Footy on the Banks of the Murray

    Grand Final day at the Tocumwal Recreation Reserve 2009
        (From Miles Wilks, Australian Football Clubs in NSW)

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.

      Julian Vise

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

PIG TALES – what a great read!!!

University football clubs differ from other footy clubs. And the club from the Charles Sturt University in Wagga, the mighty Bushpigs, is different again.

Every university football club around Australia goes through an annual process of renewal when a welter of teenaged students signs up during O-Week. This process is a source of wonder and delight. The sense that a talented student might emerge from a dormitory room to kick 100 goals is a sense that never quite leaves university footballers. The optimism of youth is carried through future endeavours like a ball tucked under the arm.

Without the cautionary presence of their parents and grandparents at a university club, the young players go a bit silly. University students are creative types, with lots of bright ideas. The atmosphere at university clubs tends to verge on mayhem. Sometimes it tips over. The Bushpigs have tended to treat away games, the chance to get out of town, like weird and wonderful adventures. Pubs throughout the Riverina, from Ardlethan to Bethungra, experience a surge of sentiment and song while the Bushpigs stop over for an hour during their journey back to Wagga.

The Bushpigs are like university clubs in cities and towns around Australia, with teenagers on the committee and an inventive approach to life and the drop punt. But the club does have a distinctive twist. The Bushpigs are based in the country where Australian rules football and the rugby codes have always duelled for the hearts and minds of local fans. This battle of the codes has given the Bushpigs an added sense of purpose. It is unlikely that a club that was founded on a campus with only 700 students could have achieved such longevity if not for its location in the border lands of the Code War.

Peter Ponting, the Bushpigs’ first premiership coach, was born in to a rugby league family in Cootamundra. He was saved, however, from the threat of rectangular perils when his family moved to Melbourne. As a young boy, Peter went to Essendon Primary School, which is tucked behind the eastern goals at Essendon’s traditional home ground, Windy Hill. When he left high school, Peter headed across the country and settled in Geraldton, on the West Australian coast. He played for a season with the Towns footy club.

Ponting was 20 years of age when he headed back across the country to see his mother, who was now settled in Wagga. He got a job and he, too, stayed in the regional city. He signed on to play with North Wagga, where he became well-known for his tough and resolute style at half-back.

In 1972, Ponting was a carpenter when he took a job on the maintenance staff at the Riverina College of Advanced Education. He played in North Wagga’s premiership team in the Farrer league in 1973 before heeding the call of his colleagues and becoming an assistant coach at the college’s football club.

Ponting then spent two seasons with the Wagga Tigers, and was a member of the Tigers team that won the Farrer league’s 1975 premiership. He was also a member of the Farrer league’s representative team that upset the Sydney competition in the NSW championships.

In 1977, Ponting was an assistant coach at Junee. At the end of the season, he returned to the college’s football club to assume the role of playing-coach.

Early in the 1978 season, Ponting found that the students were unsure of themselves when pitted against truck drivers with big arms and farmers with gnarled hands. With his determined displays at half-back, Ponting led by example. He despaired, however, about the students’ resolve.

When many students returned home to the far corners of the Riverina during the term break, the club was left in its annual predicament of finding enough players to field two teams. Club officials pleaded with students from all over the campus to take up footy for one match. According to a report in the club’s early history, Pig Tales Vol I, soccer players were common targets for recruiters, while a table-tennis player once agreed to pull on the boots after hearing the code referred to as aerial ping-pong.

In 1978, Peter Ponting pulled off a heist when he persuaded a physical education lecturer, Bruce Graham, who happened to be a representative basketballer, to fill in for one match for the Bushpigs. Graham adapted so well that he agreed to play out the season. Although the turn of events was unlikely, it was just the type of thing to happen at a university footy club.

