Round 15 – West Coast v Hawthorn: The home of football and the burden of history


MCG, 29 June 2019



As I tugged my jacket tighter against the rain beating down outside the MCG on Saturday evening, I was grappling with the feeling that something pretty unusual had happened but I couldn’t quite place it immediately.


So here are a bunch of dates to conjure with; Saturday 22nd August 1908; Saturday 25th April 1987; 4th May 1990; July 8th 2006; 27th May 2017. Read on for their significance.


For a keen football fan growing up in WA in the pre-national competition era, there were two footy facts that were etched into the collective consciousness; one was that no WA team had ever defeated Victoria in Victoria, and the other, not quite the same but related, that no WA team had ever won a game of football at the MCG against a same-level Victorian opponent.


Of course, before the Eagles and the Bears joined Sydney in the VFL to create the “national competition” those opportunities were almost entirely bestowed upon the WA state team rather than a WA-based side.


The first interstate game between WA and Victoria was held at the MCG on 6th August 1904. The Vics won by 34 points. Four years later the first national football carnival (actually, international, as a New Zealand team competed) was the Jubilee Carnival in Melbourne in 1908. Western Australia’s first game was against South Australia at the MCG on 22nd August 1908 and the Black Swans duly won that game at the MCG by 6 points. Victoria and WA played off in the final at the ‘G a week later and Victoria comfortably took the championship game by 56 points.


Periodically over the twentieth century state teams from the West played Victoria in interstate games in Carnivals and interleague games at venues all over the country, and, from time to time, were able to best the Big V, but never at the spiritual home of football. In 1958 during the Carnival in Victoria, after defeating SA at the Lake Oval, WA defeated the Victorian Football Association team at the MCG, but lowered their colours to the VFL team at the same venue 3 days later.


In 1970, a star-studded WA team that included Graham Farmer, Denis Marshall, Mal Brown and Bill Walker (though not Cable who played for the Vics) , and a young rover called Bruce Duperouzel who kicked 6 goals, lost by 6 points, the closest a WA team had got to the VFL at the MCG.


Even after the commencement of State of Origin games when, for the first time, the best players from each state were able to play for their home league, and WA won their share of games against Victoria, WA still could not win at the MCG when they played there in 1992.


So when the Eagles came into the VFL in 1987, hopes were high that some of this sorry history could be put to rest. In those early years West Coast was substantially a team of players who had started in, or were drawn from, the strong WAFL competition, although due to the resistance of some VFL clubs (notably Hawthorn), restrictions on selections from WAFL teams (5 maximum) and the advent of the National Draft in 1986, it was never, as from time to time was alleged east of the Nullarbor, “a WA state team”. For example, Nicky Winmar, Gary Buckenara, Maurice Rioli, Brad Hardie, Alan Johnson, Mike Richardson, Leon Baker, Mark Bairstow, Michael Mitchell and Darren Bewick never played for the Eagles. Peter Wilson and Paul Harding only did so eventually, in Harding’s case, only after litigation had kept him (and Buckenara) at Hawthorn.


Memorably, the Eagles won their first ever game – against Richmond – at Subiaco Oval. But the next week they flew to Melbourne to play Essendon at Windy Hill.


Let me take a short diversion here. When I first came to Melbourne to work in 1994, we lived in Moonee Ponds, next to Essendon, and, with the south wester blowing, an Ashley McIntosh torpedo punt from Windy Hill. I had played all of my junior football and 16 years of Amateurs in and around Perth. As my Dad – a soil and rock engineer – used to tell me – Perth is built on limestone and sand. Water tended to readily drain through the soil and, even in July, the footy grounds were largely firm and dry.


So one day in mid winter, shortly after moving to Victoria, I decided to go for a run and a kick at a local oval – Clifton Park – home of Aberfeldie in the Essendon Football league. It was a Monday evening and the oval was otherwise unoccupied. I parked on the outer wing and jogged up to the boundary line. As I stepped over the line, my foot sunk a couple of centimetres into the mud under the deceptively green and grassy surface. My next step saw my foot soaked through in a puddle of water, and after two more, when instinctively I went to bounce the ball, it didn’t bounce more than about knee height. I ran towards the goal and let fly with a shot, expecting it to bounce upon landing, but it actually skidded for a few metres and came to a dead stop in another puddle. Suddenly, in the space of a few minutes, I felt that I understood why WA teams had performed so poorly in Melbourne over nearly a hundred years.


