008 Reserves premiership he’d have dreamt that he was on the way to emulating his dad’s multiple flag-winning feats. But, 13 years later, after 145 games with the Hawks and successful stints with Aspley, Doutta Stars and Doncaster he’s no closer to that elusive maiden senior title.

 

The Hartwigs are members of an exclusive Ovens and Murray ’Club’ of 10 Father-Son Best & Fairest winners.

 

Leigh still loves his footy with a passion, and is quietly confident that, come September, the Rovers’ – and Tyson’s – Premiership drought might be broken…….


Long-serving Hawks Leigh Hartwig and Merv Holmes, on the eve of their swansong games.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Another great yarn about a bloke who has given so much to his local community. Love the photo of the Gold Coast trip – captures a moment in time beautifully!

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