IT’S STILL one of the most notorious incidents in Grand Final history but the man responsible for it has long since come to terms with his role in it – even if the opposition probably hasn’t. RON REED reports:
TIME HEALS all wounds, they say. But it is 44 years since Neil Balme, then a talented but rough-house Richmond ruckman, earned the wrath of everyone at Carlton, players and supporters, for an act of unmitigated violence against one of the Blues’ favourite sons, champion full-back Geoff Southby, and he still hasn’t been entirely forgiven, it seems.
Balme accepted an invitation from his old opponent, legendary Blues ruckman Percy Jones, to speak at the fortnightly Friday lunch Jones hosts at the North Fitzroy Arms pub, but Southby politely declined an invitation to attend despite Jones telling him Balme had agreed to make a public apology for what happened during the 1973 Grand Final. “It should be an interesting lunch,” Southby remarked dryly.
It was, with the menu provocatively including a main course called “knuckle steak.” Balme told a big crowd of guests he was “not proud, I must admit” of the infamous incident when he king-hit Southby, breaking his jaw. Southby had to be helped off the MCG and took no further part in the match, which the Tigers won by five goals. But nor was he ashamed of it, Balme said.
There was no apology issued, although the possibility of that may never have been any more than a figment of Jones’s imagination.
Jones said he also invited a third member of the Carlton team, David McKay, who had also been on the receiving end of Balme’s highly illicit tactics earlier in the season. McKay also declined to break bread with their old foe, although rather more bluntly than Southby. “Tell him to get ……,” he told Jones.
Some years ago, Carlton’s captain-coach at the time, John Nicholls, told me in an interview for the Herald Sun that Balme was a thug who lacked courage.
Balme, now back at Richmond where he is the football manager, is an affable character and always has been – except when the red mist descended on the field. So, what happened that day?
He reminded us that the Blues had kicked a record Grand Final score the previous year when Richmond were hot favourites. “We swore that was never going to happen again, so we were kind of committed to doing our best.
“I certainly never had any premeditation about doing anything to anyone but in my mind I was prepared to burn the boats, I guess. You do whatever you have to do to make sure you win.
“Geoff is a lovely fellow and has forgiven me … I think. He was far too good a player for his own good. It was a bit unlucky I whacked him a little bit too hard.
“It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, I must admit. I’m not that ashamed of myself because footy was different then – it’s kind of what happened.
“By nature, it’s not who I am. I have never had a fight in the street and am never likely to.
“You played footy, you fought to the death, to a degree.”
Balme was not even reported over the Southby hit by the only field umpire, Ian Robinson, but he agrees that if it happened today, “I would have got life!”
He laughed when he said there was a silver lining much later. His son, who was born far too late to see him play, was watching a “Sensational Seventies” video which captured many of his dastardly deeds. “His eyes were getting bigger and bigger and finally he said, ‘Is that you?’ He couldn’t believe it. It was a lot easier to get him to do things after that.”
There was no fiercer rivalry in the old VFL than Carlton-Richmond, and it is kept alive to this day with the two clubs now owning the first game of each season. While the older dark navy blues might have disliked Balme intensely – and they did – he enjoyed the frisson of playing against them.
“I love Carlton people and I loved playing against them,” he said. “It was the great rivalry of our time and there was some unpleasant stuff but they were great days of footy.”
Asked if he had made his peace with Southby – both men are now in their mid-60s – he said: “Yes, I have spoken to him many times. We were both advocates for the players’ association and he used to get back at me by botting cigarettes.”
Be that as it may, the smoke doesn’t appear to have entirely cleared.