LONG WEEKEND: The untold story of how the VFL sent the Bombers and Cats to the Ekka in 1952

THE coppers knew they were in trouble when the animals breached the outer fences of the Ekka.

In the 80-odd years that it had been hosting Queensland’s Royal Show, the Brisbane Exhibition Ground had seen its fair share of the odd bolting bull or runaway ram, but never quite anything like this.

This was a pack. Unorganised but unstoppable as they trampled the outer fence and bucked their way past the handful of police who had been standing guard.

Bellowing into the night sky, their faces lit by the towering floodlights that sparkled through a mist of rain, the mob jumped the inner fence and sprinted across the ever muddying surface, making a beeline for one man in particular.

From his point of view, standing in the middle of the field in his black and red woollen jumper with the sleeves distinctly rolled up, this wasn’t out of the ordinary.

He’d been mobbed before.

He just hadn’t expected here, in the middle of Brisbane, on a soggy Monday night in the winter of 1952.

As the two parties met, the constabulary trailed in behind and tried to wedge themselves between the cheering crowd and the tall, slim man with Hollywood hair and dark eyes – but the chaos of it all took hold.

The locals wanted a piece of Essendon superstar John Coleman, and nobody was going to stop them from getting it.

Aussie Rules had officially arrived in the Sunshine State.

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The Brisbane Exhibition Ground in June 1952, hosting the disturbingly KKK looking Corpus Christi procession.

— BREACHING THE BORDER —

EXPANSION HAD BEEN on the minds of the VFL head honchos from the very early days of the league.

They knew there was money north of the border, and they wanted their share.

Exhibition games had been tried – and failed – in Sydney, and there was even one attempt to merge Rugby League and Australian Football together into a Frankenstein’s monster of a code, led by the likes of Dally Messenger, Charles Brownlow and JJ Giltinan, all of whom lend their names to their game’s most prestigious medals.

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Ruckman Bill McMaster in his playing days.

Thankfully, the merger attempt failed – twice – but by 1952, the VFL was ready to attack again.

For the first time in the 55-year history of the competition, not one league match was played in Melbourne or Geelong in that season’s Round 8 fixture, as the clubs were sent far and wide to spread the gospel of Aussie Rules.

How the league decided on the venues for the round is a mystery, but hurling darts at a map on the wall wouldn’t be a stretch.

St Kilda and Footscray headed east to the coal town of a Yallourn, a village that was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the ever expanding open-cut mine.

Carlton and Hawthorn were sent to Euroa, a town two hours north of Melbourne that even today has a population of just 3000 people.

South Melbourne and North Melbourne also made for the New South Wales border, dipping their toes in the light blue side of the Murray with a game in Albury.

Richmond and Collingwood went to Sydney, Fitzroy and Melbourne clashed in Hobart, and the grand finalists of 1951 – Geelong and Essendon – were sent to Brisbane.

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Geelong legend Reg Hickey.

“The VFL were making the decisions and we just had to go along with it,” former Geelong ruckman Bill McMaster – the man who would go on to discover Gary Ablett Sr – says.

“We’d played off in the Grand Final the year before, so I suppose they thought we’d be the best teams to win over the Queenslanders.

 

“It was better than going to Yallourn.”

Brisbane was the exotic option for the players. Young, comparatively wealthy and keen to escape the grey cloud doldrums that swept over Geelong every June, the Cats players were looking forward to the warmth and sunshine of Queensland.

The coaching staff – including the legendary Reg Hickey – were less enthused.

On the Monday before, the Cats had to hop on a bus and head to Melbourne to face Carlton in one of the league’s earliest Queen’s Birthday holiday games. Arriving home late that night, the players had Tuesday and Wednesday o return to their day jobs, and then were expected back at Kardinia Park at 8am on the Thursday, packed and ready to head to Brisbane.

“First of all we had to take a bus down the highway to the Essendon Airfields to catch a flight,” McMaster says.

“Then we flew as far as Wagga, where we had to refuel, then I reckon we refueled again somewhere between Wagga and Brisbane, and then we eventually got to Brisbane.”

A Trans Australia Airlines Skymaster at Eagle Farm Airport in 1951. Picture: Fred Carew

 

By the time the wheels of the Trans Australia Airlines Skymaster smoked on the tarmac at Eagle Farm, the 50-odd entourage from Geelong had been in transit for almost eight hours.