In his excellent history of WA Football, Behind the Play (WAFC 1994), Tony Barker touched on this factor, both with respect to the WA state side and the Eagles. He recounts Bill Walker talking of that 1970 game that produced WA’s closest-ever result at the MCG: “West Australians on the MCG just couldn’t get distance with their kicks compared to the Vics – we used to wear long stops and (from the mud) had too much weight on the bottom of our boots”.


Barker noted that Claremont champ Graham Moss, a Brownlow Medallist for Essendon who played most of his games at Windy Hill, in his role with the Eagles in 1987 had downplayed the significance of the smaller grounds, bigger crowds and the travel, but had identified the novelty of the heavier, muddy grounds as a new and challenging environment, such that he recommended importing mud for the Eagles training facility at the Superdrome. In 1989, Ross Glendinning recalled the Melbourne grounds to be the worst he had ever seen and when the Eagles went to play Hawthorn at Princes Park in mid-winter, even after the Reserves game had been cancelled, the officials literally sank into the mud when they ventured onto the ground, much as I was to do a few years later.


And Barker records that when Mick Malthouse came on board as coach, in 1990, the Melbourne grounds and the history of WA teams at the MCG were clearly major issues; “In Western Australia when a team-mate has the ball, players scatter to receive; in Victoria, team mates run to the player to lend assistance. It was almost like two different types of games -one was offensive, the other pretty hectic. To be successful… the Eagles had to adjust to Victorian grounds, conditions and the like”. Malthouse recalled being told that WA teams could not win away and winning at the MCG was a particular psychological barrier. “As it turned out we were able to virtually beat those hoodoos within six months.”


But, back in 1987, Windy Hill proved too much of a condition and culture shock for players some of whom had never flown let alone played any footy in Melbourne before that pre-season.


However, on Anzac Day that year, the Eagles did win their first game in Melbourne. With a young and brilliant Chris Mainwaring taking the points over Dipierdomenico, the Eagles won their first ever game against Hawthorn, at Princes Park, by 12 points.


But still a win at the MCG proved elusive. They played Richmond at the MCG and bettered the 1970 state team, losing by only four points, with Rioli, Wilson and Mitchell in the Tigers’ best players.

It wasn’t until Mick Malthouse’s team met Richmond in Round 6 1990 (4th May) that the Eagles could claim, as Barker put it, “after nearly a century of failure by West Australian teams”, the honour of being the first senior team from WA to win a game against comparative opposition at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The win by 35 points, put them, for the first time, on the top of the AFL premiership ladder.


True it is that the hoodoo for a Western Australian representative team against the VFL at the MCG remains unbroken to this day, but there was a reckoning of sorts at North Port Oval on a chilly and gloomy May day in 2017, when the WA team became the first WA state team to defeat the VFL in Victoria, in a run that saw the team also defeat the Vics, Tasmania and South Australia in WA and the NEAFL in NSW and South Australia in Adelaide.


The prospect of the Black Swans ever playing the Big V at the MCG again, however, seems remote, even allowing for the periodic discussion – most recently revived this very week – about a return to state of origin games, an enticing prospect given the quality of the teams that SA, WA and the NEAFL could put on the field against Victoria. The MCG hoodoo for WA state looks like it might even run to exceed the 132 year record of the New York Yacht Club’s ownership of the America’s Cup, until the team from Perth snatched it in 1983, often said to have been the longest winning streak in sporting history.


But, even though the Eagles had recorded that historic win in 1990, and of course, went on to win two grand finals at the MCG in 1992 and 1994, there was still an MCG itch that remained unscratched for many more years. It was to beat Hawthorn at that famous ground.


