Preliminary Final 1971 – St Kilda v Richmond: On being crucified



We wuz robbed. The common complaint of fans when their team loses. Whenever I hear that refrain I like to offer some sage observations. Games are one hundred minutes long with multiple incidents, interconnections and patterns and it’s extremely rare that isolated umpiring decisions determine outcomes. You just got outplayed.


Except, I would add, in the case of Richmond’s preliminary final loss to St. Kilda in 1971.


I was at the match as an 11-year-old with my parents and younger brother. It rained all day. I remember being outraged along with all the other Richmond supporters in the stands as the Saints took control of the match in the second half. We blamed Ian Coates, the sole field umpire. My father, who rarely, if ever, became animated at the footy seethed with indignation and exclaimed that we were being “crucified”.


I didn’t know that anyone, apart from Jesus on the cross, could be crucified.


I recall my shock and anger as Richmond went down. All I knew at the time was that Richmond didn’t lose finals – two in ’67 and three in ’69 leading to the premiership pennants, along with inexplicable fifth-place finishes in 1968 and 1970. Those seasons didn’t count. Then the finals sequence was continued in the first semi-final victory over Collingwood a fortnight before the St. Kilda match when we stormed home in the last quarter to win by 44 points. Six of the best under Tom Hafey, leading a team that simply couldn’t lose in September.


The Tigers had beaten St. Kilda twice in the home-and-away season; by 19 points at VFL Park and by three points at Moorabbin after trailing by five goals at three-quarter time. There was no doubt in my mind that Richmond would obliterate them again before meeting Hawthorn in the Grand Final. The Grand Final would be a mere formality as well, since we had avenged a heavy loss at Glenferrie Oval early in the season with a 32-point win over the Hawks at the MCG.


But it was St. Kilda, not Richmond, that met Hawthorn in the title match. The Saints led by 20 points at the final break before going down by seven points in a classic, brutal Grand Final encounter.


The narrative owned by Richmond supporters was that we had the preliminary final stolen from us by the nefarious field umpire Ian Coates. Six years later our family moved house. I had a summer job working as a clerical assistant in the old Commonwealth Department of Social Security in the city. Our new next door neighbour offered to drive me into work each day, as he also worked in the CBD. He was a St. Kilda man. Upon hearing that I had been present at the ’71 preliminary final, and without hearing my take on the afternoon’s proceedings, he snorted and said, “What? So still you still reckon you were robbed?’


I did reckon that, and this view persisted for years.


Recently my brother alerted me to the fact that the entire match could be viewed on YouTube. I was intrigued. Did my perception match reality? Did the Tigers have their opportunity to win the 1971 premiership cruelly denied them by an umpire who was either incompetent or corrupt? After 49 years it was time to settle the issue. I have no memory of watching the replay on Channel 7 on the night of the game.


The footage is of surprising high quality. In the days when health and safety was of no concern and the MCG packed as many paying spectators as they could into standing room sections, there were 102,000 in attendance. The outer was a mass of terraced umbrellas with the rain falling for most of the game. I’m 11 again and reliving the weekend routine. My football season at the Holy Child Junior Football Club had been completed a few weeks before. We only won one game, but what did that matter when we could witness the mighty Tigers on Saturday afternoons? Throughout the footy year we watched the replay on Saturday night and World of Sport on the following day while enjoying the Sunday roast after Mass.


Commentary was provided by Mike Williamson, Frank ‘Bluey’ Adams, Bob Skilton, Ron Barassi and former umpire Jeff Crouch.


The match is fast and exciting. Great men from the past stride the earth again. Hart, Bartlett, Sheedy, Bourke and Stewart for the Tigers. Ditterich, Murray, Breen, Smith and ‘Cowboy’ Neale for the Saints. Most players prefer the blast kick method of getting the ball forward as quickly and directly as possible. This is especially true of Richmond with the brilliant Royce Hart at centre-half-forward. This leads to the spectacle of contested high marks or opponents desperately scrambling for bouncing balls when they land in open space. Every opportunity to take out rivals in bone-crunching shirtfronts is met with ferocious glee.


Richmond lead by 12 points at quarter time. There are four lead changes in the second term before the Tigers take a one-point lead into half time.


St. Kilda take charge of the game in the third quarter with four unanswered majors. A late goal to Francis Bourke reduces the margin to a manageable 18 points before they turn for home. But is the umpiring a factor in Richmond’s challenge?


The adjudication was different 49 years ago. A higher number of free kicks were paid by umpires of that era. Quite often the slightest contact to the back or above the shoulder could result in frees. Players took advantage of this and staging is certainly not a new phenomenon.


The commentators openly discuss Coates being less stringent when awarding marks as the rain makes it more difficult to grip the ball. They also refer to him paying free kicks for minor infractions to “clear out the congestion”. They don’t criticise Coates for doing these things. At times they bicker among themselves as to the correctness or otherwise of particular decisions. Jeff Crouch contends more for the letter of the law and is dismissive of contrary opinions. Barassi urges Coates to overlook some of the rough and tumble and allow the game to flow. Without the benefit of instant replays there are occasions when the commentators are unable to evaluate some calls, something they simply accept.