Hurling their heavy suitcases into yet another bus, the group was shipped around to five different hotels – the Gresham, the Daniel, the Grosvenor, the Globe, and Lennon’s – before a 7.45pm training session at the Ekka in preparation for the Saturday night clash with Essendon, the first game ever played under lights for premiership points.

“The Friday of the trip we had everything organised for us,” McMaster says.

“We hopped on another bus and they took us down south to Mount Tambourine and then down to Surfers Paradise.

“And I reckon it was about there that everything started to go a bit wrong.”

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Surfers Paradise in 1952, with Jim Cavill’s Hotel pictured centre.

— CALM BEFORE THE STORM —

RUSSELL MIDDLEMISS dug his feet into the warm sand and took in the fresh ocean air.

Behind him, the carpark surrounding the art deco changing rooms was full to the brim, but for all intents and purposes, Surfers Paradise was still a tiny coastal town.

The trip to the beach had been a part of the plan to keep the players occupied on the day before the game. That Friday morning they’d all piled onto the bus once again and headed up for lunch at the Mount Tambourine Hotel, before a free afternoon in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean.

 

“Nobody thought at the time ‘gee, this would be a nice place to buy a bit of land,” half-back flanker Middlemiss says.

“From what I can remember there was a pub at Surfers that had a bit of a zoo, a few of the other fellas, the blokes who liked a drink, headed up there.

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Geelong’s half-back flanker Russell Middlemiss.

“The rest of us went down to the beach.”

Ready to enjoy the novelty of wading in ocean water in June without the risk of frostbite, the Geelong players who weren’t partial to a refreshment had slowly wandered down to the sand to laze in the sun, treating the mid-season trip as a holiday while briefly sparing a thought for the Blues and Hawks players who were spending their weekend in Euroa.

Middlemiss, a painter by trade who was a month away from turning 23, led the way as the players breathed in the fresh air and the serenity of the up and coming coastal region.

But it was very much the calm before the storm.

With their focus squarely on the wide expanse of crystal blue in front of them to the east, the players failed to notice the heavy black clouds that had been hiding behind the Tambourine mountains in the west.

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Geelong’s 1952 premiership half-back line of Geoff Williams, John Hyde and Russell Middlemiss.

“I remember it clearly,” Middlemiss says.

“We were walking across to the water ready for a swim or whatever you like, and as we were walking the rain came down out of nowhere. It absolutely drenched us.

“It was the heaviest downpour I’ve seen in my life.”

Middlemiss and his teammates belted back up the street to Jim Cavill’s Hotel and took shelter from the notorious Queensland weather, soaked head to toe from the fair dinkum thunderstorm.

Disappointed that their day on the beach had been ruined, the Geelong players filed back onto the bus and started the journey back down the Pacific Highway to Brisbane, as Middlemiss looked on gloomily as the downpour splashed across the windows.

“Inches and inches fell in a fairly short amount of time,” Middlemiss says.

“But we’d played in worse before. It was just one those things. We still had a game to play.

“At least that was what we thought at the time.”

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Geelong’s Bill McMaster, Russell Middlemiss, Reg Hickey, Fred Flanagan, John Hyde and Russell Renfrey on a trip to the farm in 1952. Picture: The Bob Gartland Collection

— TRYING THEIR LUCK —

WAKING UP ON the Saturday morning of the game, the players showered and threw on their club blazer and ties, ran some Brylcreem through their hair and made their way down for breakfast with the rest of their travelling crew.

The vicious storm that had ruined their beach vacation the day before had lost some of its enthusiasm but was still hanging around Brisbane, dribbling rain through the city without the thunder and lightning show it had put on at Surfers Paradise.

Again, the club had organised activities for their stars to keep them out of trouble before that night’s match, with the option of watching a Rugby League game between New Zealand and Queensland at the Gabba, or a day out Albion Park to punt on the horses.

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Geelong’s Neil “Nipper” Trezise.

Neil “Nipper” Trezise, a talented small forward and future Sports Minster for the Victorian Labor Government, was fond of the track, and decided to join his big mate McMaster to watch the gallops.

 

“As luck would have it, we were having breakfast that morning and sitting next to us at the table was a chap called Clive Marsh. He was the leading bookmaker in Victoria,” McMaster says.

“So I went over and introduced myself and told him that Nipper and I both liked the races and that we were heading to Albion Park and wondered if he could give us a tip.

“He pulled out the paper and pointed at a horse called Moritz.”

