Never to be forgotten: When the Tigers went to war with arch enemy Carlton

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RICHMOND FANS need very long memories to recall the Tigers’ greatest era, which was in the sixties and seventies when they played in five grand finals, winning four flags, all under legendary coach Tom Hafey. Two of those play-offs – with contrasting results – were in successive years against arch enemy Carlton and they were, to say the least, rugged affairs – especially concerning one highly-controversial incident involving Tiger ruckman Neil Balme and Blues defender Geoff Southby. The ill-feeling lingered long. Nearly 30 years later, in 2001, Richmond again defeated the Blues, this time in a semi-final – their last finals win until the triumph over Geelong last Friday night. In the lead-up to the 2001 encounter, Sportshounds’ chief writer RON REED revisited the 72-73 Grand Finals for the Herald Sun and discovered that a few old war wounds still hadn’t healed, especially from the Blues’ perspective. This is an edited version of his report:

NEARLY THREE DECADES hasn’t been long enough for Carlton people to forgive or forget Neil Balme

They probably never will.

The former Richmond ruckman and forward is still being accused of thuggery for his explosive impact on the 1973 Grand Final, the second chapter in a two-year war that will forever define the deep and often bitter rivalry between these two proud old clubs.

John Nicholls, the Blues’ captain-coach at the time, opened up the old wounds again when, asked to recall the match, he launched into a blistering attack on Balme, claiming that not only was he a thug, but that he lacked courage.

Balme, now football manager at Collingwood and as amiable a soul as you would meet in a March from Brisbane to Fremantle, responded with not the icy indignation or red-mist anger you might expect from someone having his character called into question in such an insulting way.  Instead, applying the calm perspective that comes after a lifetime in a game for tough men, he shrugged and said, in effect, that when the stakes were high, s….happens.  Or used to.

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He’s not proud of it and he’s not ashamed of it.

“It” being of course, the thunderous punch with which he shattered the jaw of an unsuspecting Geoff Southby, the champion full-back of his era.  Southby was unable to play the second half and, with Big Nick himself in a fog, after being felled by little-known Richmond defender Laurie Fowler – one of footy’s most famous versions of David v Goliath – the Tigers won the flag by five goals.

It was a major upset, just as it had been the previous year when the Blues beat Richmond by 20 points in the highest-scoring “Granny” of all time.

To this day, the Tigers haven’t quite forgiven themselves for losing in 1972 when they had the wood all over Carlton.  And Nicholls still believes that he had command of a superior outfit in 1973 and should have and would have won but for injury and illness – and, yes, Balme’s unorthodox and highly illicit intervention.

“May the better team win,” is an old sporting saying that history now suggests was about as relevant back then as three cheers for the umpy.

Emotions ran so high that Richmond’s legendary coach, Tom Hafey, took six weeks to recover his mental equilibrium after the ’72 loss, having visited dark places in his soul that he never knew existed.  To hear him talk about it even now, the word “suicidal” springs to mind.

He-man Hafey is nobody’s idea of a drama queen, but he says:  “It really knocked the stuffing out of me. It still does. I could see how you could get so depressed that you could do stupid things.”

Only a game?  Not to the Tigers of old, who were in the middle of the most powerful era in the club’s colourful history.  They had won in 1967 and again, against Carlton, in 1969 and would win again in 1973 and ’74, giving Hafey’s Heroes four flags and an ego to match.  They were confident and arrogant – so was Carlton after its comeback triumph over Collingwood in 1970 – and maybe just a bit too much so.

In ’72, the Tigers had beaten the Blues at every turn except the second semi-final, which was drawn.  But then they won the replay by 41 points and the Grand Final looked a formality.  “It was hardly worth (them) turning up,” Hafey says ruefully now.

“But nobody told Carlton that.”

Even before the siren ended the replay, Nicholls realised his game plan, based on defence, couldn’t hope to counter Hafey’s trademark style of all-out attack.

So, at training the following morning, he took aside a handful of his most senior players, men of the ilk of Robert Walls, Alex Jesaulenko and Kevin Hall, for the chat that changed the course of history.

Nicholls played a then-record 328 matches and did just about everything there is to do in the game, but that Sunday sermon remains a standout point of pride.

“We’d been thrashed and had our tails between our legs, but instead of having a witch-hunt about what had gone wrong, we had to remain positive,” he said.

“I told them we would still win the Grand Final.  We had to beat St Kilda in the preliminary final, but we could always beat them.  And then we were going to completely change our game plan for Richmond.”

The plot was labelled top secret and those in on it were warned that they would never be forgiven if it leaked to the Tigers.

In essence, it was simple:  they would play Richmond at its own game.

“I decided to forgo the defensive measures and percentage things that we had been doing, encourage the backline to attack, and picked our best possible forward line. If they kicked 100 points, we were going to kick 150.”

In fact, Richmond kicked 150 and Carlton topped it with a record 28.9 (177).

