Marsh Community Series – Richmond v Collingwood: Passing through Wangaratta

 

My son is puzzled as to why I‘m showing him an old railway bridge over a creek in the middle of Wangaratta. One Mile Creek is low and the bridge is covered with graffiti. A bike path follows the course of the stream.  I brought my boy to this place because some infamous characters were also passing through Wangaratta some years ago and came to this exact spot.

 

On Sunday November 3 1878 at about four o’clock in the morning the Kelly Gang came this way. It was eight days since they had killed three policemen in a shootout in the Wombat Ranges, near Mansfield. The gang was on the run. Torrential rain had been falling in the north-east of the colony  for the best part of a week. The Kellys had attempted to cross the Murray into New South Wales, but the river was in flood and they had almost perished in the attempt. The King and Ovens Rivers, which meet at Wangaratta, were also in flood. The gang decided to make their way to the Warby Ranges, just west of the town, before seeking sanctuary with the Ryans of Lake Rowan, relatives of the Kelly clan. But to get to the Warbys they had to pass through Wangaratta. All of the surrounding country was under water. They believed that the level crossing and the bridge over the railway line in town were being watched. It was imperative that they find an unguarded route and a way to cross One Mile Creek.

 

 

Gang member Steve Hart hailed from Wangaratta. His family lived out by Three Mile Creek near the racecourse. Slight of stature, he was renowned for his skills as a jockey. Hart knew of a ledge under the surface of the flooded creek directly under the railway bridge that would make it possible for the gang to get across.

 

The Delaneys lived opposite the bridge. Alerted by the sound of horsemen moving through the town in the early morning darkness and wary of horse thieves, they watched as four men on horseback leading two packhorses crossed the surging floodwaters and emerged onto the opposite bank. The fugitives rode through the empty streets and out the other side of the town to the safety of the ranges. The gang evaded capture for the next 18 months.

 

Hart died along with Joe Byrne and Dan Kelly at the siege at Glenrowan in 1880. He was 21 years old.

 

But the real reason that we’ve made the drive up the Hume Freeway is to see Richmond take on Collingwood in the Marsh Community Series competition. History lesson over, we take a slow drive up Green Street to the Norm Minns Oval, home of the Wangaratta Magpies.

 

Wangaratta is Steve Johnson’s home town. He was recruited by Geelong from the Magpies via the Murray Bushrangers.  In 2006 Johnson was a rising star at Kardinia Park. On Christmas Eve of that year he was enjoying his summer break and drinking with friends at a local watering hole. Later in the evening he decided to visit an old mate who lived around the corner from the pub. Feeling worse for wear, Johnson crashed on the back veranda with his feet up on some outdoor chairs. Early on Christmas morning the residents were shocked to see a strange man sleeping outside their back door. It turned out that Johnson’s friend had moved house. The police were summoned and Johnson was arrested and charged with public drunkenness. Despite the fact that the charges were later dropped, Johnson’s teammates took a dim view of his indiscretion. He was suspended by the club for the first five matches of the 2007 season and made to train with the reserves. Suitably chastened, he returned to the Cats’ line-up for the clash with Richmond in Round 6 at the Docklands. Johnson had 21 possessions and booted two goals. Geelong smashed the hapless Tigers by 157 points. It was the start of their march to the premiership, their first since 1963. Johnson made the leap from being a promising, erratic tearaway to being a topliner who could swing a game in Geelong’s favour with a touch of individual genius. He won the Norm Smith Medal in the Grand Final and was selected in the All-Australian team.

 

Former Tiger Chris Naish made his debut for the Wangaratta Magpies in 1988 as a sixteen-year-old. He was adjudged the Rookie of the Year in the Ovens and Murray League and was drafted by Richmond at the end of that year. He went on to play 143 games for the Tigers. Today his son Patrick is stepping out for his father’s old club in the place where he made his reputation as a junior.

 

But it’s not all Magpies in this part of the state, for Wangaratta is a two-team town. Wangaratta Rovers, the Hawks, have their nest at the RW Finlay Oval a short punt kick away from the Magpies on the opposite side of Golf Links Lane. It’s like Liverpool and Everton, separated by the length of Stanley Park in Merseyside. In 2019 the Magpies finished runners up, going down to Lavington by 34 points in the Grand Final. Rovers finished sixth.

 

There’s a Collingwood connection to the local Hawks. Bob Rose left Victoria Park after the 1955 season to take the reins at Wangaratta Rovers. Rose is a club legend. He was captain-coach from 1956 to 1962. Rose won four best-and-fairests, was leading goal kicker three times, was awarded two Morris Medals for best player in the League and guided the Rovers to their first flag in 1958, before following up with a second in 1960.

 

The fair town of Wangaratta has been a happy pre-season destination for Richmond in recent years. A twelve-goal win over Essendon in 2018 was preceded by a close game against the Bombers a few years before when Ricky Petterd kicked the winning goal.

 

I like country footy grounds. The small grandstand is constructed of cream-colored cladding with green trim. The opposite wing is fringed with gumtrees growing on the banks of the Ovens River. Spectators recline on folding chairs and are dressed for summer on this first day of autumn. Cockatoos are screeching as they fly across the oval.

 

There’s no real pressure at practice matches. It doesn’t matter if you lose, provided it’s not a blowout, and you certainly don’t want any injuries. It’s more important to try a few new tricks and give the kids a run. The fans are in a relaxed frame of mind with hopes high for a stellar season. I enjoy seeing fringe players and recruits figure on the list of goal kickers and best players. Many of the stars from both teams are having the afternoon off, having played in the bushfire relief game at Marvel Stadium on the previous Friday night.

 

Collingwood jump the Tigers and lead by 25 points at quarter time. They have already played scratch matches against North Melbourne and Carlton and appear to be further along in their preparation than Richmond. The Tigers make a game of it and reduce the margin to 10 points at the final break. De Goey has had a challenging afternoon opposed to Dylan Grimes in attack, but ignites the Magpies with two goals in the final term after being switched into the middle. Richmond are restricted to just two behinds and the Pies run away in the end to win by 40 points. Mayne, Cox, Daicos and Crisp perform well. Ex-Swan Darcy Cameron and Irishman Mark Keane are promising newcomers. Treloar is best on ground until he’s forced from the field with a hamstring strain. There’s a chance he won’t be fit for Collingwood’s first round clash with the Bulldogs.

 

Baker is best for Richmond. Vlaustin, Grimes, Short and Garthwaite defend manfully, but the Tigers inexperienced midfield and forward crews are soundly beaten. Pickett displays his consummate skills and Higgins makes a heartening return from his brain surgery travails of 2019. Sydney Stack competes with fierce intensity. Patrick Naish and draftee Thomson Dow gather a few telling possessions in the last quarter.

 

My son and I are soon heading home on the Hume. It’s been good to spend the day together. As for today’s final score, we have a long way to go on a journey that we hope will take us to the MCG on the last Saturday in September. Today we were passing through Wangaratta.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Lovely tale John. I have a deep fascination with the Kelly gang. Extraordinary story when told in the context of the times.

    I think the Tigers will be in it up to their eyeballs again this year.

  2. John Butler says

    Really enjoyed this, John.

    Pies won the match, but lost Treloar.

  3. Did you spot KB Hill in the crowd?

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