by Tom Goss
In 1978 I received news of my first permanent posting as a teacher after finishing my teacher training at UNSW. I had been appointed to Coolamon Central school where I was to spend the remainder of my teaching career.
Coolamon is a small farming town about 40kms south west of Wagga and has always been a staunch Australian Football town. I quickly became enamoured with the Coolamon Rovers Football Club. Over the subsequent years I have served, at various times, as player, selector, committee man, Vice President, publicity officer, game day scribe and supporter.
Once again my timing was unerring. Between 1979 and 1985, the club played in six grand finals for one win, three losses and two draws. In 1982, the first year of the newly formed Riverina Football League (RFL), combining the best of the South West and Farrer leagues the ‘Hoppers played East Wagga in the Grand final only to lose by a heart breaking five points. Captain Coach Garry Buchanan not only suffered the agony of leading a losing team but had to endure the indignity of watching his direct opponent, Mark Hull, accept the man of the match award.
In 83, Garry Buchanan was replaced by Russell Campbell as captain-coach. The decider was a replay of the previous year. “Bucky” had closely analysed his poor performance and decided he hadn’t been fit enough. Accordingly, throughout that cold winter, on non training days, he set off on punishing early morning runs to ensure, if the chance came again, he would not be found wanting. I had retired from football the previous year but still wished to maintain fitness for my other great sporing love, cricket, and I was Bucky’s running partner throughout that frosty winter.
The grand final was a classic. After 100 minutes of brilliant football from both sides the scores were locked together 119 all. That night in the clubrooms where a celebration, or a wake had been planned, and everyone was as deflated as a security captured beach ball; Bucky went around to every player, lifting their spirits and impressing on them that the flag was still there to be won.
The replay was, if possible, even better. With a minute remaining in the third quarter the teams still couldn’t be separated. Then big burly Albert Suidgeest snapped a goal from a kick-in to put the ‘Hoppers six points in front at the final break. The last quarter was as magical as a conjurer’s convention from Coolamon’s point of view and goals rained down like manna from heaven. The award for best player in the grand final was adjudged over the two games. The unanimous winner, Garry Buchanan.
Drawn grands finals are rare but It’s rarer than stone Gargoyle turds for the same team play in another within two years. Incredibly, in 1985 Coolamon was involved in yet another grand final tie, this time against Wagga Tigers.
Earlier that year the team was in disarray. The coach that season was local product, Neil Pleming. Only slight in stature, affable and good humoured off the field Neil was a simmering volcano on it. He attacked the contest ferociously, had the ball handling skills of a horse Gelder (and collected more kicks) his tackles crunched like the grip of an adult anaconda and he could deliver a shirt front to flatten a mature bull. He demanded nothing less from his team mates. Unfortunately, some were just not physically capable of his style of play.
Things came to a head early in the season following a monumental flogging from old rivals Ganmain by more than 150 points. To be beaten by Ganmain anytime is a dagger in the heart for any Coolamon supporter but a monumental thrashing is unthinkable. Neil’s three quarter time speech was a five word masterpiece of brevity, conciseness and truncated emotion. ‘You can all get fucked.’ he yelled before storming off, smoke steaming from the ears and nose, to await the last quarter bounce.
I was Neil’s selector that year and the club seemed headed straight for a cliff. At that stage the chances of Coolamon playing off for the flag were on a par with Julia Gillard delivering Alan Jones’ eulogy.
From that early season wreck, the team regrouped. An entire club meeting cleared the air somewhat. Plem tempered his fire and brimstone methods a little but his coaching style, pure personal example, the foundation stone of which was an unrelenting attack on the ball quickly converted the players. A revitalised, united Coolamon was able to reverse that humiliating loss to Ganmain on its own patch of turf in the preliminary final.
The Grand final was another Herculean clash. Both teams ran themselves to exhaustion but couldn’t be separated at the final siren. Astonishingly, at the 26 minute mark of the last quarter in the replay the scores were still locked together. One team had to break and it was the battle fatigued, injury riddled ‘Hoppers, facing a team that was fresher and equally determined which couldn’t raise one last mighty effort. Apparently the Wagga players on their lap of honour, kept glancing behind, haunted by the prospect that Coolamon was still coming.