VFL Round 5 (1933!) – St Kilda v South Melbourne: The Junction Oval – looking back

In the last week or so, it emerged that the AFL and the Victorian Government have been discussing the redevelopment of the Junction Oval. If the facility is capable of hosting first-class cricket games, so the thinking goes, the MCG can be freed up for football games at the start of the AFL season.

St Kilda Cricket Club began playing cricket at the ground in 1855. But the ground has hosted plenty of first-class football too:

  • Three VFL grand finals have been played at the ground (1898, 1899 & 1944).
  • St Kilda played 564 home matches for premiership points at the ground between 1897 and 1964.
  • As late as round 22 in the 1984 VFL season, it served as Fitzroy’s home ground.

In terms of memorable games, though, two occasions stand out. In August 1971, Carlton played Fitzroy at the Junction Oval. The Blues needed a win to reach the finals. The weather was fine at the long break; and Carlton trailed Fitzroy Trailing by 15 points. In the last stages of the third quarter, though, thick fog rolled across the ground. Do you remember the photograph published in The Herald? Shanahan and Southby pictured standing next to each other – confronted by a wall of seemingly impenetrable fog. The picture shows one of these men raising a hand above his eyes – as though this wholly futile gesture might help him to see downfield. In the dense fog of the final quarter, the field umpire reported Vin Waite for striking Neil Brown. The records show that Fitzroy outplayed Carlton in the fog, triumphing by 23 points. Of course, the final game of the 1971 home and away season is another story (What did Barrot say to Barassi at half time of that game?). There was no title defence; Carlton missed the finals by two match points.

But I want to focus on a more distant game at this ground: North Melbourne versus St Kilda in late May 1933. In this round 5 game, despite having only 15 players left at the end of a brutal match, St Kilda defeated North Melbourne by 14 points. The Argus described this contest as a “battle rather than a game”. The following account is based on the contemporary newspaper reports.

First, it is necessary to place this game in context. The performance of St Kilda in the first three rounds of the 1933 VFL season did not match pre-season expectations.

At the Junction Oval in the round 3 game, the home team struggled to combine in attack against Fitzroy. The St Kilda players lacked pace. “Hit Out” in The Truth reported that “the fastest Seasider was the rabbit that shot across the ground” in the third quarter. According to the report, a disgruntled St Kilda fan had released the animal from a bag. Colin Deane, the club captain and playing coach, broke his shoulder. But the excellent performance of Stuart King provided one glimmer of hope for the club. A qualified solicitor, King had been recruited from the University Blacks. This was his first run in the senior side for the 1933 season. While King had captained the senior team in 1932, he had lined up for the club’s reserve team in the first few games of the 1933 season.

This loss prompted a “reform” group to call for the resignation of the selectors. The members of this group criticised the selection of unfit players. “Hit Out” suggested that King’s selection for the clash against Fitzroy had been the catalyst for the dispute.

The general committee of the club met on the Monday night after the Fitzroy game. As a result of his injury, Colin Deane resigned as captain. A majority of members expressed a lack of confidence in the selection committee. Three members of the selection committee – including its chairman, Dave McNamara – then resigned in protest. Ironically, another “reform” group had succeeded in having McNamara appointed to the selection committee in the previous year. A journalist from The Sun News Pictorial interviewed Mr J. Lord, the club secretary, after this meeting. Lord told the journalist that “there had been some plain talk and it had done a lot of good”. Dave McNamara told the same journalist that the loudest critics of the selection committee had never played the game.

This resignation caused a sensation, given McNamara’s legendary reputation at the club. He was one of the most elegant kickers of the football. He had been able to punt the ball longer than any of his contemporaries at any VFL club. He played his first game for the “Seasiders” in 1905. A dispute with the committee in 1909 led him to join Essendon – a member of the Association at that time.

After training on the Thursday night, the players chose Clarrie Hindson as their new captain. The fact that he was captain of the Post and Telegraph team in the Wednesday League appears to have worked in his favour. Stuart King had put himself forward as a candidate. But he withdrew at the last moment. He was made captain of St Kilda in 1932, his second year at the club. “Hit Out” in The Truth reported that, had King been made captain, “there would have immediately been a big bust up”. Certain members of the general committee threatened to resign in the event that King regained the captaincy. They did not appear to be concerned about the fact that he re-joined the selection committee. McNamara was present at this meeting, informing the club that he would not resign from the general committee. The Sun News Pictorial informed its readers that, having selected their new captain, “the players had tea together and a musical evening followed”. Unfortunately, the report fails to throw any light on the precise nature of the musical entertainment.

Against this background of internal strife, the “Seasiders” travelled to the Lakeside Oval to play South Melbourne in front of a crowd of 18,000 people. South Melbourne had spent huge sums of money in recruiting champion players from Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia. This group of players – including Nash, Bertram and Faul – came to be known as the “foreign legion”. Combined with local players, this group helped South Melbourne to win the flag that year. It was a season in which Pratt kicked 109 goals.