Confident that Lady Luck was smiling on them that day, McMaster and Trezise went around to the other players and collected a small fortune of pounds, convincing them that if Marsh thought Moritz was a sure thing, they’d be silly not to jump on and race towards a sizeable pay day.

Heading to the track with their pockets and their confidence full to the brim, the pair wandered around looking for the best odds they could get.

“In those days the bookmakers never put up the prices and you’d have to ask them what price a horse was,” McMaster says.

“So Nipper went one way and I went the other way and we’d ask them ‘what price Moritz?’

“A couple of the bookies looked at us and they’d see the Geelong blazer and tie and you could tell they were thinking ‘you southerners are here to play footy and don’t know much about the racing up here’, so they gave us 10 to 1.

“Just before the race Nipper saw a bloke he knew and he asked him who he’d backed. Nipper said ‘Moritz’ and the other bloke told him it was no hope.

“The best horse in Queensland was in the race, Lucky Ring. We thought we’d wasted our money.”

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A cartoon that appeared in The Courier-Mail before the game.
 

Their confidence overwhelmed by the nerves of having punted their mates’ hard earned on a horse that didn’t look likely to win, Trezise and McMaster took their places in the stand and watched on as the gates burst open – and their weekend wages belted towards the finish line.

“Moritz was leading just about all the way and as they came into the final straight it was still well ahead,” McMaster says.

“And then Lucky Ring charged.”

Making a Winx-like run down the outside, Lucky Ring reigned the field in at a staggering pace and only had Moritz to go. As the bookies and the footballers alike looked on with a mixture of nerves and excitement, the best horse in Queensland charged at the finishing line, its jockey willing it to win with the sting of the whip.

Moritz got home by a head.

“We were pretty pleased with ourselves,” McMaster says.

“We went around and collected our winnings off the bookies who thought they’d had us beat and started heading back to the hotel to give the fellas their winnings.”

Arriving back to the accommodation, McMaster and Trezise divvied up the cash and joined the other players as they mentally prepared themselves for the game at the Ekka.

But unlike Moritz, the Geelong boys wouldn’t be doing any winning that night.

“They called the game off on account of the rain,” McMaster says.

Despite heavy protests from both the Geelong and Essendon travelling parties, who argued they had played in significantly worse conditions in Victoria, the Brisbane Exhibition Ground board had decided they didn’t want their hallowed turf cut up by the long stops on the invading Victorians.

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The 1952 Geelong team of Ivo Gibson (secretary), Noel Rayson, Geoff Williams, Norm Sharp, George Goninon, John Hyde, Bruce Morrison, Russell Middlemiss, Russell Renfrey, George Swarbrick, Reg Hickey (coach). Middle: Bob Davis, Leo Turner, Bernie Smith, Fred Flanagan, Tom Morrow, Bill McMaster. Front: Neil Trezise, Peter West, Doug Palmer, Les Reed, Ron Hovey.

It was a costly decision.

According to one report in The Courier-Mail at the time, an extra £1200 pounds would need to be forked out for the added day of travel and wages – the equivalent of about $44,000 today.

It also meant that a large group of men in their 20s, with nothing to do on a Saturday night, and their pockets full from the winnings at the track, were about to be let loose on the unsuspecting Brisbane nightlife.

Legendary Geelong coach Hickey – a famous teetotaler – had a quiet night in and warned his players of doing the same.

“We were told that we could do what we wanted to do but ‘Hick’ made sure to remind us that we were there to play a game of football, even though we thought we weren’t anymore,” star defender Geoff Williams says.

“Hick had good control over his men and they respected him. He couldn’t control the fellas day and night but he trusted they’d do they right thing.”

While plenty of them heeded Hickey’s warning, there were just as many who took advantage of their new-found freedom and the extra few coins they had in their pockets thanks to Moritz and the miracle at Albion Park.

“They led the good life, some of our blokes up there,” McMaster says.

“But honestly, we really didn’t think we’d be playing after they called the game off.”

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Essendon champion Jack Jones at Windy Hill, in front of a mural of the legendary Dick Reynolds.

— THE BABY BOMBERS —

WHILE THE GEELONG players sampled the XXXX and paraded about town in their club issued blazers on their suddenly free Saturday night, the Essendon camp was significantly more subdued.

“We went to a dance and the drinkers had a drink and we treated it like any normal Saturday night after a match,” Geelong’s 1951 best and fairest John Hyde says.