The matter of raising club morale at the student club in Wagga was taken up by Phil “Growler” Jackson, an education student from Leeton, who shared the ruck work with Neil Dal Nevo. Away from the books, Growler Jackson was an avid hunter of wild pigs in the scrublands of the Western Riverina. When, with impressive forthrightness, he suggested that the club should adopt the nickname of the Bushpigs, he scared a lot of people. But he gathered enough support to get the idea through.

The distinctive nature of the nickname was part of its appeal; it chimed in perfectly with the inventive nature of a student club. But the nickname also had a certain resonance because of the presence of pigs on the western plains.

Peter Ponting says the adoption of the nickname was a turning point in the club’s fortunes. For student footballers with long hair and corduroy flairs, who had struggled to carve a niche against their short-haired opponents, the nickname had a galvanising effect. It generated momentum. Under the banner of the Bushpigs, the student footballers found themselves.

Despite the rising club’s improving fortunes late in the 1978 season, the local sports writer Ross Ingram voiced an unpopular opinion to anyone who would listen during an evening of drinks at the Rules Club in Wagga. Ingram, a mainstay at the Wagga Daily Advertiser, who was prone to exhibiting the scepticism of his trade, told the Bushpigs players that a bunch of students would never, ever win the Central Riverina league’s premiership. Peter Ponting, the most senior and sensible Bushpig, took the journalist to task. Ingram scrawled on the back of a beer coaster a pledge to provide an 18-gallon keg of beer for the Bushpigs’ celebrations if they did manage to hoist the premiership cup.

As the Bushpigs players were about to jog out of the rooms before the 1978 First Semi-final against Cootamundra at Barellan, one of the players began singing the club’s newly penned song. Teammates joined in with boisterous outpourings of the response — “Root, root, root” — at the end of the second line. Ted Ryder, the sports editor of the Wagga Daily Advertiser, was at the game. He later wrote that he had never heard a club song bawled out with such feeling. Peter Ponting says the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. His student footballers now truly believed in themselves. The Bushpigs rolled past their fancied rivals.

As the 1978 finals series rolled on, Ponting and his wife Betty knew that the culinary habits of the students were unlikely to provide the necessary fuel for the rigours of finals football. To ensure that his players were properly nourished, Ponting invited the players to his home in Truman Avenue, Wagga, for a cooked breakfast on the morning of every finals match.

Peter and Betty Ponting, aware of the long pockets of lanky students, paid for the breakfast themselves. They served steak and onions and eggs. Many players, a long way from home during one of the most important months of their young lives, looked up to their host couple, neither of whom was yet to reach 30 years of age. The students especially loved the couple’s dog, Mac, a golden Labrador who performed an array of tricks on demand. The students occasionally stole Mac to show off to their friends in the student union.

Before the 1978 Grand Final, Ponting gave Bruce Graham, his basketball recruit, the job of shadowing Barellan’s crack centre half-forward. As the match progressed, Graham grew into his role. In the second half, he began to find the ball himself. Having barely played footy just a couple of months previously, Graham was named best on ground for his performance in the Grand Final.

Such a rapid rise in fortunes reflected the sports union’s credo of offering a range of opportunities for those on campus. At such a young age, students were willing to explore those opportunities. The Bushpigs sang their song to the skies.

Four days after the match, the Bushpigs players gathered in Trail Street, Wagga, under the window of the Daily Advertiser, and chanted the name of Ross Ingram, the wilful gambler from the sports desk. The footballers wanted their beer. Ingram duly obliged. The student footballers drained their keg during a joyous afternoon of pomp and piggery.

Source: Paul Daffey;  and we acknowledge Paul’s work and contribution.

Book Review by Dr Rod Gillett – PURPLE REIGN

Paul Daffey, On the Premiership Trail: More Travels in Victorian Country Football, Daffey Publications, Melbourne, 2020. ISBN: 978-0-646-82660. RRP $35.00

Book review by Dr Rod Gillett

When the Nathalia footy team win the premiership on the Monday morning they take the cup to the aged care retirement village in town to share with the residents; that’s how much it means to this small community (pop. 1902) in the heart of the Murray Valley.