You will recall from the history lesson above that the Eagles had downed the Hawks in 1987 at Princes Park. But they did not meet at the MCG until 2001 when the Hawks delivered a football lesson to their fellow bird of prey. It wasn’t until the Eagles premiership year of 2006 that West Coast were able to beat Hawthorn at the ground, winning in Round 14 on July 8th by 10 points. Quinten Lynch starred with 5 goals and won 3 Brownlow votes. Chris Judd was brilliant and won 2 votes. Sam Mitchell was Hawthorn’s best and won the one vote. Lance Franklin laid a bone crunching bump on Ben Cousins, Danny Kerr was reported and suspended for striking Sam Mitchell, and Mark Nicoski received a broken ankle which was to keep him out of the premiership winning team in September.


But that proved to be the only time that the Eagles were able to beat the Hawks at the MCG for many more years.


It could not really be argued any more that the conditions underfoot were a contributing factor. After the MCG Comm Games refurbishment, the ground’s drainage was superb and the surface remained solid and relatively firm even in the greatest of downpours, such as, well, such as occurred last Saturday.


The shape and size of the ground and its marked difference to the dimensions at Subiaco Oval, however, probably were. The Hawks’ ball control and game plan was ideally suited to the wide wings at the ‘G, whilst the Eagles, used to the long narrow playing field at Subiaco had relied on a long straight kicking corridor game to tall and leading forwards. Consequently a new MCG hoodoo was born for the Eagles and they struggled to beat anyone there for many years after the 2006 premiership win.


Indeed in the next ten years till the end of 2016, they played there 22 times for only 6 wins. They only ever won against Richmond (twice), Melbourne (thrice) and Carlton (once) and most certainly not against the Hawks whom they played there four times for no wins.


And of course, the most notable of the losses was in the 2015 grand final which Hawthorn won by 46 points. Also dispiriting was the loss by the same margin in round 2 2016 when the Eagles had every incentive to make amends for what had transpired at the same ground the October before.
My kids – aged 15 and 19 – and I (I was working in Perth in 2006) had never seen the Eagles beat the brown and golds at the Cricket Ground.


But then, after West Coast moved to the Optus stadium in 2018, with its shape and size resembling that of the Melbourne ground, a strange thing happened. The Eagles won every game they played at the MCG, including, of course, the 2018 flag, and the “replay” against Collingwood in Round 3 this year. In fact, in 2018, they were the only team in the AFL to win every game that they played in Victoria. What remained of the hoodoo for senior teams from the west had, plainly, significantly diminished.


That is not to say of course that West Coast should feel any entitlement or even favouritism when it plays at the MCG. The hurdles of travel and the evenness of the competition will always be a serious and sometimes insuperable barrier even for good teams.


And these were the thoughts uppermost in my mind as I ventured to the MCG on Saturday as the rain tumbled down. I felt the weight of history bearing down; the MCG hoodoo, the brown and gold hoodoo, and, after about 6 mils of rain, a flashback to my foot and the ball at Clifton Park that winter evening a quarter of a century ago. Having not been there I admit I didn’t call to mind the equivalent round in 2006 when we had, for the only time, beaten Hawthorn at the MCG, and so the omens and the historical baggage seemed to point only one way.


We were also without an MCG hero with Jeremy McGovern suspended for the game. But as the team ran out and a roar arose from underneath the stands where most patrons had camped to avoid the downpour, I remembered that it was a significant day for another reason; the return to the side of Nicholas Mark Naitanui. Here was someone else seeking to stare down the burden of history, returning from his second knee reconstruction, after being injured at the MCG in round 17 last year. For the sheer joy that he brings to the game, and possibly also for the pain of missing the 2018 premiership, there seemed to be universal good will for the big guy.


Measured by skill, unsurprisingly, the game wasn’t great. But as a contest of wills it developed its own momentum and the last quarter became gripping, enthralling and tense. Players lost sight of their own safety as they threw themselves in, none more so than young Oscar Allen who, with sublime courage, ran head on into a pack coming the other way tracking the ball over his shoulder to take a stunning and morale lifting mark that led to an Eagles goal that drew the team within one point of the Hawks.