“But the Essendon fellas, they were under lock and key.

“We didn’t see them out at all.”

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A Jack Jones Argus footy card.
 

Led by their non-drinking coach Dick Reynolds and their equally dry captain Bill Hutchison, who was sidelined with an injury, the Bombers players mostly stuck to their hotels, with a quick trip down to the Gold Coast under close supervision their only escape from the solitude of their accommodation.

For half-forward Jack Jones, the only surviving member of that Essendon team, playing the waiting game was making him nervous.

“My son was due to be born that week and I was hurrying them up to get me home,” Jones, now 94, says.

“My wife (Mary) had her sister and brother-in-law staying with her while I was away but I only planned on being away from the Thursday morning to the Sunday afternoon.”

Jones probably would have killed for a drink to keep his mind off what was going on back home, but like Reynolds and Hutchison, the 28-year-old WWII veteran hadn’t touched a drop in his life.

Instead, he nervously paced around the hotel, trying to lead by example as an old head around his younger teammates like 19-year-old future superstar Jack Clarke, the 22-year-old Stawell Gift winner Lance Mann, and the 23-year-old darling of the competition John Coleman, who already had 325 goals to his name in just 62 games.

“We were quite a young side I guess, so us older fellas did have to lead by example,” Jones says.

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Dick Reynolds and Bill Hutchison will their sons Graham & Warwick Reynolds and Bruce Hutchison.

“Coleman was no trouble. He was a very quiet man off the field but when he got on it, it was a bit of white line fever.

“I think the Geelong boys had maybe had a bit to drink but we were still preparing like we had a game to play.”

And they did.

By midday Sunday players in both camps had packed up their things and were preparing for the long journey back home, with Essendon needing to prepare for a clash against Melbourne at Windy Hill on the Saturday coming, while Geelong was finally set to return to the usual Saturday slot against South Melbourne at Kardinia Park.

But the Queensland Government, who had already spent a fair deal of cash to host the game, wasn’t letting their star attractions go that easily.

“We got the word that game was back on. On the Monday. And it was still a night game,” Jones says.

“That didn’t help my nerves too much.”

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The legendary Essendon full forward John Coleman.

— THE COLEMAN METTLE —

FROM THE BACK of the Ernest Baynes stand, cadet journalist Tom Linneth looked on in awe at what was unfolding in front of him.

It wasn’t that the Exhibition Ground hadn’t hosted notable sporting events before.

In the 1928/29 cricket season the Ekka hosted Brisbane’s first ever Test match, where a 20-year-old by the name of Donald Bradman debuted against England and the Australians lost by a record 675 runs.

The ground had also been home to several iconic rugby league and rugby union matches, where large crowds had packed in to watch history unfold.

 

But the unusual thing about this was that it wasn’t expected. Most people had assumed the game would be called off, yet on a still soggy Monday night in the heart of Brisbane in 1952, 28,000 people packed into the stands to watch two Victorian teams play what was essentially a foreign sport.

Earlier, Linneth had watched as the Essendon team pulled up outside the ground and the electric Coleman stepped off the bus.

“(The) Essendon full forward needed police assistance to gain admittance to the Brisbane ground,” Linneth wrote in his syndicated report that ended up printing in Melbourne’s The Argus and The Courier-Mail.

“A crowd of women and other fans mobbed Coleman to get his autograph at the gate. He could not break through.

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Coleman is mobbed for autographs after a match.

“Two police officers were called by other members of the team to enable Coleman to enter the ground.”

Such was the pull of the 23-year-old goalkicker with Hollywood good looks and laconic stride that even in Rugby League loving Brisbane, Coleman could almost start a riot.

“Coleman was an electric player,” McMaster says.

“Up until Gary Ablett (Sr) coming along he was the best player I’d ever seen.

“Whenever he played the crowds loved it because he used to leap up in the air like no one else and sit on their shoulders. He was an outstanding player. He was fair and he had that charisma about him that brought people to the game and they loved him.”

For Jones, it was just a relief that the best player in the competition was wearing the same colours.

“I played half forward most of the time so I had the best seats in the house,” he says.

“He was unbelievable. Ahead of his time, a spectacular athlete that the crowds loved.”

And the head honchos at the VFL knew the type of pull that Coleman had.

Knowing that Brisbane would be the toughest nut to crack in trying to sell the game, the league had not only sent up the two best teams to play in front of the Queenslanders, but they’d played some selection games that the Geelong players believed to be underhanded.