When players concede 15-yard penalties for encroaching on the mark or holding onto opponents following marks and free kicks, the experts accuse them of being “rattled’ or “undisciplined”. It appears as though they are a little behind the times. Players had worked out quite some time ago that it was more advantageous to give away 15 yards of territory than to allow their rivals to play on quickly before defenders could guard the forwards.
But clearly, the standard of umpiring is not an issue for the commentators and there is no perception of bias in Coates’ officiating.


Kevin Bartlett is penalised three times in the first quarter for dropping the ball when he taps it in front of him and is tackled by opponents. The Tiger speedster was renowned for milking frees in this manner. The rules were later changed to prevent him from bouncing the ball just before contact and receiving free kicks for being held when not in possession. There had been controversy regarding Bartlett’s tactic and perhaps Coates was making a statement that he was not about to be hoodwinked by Richmond’s number 29.


There are Bronx cheers from the Richmond contingent fans when a decision goes Bartlett’s way. Maybe this is where they begin to feel aggrieved.


But is Richmond getting a raw deal from Coates?


Other factors are at work. Allan Davis had missed selection in St. Kilda’s two-point loss to Hawthorn in the second semi final. I recall a Richmond barracker near us derisively calling him “Brylcreem”, a reference to the hair styling product still favoured by men at that time. I still have no idea as to why this was an insult. Davis simply dominates. He boots his sixth goal late in the third term. It is at this point that Hafey moves young defender Grant Allford off him, replacing him with the belligerent Kevin Sheedy. Davis doesn’t add to his tally, but the damage is already done. Hafey was renowned for trusting his charges and making positional changes only as a last resort.


Big Carl Ditterich, all sharp elbows and flying boots, is moved to centre-half forward by Allan Jeans in the second half. Rex Hunt had completely blanketed Barry Breen, but finds Ditterich a much more difficult prospect. Neil Besanko, Barry Lawrence and ‘Cowboy’ Neale combine to make things difficult for Royce Hart, Richmond’s main avenue of attack. Midfielders Trott, Bonney and Manzie break even with Richmond aces Stewart, Bourke and Clay. Skipper Ross Smith is just as effective as Bartlett around the packs.


Barry Richardson snaps a goal within seconds of the opening of the last quarter to reduce the gap to 12 points. The Richmond faithful rise and shout with a sense of here come these rampaging Tigers, regardless of that white maggot! But Manzie replies for the Saints. The Richmond defence begins to wilt and lose its system, allowing St. Kilda’s playmakers to find unattended teammates. Barry Breen, previously unsighted, has been moved to the forward pocket and boots two in the space of a minute, taking St. Kilda’s lead out to an unassailable 30 points. Richardson scores three in the last to bring his total to five, but it’s of little consolation. The unthinkable has happened and the Tigers are defeated in a final.


Perhaps my father’s reaction took him back in time to Richmond’s last finals loss. It was a long time ago for him; a long time for every adult supporter at the time. Twenty-four years. He once described Richmond’s final game of the 1947 home-and-away season to me. The Tigers were in fifth place and played South Melbourne at Punt Road. Dad was 12 years old and standing on the Punt Road terraces with his father. They had to beat the Swans and Collingwood, in fourth place, had to fall to second-placed Essendon at Victoria Park for the Tigers to make the finals.



In the last quarter Richmond enjoyed an insurmountable lead over South. Collingwood had led the Bombers by 23 points at three quarter time and looked to have retained their place inside the four. Theirs was the first game of the round to be completed. When the scores were posted on the scoreboard heralding an eight-point win to Essendon a roar erupted from the Richmond crowd. Ecstatic fans couldn’t wait for the final bell, with many jumping the fence and running onto the field to tell Richmond players that the Woods had gone down and the Tigers were in the finals again.


After the exhilaration of that day they lost the first semi to Fitzroy by 28 points on the following weekend. Dad followed the Tigers through the lean years of the fifties and early sixties when they never made the finals. When Hafey arrived at Punt Road the Tigers rose to greatness again.


I wonder whether Richmond’s loss to St. Kilda in the 1971 preliminary final took my father back to that disappointment when he was 12. I can’t ask him because he passed away 29 years ago. Perhaps it worked in the same way for all the barrackers who experienced that painful preliminary final loss to St. Kilda. In the light of the new Richmond Tigers’ invincibility in big games and finals, the only logical explanation for the defeat was the umpiring.


I discovered the painful lesson as an 11-year-old that nobody wins ‘em all. Not even Richmond. And I no longer blame the umpire for what happened on that rainy Saturday 49 years ago.


Richmond supporters like my family were richly rewarded for following the club with two more premierships under Hafey in 1973-74. All of my frustrations were washed away in the euphoria of those triumphs. As for the Saints fans, I sincerely hope they win another flag someday.




