by Dr Rod Gillett
There’s been a Priest playing footy in the Riverina spanning five generations for over a century.
The focus of this piece was going to be on Wagga Tigers legend and former South Melbourne player Doug Priest – “one of the most highly regarded footballers, coach, and later non-playing coaches in Riverina football” – according to the history of the Ariah Park-Mirrol Football Club 1953-1983 – but then it became apparent that the Priest family football dynasty in the area stretched back over a century.
It all began with Norman Priest in the early part of the 20th century when he started having a kick with Methul in the Ariah Park & District Football Association.
Since then the roll-call of Priests playing football has been Norman’s sons Bob (Betric), Mervyn (Rannock, Ganmain, Wagga), Lionel (Rannock, Wagga) and Warwick (Turvey Park) , grandson Doug (Holbrook, South Melbourne, Wagga Tigers), grandsons Steven and Andrew (both Wagga Tigers), and, now great grandson, Kobe (Wagga Tigers).
The first evidence of Norman playing is in a team photo of 1912 when he was aged 22; it is almost certain that he started playing earlier than that. He later played with Rannock along with his brothers when that team was formed after the First World War
A highlight of Norman’s career was playing in a combined Ariah Park and District team that beat a Sydney representative team at Erskineville Oval in 1913. He was later a league and club official.
Doug’s father, Merv began playing footy aged 14 for Rannock in the district league of the same name in 1932. He won the competition best and fairest in 1938 aged 19. In 1939 & 1940 he played for Rannock on Saturdays and Coolamon on Sundays in the South West League. Then he went off to serve his country in the AIF 29th battalion as a sergeant in WWII; while stationed in Melbourne in 1941 he played Seconds for Footscray in the VFL.
After the war Merv returned home in 1946 and began playing for Ganmain on Saturdays and Wagga on Sundays till Ganmain found out and he had to settle for just playing for Ganmain. He played in the Maroons’ premiership team win over Narrandera and was named best player.
He joined the Wagga club then playing in the Wagga and District Football League as captain-coach 1947-48. His brother Lionel joined him at Wagga from 1947-54.
He stayed on as player at Wagga Tigers as they became known in 1950 and transferred to the Albury and District competition (now known as the Farrer league) until he retired in 1954. In between he squeezed a season as coach of Collingullie, then in the Central Riverina League, to runner-up to Boree Creek in 1953.
Merv captained the Wagga and District league against North Melbourne in Wagga in 1951 and the Albury and District league against North Melbourne in 1952 also at Robertson Oval, Wagga.
Merv and family moved to Holbrook in 1959 to take up a position at the Pastures Protection Board and was instrumental in setting up the Holbrook junior football teams which he then coached for a few years (therefore he was Doug’s first coach). He was also a selector for the Holbrook Football Club.
Doug began playing senior football for Holbrook in 1962 and was a member of the 1964 premiership team under ex Footscray defender Brian Prior that beat Temora.
After stints at South Melbourne in the VFL (1966-69) where he played 26 games, and coaching Ariah Park- Mirrool in the South West League (1970-71) he went to Wagga Tigers in 1972 as coach from till 1976 leading Tigers to a premiership in 1975 over Henty.
Doug played a leading role in the 1977 premiership victory over archrivals North Wagga under the illustrious Laurie Pendrick, with whom Doug shared the competition best and fairest award, the Baz medal.
He retired after playing in the 1978 premiership under ex Melbourne and Glenelg player Colin Anderson, who had taken over as coach from him. He played in four premierships: one more than his father.
Then he begun a highly successful involvement in representative football as a coach and selector at the representative level while continuing involvement at Wagga Tigers in all manner of off-field roles (including president 2008-09) that continue to this day with the club’s history project.
Doug was a State selector in 1979-80 when NSW played in the national Escort championships under Allan Jeans narrowly lost to Fitzroy at the Sydney Showgrounds after leading at half-time. The next season the Sky Blues beat the ACT but lost to eventual premier Richmond by a narrow margin in the next round.
Doug also coached the Farrer league to great success during this period including three State Championship victories, the most notable being in 1980 at Deniliquin when the bush boys beat a star-studded Sydney team coached by ex VFL star Sam Kekovich, then coaching Newtown.
Down by 8 goals at half-time, the Farrer team showed enormous spirit and courage to prevail over their more fancied opponent. This followed previous coaching triumphs in 1976 and 1978.
Following the restructure of the leagues in the Riverina in 1982, Doug took on the task of coaching the Riverina Football league (RFL) rep team in the Victorian Country Football League (VCFL) championships.
Doug bought together the players from old rivals Farrer and South West to defeat the Wimmera league, but to lost by 7 points to eventual champion, the Ovens and Murray league. It galvanized the new competition. He enjoyed enormous respect from the players and coaches in the new RFL.
When asked about his great record as a coach, Doug told me that Norm Smith had given him a copy of his coaching notes when he went from South Melbourne to coach Ariah Park-Mirrool but that working closely with Allan Jeans had taught him about “man-management”.
“Jeansie really knew how to get the best out of individual players while Norm (Smith) was more old school, strong on discipline and values. I learn a lot from both”, Doug told me.
Doug’s sons, Steven and Andrew, have followed in the footsteps of their forebears. Both have played nearly all their football with Wagga Tigers, and between them have won a staggering fifteen premierships!
Steven played in eight premierships, while Andrew played in seven flag-winning teams for Tigers.
Andrew (aka Horse) is the games record-holder at Wagga Tigers having played 423 games; Steven amassed 360 games. Steven also played twenty-two games for the Sydney Swans Reserves in 1995.
Steven won the club best and fairest five times and represented NSW on five occasions including against the VFA on the MCG in 1995. He was vice-captain of the State team that won the Australian Country Championships in 2002.
Just like their great grandfather, grandfather, and father they have served their clubs in various capacities as officials and junior or senior coaches.
Now the baton has been passed to Steven’s son, Kobe, who played in Tigers’ Under 18 team last season. He has big boots to fill, but all the Priests that have come before him have all had the ability and character to be successful as players and contribute significantly to
to the game.
Image: (l to r) – Doug, Steven, Dad (Merv) & Kobe with the football.