 

“Bruce Morrison was our fullback, the best in the league,” Cats goalkicker George Goninon says.

“And he was back home playing in the State Carnival for Victoria, in a team the VFL picked.

“They didn’t pick Coleman, but they picked Morrison to stay home so Coleman could do what he liked against us.”

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Geelong’s top fullback Bruce Morrison was playing for Victoria instead of the Cats during the Brisbane trip.

And the Victorian team selection wasn’t lost on Geelong’s famous coach, either.

“Reg Hickey didn’t forgive the VFL for another 10 years,” McMaster says.

“He was crooked on them.”

The lack of a true fullback meant Hickey had to get creative with who he played on the glamour forward. He tried Williams first, and then turned to future Geelong legend Russell ‘Hooker’ Renfrey, who had never played the position before.

“Hickey said to him ‘Hooker, I want you to stay on him, don’t leave his side whatever you do. Never leave his side’,” McMaster recalls.

“Coleman kicked about three goals in four minutes and then he kicked a point. So Coleman goes back out past the top of square and Renfrey went with him. The two of them are standing out about 25 metres and Coleman could see that Renfrey was supposed to kick the ball in, as fullbacks always did at the time.

“So Coleman was thorough gentleman and he turned to Hooker and said ‘Russell, you’re supposed to kick the ball in’ and Hooker said ‘oh, I do so’ so Hooker went back and kicked the ball in.”

“We really didn’t have much of a hope of stopping him did we?”

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Coleman battles it out with Geelong defenders during a game at Windy Hill.

Between their missing fullback, the big weekend on the turps, and the fact they were playing on a ground that was just 130m long – meaning the famed Cats halfback line was rendered almost useless as the ball flew from the centre straight into Coleman’s arms – Geelong lost the game by 69 points.

And Coleman kicked a club record 13 goals.

From the stands, Linneth watched on as fans who had been locked out of the ground at the start of the match trampled over an outer gate, then leapt over the inner fence to embrace Coleman as he tried to leave the field.

The police were helpless in stopping them.

“Many police were caught in the Gregory Terrace crush and had to fight their way out,” Linneth wrote.

“The crowd was about 28,000 official spectators, but with the number of supporters who flooded into the ground after knocking down a fence, that figure would be significantly higher.

“While the rugby codes will still hold the attention of most Queensland sports fans, this game may prove that Australian Football has a future in this state after all.”

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An aerial photograph of the Ekka in 1953 during the Royal visit. To this day it is the smallest ground to ever host a VFL/AFL match.

— THE FALLOUT —

ON THE BUS back to the Eagle Farm Airport on the Tuesday morning, Hickey refused to speak a word to his players.

The master coach – whose name now sits proudly atop Geelong’s main grandstand at Kardinia Park – was furious not only with the performance but with the way the Cats players had held themselves across the weekend.

“After the game ‘Hick’ got up and he addressed all the players and instead of going through them individually he said ‘this is a disgrace to this great club, what’s happened out there, you’ve let our club down and what you’ve served up was no indication of what you can actually do’,” McMaster says.

“I think it stung a few fellas into action that did. We could see how much ‘Hick’ was disappointed.”

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Fox Footy commentator Sarah Jones with her grandfather, Jack. Picture: Ian Currie

From the Brisbane trip on, the Cats didn’t lose another game for a record 26 straight matches, with their only close call coming in a draw three weeks later, appropriately against Essendon in Geelong.

As for Jack Jones, he made it back to Melbourne with his teammates on the Wednesday night, and by Friday morning was the celebrating the birth of his son, Peter, the uncle of Fox Footy presenter Sarah Jones.

“Everyone was congratulating me for having a son, because I already had a daughter, and it was nice to have the set,” Jones says.

“It was actually Dick Reynolds’ birthday and I think the entire club all forgot about that because they were too busy congratulating me.

“It was nice to have one up on Dick.”

And while the predictions that Aussie Rules might start to challenge the rugby codes as a Queensland favourite were made earnestly in local media, it took the league another 29 years before it scheduled a second match for points in Brisbane – and 35 years before the city got its own team.

“You’ve got to go and conquer frontiers wherever you can and that’s what we were trying to do in 1952,” Middlemiss says.

“I don’t think it worked.”

– Enjoyed this article? Buy me a beer by clicking this link. Also thanks to Bob Gartland, the interviewees, and afltables.com for all their hel

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