And the Mighty Purples, the “Purps”, know how to find the retirement home, they’ve won ten of the last 15 premierships in the Murray Football League. A stunning record for a competition that currently numbers fourteen clubs.

In his latest book on country football, On the Premiership Trail: More Travels in Victorian Country Football, Paul Daffey goes inside two of the most recent successful country clubs, Nathalia and Kyabram, to find out why.

Daffey finds that there’s nothing in the water at the Broken Creek at Nathalia or the Waranga Mallee Channel at Kyabram; it’s all about the “culture” of the respective footy clubs based on deep community ties and genuine leadership on and off the paddock.

In the change rooms before the 2019 grand final at Finley Daffey finds five former premiership coaches of Nathalia working harmoniously together in various capacities to assist the first-time captain-coach Mal Barnes plot victory over Tongala.

As Daffey notes, “No one appears to have an ego that demands singular attention to his own mighty deeds. All the old coaches pour their memories and experiences into the Purple Pot of Knowledge. They are willing to contribute to the greater good”

Nathalia win to make it five flags in a row to set a new record for the Murray league, which they entered in 1933; they only won four premierships in the 20th century. Daffey, who trained as a football reporter at the Bendigo Advertiser, provides an excellent report in the final chapter as he does for all the other grand finals he attended.

I went on part of the premiership trail with Paul Daffey when I met him in Shepparton on the Sunday the day after the Purps’ historic win for the Goulburn Valley grand final between Kyabram, known simply as Ky, and Echuca.

As an old Ky boy I was keen to see if they could win their 83rd game out of 84 for three premierships in four years, the only loss being to Shepp, (Shepparton, Victoria) in 2018, Ky’s nemesis in the 60s when Tommy Hafey led the Maroons to three successive premierships, 1963-65, which I witnessed, before going to Richmond.

Paul Daffey’s quest to find the formula for Ky’s success which included a visit for several days during the previous season revealed that it was mostly down to the coach, Paul Newman, known as “Paulo”, who “… showed true loyalty and humility throughout his long and illustrious career. As a coach, those same qualities have proved vital in gelling together the best playing list in the club’s history”.

Daffey’s findings show that, “Every player at Kyabram wants to play for Paulo. Every official loves him. Every supporter loves him. It is rare that I have been at a footy club and noted such a clear fulcrum in the fortunes of his club”.

When he quizzed “Paulo” about Ky’s success, he was told to go and talk to “Dirty”.

So Daffey went to see “Dirty” David Williams, the Melbourne 1988 grand final full-forward, who returned home to coach Rochester for sixteen seasons including two premierships.

Williams had been lured to coach Kyabram for the 2008 season after Rochy (Rochester) wanted the euphemistic ‘change of direction’ – even though as the club’s major sponsor (Hotel Rochester), he tipped more money into the club than he was paid to coach! Nonetheless Rochester went onto to dramatically beat Seymour for the GVL premiership while “Dirty” set about building the platform for Ky’s sustained success including a flag in 2013.

The chapter written about Daffey’s interview with David Williams is enthralling. “Dirty” is renowned for being “tetchy” and he had a blow-up with Daffey over a piece in The Age back in 2003. I was fastened to my chair reading this chapter as they worked through the issues. Williams is highly-regarded in Rochester, not just for his football prowess, but for his generosity of spirit and material assistance.

It is a shame that Daffey was not able to include Maffra and Koroit on his premiership trail. Just like Nathalia they are minnows in their respective competitions and been equally as successful over the past decade and won premierships in 2019.

However, he does write a section on Koroit’s triple premiership coach, the intriguing Adam Dowie, who also landed flags at Terang-Mortlake and Warrnambool in the Hampden league and led North Warrnambool into the 2019 grand final which they lost to Koroit.