Moved from his usual roles in the centre and defence to full-forward, Jesaulenko kicked seven goals.  Walls contributed six from centre-half-forward.

And in a master stroke, Nicholls stationed himself permanently in the forward pocket and ordered his long-time understudy, Perc Jones, to ruck all day. “But only after telling me I had to shave off my Zapata moustache,” Jones claims, adding another strange entry to his personal oddball file.

Shouldering more responsibility than he had ever been trusted with, Jones played the game of his life and Nicholls kicked six goals.

There was plenty of luck involved in some of those goals, Nicholls being credited with an early confidence builder that in fact came off his knee in a goal-square pack.

“But we made the play, we won the game,” Nicholls says.  “Tommy wasn’t a great tactician and it just worked beautifully.  We caught them completely by surprise.”

The Tigers were shattered.  They had lost the unlosable flag.

“That’s the toughest thing that can happen when you’re a coach, to lose the premiership when you’re the best team,” Hafey said.

“Sometimes you can look back and say, ‘Oh well, at least we got there, the boys did a good job we’re disappointed, but we played a good side.’  Not in this case.  We weren’t just disappointed, we were embarrassed.  Six weeks after the game I was still thinking ‘Poor old me, poor old me.’ I wasn’t going to see anyone because they’d all want to talk football and I just couldn’t do it.

“So, I didn’t do anything.  I was just in a state of shock.  One night, I was driving home and I suddenly said to myself out loud – anyone driving past would have thought I had gone mad – ‘Hey, I’ve gotta snap out of this.  It’s over, finished, done. I can’t do anything about it now.  But I can do something about 1973.’”

The new season saw Carlton convince many good judges it was now the better side, even though it finished third, Richmond second and Collingwood first.

Carlton easily accounted for the Tigers and the Magpies to be first into the playoff and was hot favourite.

However, Nicholls had two major problems.  His rovers, Barry Armstrong and Trevor Keogh, the engine room of the side with a minimum 25 possessions each every week without fail, had appendicitis and a hamstring strain respectively.

They had to be replaced by a journeyman rover named Brian Walsh and a debutant in Vinnie Catoggio, who had a shocker.

Some people pointed fingers in that direction afterwards, but not Nicholls.

“You used to pick rovers in those days and you were lucky to have one good one,” he said. “We had two, but we certainly didn’t have four.”

To make matters worse, Richmond had one of the best of all time in Kevin Bartlett, who was duly best on the ground.

“Catoggio proved later he was just a fringe player, a well-balanced ball-player who couldn’t get a hard ball.  But at the time he was the best we had, so I don’t blame it on those things,” Nicholls said.

Five weeks later, Nicholls was to watch in utter frustration as the famous South Melbourne trainer Bill Mitchell used his so-called magic hands to fix Keogh’s still-sore hammy in five minutes, having discovered a nerve out of place.  If Carlton had taken him to Mitchell in the first place, he probably could have played.

Nicholls remains convinced that the absence of Armstrong and Keogh “killed us”.  Others believe the death blow was administered as early as the first five minutes when Fowler flattened Nicholls with a shirt-front.  Nicholls got up and goaled from the free kick, even though he was seeing stars.

Nicholls can’t remember much about it, having been concussed, but he says it was overrated as an influence on the outcome.  “I made Fowler famous but I wasn’t a key player at that stage.  I was 35 and struggling to get a kick,” he said.

But where it did matter was that he was captain-coach and trying to run things from on the field.  Not until half-time did the match committee realise how much trouble he was in and by then the damage had been largely done, Richmond leading by 26 points.  By then, too, Southby had been helped off, not to return.  Both coaches acknowledge that it was a crucial loss.

Nobody retaliated, certainly not Balme’s direct opponent, Vin Waite, who was plenty big enough to take on anyone.  Nicholls is reluctant to overtly bag his old teammate, but says: “The only one down there who could have done anything was Vin Waite and I was disappointed he didn’t do anything.  In finals, the game goes so quickly that you don’t get a chance to even up that much but, he was the one who should have come in and done something about it straight away.”

Jones, the biggest man in the team, has also worn flak over that but he says: “Balme was full-forward and if we had whacked him we might have given away a goal, which we couldn’t afford to do.”

Jones recalls that when the Blues and Tigers met the following season, Nicholls called him and three other senior players together before the game and told them Balme was not to walk off the ground unassisted.

So, what did you do?  “I went out and whacked David Cloke, who was a teenager playing his first game,” Jones sheepishly admits.  “Wallsy just looked at me and asked what I’d done that for.  I said ‘Well, that’s the square-up.  I’ve done my bit.’  Wallsy just rolled his eyes. Years later, Clokey asked me the same thing and I gave him the same answer. He just rolled his eyes, too.”