The final margin was four points in favour of the Bloods. Many considered that the “Seasiders” had been unlucky to lose this exciting tussle. Although Bill Mohr had a quiet day at full forward, his team mates played superbly. A burst of six goals from Pratt, Reville and Bertram saved South Melbourne from defeat. Pratt put the home side in front in the dying moments of the game. On the strength of this performance, “Hit Out” predicted that that the St Kilda would beat North Melbourne in the next round: “…they should be humdingers on their own garden patch.”

The “Shinboners” played the “Seasiders” in the round 5 game at the Junction Oval. At the first change, however, St Kilda led the visitors by five points. Frank Roberts, who went on to win two flags playing for Melbourne, kicked a goal in the last moments of the first half. At half-time, St Kilda led by six points. It was a violent affair. The visiting team lived up to its reputation for playing a tough and provocative style of football.

There is no record of what Colin Deane said to his players at half-time in the St Kilda dressing room. Sucking on their lemons, many of the players would have been shocked at the sight of six team mates receiving sustained medical attention. The captain was thought to have a broken fibula. Mohr and Roberts were believed to have broken ribs. “Weary” Cave and Roy “Tiger” Bence were receiving treatment for cuts to their heads. Having received some treatment for his sprained thumb, Bill Downie decided that he could to continue to take part in the ruck contests. Despite the good work of Dr Jones and Jack McConnell (a trainer who had been at the club for 45 years), it became clear that St Kilda would play the second half with less than eighteen men.

Sixteen men took the field for St Kilda at the beginning of the third quarter. Colin Deane opted to play with one less forward and one less follower. Any concerns about the effect of this numerical disparity vanished when the “Seasiders” matched and mastered their opponents. The St Kilda players were faster and more elusive, moving the ball to their forward line with speed and precision. The North Melbourne players became increasingly frustrated with their inability to match their gallant opponents. Tempers flared and, according to “Onlooker” in The Argus, “the play developed into a battle rather than a game”. Roy “Tiger” Bence, St Kilda’s tenacious rover, was knocked out in a violent collision. He was carried from the ground, reducing the home side to fifteen men. A few seconds later, a North player threw Harry Compte to the ground. This action prompted some St Kilda players to remonstrate with their opponents. Players from both teams gathered in the centre of the ground and the umpire was forced to stop play for a few minutes.

St Kilda scored its tenth goal within twenty seconds of the bell sounding to signal the start of the final quarter. The North Melbourne tall man, Lewis, made a sporting gesture at the beginning of the final quarter. He ordered a team mate to leave the centre square, ensuring that each team had one follower at the centre bounce contests. In any event, he thumped the ball forward at the first ruck contest. Having seized the ball, Jack Davis made a precision pass to Frank Roberts. This passage of play concluded with Stuart King kicking the goal. The “Seasiders” continued to dominate their opponents throughout the final quarter. Bourne was cool and polished on one wing, while Neil was fast and tenacious on the other one. Both initiated decisive thrusts forward for St Kilda in the final quarter. The fifteen “Seasiders” managed a famous and improbable victory. At the final bell, the margin was fourteen points.

The number and extent of the injuries were documented on the front page of The Sun News Pictorial on the following Monday. Kicking a total of four goals, the Argus named King as one of St. Kilda’s best players that day. It also nominated John Anderson, St Kilda’s centre half forward, as the other outstanding player – “his dazzling runs, soaring marking and remarkable stamina were delightful to watch”.

A journalist from Table Talk visited St Kilda at the Junction Oval on the Tuesday night following this famous victory. According to his report, on entering the rooms, he was overwhelmed by a mixed odour of iodoform, lint and iodine. The club doctor ran through a lengthy list of injuries, almost all of which had been acquired in the game against North Melbourne. Two club legends, Dave McNamara and Wells Eicke, looked on as the doctor attempted to patch up the injured men. Among the injured, Clarrie Hindson had a broken ankle and Bill Mohr had two broken ribs.

St Kilda did not make the finals in 1933. But the club presented a medal to each player who had played a part in this triumph. The team had many champion players. Like many of its successors, however, this team failed to live up to its potential.

If the oval is redeveloped, and if you go along to watch St Kilda train or play, see if you can picture in your mind’s eye the courageous “Seasiders” battling almost ineluctably against the “Shinboners” in late May 1933.

About Rob Heath

Rob Heath is a barrister based in Melbourne. He enjoys watching the football at Kardinia Park with his father and son. In 1999, Rob, Adrian Anderson, Peter Cullen and Jim Main complied & edited a book titled “COACH! Inspiration & Perspiration” (Information Australia, Melbourne, 2000).

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