ST KILDA           1.2    6.7    11.10    16.12 (108)
RICHMOND     3.2    7.2     9.4      12.6 (78)




St Kilda: Davis 6, Breen 3, Theodore, Bonney 2, Smith, Galt, Manzie
Richmond: Richardson 5, Hart, Cumming 2, Bartlett, Balme, Bourke




St Kilda: Davis, Ditterich, Smith, Trott, Neale
Richmond: Green, Sheedy, Richardson, Stewart, Hart



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  1. Wow John, you got me thinking. I’m a few years younger than you, do have some memories of the game, and not disputing your hypothesis. Please let me add some variables.

    It was a wet afternoon, one of the three wettest Saturdays in the 1971 season. In similar conditions in R 12 Richmond lost to Fitzroy, whilst on the same day St Kilda beat Geelong by 78 points. A few weeks later St Kilda triumphed over Carlton in the wet, while Richmond were no match for Footscray that day. Was the Richmond side of 1971 unable to play wet weather football?

    A fortnight prior to this loss against St Kilda Richmond were too strong for Collingwood kicking off the 1971 finals series. Brownlow medalist Ian Stewart touched the ball 23 times that day, a tally reduced to 15 against his old side. Neil Balme, Kevin Bartlett & Royce Hart kicked three apiece in the victory. In the defeat they tallied only four goals between, them, less than half the match prior. Yes Barry Richardson with five goals made up the difference but……

    You mentioned the havoc caused up forward by Alan Davis, Carl Ditterich, Barry Breen also put through a lazy 3 goals. Was there a deficiency in defence? I notice two of your key defenders that day were blokes who always put in, though neither played in a flag side in those great years. Was Richmond not good enough?

    Umpires; KB, & frees. I understand Richmond got more frees on the day. True it’s not where & when you get them, but……….



  2. I saw this game on Foxtel years ago, with ABC commentary (I remember Doug Heywood specifically and I’m guessing Dick Mason and maybe Tony Ongarello). AS far as Doug was concerned Richmond lost because they forgot to use their brains, and were too concerned with looking tough and playing ‘he-man football’. One name he named was K. Sheedy.

    The other impression I formed was that the following week’s grand final, which the blood-and-guts brigade nearly cry into their Jim Beam about as the perfect game from the time when it was a Real Man’s Game, was actually an over-rated cheap-shot-fest, and the real blend of courage, skill and resilience that the Man’s Game Protection Society put up as ideal was produced by St Kilda seven days previously – without a report and as I best recall without a punch being thrown.

  3. 1971 was the fourth season I followed closely, and I think I’d filed ‘Richmond are rubbish in the wet’ before I knew Collingwood were shaky in Grand Finals. Fitzroy gave them a mid-season soaking three years in a row. In 1969, their premiership year, Hawthorn managed to beat them at the MCG in the rain without a goal from Hudson, and even Footscray who had been nearly winless knocked them over in hail a couple of weeks later. I remember either Ron Carter or Percy Beames in the Age after one particularly inept wet-track run by the Tigers, remarking that their name was appropriate because ‘Tigers, like all felines, detest mud and water’.

  4. This was the first final I had ever been to, although I barracked for neither side, and I remember it mainly for the rain.

    How about the second semi? Hawthorn led by 33 points at 3/4 time but the Saints kicked 5.9 in the last quarter to lose by 2 points.

  5. Thanks for your comments Glen, Rick and Tony. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It’s interesting that you make the point that the Tigers didn’t perform so well in the rain. I can still remember some of those upset losses in the wet. All part of the unfolding story of following the footy. Imagine the joy when the Saints break through to win another flag.

  6. That’s a great read, thanks John.
    Especially for those of us who are just a little younger (I was 5 at the time) and have no recollection of that time.

  7. Just a year early for me John. My debut was the 1972 GF (scarred for life!). I’ve also heard plenty of Richmond lamentations about the umpiring that day too!

  8. Kevin Densley says

    I enjoyed this piece, John – the detail is excellent.

    And I love how your title includes the words “On being crucified.” It has always amused and intrigued me how the notion of crucifixion (!) is brought into discussions of football and umpiring – I suppose, among other things, this underlines the deep feelings the game arouses in supporters, especially if they feel their team has been hardly done by in this context.

  9. Warwick Nolan says

    I too, particularly enjoyed this piece. Thank you John.

    As a St.Kilda barracker (15 at the time) I recall crying at the end of the second semi final the week before. Saints had butchered two or three golden opportunities in the final minutes to go down to the Hawks by less than a kick. I cried because I knew we weren’t able to beat Tigers at Waverley or Moorabbin – How ere we going to beat them on their home ground? And they had Ian Stewart!

    I recall thinking early in the second quarte that the Saints were going to win this one. And that it would be bad luck to think it out loud.

    Certainly the rain didn’t hurt St.Kilda or Allan Davis’ on this day.
    Not sure how the weather affected Ian Coates’ performance.

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