Daffey interviewed Dowie in the coach’s room, a tin shed at Bushfield oval before training, when Dowie cited the example of coaches who demand that every player must run around a particular goalpost during a training drill.

Dowie told him that rather than waste energy on demanding that every player must make his way around a particular post, he demands that every player must perform the role expected of him each and every time he takes the field.

One of the revelations of Daffey’s book is how he saw the future of country football at an outer suburban oval in Bendigo at Maiden Gully, when they took on Loddon Valley powerhouse the Mitiamo Superoos in the opening round of 2019.

YCW Maiden Gully are now the largest football-netball club in central Victoria while Mitiamo’s senior team contained no local players, not one. As Daffey points out, the growing regional centres like Bendigo, Ballarat, Albury, Mildura, and Warrnambool provide the pool of players for so many of the outlying country clubs.

Paul Daffey is an acute observer of the game and its people, and the trends in country football, he is also a wonderful storyteller with an innate ability to craft a body of work with telling insight that makes compelling reading.


On the Premiership Trail: More Travels in Victorian Country Football is available from the Collins bookstores in Albury and Echuca from the author  





The Totem Poles of Ouyen United: Travels in Country Footy

Review by Dr Rodney GillettVice President NSW Aust Football History Society

As Paul Daffey demonstrates in his latest book on country football, The Totem Poles of Ouyen United: Travels in Country Footy, that sadly, the number of football clubs in country areas are declining, but this is not a recent phenomenon but an on-going process that started with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The recurring theme in Daffey’s book is that the demographics determine the continuity and sustainability of football in a small town or district, and a diminishing population, particularly of the youth, leads to the decline of active football clubs and either their amalgamation with neighbouring clubs or extinction.

As Daffey show most clubs choose to “bury the hatchet” with a fierce local rival and agree on a new name, new colours, and where the new entity will play its games. This is perfectly illustrated in his case study of footy in the Mallee. In a stunning example Daffey’s research shows that thirty-two football clubs have folded into the Ouyen United Football Club.

The same scene is being played out in the southern region of New South Wales in the farming districts where the Australian game has been pre-eminent for more than a century.

The most merged club is Coreen Daysdale Hopefield Buraja United (CDHBU) that was formed on the eve of the demise of the Coreen and District Football League after ninety-nine years of existence in 2007. CDHBU and the remaining Coreen league clubs then went to play the next season in the neighbouring Hume Football League.

All had started as individual clubs but Hopefield and Burraja had merged as early as 1950 while fierce rivals Coreen and Daysdale came together in 1995, but the continuing difficulties to field teams led to the amalgamation of both these clubs in 2006.

CDHBU won the last ever premiership in the Coreen league when they beat the Billabong Crows (a merger of Urana and Oaklands in 2004). Ironically, this meant that six of the foundation clubs of the competition, albeit in merged entities, played in the last-ever game in 2007.

Daffey cites many similar cases in the Mallee, that is now down to just three clubs – Ouyen United (Sunraysia league), Sea Lake-Nandaly Tigers (North Central league), and the Southern Mallee Giants (Wimmera league).

The Mallee is much more than a name of a region, like the Riverina it’s locality and characteristics are captured in the Australian psychic. It conjures up images of red soil, blue sky, blazing sunsets, and a dry, arid landscape. “It is a tough place, demanding sweat and toil” (p.35). And so are its people and this is encapsulated in their footballers and their football grounds.

The boundaries for the Mallee set by the Victorian colonial government in 1883 was “all unalienated crown land in the north-western district wholly or partly covered with the Mallee plant” (Pickard, 2019). And just as Henry Lawson proclaimed that everyone knew where the Riverina was, so do country folk know where the Mallee is, and where its roots are.

In order to pay homage to the antecedent football clubs of the Ouyen United Football Club the Year 9 students at the Ouyen P-12 College in 2009 decided to paint totem poles that had been erected at the entrance to the club’s home ground, Blackburn Park. The students painted nine poles in the colours of the clubs that had folded into one another over the years to form Ouyen United.

