By Dr Rodney Gillett
VFL club St Kilda, in 1960, on the cusp of the club’s most successful period in history, sensationally lost to the Murray Football League in a mid-season match in Tocumwal, a small town on the Murray River situated half-way between Echuca and Yarrawonga on the NSW side.
While matches between VFL clubs and local clubs/leagues were common up until 1970, usually when there was a bye for an interstate game, it was very rare for the locals to beat the big boys from the city.
Research by Paul Daffey, who wrote about this game for The Age in 2010, shows that there were only two other wins by country teams over VFL visitors: in 1901 Rutherglen beat South Melbourne, and in 1914, a Goulburn Valley rep team beat Carlton at Tatura.
St Kilda, missing Brownlow medallists, Neil Roberts and Verdun Howell who were both playing for Victoria, shot out to a seven-goal quarter time lead, led by four goals at half-time, and two at the final break. The lead changed four times in the final quarter, then the Murray league team drew clear to win by 14 points.
The Murray league-St Kilda match was also significant because it was Allan Jean’s last game. He had played for Murray league clubs Tocumwal and Finley before joining the Saints.
In 1960, when was 26, Jeans was battling to overcome strained rib cartilages, but according to Daffey, he was determined to play against the Murray league. After the game, he succumbed to his injury and became St Kilda’s non-playing Reserves coach.
The next season he was appointed senior coach and in a sixteen-year period coached St Kilda to its one and only premiership in 1966, as well as grand finals in 1965 and 1971. Later, of course, he coached Hawthorn to three premierships.
The 1960 match was played at the Tocumwal Recreation Reserve, which has been the scene for the biggest games in the area, including representative fixtures and Murray league grand finals from 1931 until the Toc footy club left the league for the Picola league in 2014.
The ground is in an idyllic setting alongside the Murray River set amongst the river gums. And it’s a long ground: 190 metres from fence-to-fence and 150 metres wide.
It has first-rate facilities including a pavilion that includes a viewing area and social rooms on one level, and change-rooms below. Levee banks built up over the years protect the ground from flooding.
“It’s a big ground to play on” testifies Jim Cullen, who played 319 games for the Bloods from 1957-77 and is widely regarded as Tocumwal’s greatest player ever, having won the competition best and fairest in 1965 and played in the much-celebrated 1967 premiership.
“You could move about anywhere you wanted to”, Cullen who played in the centre told me in an interview for this piece. “There was plenty of room to move. I liked it very much”.
Cullen was pitted against some of the best players in the league that at that time who were ex VFL players coaching in the Murray league including former Footscray 1961 grand final star Graham Ion (Deniliquin), ex St Kilda back pocket player Brian Walsh (Cobram), and former champion St Kilda centreman Lance Oswald at Strathmerton.
He missed the St Kilda match in 1960 due to injury but played against Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Footscray – all games were played on the Tocumwal Recreation Reserve.
The Tocumwal Recreation Reserve which consists of 61 acres was gazetted as a public park in 1882. Football was first played on the reserve in 1893 on the site of the Pony Club when the newly formed Tocumwal Football Club took on cross-river rivals Cobram. They commenced playing on the current site in 1909.
Tocumwal were a foundation club of the Murray Football League formed in 1931; their two greatest rivals, Finley and Berrigan, joined two years later.
The Bloods’ finest moment in the Murray league came in 1967 with a premiership win over Cobram coming after grand final losses to Berrigan (1965) and Deniliquin (1966) to break a premiership drought of twenty-one years.
Coached by Don Whitten, who played in Yarraville’s 1961 VFA premiership team after playing with his brother Ted at Footscray from 1956-58, came to coach Toc in 1964 and took over the licence of the Tattersall’s Hotel.
In a match-winning move, Whitten placed star centreman Jim Cullen at full-forward where he booted 5 goals. Jim told me, “We got a good start, and hung on all day”. Other good players were former Rochester and Collingwood player Julian Vise at centre-half forward and key defender Jeff Beasley.
Tocumwal won its tenth and last Murray league premiership in 2009 when the new complex on the river side of the oval was opened. Julian Vise
The new scoreboard named in honour of Jim Cullen was constructed in 1977 following Jim’s retirement from playing and coaching. He then served on the committee for 20 years including ten as president as well as a trustee of the Recreation Reserve.
Meanwhile, the toilet block that a young Allan Jeans had helped build in the early 1950s has been replaced by more modern conveniences.
Acknowledgements: Jeff Seamer, Alan Jones, Jim Cullen and Greg Whatmore