Nic Nat ignored the sports scientists to stay on the park for the gripping final ten minutes and to dominate the clearances as if he had not missed a game. Jack Darling, playing one of his best games, marking the ball like it was dry and not the piece of soap that others were snatching at, also ignored a call to the interchange to notch his fifth goal. And Nic Nat’s fellow 2018 absentees – Andrew Gaff and Brad Shepherd – played as if they had something more to prove than most. Goals from Liam Ryan and the winner from Jamie Cripps, falling backwards in the teeming rain, were memorable. Worpel and O’Meara got a lot of the ball for the Hawks, and Jarman Impey was influential after Mark Hutchings twinged his hammy and sat out the rest of the game.


But the guy who was the best on ground, and whose effort and courage in appalling conditions for skilled football, was the difference between the teams, was another player drafted with Nic Nat in the 2008 draft, Luke Shuey. Speaking on SEN radio, Nick Dal Santo delivered the highest praise possible for Shuey; “You speak about trust and you talk about last quarters when the job has to be done and he has done it multiple times. You can look to him as a leader and know that he will do whatever it takes to get over the line. Trying conditions at the MCG on Saturday — pouring with rain — it was a matter of will and he willed them over the line.”


Fox Footy’s Josh Gabelich reported a remarkable fact and the stats to back it up; “Only one player in the entire competition — Richmond superstar Dustin Martin — has averaged more ranking points at the MCG than Shuey. Since Round 3, 2017, Shuey has averaged 30.6 disposals, 14.1 contested possessions, 9.0 ground ball gets, 7.1 clearances and 5.9 score involvements from seven appearances. On Saturday, it was Shuey who dragged the Eagles to victory over Hawthorn in the pouring rain, amassing a career-high 39 disposals — he had 15 in the last quarter alone — 20 contested possessions, 11 clearances, 11 inside 50s, nine tackles and 758 metres gained.”


That a player from WA might have that sort of record at the MCG was surprising, but Gabelich reminded readers that Shuey had grown up within 45 minutes of the ground. It was reflective of how much footy had changed even since the Eagles had entered the VFL. Twenty two of the forty six players on the present list are from outside WA. Like so many other things that we once took for granted, so much has changed and will never be the same.


Outside the ground I realised what the strange feeling was. I had never left this ground before having seen an Eagles win over the Hawks. In fact, any team win over the Hawks. Testament, no doubt, to Hawthorn’s proud history and recent strength, the century of losses for teams from WA and the more recent difficulties the Eagles had faced at the home of football before May 2017. About the same time WA had won in Victoria for the first time.


As I reached my car in Yarra Park the rain seemed to lighten. Like, I felt, the weight of history that had, at this park, lain on teams from the West for so long.



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  1. Matt Quartermaine says

    Brilliant John with a bonus history of WA footy at the MCG. What a match report. Cheers .

  2. Loved this piece. History, logic, heart and revenge. Brilliant John.
    Saturday was the first time I have felt we would be back on the MCG again for the last Saturday in September. I was strangely confident even when the Hawks came back in the third. This is a team that wants to win, and more importantly knows how to. Lots of tight wins in recent years now embedded in the team DNA. And I knew NicNait had sat out much of the third so he had something in the tank for the last. McEvoy rag dolled Hickey. Nic rag dolled McEvoy.
    Oscar Allen had his best game as a key defender, but I can’t see a place for another tall when McGovern and Barass are back. Shuey was second to Heppell in the Rising Star and both have been great players for their clubs, but Shuey’s wheels make him more damaging on big grounds.
    Only 4 non-contributors for the Eagles – Kennedy (he and Darling rarely fire together – I think partly it is one does the body donkey work for the other); Rioli (will be a match winner in the dry in September); Cameron (will be as good as brother Charlie but light and inexperienced now) and Masten (slow – the game has gone past him). Hutchings is a loss – he takes out the opposition best every week.
    Happy days. See you at the GF Lunch John.

  3. John Butler says

    John, I feel like my Victorian-centric perspective has had a decent dose of education after reading this. Particularly the different running patterns in and outside Vic – explains a lot.

    As a Carlton supporter, it’s funny how much better disposed to the Eagles I’ve been since last year’s GF. Can’t think why.

    This is a mighty piece.


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