The totem poles provided the inspiration for the title to Daffey’s book and also the stunning cover designed by Megan Ellis based on a painting by Swan Hill dentist John Harrison.

Paul Daffey stated at the outset that the main purpose of the book was to focus on football in the Mallee in order to provide a snapshoot of footy in the country. What is occurring in the Mallee is being replicated in country areas all around Australia but his story reveals that has been on-going for decades in line with the rural-urban drift.

The book also includes chapters about Daffey’s travels in country footy taking in Wedderburn in the North Central League, the old gold-mining town of Inglewood, Boolara in the Strzelecki Ranges in Gippsland, Horsham in the Wimmera and the Mornington Penisula. The chapter on the Pines v Sorrento grand final is highly captivating and the match report exhibits Daffey’s exquisite writing skills and social insights into the game.

The Appendices are most comprehensive and in addition to detailing all the statistical history of football in the Mallee there is a review of the season for country leagues in Victoria and southern NSW.

An added feature is a list of all the players that have played in six or more premierships since WW II. Brad Hartigan, who has played an “unfeasible” number of premierships – twelve for the Horsham Demons in the Wimmera Football League – is the subject of the final chapter.

There are three players from the Riverina on the list who have played in ten premierships: Stephen Clarke (Osborne 1991-92, 1998-2001, 2005; Albury 1995-97), Darren Howard (Osborne 1991-92, 1994,1998-2001, 2005-06; Albury 1995),and Gerald Pieper (Wagga Tigers 1977-78, 1980-81, 1985, 1993-95, 1997-98)

Other multiple premiership winners are Anthony Armstrong (Mangoplah-Cookardinia United & Osborne) 9, Hayden Gleeson (Osborne) 9, Brad Aitken (Collingullie) 8, Len Brill (Ganmain) 8, Bill Carroll (Ganmain) 8, John “Digger” Carroll (Ganmain) 8, Matt Fowler (Albury & Thurgoona) 8, Joel Mackie (Jindera & Albury) 8, Christen McPherson (Ganmain-Grong Grong-Matong) 8, Steven Priest (Wagga Tigers) 8, Steven Schultz (Culcairn & Wagga Tigers 8, and Tim Robb (North Albury, Wagga Tigers & Collingullie) 8.

As Daffey says in the opening chapter he has a penchant for writing about local footy – amateur football, suburban football, but the best stories are in the country.

Paul Daffey, The Totem Poles of Ouyen United: Travels in Country Footy (2019), Melbourne,
Daffey Publications, 2019, pp XIV +416 Paperback ISBN: 9780646804163.

To buy a copy of the book email with your address and he’ll email the bank details.  Books are $30 per book plus $10 postage.


FOOTY TOWN – the book

Footy Town image smallMelbourne media identities, Paul Daffey and John Harms of Footy Almanac fame, published a book about local football stories from throughout Australia.

These tales are robust, funny, poignant, witty and (occasionally) wise.  Some are memoirs that float through the years.  Others are deft pieces of football history: what was Roy Cazaly doing in Minyip in 1925?  Who were the champions of Gunbower:  Who was the Bush Barassi”  The stories offer a peep inito the vast mythology of Australia’s game.  They shine a light on the place of footy in the national culture.

Already the first issue of the book has sold out and the publisher is working on the second which should be available shortly.

By reading this site you must be a keen football enthusiast so this 382 page publication is a must for your collection.

Contributors include some recognized authors like Martin Flanagan and Patrick Keane, former players (well most are).  in Barry Richardson and Matt Zurbo (who?), even umpires right down to an article on some Sydney football experiences by the Society president, Ian Granland.

To find out where you can get your copy, contact Paul Daffey (0417 160 911) or John Harms (0417 635 030). You can look them up at

Sometimes footy gets a bit precious, which is why we recommend this book.