Back to the GF war zone:  Nicholls also believes the umpire, Ian Robinson, should have reacted, but he did nothing.  “I discussed it with him later and he didn’t think it was reportable, even after watching a replay,” Nicholls says.

He does not bother to disguise his scorn for Robinson on that day.  Nor for Balme. “Balme was a thug,” he said.  “He could have been a good player. He had a lot of talent.”

Nicholls insists that he has never been “crooked on” Balme and does not blame him for the result.  He was just a factor in it.  “They were the best side on the day and I say so, so I’ve never regarded it as something they stole from us.  But we were dead stiff because we had these things happen,” he said. He refers mainly to the two missing stars, rather than the violence.

Balme had broken Carlton star David McKay’s jaw in a similar incident the previous season and the big Tiger seemed to personify an ugly relationship between the two clubs. But Nicholls says that the clubs were rivals rather than enemies.

“We used to play against Francis Bourke, Kevin Sheedy and so on.  They were tough blokes, you respected them and they were mates,” he said.  “Balme had a reputation for being a bit of a grouter.

“Balme probably wasn’t as game as he should have been.  He was a big, strong, well-built bloke, but was basically a permanent forward pocket. He didn’t go into the ruck much, and if he did he didn’t know much about it.  Playing as a permanent forward pocket is an easy game

“I’ve respected him since as a person and I like him as a person, but I didn’t respect him as a player.  He used to sort of dwell on players and with his big, strong frame he should’ve been doing more courageous things.”

Balme, who later coached Melbourne, copped it sweet when he was shown a transcript of Nicholls’ scathing remarks.  “It’s all a long time ago.  Things have changed,” he said.  “I’ll just have to rest with the record.  There’s no way to lessen or justify it.  Things happen.  Let me say that I’m particularly proud of being involved with the Richmond Football Club and what was achieved, but you don’t necessarily have to be proud of everything that you did.

“Leigh Matthews said recently that things were different then and he was right.  There are different standards now.  You’d get 10 years for something like that now.

“It was an enormously competitive environment.  We had great respect for Carlton and a burning desire to win.  That manifested itself in all sorts of ways.”

Balme, who says he can still rarely go anywhere without being asked about the incident, was challenged again only recently by Carlton’s outspoken president, John Elliott.

“I said, ‘John, it was 20-odd years ago, but I’m flattered that Carlton still care about it,’” he said.

“There was a wonderful competitive spirit between the two clubs and some things you did you’re not super proud of.  But there was no premeditation or malice.  Anyway, I’ve made my peace with Geoff Southby and David McKay many times since.  They are terrific characters and there is no problem there. I think they understand that I don’t behave off the field like I might have on it sometimes.”

Not surprisingly, Hafey stands by his man, too. He agrees there was no premeditation.

“It was a spur of the moment thing,” he said. “You’ve gotta play ’em hard. I think everybody would have been aware it was a Grand Final, probably nearly anything goes, but I didn’t say to Balmey I want you to knock this bloke off or that bloke. It just worked out that way.”

Hafey regards Balme as a very good player who would have been up with the champion ruckmen of his era, such as Brownlow medallist Graham Moss, if he had worked harder on his fitness.

“He could really play,” he said.  “He used to take marks on his chest in packs.  A lot of people would under-rate him, I think, because they just remember him as the fellow who skittled Southby, but he played a lot of good football.”

Hafey believes that the Tigers were never going to lose that match, no matter what, because they were so ashamed of the previous year. He recalls starting what was normally a 30-minute speech in the rooms at Punt Rd and stopping after five because he could see they were “men on a mission” and needed no motivation or instruction.

“We walked to the MCG together and not a word was said,” Hafey said. “They all just had this mad stare. If Elle MacPherson had walked past in the nude they wouldn’t have noticed.  One player, Paul Sproule, told me later it was the easiest day’s coaching of my life because there was no way known that mob was going to get anywhere near us. He was right.”

It is no coincidence that Richmond’s best players included Bartlett, Sheedy, Royce Hart and Michael Green, names that will always epitomise the heart and soul of Tigerland.

Maybe, says Hafey, the 1972 defeat was a blessing in heavy disguise, providing the motivation to win not only in 1973, but 1974, too.

“Sometimes you get more out of defeat than you do from victory,” he mused.

History will remember the two coaches differently.  Hafey was only ever an average player in 67 games, but established himself as a very successful and respected mentor.

Nicholls was an all-time great player – the best Hafey says he saw – but was deprived of the stamp of greatness as a coach that successive premierships might have provided.

Both eventually left their clubs after falling out with officials, Nicholls having been forcibly retired as a player.

But time heals most wounds and both go back regularly now. When they do, the momentous events of 1972-73 are often on the agenda, and this weekend is likely to be no exception.

  • TOM HAFEY died in 2014.
  • NEIL BALME returned to Richmond this season as football manager and has been a key figure on the Tigers’ trek to the Preliminary Final.
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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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